Policy palimpsest: concept, examples, and the violence


The notion of “policy palimpsest” arose early on in policy studies, but never gained much traction. Its upshot is that current statements about complex policy issues are the composites of arguments and narratives that have been overwritten across time. Any composite argument rendered off a policy palimpsest reads sensibly—nouns and verbs appear in order and sense-making is achieved—but none of the previous inscriptions or points are pane-clear and whole through the layers, effacements, and erasures. Arguments have been blurred, intertwined and re-assembled for present, at times controverted, purposes.

So, what’s new? We want policy to come to us as instantly recognizable, just as immediately legible as the writing on this page. That instantaneity is the aim of any composite argument; recourse to the analogy of the policy palimpsest is to frustrate that taken-for-granted legibility. The concept of palimpsest insists that policy always comes with fractured backstories and that the backstories provide clues for what could have been or now can be instead.

This means that any policy arguments that are urged on us because of their elegance, simplicity, logical structure or win-win import are perilous. They only wink at the complexity in their policy palimpsests. The analytic challenge is to read any new composite argument with the blurred-away now made visible in order to acknowledge and probe what has been made missing in the composite reading. Once you identify what is missing in the composite but was in the palimpsest being read off (no guarantees here), you identify potential means to recast the complex issue in new, perhaps more tractable ways.

Short example

Turn to the journal, Foreign Affairs, and a much-cited 2014 critique of the failed-states rationale put forth in the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy (Mazarr 2014). The Bush Doctrine, not to put too fine a point on it, argued that failed states were an important cause of international terrorism. The Mazarr critique, including a review of the literature at the time of the doctrine’s formulation and later, underscored profound problems with its assumptions.

Yet even if the Mazarr critique and others like it are still true, analysis of the failed-states argument needs to go further, not just to identify what was effaced in the policy palimpsest for terrorism at that time, but also what was effaced in these failed-states critiques which have become part of the very same palimpsest since then.[1]

The most infamous example of what has been erased, at least in academic journals, is the polemical avowal that America deserved 9/11 as a nation and now that it had happened, here was the opportunity for the nation to take the lead in a new rapprochement with the Islamic world. This argument was expunged from the discussion, where “straight-forward” policy arguments since 9/11 have been attempts to bowdlerize its policy palimpsest.

The least recognized erasure, however, but the one that would have been most visible had such an attempt at rapprochement taken place, was the centrality of the following question for international policy jettisoned from the policy horizon at the time of the collapsing twin towers: Where are this century’s new democracies to come from, if not from failed states, including—dare we say—parts of the U.S.?

Longer example

Each sentence in this blog could be said to be a composite made off of all manner of policy and management palimpsests of interest to me. What then am I missing in my own arguments? A great deal, I confess—though I believe this enriches rather than paralyzes analysis. Let me give a more extended example from my own practice.

Several years ago I wrote a potted history of the travails in EU’s CO2 cap-and-trade system, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS):

Upon its inception in 2005 when CO2 emission credits were issued under the ETS, credit prices initially did rise, but it was realized too many credits had been issued when prices declined. (Always bear in mind the theory upon which the ETS was based is that the higher the price of carbon, the fewer the emissions, all else equal.) By 2007 it was conceded that not only had too many credits been issued, but that coal imports into the EU had been rising at the same time. Credits continued to be issued, and by the end of 2009 prices were said to be too low to encourage investment in lowering emissions. Around 2010, computer hacking, cyber-theft and permit fraud occurred coupled with the obvious fact that the low carbon prices were in part due to declining carbon emissions because of increasing use of renewable energy (in other words, success by other means). The recession following the 2008 financial crisis had a depressive effect on credit prices as well. By the end of 2013, the European Parliament had approved a rescue plan for the ETS, including a provision to delay allocation of a third of the credits—even though the market would still likely be oversupplied by 2020, at which point it was thought that the ETS should promote green technological innovation, not just carbon reduction.

When I first presented this, one interlocutor said, “Well, we had to do something like the ETS!” One option is to answer her. Another is to update the history with more fine-grained information on ETS implementation for the period 2005 – 2018. A different option is to bring the history up-to-date since 2018 when I wrote most of the preceding paragraph.

It now seems to me that the paragraph can be substantially recast via the ETS’s policy palimpsest, irrespective of the other options. In this case, the palimpsest is the massed narratives and controversies, past and present, over just what is better for Europe’s environment—a carbon tax, cap-and-trade systems, renewable energy technologies, “net-zero emission” schemes (e.g., carbon capture and storage), a mix of these, some other hybrid, or something altogether different? My challenge is to reread my earlier description with the elements I effaced now visible. To repeat, resurfacing earlier points that are right there in front of me but which I missed is my start in thinking along different lines. (In truth, policy palimpsests invite such foraging.)

–If the composite argument can be viewed as a larger fragment assembled from smaller ones, then my ETS history is punctuated with interruptions blurred out in the name of legibility and readability. The problem, which only later did I understand, is that fragments not only differ by virtue of their content but fragments differ importantly in kind.

