Thursday, April 14, 2011

Biopolitics, Biopower, and Life Itself

Welcome to the last blog-and-comment session of the semester. We’re almost there people; we can do it!

For my blog post, first I am going to clarify some key terms from this week’s reading, and then second, I will use Rose’s account of the five changes that our societies are undergoing as an illustration of these key terms.


First of all, what is “biopolitics?”

Biopolitics refers to a theory about a unique transition that many modern societies are arguably undergoing. The transition concerns the “politicization of bare life as such,” to use Agamben’s terms.

To understand what he means here, recall his point about the word “life.” For our one word “life,” the ancient Greeks had two distinct words—zoe and bios—and each of these words entailed distinct meanings. Zoe referred to “the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods)” (ST 627); bios referred to “the form or way of living proper to an individual or group” (627). Thus, when Plato or Aristotle mentioned different kinds of lives (the philosophical life, the political life, and so on), they used the term bios, which entailed a specific sense of telos. Zoe, on the other hand, more closely concerned “natural life,” and, as Agamben points out, this “simple natural life [zoe] is excluded from the polis, and [it] remains confined—as merely reproductive life—to the sphere of oikos, ‘home’” (ST 674). Zoe was apolitical.

So going back to the transition: Agamben suggests that the transition to biopolitics in our societies concerns a transition in which zoe (natural life or biology as we think of it) has now entered the “sphere of the polis” (676). That is, Agamben argues (following Foucault) that “natural life begins to be included in the mechanisms and calculations of State power, and politics turns into biopolitics” (676). In other words, not only is “life”—life which is concerned with certain goods and ends (bios)—implicated in politics, but now natural life as such (zoe) is a political matter. We can understand this move as a transition to “biopolitics.” According to Agamben, this transition to biopolitics “constitutes the decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of classical thought” (676).

When natural life (biological life as we think of it) enters the political field—when the transition to biopolitics happens—one can see a new dimension of power: “biopower.”


What is “biopower?”

Biopower, according to Hardt and Negri, “is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it. Power can achieve an effective command over the entire life of population only when it becomes an integral, vital function that

every individual embraces and reactivates of his or her own accord. […] Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself.” (Empire 23-24).

Biopower, in other words, refers to the way in which power operates through our material, bodily lives. If power is a productive, organizing force, as Foucault has argued, then biopower (in this Foucaultian sense) refers to the way in which power organizes not only our individual, material lives (e.g. how we use our bodies), but also the way power now organizes the bodies of everyone in the entire society.

At this point, you (or someone else) might be saying: “What?! There is no power exercised over my body. I am the arbiter of what I do with my body.” But the advocates of the biopower concept might reply: “This is precisely the point. Biopower operates such that you think you are choosing what you want to do with your body, but in fact, the choices you make are evidence of the biopower itself. Biopower is a power that we have internalized so that the choices and actions that we perform with our bodies are directed from within. That is, it’s not some outside force making the choice for us; it’s something you choose for yourself because the power is something you have internalized through socialization and so on.”

Thus, if you are skeptical about all this “biopower” talk, I understand. Such a reading of power does seem like it incorporates a radical “hermeneutic of suspicion” to borrow Paul Ricouer’s term. But the point here is to try to understand the ideas on their own terms, as best we can.

So, to wrap up this question, biopower is the force that organizes, coordinates, and controls bodies. But we can also think of biopower as a power that is exercised in, through, and over not just our bodies in general but also over the biology of our bodies--the make up of our bodies. Biopower becomes exercised on life “itself.”


What’s up with the “itself” qualifier? Why do both Hardt/Negri and Rose refer to something they call “life itself?”

I think that this qualifier “itself” helps emphasize what the authors are talking about. To understand why Hardt and Negri use this word, we need to understand the context of its usage. They use the term “life itself” to highlight the contrast in how power operates within two different kinds of societies: Foucault’s notion of a disciplinary society and his notion of a control society. In the disciplinary society, formal structures (like official institutions such as the prison, the hospital) limit what the citizen can and cannot do externally—that is, the power is exercised “from without” (in contrast to “from within”) the citizen. In the control society, by contrast, power operates from within; it is “distributed throughout the brains and bodies of citizens” (Empire 23). As Hardt and Negri put it, “the behaviors of social integration and exclusion proper to rule are thus increasingly interiorized within the subjects themselves” (23). In this sense, the formal disciplinary structures are no longer necessary because the “control extends well outside the structured sites of social institutions,” and instead, it operates “through flexible and fluctuating networks” (23). Within these informal networks, then, power operates from within “brains and bodies,” as they put it (hence the concept of biopower, as discussed above), and the import of this new location of power is that the field of politics begins to operate more and more within the zones of our biological and material life. Politics descends to the level of “life itself.”

