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Bioethics as Biopolitics

This article is the editorial introduction to a special biopolitics-themed issue of the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy.  I came across it during my negative results research since one of the issue’s articles uses the term “rejected knowledge.”  The table of contents for the entire issue is available here:

Even though this editorial doesn’t perform any biopolitical analysis, itself, I found it interesting since it begins by discussing the simplistic view of biopolitics (the one I entered this course with) as merely bioethics influenced by political ideology.  A common complaint about most bioethical writing is that it is strictly descriptive/normative — “this is wrong, we should do that instead.”  If a political analysis is included, it doesn’t go much beyond noting “who occupies the White House” (205).  It’s nice to know that, at least in this special issue, authors develop their analyses further to include figures we’ve studied this semester: Foucault, Agamben, etc.  I’m particularly interested to read the last three articles by Newell, Hall, and Bleakley.

Never Let Me Go?

I wonder if any of you have read this book / seen this movie (that is, Never Let Me Go)? I have not had a chance to do so yet, but after reading its plot summary it sounds like it would provide very interesting fodder for analysis with respect to our class topics. I’m going to muse some about it beyond the break just based on what I’ve read on Wikipedia/elsewhere, so if you don’t want to be spoiled for the plot of this book/film, don’t read any further.

Continue reading

Response to Clough’s “The Affective Turn”

I struggled with this piece, feeling like I lacked a common vocabulary with the author and the theorists she presents.  I was surprised, since I thought I understood our previous class discussion on affective labor — “work to produce and reproduce life” as someone quoted this week — so I had an easier time following Clough’s couple of sections that dealt with labor, but I stuggled most with the concept of the affective body: the pre-individual, pre-emotional, indeterminate, body-not-as-organism body.

One way that I’ve tried to make sense of this is to think of the affected body, which is what I believe the theorists in Clough’s examples were studying when they investigated the automatic, non-conscious bodily reactions of pupil dilation, etc. that occur immediately in response to a stimulus, even as conscious awareness of the stimulus lags behind by a half second or so.  Is this understanding of “affectedness” compatible at all with Clough’s conception of the affective turn?  If so, how does it illustrate an idea of the body as indeterminate or non-organismic?

Hopefully the class can help me understand this material, since I feel like my questions keep spinning me in circles.

“Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal” Notes on Berlant

In “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta” Lauren Berlant close reads these two films from the 1990s as entry points into a larger discussion of the role of children and affect within the globalized labor networks of late capitalism. The article is devastating in its presentation of the function of fantasy and imagination. As Berlant says “I want to tell a story from this perspective about post-Fordist affect as a scene of constant bargaining with normalcy in the face of conditions that can barely support even the memory of the fantasy. How do fantasy-practice clusters…become the grounds for political and social conservatism?” (278). This question may not seem like a natural one at first. Berlant’s aim in the article, however,  is to demonstrate how affect is completely entangled with  social and political economies, as well as circuits of labor.

Affect cannot be considered separately:

“There is no room to make a distinction among political, economic, and affective forms of existence, because the institutions of intimacy that constitute the everyday environments of the social are only viscerally distinct but actually, as we know, intricately and dynamically related to all sorts of institutional, economic, historical and symbolic dynamics” (279).

But why do affective fantasy practices produce “social conservatism”? Berlant links the fantasy and longing for “normativity” on the part of the children represented in the  films as a major link in hegemonic systems of labor. The “will to feel that feeling” of normalcy, or “aspirational normalcy” constitutes an affective reinvestment into the “the normative promises of capital”  (281) rather than leading to a subversive or resistant stance. Berlant describes how the rise of immaterial labor and the weakening of nation-states, and, consequently, citizenship rights, has led to the situation of “survivalists, scavengers bargaining against defeat by the capitalist destruction of life” (282). Because of their inability to ‘get ahead,’ these “survivalists” have nothing to pass along to their children except the hope for a better life. This is the fantasy that underpins the production of “social conservatism.”

In the second half of the article, Berlant prepares to theorize childhood by engaging in a theoretical archive including Judith Butler, W.R.D. Fairbairn and Christopher Bollas. It might be helpful to unpack this section together in class so we can see precisely where Berlant positions herself in this conversation.

We could also discuss how often the construction “a story” comes up in the article. Why does Berlant insist over and over again on the narrative quality of these issues?

