Photo Credit: Johannes Stoetter

Cheating At Life?, pt. VI: Art and the Biotechnological Embodied Self

Last week, we wrapped up by suggesting that the control revolution of biotechnology in the modern era of biopolitics issues a demand for escape; viz., escape from the power relations that immediately take up my body and transform it into something otherwise than my own. The control revolution set forth over both the biopolitical body and the body politic has been established as a decisive problem for modernity. In this week’s post, the final of this series, I want to take some preliminary steps towards framing the question of escape as a flight from modernity, into postmodern thought.

Last week we took up the theme of escape as it appears in Levinas, through and against the philosophy of one of his most important intellectual forebears, Heidegger. We must recall that, for Heidegger, the essence of technology is nothing technological; rather, its essence is Enframing [Gestell]. Enframing is best understood as a gathering together of objects, as within the frame of a painting, that orders and reveals its objects in a particular way. Technology orders its objects in the mode of standing-reserve, in which objects become cease to become objects in their gathering together as such, and rather fall into a mechanical ordering, as in the ‘rods, pistons, and chassis’ of an engine.   Technology, in this sense, transcends mere instrumentality; “man stands within the essential realm of Enframing. He can never take up a relationship to it only subsequently. Thus the question as to how we are to arrive at a relationship to the essence of technology… always comes too late.”[1] The modern crisis is such that the human subject no longer finds itself in the human being, but as an already biotechnological body whose pure exchange-value is the reproduction of biopower. It is this Levinasian bondage of the subject to the facticity of its biological being, in which it finds itself always already in the order of standing-reserve; that is, as already transformed into pure exchange-value. Enframing, as a kind of revealing, is always what reveals the being of the subject to itself. This Enframing, in which the question of the relationship of the human being to the essence of technology ‘always comes too late’, thus destines [‘destining’, Geschick] the subject upon a history [Geschichte] not essentially different from its way of revealing. Here we have another view of Heidegger as a thinker against modernity, in the form of an identifiable ‘end of history’ which being immediately confronts, and in relation to which being is forced to reorient itself as a subject. The view of the essence of technology as pure instrumentality challenges humanity’s freedom in relation to it, precisely because the failure to acknowledge its real essence, which is Enframing, sets being upon a destining in which it is always already revealed to itself as if through the frame, which in an important sense predetermines the history of being (if not in the strong sense of predetermination, perhaps we can say that Enframing sets boundary conditions on the possibility of the history of being). For Heidegger, “[f]reedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way [my emphasis].”[2] The ‘at any given time’ condition is important; man cannot simply step out of the frame and find his being there once he has set himself upon the course of a destining as Enframing.

The supreme danger of a “destining [that] reigns in the mode of Enframing,” is exactly the problem of the modern constitution of biopolitics and the biotechnological transformation of the body. “This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.”[3] That is, man comes to the point of encountering himself only in the commodity form, as instrument of biopower. “Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth.”[4] Here we find the modern constitution of the sovereign body as the biopolitical body, which excludes ‘bare life’ [zoē] from the body politic precisely by including it in the sovereign sphere as standing-reserve, on the threshold of inclusion into the political body [bios] only on the condition of its transformation to a commodity form under biocapitalism, whose labour-power is biopower. This returns us to Agamben’s claim that “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power,”[5] coupled with a logic of the sovereign structure of the law in which the self-constitution of the sovereign is always as an exception from the juridical order, putting the sovereign body on the threshold of what is included and what is excluded from the sphere of law. The sovereign body as biopolitical body includes in the form of the incorporation of ‘bare life’ into the political body, and excludes in the form of a rejection of ‘bare life’ outside of the threshold of the sphere of law, the political body which the sovereign immediately is.

The modern era of biopolitics leaps forth dramatically from history in the form of the Third Reich – so much so, that Agamben eventually equates the sovereign body with the body of the Führer: “[t]he Führer’s body is… situated at the point of coincidence between zoē and bios, biological body and political body. In his person, zoē and bios incessantly pass over into each other.”[6] The Führer’s word is immediately law [nomos] setting forth into the sphere of law, which sets forth immediately from his self-constitution as bios including zoē only as an exclusion from self. In The New Biopolitics, “Body is knowledge, and knowledge is power”[7]; in the body of the Führer, knowledge can also be read nomos in this sense.…

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Science Isn’t Broken? Of Course It Is!

