[-empyre-] Bioart and the Vital Politics of Populations

Rob Mitchell rmitch at duke.edu
Mon Sep 2 06:12:34 EST 2013

Dear all,

My thanks to Adam for having invited me to contribute to this discussion
about "BioArt: Materials, Practices, Politics." And my sincere apologies
in advance to the list for the length of my post: Adam and I were laboring
until this morning under a misinterpretation about the desired length for
these initial posts, but since I had already composed my post, I'm sending
it as is than cutting massively and in haste.

Though I have written a bit about the politics of bioart in _Bioart and
the Vitality of Media_--arguing there, for example, against a simplistic
understanding of bioartworks as primarily good or bad "communications"
cast into a public sphere of debate--I would like to take a slightly
different approach here by focusing on the connection between bioart and
biopolitics. Such an approach may not initially strike all readers of
-empyre- as encouraging--isn't that connection rather obvious, and in any
case, is there really need for yet more on the seemingly well-worn topic
of biopolitics? But I nevertheless hope that what follows can provide us
with a new way of thinking about both the politics and the vitality of
bioart. More specifically, I'd like to think about what we might call the
"aesthetics of biopolitics," by which I mean the ways in which
biopolitical assumptions and projects--and especially assumptions about
the importance of difference and variation for populations--have come to
establish a more general frame for the experiences that now count as
beautiful, picturesque, sublime, disgusting, thrilling, etc.

Since much of what follows is oriented toward a theory of population, a
brief initial sketch of a bioart example will establish, I hope, the
plausibility and utility of thinking bioart in terms of biopolitics,
biopolitics in terms of populations, and populations in terms of
difference and variation. My example--Eduardo Kac's _Genesis_--is
admittedly well-worn, but it is also (and by that token) well-known, and
so I can avoid a long description of the project here. (If you don't know
the project, a description is available here:
http://www.ekac.org/geninfo.html.) As many commentators have demonstrated,
one can analyze _Genesis_ in terms of various themes: questions of
translation; the shift from a theological to a post-theological world;
questions of human dominion and power; and so on. However, at a formal
level, _Genesis_ is above all else an attempt to link three different
populations, and in such a way that the differences in each of these
populations communicate with one another. Thus, _Genesis_ uses the art
gallery to link a genetically-engineered population of _E. coli_ to both a
relatively small population of humans who visit the art gallery and to a
much larger population of humans who, by means of the internet, can alter
the environment of the _E. coli_ by clicking, or not clicking, on an
internet button. As a consequence, even for someone visiting the gallery,
the experience of _Genesis_ depends not simply on the visitor's belief
that he or she is in the presence of a population of living, transgenic
_E. coli_, but also on one's awareness that the specific makeup of this
population of _E. coli_ is partially dependent upon the (unpredictable)
decisions of a large population of people who were not in the gallery, but
linked to it through a website. What makes the project interesting, in
other words, are not simply the differences in the _E. coli_ population
(indexed by different colors of fluorescence), but one's awareness that
the differences of this non-human population depend on differences in
human populations (i.e., different decisions about whether to alter the E.
coli environment).

The guiding intuition behind my contribution here is that the relationship
between population and aesthetic experience exemplified and dramatized by
Kac's _Genesis_ is not restricted to that project, or even to the special
case of bioart, but also underwrites, in deep ways, a considerable amount
of contemporary aesthetic experience. Understanding why this might be the
case, though, requires a more thorough discussion of the concept of
"population" and the relationship of that term to biopolitics. My
understanding of biopolitics is, not surprisingly, drawn from Foucault,
and it is grounded in his distinction between disciplinary power and
biopolitical power. (He also distinguished these two from sovereign power,
but the distinction between disciplinary and biopolitical power is more
relevant here.) Disciplinary power, of course, is addressed to the
individual body--and moreover, the individual body so far as it can be
trained--while biopolitical power is addressed to what Foucault called the
"multiple body" and it aims not to train individual bodies, but rather to
regulate populations. (I draw here especially on the lecture series
reprinted in _Society Must Be Defended_; _Security, Territory,
Population_; and _The Birth of Biopolitics_).

I want to stress, though, an aspect of Foucault's account of biopolitics
that seems to me to have been neglected by other commentators: namely, the
commitment to individual _differences_ that the population-approach of
biopolitics demand. The concept of population assumed by biopolitics is
not--or at least is not primarily--the more familiar Malthusian concept of
population. The Malthusian approach--which is for all intents and purposes
the same approach that guides more recent concerns about the world
population crisis--understands a population as made up of homogenous
individuals, and is interested in one and only one axis of change: the
increase or decrease of the total number of individuals in the population.
The population assumed by biopolitics, by contrast, assumes that a
population is made up of heterogeneous individuals, and seeks to regulate
aspects of populations by exploiting those differences. To recall one of
the eighteenth-century examples discussed by Foucault, efforts to
introduce smallpox inoculation were powered by the fact that not everyone
responded to smallpox, or to smallpox inoculation, in the same way, nor
did a given individual necessarily respond to inoculation in the same way
across his or her life. These differences in response--differences we
would now likely ascribe to both genetic, physiological, and environmental
factors--made it possible for eighteenth-century investigators to locate
multiple "normal" statistical curves within a population and to seek to
move one curve toward another (e.g., if the "normal" mortality rate for
infants inoculated against smallpox was greater than the normal mortality
rate for adults who had been inoculated, this would militate for changing
the age or dose of inoculation, and hence, changing the "normal" infant
inoculation mortality rate).

