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ASCERTAINING DEADLY HARMS: Aesthetics and Politics of Global Evidence



This article asks what anthropology can contribute to public and scholarly debates about politics of knowledge in global governance and argues that bringing together insights from aesthetics of governance, science and technology studies, and theories of performativity offers a productive reorientation to existing approaches. My specific question is: how did WHO research that was intended to counter alarmist discourses about female genital cutting end up legitimizing them? For anthropologists who participated in the scientific controversy, the answer was clear: the study was driven by ideology. To expand the range of analytical responses, I suggest, we need to understand the rearrangements of knowledge and power in neoliberal governance, as well as a conception of authorship that uncouples scientific statements from sovereign subjects. Deadly harms were not made certain by ideology, I argue, but by aesthetics of expertise, WHO bundling of governance by emergency and governance by evidence, and performative iterations at the cultural boundaries of science. To make this argument, I analyze the historical conditions of possibility for the WHO study, offer an ethnography of knowledge production, and trace the social and governmental lives of fact and meaning-making. [WHO, female genital cutting, science controversy, governance by evidence, anthropology in the public sphere, aesthetics, performativity]