Rose uses the term “life itself” for similar emphatic reasons. As a sociologist, Rose is interested in the changing contours of “life” (our understanding of biological, material, and/or human life) and also in the political dramas that this “emergent form of life” entails (Rose 3). Thus, to understand why Rose uses the qualifier "itself," we need to understand the change he is trying to capture. One can notice this change by first looking at how the “vital politics” (political issues concerning human life) of the 18th and 19th centuries revolved around health: “rates of birth and death, of diseases and epidemics, of the policing of water sewage, foodstuffs, graveyards, and of the vitality of those agglomerated in towns and cities” (3). Then in the early 20th century, this politics of health morphed such that it now incorporated a specific understanding of biological inheritance. Hence, one can see how this understanding “seemed to oblige politicians in so many countries to try to manage the quality of the population, often coercively and sometimes murderously, in the name of the future of the race” (3). But here in the 21st century, the “vital politics” has changed: “it is neither delimited by the poles of illness and health, nor focused on eliminating pathology to protect the destiny of the nation. Rather, it is concerned with our growing capacities to control, manage, engineer, reshape, and modulate the very vital capacities of human beings as living creatures” (3). This last sentence captures the transition that Rose is trying to emphasize with the qualifier in his title—“the politics of life itself.” In our vital politics, we are now no longer focused on the “superstructural” manifestations of our biological lives—manifestations like disease or Mendelian inheritance; we are now focused on what we understand to be the “base” of our lives: the manipulation of molecules and chemicals. Hence, politics is being played out at a new level—the level of “life itself”—the core of what we understand our biological selves to be.


Rose offers some clear examples of how these concepts—biopolitics and biopower and their interaction with life “itself”—play out in five different realms of today's 21st-century world.


In the 21st century, we have moved from understanding life on a molar level—limbs, organs, etc.—to the molecular level. As Rose puts it, “the clinical gaze has been supplemented, if not supplanted, by this molecular gaze” (12). This new understanding has enabled what he calls the “mobilization of vitality,” or the way in which the building blocks of life are now much more manipulable and movable (15). That is, “molecularization is conferring a new mobility on the elements of life, enabling them to enter new circuits—organic, interpersonal geographical, and financial. […] At this molecular level, that is to say, life itself has become open to politics” (15).


With this epistemological change opening up a new space for politics, we are witnessing the development of new “technologies of optimization” that are changing the traditional roles of medicine: “Contemporary medial technologies do not seek merely to cure diseases once they have manifested themselves, but to control the vital processes of the body and mind” (16). Rose suggests that this move manifests itself in contemporary concerns over the susceptibility and enhancement of bodies. No longer is modern medicine just worried about disease when it manifests itself; it is now concerned with understanding our health (and the medical measures we need to take to maintain it) in terms of our susceptibility to disease. Concerning enhancement: while the human desire to enhance biological life is not new (think of glasses, contacts, hearing aids, etc.), more and more one can see a move “reshape vitality from the inside” with the goal of optimizing what it means to be human.

Subjectification and Ethopolitics

In the 21st century, new notions of what it means to be a responsible citizen have emerged that revolve around our biology. We are responsible in new ways for our corporeal and psychological being: “Exercise, diet, vitamins, tattoos, body piercing, drugs, cosmetic surgery, gender reassignment, organ transplantation: the corporeal existence and vitality of the self has become the privileged site of experiments with the self” (26). In the process of this change, Rose suggests that we can see a shift to what he calls “ethopolitics”: “If ‘discipline’ individualizes and normalizes, and ‘biopolitics’ collectivizes and socializes, ‘ethopolitics’ concerns itself with the self-techniques by which human beings should judge and act upon themselves to make themselves better than they are” (27).