According to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Christie Aschwanden, “Science Isn’t Broken. It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for.” Aschwanden’s article is a remarkably clear and forceful tour of all things wrong with science—poor statistical practice, poor study design, conscious and unconscious manipulation of data, outright falsification of data, plagiarism, fraudulent peer reviews, predatory publishers, fake authors of gibberish articles in mostly fake journals, ingrained psychological biases, and over-enthusiastic journalists breathlessly reporting on each new study as if it is the Truth etched in stone. But despite all that, she concludes that:

Science isn’t broken, nor is it untrustworthy. It’s just more difficult than most of us realize. We can apply more scrutiny to study designs and require more careful statistics and analytic methods, but that’s only a partial solution. To make science more reliable, we need to adjust our expectations of it.

Aschwanden is one of my favorite science journalists, but in this case I feel like she dipped her toes into the abyss and turned back, unwilling to to take that final step into the terrifying unknown of admitting that yes,  science is broken—obviously, deeply broken. It is permeated by perverse incentives that reward publishing results over discovering truth, and corporations are hijacking scientific institutions to give their products the stamp of scientific validation. No simple fix in how journalists report about science or to the details of statistical practice or study design will fix it.…

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Cheating At Life?, pt. V: Neoliberal Biocapitalism

Last week’s discussion wrapped up by talking about the transformation of the body under the biotechnological revolution of the modern biopolitical era. Today, we’ll begin by rounding out our analysis with a more detailed treatment of Levin and Lo’s recommendations for the regulation of financial markets grounded in biological systems approaches to complexity. By the end of this movement in the present essay, my hope is that the control revolution set forth by biopolitics upon both individual bodies, as well as the body politic, will appear to be total. Finally, the question issued by biopolitics as a decisive problem for modernity, will be a question of escape.

Levin and Lo’s article offers four specific insights from evolutionary biology and ecology that its authors suggest regulators ought to take into account: i., “too big to fail,” ii., “adaptive regulation,” iii., “homeostatic mechanisms,” and iv., “robustness and resiliency.”[1]  We concluded, after taking a look at the varieties of living things at the margins of what evolutionary biologists typically consider to constitute ‘Life’, and by following a review of evolutionary ‘cheating’ that calls into question basic unspoken assumptions about actual standards of the justified acceptance of biological theories and the sociopolitical foundations of modern biological worldviews, that there exists a certain identifiable liberalizing trend in the biopolitical sphere of late neoliberal capitalism.  Perhaps this comes as no surprise; the ideology of many liberal academics and of the ruling class more generally is that the neo-capitalism of modern neoliberalism has grown past the violent and bloody stages of ‘classical’ capitalism so vilified by Marxists and other more radical theorists.  If Life itself becomes a “cultural or artificial construct open to calculative and regulative interventions of administration,”[2] then presumably control over the biopolitical body could be softened under neoliberal administration (or even reappropriated for the socialized production of a latent biopolitical ‘biosocialism’).  It seems we can rest assured that the result of a union between biological systems theories and political economy will not result in brusque normative pronouncements by the former along the lines of the orthodox view captured by the title of Jones’ study: “Cheaters must prosper”.

