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

Maria Damon damon001 at umn.edu
Wed Sep 4 02:20:30 EST 2013

re: immunity, see Ed Cohen's A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, 
Biopolitics and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body.
bests, md

On 9/2/13 1:57 PM, Adam Nocek wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> 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 _thanatopolitical_.
> 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!
> Best,
> Adam
> On Sun, Sep 1, 2013 at 1:12 PM, Rob Mitchell <rmitch at duke.edu 
> <mailto: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 Abramovic''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), Abramovic'
>     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 Abramovic''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 <mailto:rmitch at duke.edu>
>     Phone: 919-668-2547 <tel:919-668-2547>
>     Fax: 919-684-4871 <tel: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)
>     _______________________________________________
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