There are at least three kinds of “fragments,” small or large: that which awaits finishing or completed, that which survives what once had been finished or completed, and that which is (no longer) finishable or completable. You have a hole in the ground. In one version, it surrounds the foundation upon which a structure will be built. In the second, it surrounds the remaining ruins of a previous structure. In the third, it surrounds what is now nothing: What was there has rotted or eroded away entirely.

By extension, one missing element in my earlier ETS history is the open question about just what kind of (larger) fragment the ETS is. Is it primarily an institutional structure under intermittent construction? Is it partly the ruins left behind by techno-managerial elite and New Class of bureaucrats operating beyond their capacities under the limits on resources and options? Or is the ETS partly a hollow cypher—formally, an empty signifier—for all manner of environmental hopes that are no longer there, e.g., overtaken by the Anthropocene? All of these, or more? Maybe none?

To cut to the quick: The ETS palimpsest is also written over constantly (consider the recent EU proposal for carbon border taxes based on average prices in the ETS). This means, however, more than there is no last word for the ETS. It means being better prepared for the inevitable new interruptions and having to excavate what are now more useful leads and strings to be pulled that had been submerged in the past.

–What do I mean by resurfacing “more useful leads,” “strings to be pulled,” or “ways to recast more tractably”? By way of illustrating, let’s turn from a European example to a global one.

I write this just as COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, has ended. For many whose opinion I respect, it was a failure to do the needful in limiting temperature rise. Let’s also say this is true.

Even then, the crux is not, e.g.: “Thus,” alternative voices were left out and alternative politics side-lined. You can no more essentialize those voices and politics than you can essentialize the conference. (To think you could is like thinking a composite argument essentializes its policy palimpsest.)

This means methodologically that one of the first questions to be asked of the conference is: Which COP26 failed? Any such conference is never one thing only, if only because those attending in Glasgow were being themselves in one venue while being other selves in other venues there. At best, we speak from our respective palimpsest strands at this site while from other strands at that site. COP26 was riddled with this kind of intermittence and who’s to say the earlier or later versions between October 31 and November 13 2021 are not its upside? To declare the conference, overall, as a failure (or success for that matter) is to colonize that intermittence.

Which is to say: I’m sure I’ve left a very good deal out in stopping short at COP26 as an overall failure. Just as I did in my history of ETS travails.

Method’s violence

Earlier I said use of the policy palimpsest concept is to remind oneself how complex policy statements that read coherently are actually assembled out of fragments interrupted by missing parts, all of which are smoothed over for legibility and readability purposes

For me, the policy palimpsest optic also serves as a potent reminder of what goes into making a policy palimpsest and composite arguments read off of it: the violence in doing so.

By “effacements and erasures” I include “lacerations” all too often deliberate or willfully ignored rather than unintentional. Each composite argument tries to hide its scars, but what’s missing has been made missing when suturing together the fragments. Or think of it this way: the latest composite arguments read off a longstanding policy palimpsest can have negative seigniorage, i.e., they’re a public currency whose social costs of production may far exceed their face value. This is a major insight.

The typical response to all of this, “Come on , we’re just generalizing from case material!” is no more valid than saying a statistical meta-analysis of mixed findings is tracked by the standard error around something called an average. It’s more complicated than that.

Claiming that over-arching explanations of power, for example, are empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the case-specific diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management. Part of our duty of care is to question any over-arching explanation or soft-packaged imaginary that comes masqueraded as a generalization founded in cases when it is nothing more than a highly-edited reading off a policy palimpsest that has long had a life and heft of its own.

[1] More formally, a composite argument is blurred not only by the way it conveys any argument (as if straightforward when actually a concatenation of interrupted fragments), but also by what it doesn’t convey—those elements that are now illegible of appear now interstitially as lacunae, non-sequiturs, slippages, caesurae, and aporias. In these ways, no policy palimpsest is inscribed with the last word; no composite argument from it is indisputable or the authoritative one; each composite argument carries the entire palimpsest with it. Indeed, the palimpsest serves as a brake on isolating any single argument. If a “ready-made” is a mass-produced object elected by an artist for display as a work of art, a policy palimpsest is a “ready-unmade,” one that is also mass-produced but constantly scored over and re-fixed by all manner of people and contingencies.

Time also changes when assembling fragments from different parts of a palimpsest. The composite may appear to be “first-this followed by that-then,” when instead separate fragments are juxtaposed as if, say, one is now read as a textual gloss about time annotating below it fragments about something else. A familiar example is tagging onto today’s major policy composites variants of that phrase, “…in a world threatened by catastrophic climate change.” Any such textual adjacency rejiggers everything below or after it. (I’m thinking here of the Japanese practice of furigana, where a gloss appears above or to the side of the characters being annotated.)

Principal sources

Davis, L. (2019). “Fragmentary or unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert” In: Essays One, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.

Mazarr, M. (2014). The rise and fall of the failed-state paradigm. Foreign Affairs (January/February): 113-121.

This entry consolidates points (with other references) made in “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” and “COP26 and intermittence.”

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