‘Too big to fail’ makes the analogy between the unrestricted growth of financial institutions – noted as one of the key precipitating factors of the 2008 Financial Crisis – and the malignant growth of cancerous tumours.  ‘Adaptive regulation’ suggests a set of improved frameworks for environmental responsiveness modeled on the individual adaptations of organisms to specific problems posed by their environment, and specifically proposes allowing financial regulators to restrict leverage restrictions to a risk analysis between the assets of financial institutions and the macroeconomy.  We saw earlier that evolutionary adaptation was a post hoc explanatory mechanism posited by Darwin, inspired by a social metaphor that was popularized by Malthus.  The epistemic aim of evolutionary adaptation provides ideological justification for the class rule of the bourgeoisie, slated on a vision of gradual progress towards perfection and dynamic systems of change that allowed for an upwards social mobility that became the dominance of an entire class in society.  To concretize new class relations under the rule of the capitalist class, the entire dynamics of change which saw their rise had to be posited as a ‘Homeostatic mechanism’, whose internal dynamics only ever achieve the illusion of change, as if in a Parmenidean bubble of being.  The particular mechanisms suggested on the biological systems approach suggest the “imposition of frictions to slow [the] growth [of financial institutions]”[3] brought about by privatized innovation.  This apparent effort to renormalize and reduce internal inequalities within the existing economic system is thus seen to serve the double function of preserving existing class relations, while minimizing the direct personal financial impact of being the subordinate party to a control dynamic.  In this way, to paraphrase Levins and Lewontin, ‘Whig biology already mimics Whig history and political theory’, with its long history of mass pre-revolutionary labour unrest subdued and abated by the capitalist class, if not through the direct expression of force, then through ostensibly generous concessions and reforms, all in the name of preserving the existing political order.  Finally, ‘Robustness and resiliency’ urges the application of the notion of ecosystem robustness to the market, effectively connecting the deleterious outcomes of financial oligopolies to a reflection of the damage sustained by ecosystems as a result of the loss of biodiversity.

Here, it appears that the face of biopolitics itself has become merely a partisan issue.  The internal dynamics of the proposed biological systems approach, to the liberal theorist, will appear in the light of the progress of an advanced western capitalism towards egalitarian self-regulation and the eventual dissolution of internal difference, in the form of the reduction of social and income inequalities.  To the left of liberalism, Marxists will decry the homeostatic mechanism as an ideological barrier to the true destiny of progressive historical change after the bourgeois revolution, in the name of the proletarian revolution and the progress towards socialist society.  Marxist critique thereby always positions itself in relation to the dynamic system as in the relation of ‘Critical theory’ to ‘Traditional theory’, as Lyotard argues, who equally connects the traditional systems theories [Systemtheorie] to technocracy[4]; if the modern constitution of the biopolitical body were to become the target of such a Marxist critique, we could perhaps expect the latter to ground the revolutionary theory of political bodies in a symbolic reappropriation of the mummified remains of Lenin, installed by Stalin in a mausoleum in the Red Square in the center of Moscow, whose embalmed body surely can be taken to represent the immediate transformation of the modern political body into pure exchange-value.  But herein lies precisely the program with the Marxist critique, which is that there is no Archimedean point to which one can safely take flight in the hospices of critique.

… in countries with liberal or advanced liberal management, the struggles and their instruments have been transformed into regulators of the system; in communist countries, the totalizing model and its totalitarian effect have made a comeback in the name of Marxism itself, and the struggles in question have simply been deprived of the right to exist. 

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Cheating At Life?, pt. IV: The Body and the Modern Biopolitical State

If you recall, we began this discussion with an interesting example of mutualistic interaction between species: that between parasitic wasps and host species of Lepidoptera, the latter of which is conferred with the apparent benefit of a selective adaptation that guards the species’ lineage from a common environmental pathogen.  On the orthodox view, identified by Emily Jones’ study, it might have been said that the parasite was cheating the host, tout court, glossing over the reciprocal relationship through which the host species also benefits from the exchange.  The study itself identifies plenty of similar examples.  Two Labroides bicolar, a species of cleaner fish, will partner themselves so that a guest may feed on the parasites of its host.  That the guest will occasionally take a bite out of its host had previously been considered an instance of cheating; however, a review of the literature suggests that it is unclear whether (or not) the host fish ascertains a measurable ‘fitness increase’ from having been bitten, thus making it unclear whether this counts as a case of cheating.[1]  Several Allomerus and Crematogaster ant species exhibit the peculiar behaviour of flower castration, sterilising plant growths on the host trees that have become habitat (called domatia) to the colony.  This reduces fecundity, but results in more vegetative growth, to the advantage of the ants, who have thereby evolved to extract a greater advantage out of their host; however, whether this counts as evidence of cheating must contend with new evidence showing that one species of sterilizing ant, albeit at the expense of plant reproduction, actually promotes overall plant fitness beyond the timeline of the colony’s occupancy.[2]  In these cases, it appears that the perception of evolutionary cheating falls to the preconception of a basic set of ontological assumptions grounded in lived social reality, where interactions are experienced as in a world of competitive individualism, rather than cooperative mutualism.