One more interesting issue is the discussion of futurity in the article. It brought to my mind Elizabeth Povinelli’s critique of the “future anterior,” especially part of Berlant’s closing material:

“I close, therefore, not with a solution to the problem of aspirational normativity as expressed in the conventionalities of subaltern feeling, because, I am arguing, the subordinated sensorium of the immaterial worker, whose acts of rage and ruthlessness are mixed with forms of care, is an effect of the relation of capitalism’s refusal of futurity in an overwhelmingly productive present and the normative promise of intimacy, which enables us to imagine that having a friend or making a date or looking longingly at someone who might, after all, show compassion for our struggles, is really where living takes place.” (301)

I was especially interested in the idea of “capitalism’s refusal of futurity” in the passage above, but I decided not to excerpt the paragraph because I think we can use it as a productive place to start talking about the thrust of the article overall.

Notes on “Taking Care: Migration and the Political Economy of Affective Labor” by Sandro Mezzadra

Mezzadra says that “What seems characteristic of contemporary migration … is that within that experience complex systems of belonging and identity construction are experiencing deep transformations, are constantly undone, challenged, and rebuilt. This is a particular kind of “affective labor.” If this is so, then Mezzadra is extending the analysis of affective labor’s rise in OECD countries to a rise of affective labor in countries from which mass migrations typically occur, peripheral countries. But how is what Mezzadra describes affective labor? Michael Hardt writes, “Affective labor is itself and directly the constitution of communities and collective subjectivities” (“Affective Labor,” 89).

Hardt writes, “On one hand, affective labor, the production and reproduction of life, has become firmly embedded as a necessary foundation for capitalist accumulation and patriarchal order. On the other hand, however, the production of affects, subjectivities, and forms of life present an enormous potential for autonomous circuits of valorization, and perhaps for liberation” (“Affective Labor,” 100). Mezzadra echoes Hardt’s concluding remarks saying that there is a bivalence to the political importance of the “subjective behaviors, claims, desires, affects, imaginations structurally exceeding the objective and structural causes” of migratory movements – it is by regulating and disciplining these subjective conditions that the “new technologies of domination and new modalities of exploitation are forged, while only in valorizing it a politics of the multitude can reinvent the concepts of liberty and equality.” It seems that what she is saying here is that though this affective labor is being harnessed, being channeled into the creating the new forms of domination and exploitation, but it, this intense and unique moment of identity, desire, and community formation, represents a potential political power to imbalance the International Division of Labor and the hegemony of conditions it creates.

Affective laborers of “dominant countries” and those who are migrants from non-dominant countries do not necessarily have a common interest in dismantling the International Division of Labor, since the precariousness of affective laborers in the former is of a far lesser degree than that of the migrants and the communities and subjectivities they are forced to create in the “receiving countries” and in transport (for instance in the Moroccan refugee camps awaiting entrance to Spain but most often being dispersed by law enforcement with dogs and most often murdered in this way). Thus, first world formation of desires, affects, subjectivities and communities which are in solidarity with those who are also in the constant execution of a similar yet completely alien form of affective labor (forming their own communities, subjectivities, desires) is problematic and difficult to conceive. And yet regardless of the difficulty, this solidarity is necessary and perhaps less difficult than at other times in history for the very reason that Mezzadra and Hardt point to (from opposite sides of the issue it seems): the rapid pace which community and subjectivity or identity formation takes place, the increasingly apparent ridiculousness and throw-away quality of these hasty productions, creates an opportunity for either increased disparity in the IDL as well as “at home” by the powers wishing to manage and exploit these affective labors or to find a way to share in processes of formation. Since affective labor is a constant rebuilding and transformation, it would mean that people of dominant countries would take responsibility for who they are becoming and what communities they are creating, and by what means of communication. Franco Berardi says that this “is also a task for therapy, understood as a new focalization of attention, and a shifting of the investments of desire” (The Soul at Work, 142), and in being responsible this reorienting of desire will critical. If the primacy in the hierarchy of production has situated affective labor at the pinnacle, depending on its flexibility of desire and its ability to change the community it can fit in based on the needs of many different economic interests, then it seems that there is a great power to be harnessed in making decisions about our desires and what we will form. To bring this back to the plight and opportunity of those on the other side of the IDL migrating to the dominant countries, it seems that the new communities we form must be done by working with them.

