24 May 2012

How To Subvert Biopolitical Administration/Big Data/Neoliberal Superpanopticism?


This post follows up, but doesn’t complete or come to any final conclusions about, some issues that were discussed in my Spring 2012 graduate feminist theory class.


This past semester in my graduate feminist theory course, we read Foucault and Puar on neoliberalism, biopolitical admin, the “power over life,” etc. These are all various names for the kind of power that is characteristic of 21st century neoliberalism. It can be generally characterized in this way:


(1)  It targets the “life” of specific populations. It is only secondarily concerned with individual subjects (that’s the job of disciplinary power).

(2)  It works by optimizing the life (or the flourishing) of privileged populations, and pretty much leaving oppressed populations to die. This produces a seemingly counterintuitive context in which privilege can mean having more power work on and through you, and oppression can mean being more distant from centers of power. It sounds counterintuitive b/c classical liberal contract theory conceives of privilege or liberty as “freedom from” power, and oppression as having power’s boot on one’s neck. Power doesn’t always work this way, but sometimes it does. For example: if you are economically privileged enough to go to the doctor often, to fly, to be very active on the internet, to use debit and credit cards instead of cash, you’re actually more integrated in networks of power than people who can’t afford to seek medical treatment/without health insurance, or who don’t use air transport, the internet, or electronic banking transactions. 

(3)  The market replaces the contract. If classical liberalism conceives of society as organized by a (hypothetical) contract, neoliberalim treats society as an economic market. As economist and social theorist Jacques Attali explains, traditional notions of equality and “harmony” eventually “giv[e] wa to statistics, macroeconomics, and probability” (Noise, 65). In this new actuarial regime of statistics, “society…desires to make its simple management the matrix of its meaning” (Attali 113; emphasis mine). This management takes the form of “the statistical organization of repetition” (Attali 114; emphasis mine).  But what do statistics “manage”?  “The administrator in a repetitive society” is tasked with “managing chance” and “monitor[ing] unexpected forms” (Attali 114/5). This management and monitoring sounds a lot like what Foucault identifies as the biopolitical management of risk. The point here is: neoliberalism uses statistics to normalize populations. It wants to control for potentially “random” or aleatory events, to standardize every deviation, so to speak.  Neoliberalism is the order of the bell curve, the statistical average, etc.

So, that’s a sketch painted in very broad strokes. But, I’m not primarily interested here in defining neoliberalism, but rather in considering how we can subvert it.


My class talked about Foucault’s claim that traditional models of resistance and opposition don’t work for both forms of the “power over life” (discipline and biopolitical administration). “Resistance” and “opposition” are critical responses tailored/appropriate to power that represses: if there’s a boot on your neck holding you down, you need to fight back, to get out from under it. However, the power over life is not repressive, but productive, so, in this context, “resistance” and “opposition” don’t make sense as critical strategies. Judith Butler, with her concept of subversive repetition, has, as I have argued elsewhere, given a good account of an effective critical response to discipline. As the classic example goes, one subverts disciplinary gender norms by repeating them with a difference: drag queens perform normative femininity better than either Butler or I, thereby laying bare the ultimate constructedness and contingency of cultural ideals of “femininity.” But what about a critical response to biopolitical administration, this statistical rather than disciplinary norm?


I’ve thought about this a bit before, here. However, after having some conversations with my class about this (special shout-outs to Brad Gray and Eric Virzi for especially productive contributions on this point), I want to push things a bit further. I also want to respond to Alexis Madrigal’s new article in The Atlantic on “Big Data Jammers.”  This is all still fairly preliminary, so I’m going to stick to bullet points:


(1) Era Pope was especially helpful in articulating this point: Subversion of biopolitical administration involves skewing the statistics. That’s one thing that Madrigal points out in the article: 

I foresee that activists might find the best way to disrupt corporate power on the Internet is to be begin interacting with the ads they're being shown and muddying the data that's being collected. But beyond the immediate financial impact this kind of action could have on marketing budgets, if the collective action became large enough, it could begin to impact the quality of the data that Google and other data intermediaries are collecting about each and every Internet user. If enough people started to seem interested in home mortgages who were not actually interested in home mortgages, it might start to disrupt their ability to efficiently target users with behavioral advertising. This would be statistical noisemaking as a form of protest.

