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.…

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.