Somatic Expertise

With all these changes, new authorities over the body are emerging, and these authorities are no longer just clinicians and doctors: “There are nutritionists, dieticians, health promotion experts, remedial gymnasts, experts on exercise and fitness,” and so on (28). And what is unique about all this forms of expertise is that they contain certain “pastoral powers”: the expertise proposes to offer counsel. For example, consider not only the “addiction counselors, sex counselors, family and relationship counselors” and so on, but also consider the new realm of expertise in bioethics. Bioethicists play a significant role in our health institutions and corporations of the 21st century.

Bioeconomics or Economies of Vitality

The biotech industry now inhabits a huge sector of our economic markets, and the industry is continuing to grow. As Rose points out, “U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said, ‘biotechnology is the next wave of the knowledge economy and I want Britain to become its European hub” (35). Blair’s comment points to a growing trend in “novel alliances between political authorities and promissory capitalism” (34). That is to say, “the hope [Blair] expresses for a virtuous alliance of state, science, and commerce in the pursuit of health and wealth is one that is shared by many other political authorities” (35)

All of these examples point to the way in which politics has entered the realm of zoe. Biopolitics entails a power (biopower) exercised over and through life “itself.”


Questions for discussion:

Another key term remains in this week’s reading that I did not define: “biopolitical production.” What do Hardt and Negri mean by this term and why do they use it as the title for the second chapter of Empire?

Compare and contrast Althusser’s “Thesis II” (ideology has a material existence) to the concept of biopower as advanced in this week’s readings. What are the differences; what are the similarities? What are the connections, and what are the disjunctions between these two ideas?

Imagine you are talking to a skeptic about this week’s reading material, and this person suggests the following: “I don’t know. All this talk of Empire, biopower, and biopolitics sounds an awful lot like conspiracy discourse, except it’s all dressed up as fancy academic-intellectual chic.” How would you defend the credibility, productivity, and/or fruitfulness of these theories and concepts for academic (or communication studies) inquiry? In other words, how would you talk with a skeptic about these construals of the ways that power operates within capitalism, politics, and “life itself?”

(Feel free to engage these questions or take up your own line of inquiry for your comments. See you Monday.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Now we will elaborate further on an aspect of the control society we mentioned briefly in the first post. Castells' comment that the switches that connect networks--financial flows--are the privileged instruments of power. ("Global Network" ST 621)

Goddamn this leviathan global capitalism! Like Howard Beale, you can't help but be dumbstruck by the gargantuan power it wields. Deleuze writes in Control Society that
"businesses take over from factories, and a business is a soul, is a gas...Corruption here takes on a new power. The sales department becomes a business' center or soul. We're told businesses have souls, which is surely the most terrifying news in the world. Marketing is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters." The forces of observation and control are omnipresent. "In control societies you never finish anything--business, training, and military service being coexisting...a sort of universal transmutation." (p.179)

Castells, Levina, and Kien remind us how our culture revolves around networks. Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter are among the most prominent, while Reddit
is a massive aggregate information and entertainment forum. These rhizomes are incredible for their ability to instantly communicate across the globe, but Levina and Kien suggest caution when interacting with the network. ("Post-Global Network" p.2) This video explains the commercial importance of data gathered from social network sites, while this video traces the financial foundations of Facebook. Both videos quote from Facebook's privacy policy. The current text of their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities is slightly different but it continues to grant to Facebook open-ended access and control over your data.

Remember, it all boils down to the network.

There is only one holistic system of systems. One vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-varied, multi-national dominion of dollars.

It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic, and sub-atomic and galactic structure of things today. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bye-laws of of business. The world is a business. One vast and ecumenical holding company for whom all men will work to serve a common profit. In which all men will hold a share of stock.

All necessities provided. All anxieties tranquilized. All boredom amused.


By Sirs Kevin McCoy and Robert Rowan

Because of the complexity of both concepts of the network and the rhizome and also because these are relatively new concepts in both social media specifically and in human history generally, this post will explain and deconstruct each separately and will conclude by showing their similarities, differences and functions.

Definition of a Network – According to Castells, “a network is a set of interconnected nodes. A node is a point at which it intersects itself “(620). Both terms depend on the surrounding structures, but are open to constant expansion. According to Levina and Kine, “From pop culture to scientific research to border regulation, governance, entertainment, production and consumption, almost every identifiable facet of human and post-human life has been affected by a network paradigm” (Levina 7). A network is different from previous social structures in that it is not hierarchical. Essentially, everyone exists on the same plane. Power is egalitarian in theory but not in function because there are people who control greater access the network. Castells later elaborates: “Switches connecting the networks (for example, financial flows taking control of media empires that influence political processes) are the privileged instruments of power” (ST 621). The internet is the greatest example in that all types of information could be accessible to anybody online, but access to the information can be limited by bandwidth, signal strength, or censorship. As Castells points out, our culture has become centred around social media networks, like Facebook. What began as an exclusive system within the Ivy League expanded to include more colleges and universities, but it remained as an exclusive network of college students. Today, it is open to anyone over the age of 13.