By deliberately skewing someone’s algorithm (e.g., by searching for things people of your demographic shouldn’t normally search for)[1] you make the statistical average less average—or rather, you shift the shape of the curve. In class, Era mentioned how we could change statistical norms about dimorphic gender, and the “outlier” status of intersex babies, by accurately reporting and not “fixing” intersex kids. The more intersex babies there are, the more intersex people there are, the less “average” maleness and femaleness become. You skew the statistics by creating and reporting more “deviant” instances; that very act makes them less “deviant”, because it shifts the curve. (My earlier discussion of Martha Rossler’s “Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained” is another example of this sort of subverting stats at their own game or in their own language.) I think Era’s example shows what’s valuable about Madrigal’s proposal. In the case of intersex babies, this is more than just about making noise for big data—it’s about  shifting our understanding of what counts as a “viable” life. Generally bodies have to be appropriately male or female in order to be considered viable, livable, healthy, etc. But plenty of bodies aren’t “appropriately” male or female. Parents and medical professionals inflict brutal “treatment” on intersex kids because this is supposed to bring them a “viable,” healthy, easier and more livable life. But by re-jiggering the various statistics and measurements used to determine “average” genital size for male and female babies, or the relative frequency of male, female, and intersex births, we might make intersex lives appear less deviant, more intrinsically viable, healthy, etc.


(2) Now, some will object that this is just submitting to power, accepting its terms, and that we ought instead to step outside of it, work beneath it, wash our hands of it, etc. This is only a viable option for people and groups with enough privilege to make up for the deficits and penalties one will incur by excluding oneself from the rituals and mechanisms society uses to optimize, foster, and flourish life. Remember, this is the power over life, and it produces life, flourishing, viability, etc. You already have to have somewhat of a cushion if you want to forego the advantages or incentives conferred by biopolitical hegemony. Here’s a lame example: if you want to opt out of the industrial food chain, you need some combination of financial means, access to product and to retail outlets, or access to the means of craft production themselves (land, seeds, education, etc.). If you’re working a minimum wage service-industry job (or jobs), living in an apartment in an area without easy access to low-cost organic and craft foods, then it’s really difficult, if not impossible, for you to opt out of the industrial food chain. Similarly, hipsters can “slum it” because they have enough privilege—usually racial, but also socioeconomic—to mediate if not overcome any adverse effects they might incur based on their appearance, place of residence, etc.


(3) You can subvert the “statistical organization of repetition” (to use Attali’s phrase) not only by generating a lot of noise and feedback, but also by tweaking the instruments (of measurement, of sound/signal production) themselves. In tweaking the instrument, you allow it to produce signal of intensities and qualities that it is otherwise not able to produce. This is what Tricia Rose calls the “into the red” aesthetic in hip hop. Let me try to connect the dots:

 If statistically organized repetition is something like a bell curve or a sine wave (a sine wave being a repeated pattern of peaks and valleys, a bell curve being a chunk of a sine wave), then all instances occur within an upper and a lower limit. At issue here, then, are asymptotes: the limit which the curve can approach, but never touch or cross. Say you are a recording engineer, working with an audio signal. You can apply patches, effects, filters, generators, or whatever post-production process you want to a sine wave (i.e., an audio signal). By twisting a knob, pushing a button, or running your finger on a track pad, you modify the audio signal enough to push it beyond its ‘original’ asymptotic limits. For example, vocoded or talk-boxed vocals have different timbers, and often different pitches, than the original vocal signal. More interestingly, hip hop (and now dubstep and other hip hop inspired dance music) producers will often push the bass “into the red”—i.e., it’s too low for humans to actually hear, but it can be felt (standing in front of speakers in the club, listening in the car, etc.). By taking the bass signal into the red, there is a qualitative shift in the signal. As Tricia Rose explains:


Using the machines in ways that have not bee intended, by pushing on established boundaries of music engineering, rap producers have developed an art out of recording with the sound meters well into the distortion zone. When necessary, they deliberately work in the red. If recording in the red will produce the heavy dark growling sound desired, rap producers record in the red. If a sampler must be detuned in order to produce a sought-after low-frequency hum, then the sampler is detuned…Volume, density, and quality of low-sound frequencies are critical features in rap production” (Rose, Black Noise, 75).