I know I’ve gone off into an abstract account of how different forms of affective labors can “unite” or at least why they should or maybe my point was more that we in the dominant countries who caught in this process of continual formation should include the other, especially the other of affective labor (as I’ll call migrant labor for now), in any new formation of desire and community and subjectivity – yes, and why can we speak of unity? Mezzadra writes sidelong to this – “we can talk for example of migrant labor (that is, a general attitude to mobility an flexibility, the subjective counterpart of the “flexible regime of accumulation” …) without for this reason on the one hand sacrificing the subjective and objective peculiarity of the experience of mobility by migrants, and without on the other hand forgetting the radical diversity of migrants’ experience itself” (2).

On a fairly different note, c.f. Mezzadra at “f)” with Pugliese on anti-voluntarism of migrants: “I stress the role of instrumentalization here in order to counter claims that the clandestine refugee deaths are solely due to the subjects’ voluntary actions. Effaced in such claims are the larger geopolitical discursive relations of biopower that fundamentally shape questions of voluntarism” (Pugliese, “Civil Modalities of Refugee Trauma, Death and Necrological Transport,” 162).

Notes and response to “Affective Labor” by Michael Hardt

Hardt’s goal here is to briefly provide a schematic history of transformations in the capitalist economy that will buttress his theories of immaterial labor and positive biopower. This is useful as a foundation, and also makes some basic corrections to how he has been read:

“The claim that the process of modernization is over and that the global economy is today undergoing a process of postmodernization toward an informational economy does not mean that industrial production will be done away with or that it will cease to play an important role, even in the most dominant regions of the globe. Just as the industrial revolution transformed agriculture and made it more productive, so too the informational revolution will transform industry redefining and rejuvenating manufacturing processes through the integration, for example, of information networks within industrial processes. “

This argument usefully echoes earlier discussions in our class on how organizations of power layer over each other, as opposed to historical conceptions that accept epochal shifts.

On the other hand, Hardt still tends to project a biopolitically-smooth social space, even into periods before the emergence of the immaterial economy/biopower proper. In accounting for the transition from the Fordist model of industrial production to a Toyotist one, Hardt explains: “The mass production of standardized commodities in the Fordist era could count on an adequate demand and thus had little need to listen closely to the market.” He thus implies the key event in the transition was a kind of consumer rebellion on the demand side. This demand-side approach allows him to represent a diffuse and passive transitional process, spread across the entire population of citizen-consumers, prefiguring well the ultra-diffuse resistant forms that, for him, constitute a positive biopower in the current period.

Absent here is the uneven, violent, and sector-specific narrative of the breakdown of discipline in the auto factory in the late 1960s and early 70s. The spreading refusal on the shopfloor was not primarily expressed in political forms, and indeed could be referenced as a different prefiguration of biopolitical resistance (i.e. the application of sick-outs, the constitution of informal organizations for disruption). While this is a short piece that necessarily paints the story broadly, the Toyotist-phenomenon is key to his idea of the emerging hegemony of immaterial labor, and Hardt’s historical approach follows his political orientation.

More broadly, Hardt’s perspective (which here at least, echoes orthodox Marxism), that the elaboration of the new affective economy will necessarily open new spaces for struggle, walks a thin line. As he ends with, “the production of affects, subjectivities, and forms of life present an enormous potential for autonomous circuits or valorization, and perhaps for liberation.” It’s unclear what his “autonomous circuits” directly signify, but the ambiguity speaks to the very possible alternate reading that the new, flexibilized affective economy will simply be an engine for ever-more efficient recuperation, recognizing new forms of life and quickly incorporating them within the economy. His method is either strategic, moving to analyze new terrains of contestation as they emerge, or celebratory, promising that the latest innovations in the economy should be temporarily accepted, in the name of a future pay-off, of still as-yet-formless subversive potentials. The distance between these methodological poles is the political distance between diffuse resistance and diffuse social democracy, both of which deserve to be criticized.

Rachel Lee Lecture Tomorrow

Here is the info about the lecture tomorrow. I hope to see some of you there.

Associate Professor Rachel Lee, English and Women’s Studies, UCLA, will present “Disaggregating Racial Bodies: Biopolitics and Borderlands in Literature, Theory, and Culture” Tuesday, March 29, 2011 – 4:00 p.m. in the Maple Room, IMU.