It seems to me that implicit in this approach to populations is a
commitment to individual difference given expression by the
twentieth-century geneticist Ernst Mayr. Mayr distinguished what he called
"population" thinking--which he favored--from what he called "typological"
thinking, which he saw as leading to errors in biological research and
social policy. Mayr suggested that both typologists and populationists are
interested in differences between individuals of the same species and
differences between species. However, the typological approach understands
differences between individuals of the same species as simply a
consequence of the fact that no real individual can fully instantiate the
ideal "type" of which it is an expression, and it understands differences
between different species as due to the differences between the ideal
types upon which each species is based. The "assumptions of population
thinking," Mayr wrote,

"are diametrically opposed to those of the typologist. The populationist
stresses the uniqueness of everything in the organic world. What is true
for the human species,--that no two individuals are alike,--is equally
true for all other species of animals and plants . . . All organisms and
organic phenomena are composed of unique features and can be described
collectively only in statistical terms. Individuals, or any kind of
organic entities, form populations of which we can determine the
arithmetic mean and the statistics of variation. Averages are merely
statistical abstractions; only the individuals of which the populations
are composed have reality. The ultimate conclusions of the population
thinker and the typologist are precisely the opposite. For the typologist,
the type (eidos) is real and the variation an illusion, while for the
populationist the type (average) is an abstraction and only the variation
is real. No two ways of looking at nature could be more different." (Mayr,
"Darwin and the Evolutionary Theory in Biology" [1959], p. 2)

Mayr's account emphasizes that variation--and hence, individual
uniqueness--becomes scientifically meaningful only when understands
difference at the level of population.

Because population thinking focuses attention on populations rather than
types--or, to put this another way, understands populations as inseparable
from the fact of variations--it severely qualifies explanations that seek
to determine which traits are "best adapted" to a given environment or
ecological niche. While one can (perhaps) make such determinations for a
short time frame, the population thinker stresses that populations persist
over long time periods only to the extent that they function as
"reservoirs" for multiple variations of any given trait. The fact that
each individual in a population is unique--that is, the fact that
individuals in a population instantiate multiple variations of any given
trait--enables a population to persist over long time periods by extending
its ability to respond to changes in environmental conditions. The
variation of a trait that is advantageous in one circumstance will not
necessarily be advantageous in another, a fact that takes on even more
importance when one considers very large and complex collections of traits
(i.e., the individual organism). The population is in this sense not
something that is entirely restricted to the present, but is rather a kind
of virtual dimension: that is, a capacity to engage not simply the
existing environment or niche, but also other as-yet unknown environments
or niches. (There are, of course, all kinds of interesting biological and
philosophical issues that arise here, including questions concerning the
unit of selection; whether population thinking is a form of nominalism;
etc., and Peter Godrey-Smith's _Darwinian Populations and Natural
Selection_ provides a good introduction to many of these issues.)

