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

Adam Nocek anocek at uw.edu
Tue Sep 3 03:57:18 EST 2013

Thanks for a truly excellent post, Rob.

I'm intrigued by the way in which bioart creeps back into the end of your
wonderful post by extending biopolitics (understood through population
thinking) to non-human populations. This is compelling to me for a variety
of reasons, not least of which is how it counters the accusation that
Foucauldian biopolitics is "anthropocentric" in scope. As you know, Roberto
Esposito, who you invoke at the end of your piece, albeit negatively, has
done much to dispel the myth that biopolitics is reducible to its _negative
declensions_; he does so, of course, through immunity, a category he
criticizes Foucault for neglecting, which must be inverted in order to
protect what it is it formerly had to deny in order to exist as

There are many problems with Esposito's immunity thesis of course, as Cary
Wolfe among others has pointed out, but I wonder whether your link between
populations and bioart is similarly invested in cashing out the terms of an
affirmative biopolitics. Let me try to be more specific: a more robust
sense of population -- in its Mayrian and not Malthusian sense -- would
seem to create the conditions for, as you say  "developing new approaches
to population from within existing models of populations," as _Rythm 0_
seems to; and bioart would "[expand] upon this approach to populations and
biopolitics, and in large part by emphasizing," as you claim, "linkages
between human and non-human populations." My sense here is that you're
attempting to develop the conditions for an affirmative biopolitics that is
inclusive of the non-human (perhaps in concert with Esposito) by means of
what it is implicit in Foucault's _own_ understanding of population
(something that Esposito misses); and in this perspective, bioart becomes
an essential site for this biopolitical work.

I'm wondering if you could comment on this, perhaps by spelling out how you
see bioart functioning in this biopolitical landscape.

Thanks, Rob!


On Sun, Sep 1, 2013 at 1:12 PM, Rob Mitchell <rmitch at duke.edu> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> 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).
> Best,
> Rob
> Robert Mitchell, Professor
> Department of English, Box 90015
> Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural
> Theory
> 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
> http://english.duke.edu/people?Gurl=%2Faas%2FEnglish&Uil=rmitch&subpage=pro
> file
> Co-editor of the book series In Vivo: The Cultural Mediations of
> Biomedicine (University of Washington Press)
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
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