These producers are playing with “volume, density, and quality”. This strategy makes sense, especially if, as both Puar Jeffery Nealon, and others argue, neoliberalism manifests in/as the organization of intensities.[2]
 
            SO, it seems to me that this idea of modulating something “into the red”—modifying the intensity of a signal so that it effects a qualitative shift—is a good way to start thinking about how to subvert neoliberal biopolitical administration. This  form of power manifests as the regularization and regulation of frequencies, the stabilization of a signal. You modify signal with signal (e.g., an electric signal made by turning the potentiometer on a volume knob makes the mp3 play back louder or softer). Subverting signal means, a la Ghostbusters, crossing the streams—or, pushing signal into the red


            I still need to think more on this crossing the streams/into the red point or model. But I think it is a very productive one, not just because it’s on the right track, but because there are plenty of musical examples I can use to help me understand what these practices might look like politically.


[1] e.g., I post a lot of things to Facebook about race and African-American culture, because, you know, that’s what I study, so I, someone Facebook knows is white, and in a relationship with another white person, get ads for get “targeted” ads for the “Talented Tenth Boys Academy,” complete with a picture of a smiling young black student in a uniform. So, obviously Facebook thinks I am likely to have a black child, maybe because I sometimes quote Du Bois in my status updates. My point is that Facebook’s algorithms can’t handle the idea that a 34-year-old white woman might care about race, African-American culture, etc., so its attempts at targeting me actually really, really miss the mark.
[2] As Jason Read puts it, “Neoliberal governmentality follows a general trajectory of intensification” Read, Jason. “A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the PRoduction of Subjectivity” in Foucault Studies, No 6 pp. 25-36 February 2009. P. 29.

2 comments:

  1. ok, a lot of thoughts, but I've not collected them yet, so just briefly: good stuff.

    quick thoughts:

    on 1) there used to a firefox plugin that randomly sent search strings to google in the background. this could be tweaked to be non-random, but counter coded to norms, right?

    on 2) do we need to add Harvey's account of neoliberal capital formation and geographic space to Foucault here? In that the startup costs (and maintenance costs) of "opting out" here relies on the accumulation of capital on the one hand, and requires a certain organization of space (probably colonial in form) on the other? Maybe the heterotopias work responds. this is seriously a question.

    on 3) does crossing the streams look or sound like situationist practice? Or absurdism? pranksters? or 4chan / anonymous doing things for the lulz? Do you know Beilla Coleman's anthropological work on anonymous and hacker culture? I'm thinking it might be relevant here.

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  2. Hey AD,

    Thanks for your comments! I think your second point is really on to something, especially how "capital" can include intangible things like location vis-a-vis (post)coloniality. This isn't a perfect example, but it sort of illustrates your point: in the US, Etsy is framed as a homespun, indie alternative to corporate capitalism. Their default search term is "handmade." I ordered a made-to-order bag from Etsy, but it was made for me by someone in Malaysia. I suspect that this person (? I don't even know if it was a person, perhaps it was a corporation/small business for all I know) doesn't view Etsy as "opting out" of Western capitalism, but precisely as opting IN. Etsy is her foot in the door. I don't know that this example illustrates your point about the startup costs of opting out, but it does contextualize "opting out."

    So, this contextualization is really important, and it speaks to your first and second points. I don't think any practice, technology, or tactic is inherently or necessarily subversive. Hacking can be subversive, or it can be entrepreneurial. I'm part of a Hackerspace where most people are trying to turn their little tech projects into startups. This is not the counterculture hacker dystopia of the 80s or 90s. Cyberpunk is dead, long live Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, etc.

    I'm also thinking here of Shannon's SPEP paper, and her discussion of how countercultural practices are _necessary_ parts of the neoliberal machine.

    Which leads to your third point: Yes and no, it depends on context. All those practices also generally presuppose a certain amount of privilege--if you think of who participates in Anonymous, it's generally a certain kind of d00d (though not universally, but generally). If you're doing it for teh lulz, this means you can afford to not put yr skillz to work, say, goldfarming. I had a really interesting conversation w Mariana Ortega about the idea of playfulness (she was critiquing Lugones a bit here), and how some people can't afford to be playful.

    Which is to say: I worry about overly romanticizing those instances that are overtly and obviously "absurd" or "lulz-y"--these are the ones that come from sites of relative privilege. The more interesting instances of subversion come from places where people can't afford to be overtly, brashly oppositional/subversive. So, teh lulz are a sort of second-order lulz, inserted w/in or behind a surface that is apparently very benign. I talk about this a lot w/respect to WOC female pop singers, but I think it applies here, too.

    So, yeah, context really really matters. Which makes it hard to, you know, _define_ or give a set of general features/characteristics of "subversion"...

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