While Mayr's claims about the virtues of population thinking were intended
primarily for practitioners of specific biological sciences, it seems to
me that we can find the basic logic of population thinking exemplified in
a wide and diverse variety of contemporary phenomena. Population thinking,
for example, also underwrites contemporary calls for "biodiversity" in the
face of efforts by corporations such as Monsanto to produce agricultural
monocultures, for the concept of biodiversity is premised on the principle
that the mono- of monocultures unnecessarily exposes a given species to
the possibility of being completely wiped out by a single pest or pathogen
that may arise in the future. Something very much like population thinking
also manifests itself in projects that have little if any direct link to
the biological sciences. Relevant here are, for example, the commitment to
the productive power of individual differences that underwrites the open
source movement; Wikipedia; "crowdsourcing"; MOOCs (understood as a
"detection tool" for locating prodigies within large populations: see
DelBlanco, "MOOCs of Hazard"); forms of reality television (e.g., Tosh.O)
that depend for their content on a large national or international
viewership that, armed with video cameras, is able to capture unusual and
improbable events upon; and the neo-liberal conception of "the market." In
all of these cases, individual differences--whether understood as
hard-wired biological differences; differences in education; differences
in background; differences in "preferences"; etc.--are understood not as
deviations from a proper type or norm, but rather as establishing a
distributed field that in turn makes it possible to innovate, to identify
errors, etc. (The fact that many of these examples have little direct
connection to the biological sciences emphasizes that it is likely less
useful to see population thinking as "proper" to genetics than to see Mayr
as one of those geneticists who explicitly brought this more general
differential logic of populations to the field of biology. They also
suggest that we should look for "biopolitics" wherever the logic of
population takes hold, rather than unduly restricting our sense of "bio-"
to phenomena that more obviously fit that bill, such as birth, death, and
health events; that is, the "bio-" of biopolitics is the "bio-" of
populations, rather than that of individuals.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, non-biological examples of the logic of
populations can also be found in the realm of art. Particularly relevant
here is performance art (a form of art that, not coincidentally,
many--myself included--have seen as a key precursor to bioart). Consider,
for example, Marina Abramović's fascinating performance art piece _Rhythm
0_. First performed in 1974 at the Studio Morra in Naples, Italy (and
re-performed recently at the Museum of Modern Art), Abramović stocked a
table with different objects, such as a knife, a gun and a bullet, a
feather, condoms, whips, and so on. Gallery visitors were encouraged to do
what they wished with or without those objects to Abramović's body during
the six hours of the performance. What makes this piece fascinating and
compelling, even from a distance--that is, even for those who have not
attended the performance--is that the affect of this performance does not
solely upon either an individual's decision of what to do in the presence
of the artist, or upon seeing what other people in fact did to her body.
The affect of this piece also relies on an awareness that even if most
gallery-goers will remain more or less within the bounds of propriety, an
urban population is such that one cannot rule out the possibility that
there might be someone in the gallery who is not "normal"--that is,
someone who might, for example, decide to kill Abramovic (or members of
the "audience") with the gun or one of the knives on the table. From this
perspective, Abramovic's body and the objects on the table function as
linked lures--or perhaps more accurately, "probes"--for detecting members
of a population who are likely to act in unusual ways. (Reflections on the
specific urban populations--namely, those of Naples and then later, of New
York City--targeted by this performance-probe would thus be key for a more
extended interpretation of the piece.)

Yet even as _Rhythm 0_functions as a detection probe, of sorts, it is not
intended to serve the usual biopolitical ends of the sociological or
judicial sciences by producing knowledge about populations norms so that
these latter can be regulated and transformed in the name of reducing
risk. Instead, _Rhythm 0_seeks to establish what we might call a playful
relationship with unusual variations and risk. This does not mean negating
or sublating risk--attending a performance of _Rhythm 0_ really is riskier
than not attending--but rather involves developing new approaches to
population from within existing models of populations. In this sense,
though there is undoubtedly both a critical and reflective dimension to
_Rhythm 0_, these criticisms do not extend to the concept of population;
rather, _Rhythm 0_,  "believes in" populations insofar as requires, as its
enabling frame, the participants' awareness of the quasi-predictable
variability of large populations. However, it also astutely understands
that "populations" can only be approached through models--of which there
are many--and it seeks to use the space of the gallery as a means for
encouraging the development of new (biopolitical) models for managing, and
assigning meaning to, risk and variation.

It is not difficult to see much of contemporary bioart as deepening and
expanding upon this approach to populations and biopolitics, and in large
part by emphasizing linkages between human and non-human populations. To
return quickly to an example that I discuss in _Bioart and the Vitality of
Media_, part of what makes the asymmetrical butterfly wing markings of
Marta de Menezes's _Nature?_ interesting is that they represent extremely
unlikely events in natural--that is, unmodified--_Bicyclus anynana_
populations. The affect of _Nature?_ is in this sense dependent upon our
awareness that this art work establishes the nucleus of a population by
employing biotechnical tools to link an otherwise virtual dimension of the
_Bicyclus anynana_ species--that is, a capacity of the species that is
biologically possible but not likely in the absence of the artwork--with
the members of that relatively small human population are interested in
such artworks. Natalie Jeremijenko's _OneTree_, which involved planting
multiple, but genetically-identical instances of in various public places,
took a quite different approach in its efforts to link multiple
populations; in the case of _OneTree_, something like an "epigenetic
population" was developed from a single plant genome, and members of this
population have since become part of the San Francisco area urban
background. To cite a more recent work, Andy Grazie's _The Quest for
Drosophila titanus_ is explicitly about population, for Grazie employs
population selection mechanisms in his attempt to create a fruit fly able
to survive on Titan (one of Jupiter's moons).

As in the case of _Rhythm 0_, these projects may have a critical
dimension--Jeremijenko's project, for example, is clearly critical of the
notion of genetic determinism--yet I want to stress that such criticism
proceeds from within, and on the basis of, the logic of population. Or, to
put this another way, these projects do not seek to protect people, in
prophylactic fashion, from the logic of populations, but rather seek to
create new models of, and modes or living within, populations. This is, to
be sure, a biopolitical aim, but one that does not aim primarily at
"immunizing" populations against risk (i.e., in Roberto Esposito's sense
of the biopolitics of immunity).



Robert Mitchell, Professor
Department of English, Box 90015
Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural
Faculty, Institute of Genome Sciences and Policy
Affiliated Faculty, Women's Studies
Duke University
Durham, NC 27708
Email: rmitch at duke.edu
Phone: 919-668-2547
Fax: 919-684-4871

Co-editor of the book series In Vivo: The Cultural Mediations of
Biomedicine (University of Washington Press)

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