In fact, there seems to be a larger tendency in biology of which rethinking ‘cheating’ is only part, not yet equal in influence to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm, but perhaps approaching it.  New evidence of genome fusion and horizontal gene transfer, as in the case of the parasitic wasp, have complicated the phylogenetic Darwinian model of the ‘Tree of Life’, which now appear to contain circular root systems and intertwining branches, representing cooperative collaboration at the levels of evolutionary histories which challenge the old rigidly individuated branches.[3]  New research on prions, plasmids, archaeal viruses and cell organelles has suggested that, “whatever sense we might try to make of the Dawkinsian idea of selfish genes, molecular replication [i.e., ‘Life’] is always, and has always been from the pre-cellular molecular community to the present, the achievement of ensembles of molecules, not of individual molecules.”[4]  If the thesis of the genealogy of the modern era of biopolitics is correct, then there appears to be at least some evidence of a tendency towards liberalism within the sphere of biocapitalism, even if the liberalistic trend appears only at the margins of the existing intersection of biocapitalism and biotechnology.

This question was in the forefront of my mind when, recently, the most obvious road sign at this intersection appeared to me in the form of an opinion article, jointly published by evolutionary ecologist Simon Levin, and Andrew Lo of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering, in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).[5]  The article suggests meeting the challenge of market complexity and the possibility of instability in an era of collapse with the introduction of biological systems models into new regulatory frameworks to safeguard the state from the financial meltdown of a late capitalism in full crisis.

The economy is, after all, the product of the machinations, institutions, and interactions of individuals from one particular animal species, Homo sapiens. The unique abilities of our species—abstract thought, forward-looking and planning behavior, and social interactions, including sophisticated communication, computation, and large-scale cooperation—imply that the interactions are particularly subtle and complex. Nevertheless, they are still the product of animal behavior and the sooner we acknowledge this fact of nature, the sooner we can explore novel approaches to improving financial regulation.[6]

Never mind whether we have in fact become “technosapiens,”[7] or perhaps Homo economicus,[8] in transcendence of our species history qua Homo sapiens, as some suggest.  If the thesis of the modern constitution of the biopolitical body is at all correct, then it seems we are fully fallen into some form of each of these new evolutionary histories with something like a large-scale computational program for resolving the complexity of the late capitalist marketplace, encoded in the language of evolutionary biology.

Yu and Liu make the Foucauldian pronouncement in “The New Biopolitics” of the new commodity form of the body under biocapitalism: “Body is knowledge, and knowledge is power.”[9]  Here we may also look back to the first book of Marx’s Capital, in which it is said “that the labourer instead of being in the position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power, which exists only in his living self [my emphasis].”[10]  Capital’s consumption of labour-power, whose value is determined by the means of subsistence of the worker as a living organism, is at one and the same time the production of the commodity form.  With knowledge in the modern age largely exteriorized to computation and massive stores of data decentralized from knowing subjects, Jean-François Lyotard declares that “[k]nowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use-value’”[11] and becomes pure exchange-value, in its immediate consumption and reinvestment into capital as a form of reproduction: a production of labour power’s living subsistence.  Biotechnological knowledge of the biopolitical body is thus equivalent to biopower, which always already has its value fixed as pure exchange in the economics of biocapitalism against other commodity forms, in an irreversible abstraction from the use-value whose value is fixed as a function of the reproduction of labour power in the form of the subsistence and health of the living worker.…

Weekly Roundup

Handy ammunition for the next passive-aggressive note you leave in the office kitchen: coffeemaker drip trays are breeding grounds for varied bacterial communities.

From mouldy to marvellous: the revamped Canada Science and Technology Museum, slated to reopen in 2017, will be an “immersive heritage experience.” Just make sure you keep the crazy kitchen.

Just in case pregnant women didn’t have enough to worry about, stress hormones are passed on through breast milk. But don’t worry too much; it’ll just stress you out.

Most research isn’t groundbreaking (an extra reason to take the science news cycle with a grain of salt).

Reinventing the condom is turning out to be more difficult than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initially thought.

After $2.5 million US dollars, there is still no evidence that we’re holograms (Arnold Rimmer, Jem, and the Doctor from Star Trek Voyager excluded, of course).