The ubiquitous presence of the iPod in society shows us the physical manifestation of a large network that goes into making the product. In order to make an iPod, numerous factories throughout China specialize and make individual elements of the finished product: one factory makes the chips, another designs the skin, another mines for plastics and metals and other elements that comprise the brain and the body of the iPod. Once it is finished a distribution network comes into play to get it from the sites of production to the sites of consumption. It must be shipped through various international ports to arrive at your local Apple Store. Lastly, you drive your car or ride your bike to the Apple store and purchase it.

Castells notes: “Thus distance (physical, social, economic, political, cultural) for a given point or position” is irrelevant. However, the two points can connect/communicate only if they are within the network. It is a binary system of inclusion and exclusion. Let’s consider excommunication in the Catholic Church as a pre-existing example of this paradigm. The Catholic Church excommunicates heretics, let’s say, and if an individual suffers this he is not simply banished from a specific church, he is excluded from the Catholic Church as an institution and is out of the network.

The network is constantly trying to protect itself. Let’s consider last week’s discussion: Life is the most important commodity in Empire, which consolidate power to preserve peace so that life can be produced and controlled like all other commodities It’s a major network working toward preserving itself. To be alive is to be part of Empire network. To preserve life is to preserve Empire Network. To attack life is to attack Empire Network. Resistance always comes from within like a virus. Terrorism is attacked against the body of the Empire and suicide bombing is the ultimate attack. The body of the empire is the site of conflict between the preservation of life and self destruction.

Finally, the last thing about a Network is that all global networks are connected by a single thing: capital. Essentially, Marx’s socialist workers’ revolution is impossible. Labor is divided into specialized compartments and all are connected to a network of capital...Capital tends to escape in its hyperspace of pure circulation, while labor dissolves its collective entity into an infinite variation of individual existences. Under conditions of network society, capital is globally coordinated and labor is individualized (Castells 622-23).


The article “Rhizome Versus the Tree” articulates the rhizomatic structures within society. Deleueze organized the characteristic of the rhizome into five different sections.

In the principles of connection and heterogeneity section, literally what the rhizome vs. the tree represents is a difference in methods of communication. For instance, the rhizome is always in the middle: “Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects one point to any other point, and its traits aren’t necessarily linked to traits of the same nature” (35). In the words of Deleuze, the tree represents a linear and genealogical information system, whereas a rhizome has a multi-dimensional function, it is always “in the middle.” It is also called an “antigenealogy.” This means that rhizome cannot be traced from a beginning to and end – i.e. it is not a line segment.

Let us consider the fields of linguistics and/or informational studies. In a linguistic in tree system, everything is organized, structured, and self-contained within finite boundaries. In a rhizome system, however, a linguistic system is diverse, fluctuating, colloquial, and centered upon jargon and patois (Deleuze 30).

In the third section, the principle of multiplicity states that a rhizome is indivisible. You can examine an abstracted fragment, but it always has to be considered in relation to the infinite whole. As Deleuze states: “A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature. Deleuze uses the metaphor of the relationship between a puppet and its puppet master. It is not simply the puppeteer manipulating the strings; it also has to do with the interaction between the nervous system of the puppet master, his/her subtle manipulation of certain parts of the handles attached to the strings which in turn sends motion waves down the strings and into the puppet. The gravity and movement of the puppet in turn send signals back up the strings, into the handles attached to the strings, through the hands and back into the nervous system of the puppeteer. This is a perfect representation of a rhizome system because signals and information are not merely the interplay of signals received and then forwarded and returned; it is a constant fluctuation of communication and interaction.

Another way to conceptualize the rhizome vs. tree comparison is to compare an encyclopedia to Wikipedia. A tree structure is more similar to an encyclopedia, not only because it is printed on paper, but also because the book is a finite structure with certain rules: it is a physical object, it cannot be amended once it’s been printed and published, the authors are limited in the amount of information it can contain; it has to exist as a representation of all the information in existence at a given point in time, and even then it has to be limited in scope to adhere the structures of the encyclopedic format.

In contrast, Wikipedia exists as a rhizome structure because it does not exist as a physical object, there is not an annual edition, and it exists as a constant and variable flow of information (new pages, citations, and articles are verified and re-verified on a constant basis). A page can be updated real time almost concurrent to the action or information that it is covering. For instance, during the 2009 State of the Union address, the Republican South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson called out President Obama by shouting, “YOU LIE!” Almost instantaneously, his Wikipedia page was updated to include that event in both his and the country’s life. The update of new information is what Deleuze calls the asignifying rupture. This means that a rhizome can be broken but it will continue from the old line or with a new line into many different directions or flights of path. For instance, if we change a Wikipedia page by adding or omitting information, it experiences an asignifying rupture, and a rupture occurs again when another Wikipedia user updates the information. This constantly evolving process is never truly finished; it is always “in the middle.” In contrast, an encyclopedia doesn’t experience this rupture. If you tear a page from the encyclopedia, it has become irrevocably altered. The information cannot simply continue. The information on that page is lost and cannot be amended.

This asignifying rupture is in the middle of his fourth concept which explains the idea of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. The old meaning is stripped away, new meaning is applied, and the new eventually becomes old and is replaced by a “newer new.” In this day and age, there are innumerable examples of this de/reterritorialization. For example, “the High Line in NYC was a former elevated freight railroad spur that connected directly to factories and warehouses, allowing trains to roll right inside buildings. Milk, meat, produce, and raw and manufactured goods could be transported and unloaded without disturbing traffic on the streets” ( After falling into disrepair because of disuse, the High Line has been reconstituted into a public greenway.

Another example of de/reterritorialization is the evolution or rock music. Rock’s roots are steeped in Delta blues, country pickin’, and, to an extent, New Orleans jazz. When these different musical genres formed its elemental structure in Memphis, it became rock ‘n roll. However, with the advent of television and other forms of media such as record players, rock concerts, etc., the musical genre was deterritorialized and subsequently reterritorialized within different cities and countries all over the world. For instance, the Beatles picked up on rock in the late 1950s Liverpool by attainting bootleg copies of R & B, country, and rock records while also being influenced by Elvis Presley. Rock music deterritorialized the musical traditions that influenced the Beatles growing up – big band, skiffle, English folk music for example. When they latched onto rock, they reterritorialized rock music to suit their environment. Later in their career as they began to evolve their musical sound, they underwent a new process of de/reterritorialization process that continued throughout their career as Beatles and even into their solo careers.

The fifth and last principle of Deleuze’s rhizome is the principle of cartography. Here he compares the rhizome to a map (Deleuze 35). He goes on to say: “The map is open and connectible in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant always has multiple entryways” (Deleuze 35). This means that your view of the map depends on your orientation: how far you want to go and how much you want to see. A map can be as small as a plan for a house yet can be expanded to encompass city, county, state, nation or the world. GoogleMaps is the perfect manifestation of a rhizomatic map.

Lastly, we will briefly on Deleuze’s article “Postscript on Control Societies.” He begins by tracing Foucault’s analysis of the transition from the carceral/disciplinary society to a control society. A carceral/disciplinary society focuses on “various places or sites of confinement,” while the control society operates through constant variations and modulations of observation (178). This relates to the panopticon that we discussed in class. As he further demonstrates, the control society is manifested economically. We are no longer dealing with the duality of masses and individuals; individuals become “dividuals” and masses become samples, data, and markets and/or banks. For example, the principle of money: in a disciplinary society, money was manifested as molded currencies or upon a gold standard; in a control society, money manifests itself through exchange rates and modulations depending on the market forces. This is why the recent uprisings in Egypt/Libya have caused oil prices to spike, and why the catastrophe in Japan has halted the production of automobiles.

In conclusion, the network and rhizome are similar concepts of communication, production, and information dissemination. The network has historically had a more ubiquitous and oft-used function in society. The rhizomatic structure has existed primarily as a theoretical application. We have demonstrated a few of their operations such as the network of iPod production and distribution; we have also shown the rhizomatic structure present in internet informational systems such as Wikipedia.

Monday, April 4, 2011

This is Incredible

I found this a couple of years back. I wish I had found this before today's class so I could have posted it sooner. This is terrifyingly funny: