Archive for December, 2008

Abel Ferrara’s Mary

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

I finally caught up with Abel Ferrara’s 2005 film Mary: it was the one Ferrara feature (excluding his pre-Driller Killer pornos) that I had never seen before. Needless to say (at least for me, since I have expressed my enthusiasm for Ferrara before, and also, long ago here), it’s amazing. It’s hard to get a total grip on Mary after just one viewing, but I will do my best.

Mary is apparently Ferrara’s response to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. It concerns a macho-asshole film director (played by frequent Ferrara alter ego Matthew Modine) who has made a film, This Is My Blood, about the life of Jesus, in which he also played the title role, and who is now trying to promote the film, in the face of protests both by Jews (who consider it anti-Semitic) and Christian fundamentalists (who consider it heretical). Strictly speaking, the fundamentalists are right, since the film emphasizes the role of Mary Magdalene as a key disciple of Jesus, drawing upon various suppressed, heretical Gospels. Mary clashes repeatedly with Peter, who seems to reject her role as a disciple largely on sexist grounds. The revisionist reading of Magdalene is supported by interview footage with Elaine Pagels and several other (real-life) scholars and theologians who have worked on early Christianity.

Though Mary does have characters and a straightforward narrative, it is also very much of a collage film. We see scenes from the film Modine’s character has made, together with various other types of footage from the (fictional) world in which Modine’s character lives, together with documentary, or documentary-style footage. The scenes from This Is My Blood are gorgeous, in murky chiaroscuro, with a mobile camera that frequently stays close enough to the actors that all we can see are their faces, filling the screen, emerging out of, and returning to, the shadows. Despite the director’s egotistical stunt of playing Jesus, the weight of this film-within-the-film clearly rests with the actress playing Mary, whose feelings — from the mournfulness of witnessing Jesus’ death, to the joy of his resurrection, and the message (rejected by Peter) that she has gotten from him — are subtly, but powerfully, modulated throughout these chiaroscuro sequences.

Mary starts with the film’s final wrap, and mostly takes place a year later, in New York, as Modine is preparing for the premiere. But another plot strand involves the actress playing Mary (this character is played by the great — and woefully underappreciated in the US — Juliette Binoche). Binoche’s character has overidentified with her role; she can’t let go of Mary Magdalene — and she drops everything in order to go to Jerusalem, where she wanders the streets and jostles the crowds on a spiritual quest. The scenes involving her seem to be shot on location, with handheld camera, and bright and even natural lighting; we see documentary-ish scenes of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayer, together with ones of her roaming the streets. She embraces the Wailing Wall (?), takes part in a Seder that is interrupted by a terrorist attack (with the fact that the Last Supper was a Seder clearly on her, and Ferrara’s, mind), and prays at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (I think). Binoche has very little dialogue, but anguish (and later, peace) are etched on her face throughout these scenes of quest. And there is an emotional continuity (beyond the stylistic differences) between her scenes in Jerusalem, and those in the film-within-the-fillm.

I still haven’t mentioned the most extended narrative strand in Mary, which involves an intellectual (as in Charlie Rose, or someone else on PBS) talk-show host (played by Forest Whitaker), who is doing a series of shows focusing on the actual, historical Jesus — hence the interview material with theologians and Biblical scholars. Between his preparations for the series, and his general philandering, Whitaker’s character is woefully neglecting his late-term-pregnant wife (played by Heather Graham), and generally making a mess of his life. Whitaker interviews Modine (and Binoche via telephone) on his show, which is the minimal way in which the various plot strands intersect.

The New York scenes, involving Modine and Whitaker, are mostly at night — they feature the poetry of distantly-lit office skyscrapers, briidges, and freeways, contrasting sharply with both the chiaroscuro of the film-with-in-the-film, and the clarity of light of the Jerusalem sequences. Whitaker is also often seen in his TV studio, surrounded by video monitors that are usually showing either interview footage, or else the news: domestic (US) riots and crime scenes, and political violence in Israel and Palestine. There are also other dissonant moments; at one point, somebody throws a rock through the window of a limousine in which Whitaker is negotiating with Modine, and the confrontation is shown in music-video style, with swish pans and jump cuts. Throughout the New York scenes, there are also lots of tracking shots down corridors (and sometimes back as well), the vertiginous camera movement accenting the increasingly unhinged emotions of the characters.

So the film is wildly disjunctive stylistically, as well as disjointedly multi-stranded narratively. It’s as if this promiscuously jarring mixture of styles and media were the only way Ferrara could express the actuality of life in the 21st century — and this, in turn, is necessary in order to make the film’s spiritual explorations vital and meaningful, instead of merely antiquarian. As the film proceeds, things become more and more unhinged. Modine confronts the protesters at his film’s premiere; when a bomb threat empties the theater, he locks himself in the projection room and rolls the film despite the absence of spectators. Meanwhile, Whitaker is not there for his wife when she goes into labor and gives birth to a baby boy whose survival is in doubt (it was unclear to me whether this was a case of birth defects or just premature birth; in any case, there’s an amazing scene of the baby, crying and crying while encased in a plastic bubble, as Whitaker tries futilely to comfort the child). By the end of the film, Binoche, surrounded by violence, seems to find a sort of inner peace, while Modine is in the throes of a full-fledged ego breakdown, and Whitaker, weeping, throws himself before the Cross.

All this echoes moments of spiritual intensity in other films by Ferrara (Harvey Keitel abjecting himself at the end of Bad Lieutenant; or the peace that Lili Taylor perhaps finds at the very end of The Addiction). Mary is, I think, the equal of those earlier films. Its greater heterogeneity or fragmentation perhaps lessens the emotional impact a bit, but it has the effect of making Ferrara’s spiritual claims more compelling than ever before. It’s useless to ask whether Ferrara is in a literal sense “religious”; I am inclined to agree, however, with Dennis Lim’s suggestion that Mary is “the rare movie that could stand as a rebuke to both The Passion of the Christ and Religulous.” Ferrara’s sensibility is, of course, deeply Catholic; but this is inflected, in Mary, both by a concern for Judaism (which Ferrara comes back to again and again, throughout the film) and by a general heretical/quasi-feminist edge. The recentering of the film’s implicit theology around Mary Magdalene is expressed through a delirious male abjection before the feminine (in terms both of the role of Binoche, and Whitaker’s hysterical-yet-moving repentance for how he has wronged Graham). One can rightly say that such an inversion of the masculine arrogance Modine’s and Whitaker’s characters both represent is not truly feminist, because it just inverts the gender stereotypes, rather than actually undoing them. But the film’s masculine hysteria is inseparable from its spiritual longings; by which I mean one cannot reduce either of these dimensions to being merely a displaced symptom of the other — they must both be accepted and taken seriously, together. And, looking at the film this way, it charts, and makes, a convulsive emotional movement that is its own evidence and justification. Ferrara’s greatness as an affective filmmaker is unparalleled, and has never (apart from Nicole Brenez’s wonderful book) gotten the recognition that it deserves. Ferrara breaks down the distinction between art film and exploitation film, just as he does between spirituality and sleaze. He is absolutely contemporary, and yet he pushes beyond the cheap irony and encapsulated soundbytes of all too much contemporary culture.

Neuropath

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Scott Bakker’s Neuropath is a science-fiction thriller about a rogue neurosurgeon who kidnaps people and grotesquely manipulates their brains, sometimes killing them in the process, and other times releasing them once their minds have been subtly but horribly deformed. It’s pretty disturbing on a visceral level. Now, the psycho-thriller with a sadistic genius as a villain is a pretty familiar genre at this point (cf., for instance, Hannibal Lector). But Bakker’s novel offers a science fictional twist on this genre by extrapolating neuroscience slightly into a plausible near future, so that theoretical prospects hinted at in recent neurobiological and cognitive studies have been confirmed as actual, and current cutting-edge technologies like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging have been pushed to a level beyond their actual present capabilities. In spite of these changes, the world of the novel remains in most ways recognizably our own. So one might call Neuropath a hard-SF, near-future psycho-thriller. But even that description is inadequate. What really distinguishes Neuropath is that the book has a concerted thesis, referred to by the characters within the novel as “The Argument” (in capitals); this makes it into a philosophical novel: a contemporary version of what Voltaire called the conte philosophique, and a strong example of SF as “cognitive estrangement” (Darko Suvin’s definition of SF as a genre).

[WARNING: SPOILERS]

The Argument in Neuropath goes something like this. Consciousness is severely limited. It is a very recent evolutionary adaptation, superimposed upon a wide array of older neural processes of which it is unaware, and which it cannot possibly grasp. We are only conscious of a very thin sliver of the external world; and even less of our internal, mental world. Most of our “experience” of the inner and outer world is a neurally-based simulation that has been evolutionarily selected for its survival value, but the actual representational accuracy of which is highly dubious. We are not conscious, and we cannot be conscious, of the actual neural processes that drive us. And indeed, nearly all our explanations and understandings of other people, of the world in which we live, and above all of ourselves are delusional, self-aggrandizing fictions. It’s not just that we misunderstand our own motivations; but that such things as “motivations” and “reasons” for how we feel and what we do actually don’t exist at all. Everything that we say, think, feel, perceive, and do is really just a consequence of deterministic physical (electro-chemical) processes in our neurons. “Every thought, every experience, every element of your consciousness is a product of various neural processes” (pp. 52-53). In particular, “free will” is an illusion. We never actually decide on any of our actions; rather, our sense of choice and decision, and the reasons and motivations that we cite for what we do, are all post-hoc rationalizations of processes that happen mechanistically, through chains of electrochemical cause-and-effect. All our rationales, and all our values, are nothing more than consolatory fictions.

The Argument is close to the “eliminativist” positions of philosophers like Paul and Patricia Churchland, and Thomas Metzinger (and also perhaps Ray Brassier, who draws out the phenomenological consequences of this position in his book Nihil Unbound). Bakker says in his Author’s Note that he is not — or at least does not want to be — a elimitavist and a nihilist, but he cannot think of any valid arguments against such a position. The Argument draws on research in cognitive psychology (with its claims about non-conscious computational processes in the brain, and its studies of the delusional nature of human self-understanding), neurobiology (with its understanding of the actual physical processes that underly various forms of thought), and (alas, also) evolutionary psychology (with its dubious claims that human values, feelings, understandings, and tendencies to act are “hardwired” adaptations from the Pleistocene). The findings of these research programs are taken as proof that nearly all speculation (philosphical, psychological, fictional, or whatever) on the nature of the mind and of humanity dating from before 1970 or so is utterly worthless, a form of self-congratulatory self-delusion and unwarranted belief. Science is distinguished from all other forms of understanding on the basis that it alone forces us to accept unwanted and dislikable conclusions, because it “doesn’t give a damn about what we want to be true” (Author’s Note, p. 306).

Of course, the fact that Neuropath is a novel, rather than a treatise by a brain scientist, or a philosophical tract by Metzinger, means that it is far more compelling than such works can ever be — and entirely for non-rational, non-cognitive, and non-scientific reasons. Indeed, the book’s most powerful effect is an entirely rhetorical (rather than rational) one. It compellingly discredits in advance any attempt to argue against its reductionist and nihilist theses: for the mere fact of claiming that subjective experience has any validity, or that meanings and values have any significance whatsoever, already convicts you of being somebody who wants desperately to evade the truth by clinging to alibis that flatter our human self-esteem. If you don’t accept the Argument, by that very fact you have discredited yourself and demonstrated the truth of its assertion that all our reasons and beliefs are self-delusions, and that we cannot intuitively grasp –much less face and accept — the gloomy truth about ourselves. Any attempt to say that things aren’t quite as horribly meaningless as The Argument makes out puts you in the category of those people who think they are living in Disney World instead of the real, actual world

I don’t intend this observation on Neuropath‘s self-confirming rhetorical strategy as a criticism; things are rather more complicated than that. Let me explain by putting it another way. The fact that Neuropath is a novel and not a scientific study or philosophical treatise means that it seeks, not to prove its theses either logically or empirically, but rather to demonstrate these theses, by putting them forth as strikingly as possible. And as a demonstration, is brilliant; all the more so in that the novel’s narrative itself recounts the making of such a demonstration. Even as Bakker demonstrates to us the inescapable truth of The Argument, his main characters Thomas Bible (the protagonist, a Columbia psychology professor) and Neil Cassidy (sic; the antagonist, Bible’s lifelong best friend and the mad neurosurgeon whose crimes dominate the plot) demonstrate the truth of The Argument to the world they live in, and to compel its acceptance, without any hope of escape. The novel narratively enacts the very process that it recounts: ironically compelling us to accept the overwhelming evidence for a thesis that we are constitutionally unable to accept, for not only is it violently counter to “common sense,” it undermines the authority of the very process by which we accept and reject ideas.

The Argument was first developed, as Thomas remembers, when he and Neil were undergraduates; they invoked it as a kind of party trick, in order to out-argue, and thereby disconcert and humiliate, English and other humanities majors. After all, if we are just puppets of neurochemical processes, then literary works have no intrinsic value apart from their ability to trigger certain neural responses and thereby pull our strings; and all the claims of literature, philosophy, and art either to insight or morality are bogus. (Bakker, in writing the novel, remains fully aware of this implication, to which his own work must be subjected as much as any other. The novel is in this sense self-consciously ironic, as so many genre narratives tend to be). But in the present time of the narrative, the demonstration reaches rather wider dimensions. Essentially, Neil sets sets out to set forth the Argument in the very flesh — that is to say, in the brains — of his victims. A billionaire businessman’s brain is rewired so that he is no longer capable of recognizing faces. Even in the mirror, and all the more when he looks at people around him, all he can see is the horrifying, characterizable visage of a stranger or an alien. (Prosopagnosia, or facial agnosia, is often discussed in scientific and pop-scientific writing). A porn star’s neural system is tweaked so that sensations of pain activate her brain’s pleasure and reward centers; she is led to compulsively drive herself to orgasm again and again, by slashing and mutilating herself until she dies. A fundamentalist preacher is subjected to neural firings that alternately lead him to feel the damnation of Hell and the joy of salvation. A politician prone to speechify about human dignity and moral responsibility is transformed into a cannibal who avidly devours a still-alive young girl, all the while pathetically protesting that he does not want to want to do this, that he cannot help wanting to do this. Finally, Neil straps Thomas into a machine he calls Marionette (an extrapolation from actually-existing Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation technology), that makes it possible to forcibly cycle him through a whole series of mental states, ranging from utter despair to a sense of unvanquishable well-being, from gentle benevolence to misanthropic rage, and from self-disgust to exaltation and feelings of omnipotence.

Through such demonstrations, Neil is trying to get Thomas to recognize the truth of The Argument — just as Bakker is trying to get the reader to recognize this truth. That is to say, Thomas advocates The Argument intellectually: he is in fact, more than Neil, its orginiator. And he has articulated the main points of The Argument in books he has written, and in the classes he teaches. But Thomas doesn’t feel the truth of The Argument viscerally — which is to say that he doesn’t actually live by it. (By his own account, this truth is so uncomfortable that it is impossible to actually live by — not only because we cannot really deal with its bleak truths, but also because we are so constituted that we cannot get rid of our illusions, even if and when we recognize them as illusions). Much to Neil’s disgust, Thomas lives his personal life as if values and meanings really existed, as if free will (or making decisions) were actually possible, and as if his love for his two children actually had sense and were not just the forcible result of evolutionary “hardwiring” and neurochemical programming. Neil justifies his gruesome experiments on the grounds that it is of no consequence whether the neurochemical impulsions that determine his victims to a particular course of action are the result of his own manipulations or just of “the environment” in general — in either case, the human being is a puppet of forces that he/she can neither control nor comprehend. Of course, this also means that Neil’s attempt to demonstrate the deep truth of The Argument is itself without sense, since all human beliefs are ungrounded and without sense. By weaving this level of meta-argument into his narrative, Bakker forestalls us from invoking it as a counter-argument against the book’s demonstration. Everything is beautifully air-tight, as the novel draws into itself, and neutralizes in advance, any attempts to argue against it.

I am tempted to say, therefore, that Neuropath is a cleverly designed hall of mirrors from which there is no exit. But that would still be, I think, to sell the book short. There is more to be said about the fact that, although the novel is grounded in cognitive theory, and practices a particularly intense form of cognitive estrangement, its primary accomplishment is affective, rather than cognitive. This is really just another way of saying that the book is indeed a work of imaginative fiction, rather than a scientific or philosophical treatise. When Neil is torturing Thomas, pulling him through one emotional state after another, he remarks that Marionette has finally accomplished what art has sought to do throughout all of human history: it gives the one who undergoes it (I am not sure what noun to insert here: the viewer? the audience? the consumer? the experiencer?) a powerful, vivid, and utterly compelling and convincing vicarious experience, of total participation in feelings that are not one’s own. (Of course, the larger point is that all human experience is vicarious, or aesthetic, rather than “real” and “actual”. I experience as mine what is really happening to someone else — or better, to no one. As Metzinger puts it, there is nothing that the experience of “being a self” is like, because in fact no such things as selves exist in the world).

And this, I think, is the paradoxical key to the novel. What makes Neuropath so powerful, so memorable, and so compulsively readable, is not The Argument itself, so much as the visceral intensity and horror of the way it is demonstrated. Neil’s manipulations (and those of other neuroscientists in the novel, such as the one who implants nanomachines in the brain of Thomas’ four-year-old son that repeatedly stimulate his amygdala, or so-called “fear center,” so that the child is forcibly in a constant, unremitting state of utter terror) — these manipulations so disturbing because they are violations of the mind as well as the body. They assault our most intimate sense of self-identity. We like to feel (wrongly) that no matter what happens to our body, our mind (or spirit, or soul) somehow can remain free and unaffected; in disproving this, Neil’s experiments wound human dignity (or human narcissism) more profoundly than either merely “physical” tortures, or doctrines like those of Freud or Metzinger, ever could. The absolute horror comes from intervening in the selfhood of the victim at such an intimate and interior level; the result is an unparalleled sense of absolute devastation. And the book’s reliance on science and technology — the fact that it only slightly extrapolates from what we already know, and what we already can do — makes it menacing in a way that the fantastic (as opposed to the more straightforwardly science-fictional) cannot attain.

This is important because Neuropath is ultimately (perhaps in spite of its author’s intentions) less about what human beings really are, than it is about what human beings can suffer, and what we can accomplish technologically. To put it otherwise, the novel is not so much about the (alleged) essence of the human mind and brain, than it is about power. What I have left out of my account of the novel so far is that Neil has long worked for the National Security Agency, and that the technologies he makes use of have all been developed, and employed, for torturing alleged “terrorists” and other prisoners. The demonstration that Neil seeks to make to Thomas, and perhaps to other people as well, is actually a national security secret. The FBI enlists Thomas to capture Neil, not on account of his actual crimes (which they do not care about, and do their best to cover up), but in order to recover the information that, in the process of going rogue, he has hidden, encrypted, or stolen.

Also, it turns out that Neil’s neurotechnology is double-edged. It is used to destroy the personal integrity of prisoners, to turn them into abject and grotesque reversals of what they previously were, in order to control them and extract information from them. But it is also used on NSA agents themselves, in order to transform them into killers and enforcers without remorse or conscience. Neil has in fact used the Marionette technology on himself, in order to dissolve any sense of obligation, gratitude, empathy, or guilt with regard to others; but also to annihilate any sense of being or having a self. At least, Neil claims that his “personal experience” or consciousness has been freed of any sense of agency or will: he just performs actions, he says, without having the feeling that he himself is an entity who wills these things, or actively does them. By cutting out portions of his neural circuitry, Neil has transformed himself into the sort of subject described by David Hume, who famously wrote that, when he looks within himself, he sees various “ideas” (desires, feelings, sense data, etc.), but never observes a “self” that would somehow “have” these ideas, or exist in addition to them. Neil is sort of a demonic version of the body/mind described by, for instance, the psychologist Susan Blackmore, who (combining cognitive psychology with Buddhism) precisely argues for a form of existence in which one has abandoned the fiction of being a self.

This leads me to several final comments about Neuropath. If The Argument has a “fallacy” that is not preempted by the book itself, this fallacy would lie, not in its positive expression of what science has discovered and what technology can do, but in its claims about what it is disqualifying or arguing against. The Argument tells me that I do not really have a “self”; and it proves its claim precisely by annihilating my very sense of “self.” This is dubious on two grounds. In the first place, in order to deny that the “self” exists, The Argument needs to substantialize, or essentialize, the very “thing” whose existence it goes on to negate. You have to first transform the fluid process of consciousness into a substantial entity, in order then to triumphantly demonstrate that such a substantial entity does not exist, and indeed cannot exist. But this has no weight against conceptions of the mind that do not reify it in the first place. The Argument works against Descartes, but not necessarily against William James. In the second place, a demonstration of power is not the same as a demonstration of essence. Modern neurotechnology is capable — or in Bakker’s SF extrapolation, may well soon be capable — of radically “rewiring” and rearranging the brain, with concomitantly radical effects upon the “mind.” This is indeed a demonstration of power — of the power of a technical and political-social apparatus — but it is not a demonstration of essence. The fact that we are capable of doing certain things to the brain does not in itself prove anything about the nature of the brain in all circumstances. As Bruno Latour or Isabelle Stengers might put it, the combination of the brain and the Marionette technology is itself an apparatus that must be constructed, and whose effects do not pre-exist its construction. What Bakker’s novel is really warning us of, is a drastic expansion of what intrusive brain technologies can accomplish, and therefore of what human beings can be made to suffer. (I’m reminded of Zizek’s warning, or suggestion, that virtual technologies could allow for a degree of torture that no one was previously able to inflict; and of the realization of just such a scenario in Richard K Morgan’s “Takeshi Kovacs” SF trilogy). The self that is destroyed by The Argument is in fact perpetuated by it, in order precisely that it may be made to suffer more horribly and concertedly.

Neuropath, like The Argument invoked within it, involves (among other things) a drastic overvaluation of consciousness itself — something of which cognitive psychology is in general guilty. The fact that, as Benjamin Libet’s experiments seem to suggest, my brain has already primed me to act in a certain way, before I become conscious of making the decision to act in that way, does not mean that my sense of “decision” is illusory, but only that the “decision” in question is not made by my consciousness. It is still entirely coherent to argue that my brain/mind/organism actually does “choose,” or make decisions, with my consciousness only being a secondary feature of the process (consciousness is apparently able to nullify the decision instead of ratify it, even without consciousness being that which makes the decision in the first place). The idea that everything the brain does is strictly causally determined can also be thrown into doubt, without invoking the “ghostly” actions of consciousness that hardcore empirical materialists have so long decried.(Walter J. Freeman does so, for instance, by invoking chaotic processes, in his book How Brains Make Up Their Minds). All this is not a matter of refuting The Argument of Neuropath, but of tracing its pragmatic consequences. Neuropath is all the more remarkable a work of SF, because of how it forces us to rethink its own premises, as much as the presuppositions that it gleefully destroys.

[ADDENDUM: see a lecture by Scott Bakker, recapitulating The Argument of the novel, together with some responses, here.]

Biopolitics

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Reading Roberto Esposito’s Bios has only confirmed my doubts about the whole discourse of what is today called “biopolitics.” Esposito’s book is a good one, in that it details, and clearly explains, what is meant by this term — but the effect of this has only been to strengthen my criticisms of the concept, or my sense of its inadequacy, when it comes to consider the role that “life,” or even just discourses about life, play in contemporary society.

Esposito traces both the ways that “life” — by which is meant the view of human beings as biological organisms, or the biological processes that human beings undergo, i.e. birth, growth, and death, sickness and health — has been caught up in politics (in the sense of being a subject, or object, of political practices, of political struggles, and of state power), and the ways that political theory has considered the meaning of “life.” This is a large field, as it includes, on the one hand, everything from medical interventions in the name of public health to Nazi practices of racial extermination; and on the other hand, philosophical concepts of the “body politic” and of the vitality of individuals, races, and peoples, in thought ever since the ancient Greeks, but especially in the span of time that extends from Hobbes, through Nietzsche, and on to 20th-century vitalism. This is a large amount of material to synthesize — and Esposito does it by tracing the lines in Western thought that lead towards and away from Nietzsche and Foucault, on the one hand, and the practices of the Nazi regime, on the other.

I’m not sure if the term “biopolitics” was invented by Foucault, but of course he did the most to make the concept thinkable. Foucault traces, in his genealogical investigations of medicine, madness, prisons, sexuality, etc., the ways that a regime of sovereignty, still prevalent in Europe in the Renaissance, was gradually displaced, or supplemented, by a regime of discipline, which was less concerned with the prohibition of certain behaviors than with the surveillance, manipulation, and management of all aspects of human life. Among other things, this involves a shift from being concerned with particular acts, and with clearly-defined hierarchies and chains of command, to being concerned with the bodies and souls of the entire populace. Foucault’s well-known account traces the links between attempts to contain disease by imposing quarantines, for instance, and attempts to regiment people in schools, factories, military barracks, and prisons. Power moves from prohibiting certain actions to actively shaping and manipulating peoples’ actions overall, and from drawing lines of exclusion, lines that it is forbidden to transgress, to finding ways to include everybody and everything within a grid of carefully managed alternatives and possibilities. Foucault also describes this as a shift from the power of death (the power of the sovereign to impose death as a punishment) to a right over life (the power of the state to manage, for the sake of health, growth, productivity, etc., all aspects of peoples’ bodily habits and tendencies). It is through this shift that “life” becomes a coherent concept, and a matter or focus of concern. “Life” gets defined conceptually, by doctors and judges as well as by philosophers, insofar as it emerges pragmatically as a target and focus of power. As always, Foucault is saying, not that “discourse” is the sole reality, but rather that both discourses and concrete, physical practices, varying historically, constitute so many ways in which we manage and control a “real” that always exceeds them. Contrary to some foolish interpretations, Foucault always remains a materialist, and a realist (in the ontological sense). “Life” refers to a particular way that we have conceived the multiplicity of lives, living beings, and life processes that surround and include us — but these always exist beyond our conceptualizations and manipulations of them.

So far so good. Esposito is an excellent close reader. He helpfully focuses on the ambiguity, in Foucault’s work: between claiming, on the one hand, that the regime of discipline and the management of life has replaced the earlier regime of sovereignty; and on the other hand, that such a disciplinary form of power is overlaid upon a sovereign power that continues to exist. Foucault proposes, precisely, that different modern regimes have been characterized by different mixtures between sovereign command over, and disciplinary positive investment of, the lives of individuals and populations. Esposito then moves backwards from Foucault to Nietzsche, in whom, he argues, “life” really emerges in its modern sense as an object and focus of both power and inquiry for the first time. For Nietzsche demystifies spirituality and the soul, presenting them as effects of physiology and neurology. Thus he allows us to understand all aspects of human culture and mentality as expressions of biological “life.” Further, there is a telling ambiguity in the way that Nietzsche regards “life” so constituted. On the one hand, there is a continual effort to judge, or evaluate, this “life” in terms of sickness and health, descent and ascent, decadence and triumph. In this respect, Nietzsche’s language is akin to that of the Social Darwinism of his time, and it clearly leads into the racist and fascist formulations of the following century. At the same time, Nietzsche affirms the mutability and metamorphosing power of “life”: in this sense, “sickness” is as vital as “health,” and is necessary in order to avoid stagnation; transgression and transformation are posed against the racist, pseudo-biological obsession (which reached its most terrifying expression in Nazism, but which was already prevalent among Nietzsche’s contemporaries) with “purity” and blood lines.

Again, Esposito’s reading is subtle, insightful, and overall unexceptionable. But at the same time, I found myself muttering, over and over again, a weary “so what?”. Whatever the historical value of reading Nietzsche, it is unclear to me that his texts have the same resonance, and the same importance, today in the 21st century that they did at the time of Nazism, or even that they did in France in the 1960s. Esposito refuses to extend his thought beyond the Nietzschean matrix, which he sees as dominating all that came since. Nietzshce remains the crucial reference point both for the “thanatopolitics” of Nazism, which he presents as the culmination of a certain kind of biopolitics, or politicization of “life” and death, and for the post-World War II emergence of a critical biopolitics, which Esposito sees exclusively as an attempt to rescue the forces of “life” from their subordination to the Nazi mythologies of the master race, of the centrality of childbirth, and of “the absolute normativization of life.” Heidegger, Arendt, Foucault, Simondon, Deleuze, 20th century French neo-Spinozianism: these are all read as efforts to liberate the forces of life from racial and familial normativization, from myths of purity and the Fatherland, etc. In this way, Esposito (much like Giorgio Agamben) sees the Holocaust as the central reference point for all biopolitical thought (and indeed, for all political thought whatsoever) today; with Niezsche providing the crucial conceptual framework, since his thought is the source both of 20th century notions of racial “cleanliness” and “health”, and of any possible critique and overcoming of such notions.

Can I dare to suggest (without being denounced as a “self-hating Jew”) that such a focus on the Holocaust, on the Adornian lament about the difficulty (or impossibility) of poetry (or anything else) “after Auschwitz,” is at this point, 63 years after the end of World War II, an obscurantist evasion rather than a moral imperative? Not only is Esposito’s focus upon Nazi thanatopolitics blindly Eurocentric, but it also fails to take account of the many forms racism, nationalist chauvinism, etc. have taken around the world in the last half century and more.The politicization of “life” and the management of “life” have become all the more pervasive and ubiquitous in the last half century, precisely because of (rather than in spite of) the discrediting (for the most part) of Nazi racist/nationalist themes. For instance, bigotry and genocide today tend to be expressed in “cultural” and religious terms, rather than in the terms the Nazis used; but these new terms are themselves related to how we have come to reconceptualize “life”. The same could be said about national and international responses to plagues (AIDS, SARS, bird flu), about population control measures (ranging all the way from the nativist encouragement of more births, and the attempts to ban all forms of birth control, to draconian attempts, like that of the Chinese government, to restrict population growth). And questions about agriculture and food production, about access to water and other vital resources, about the patenting of genetic material, about the use of biometric data to track both individuals and populations, and so on almost ad infinitum — all these are excluded from Esposito’s purview, largely because his reductively Eurocentric and Holocaust-centric view of the biologization of politics and the politicization of biology has no room for them.

More generally, the European (perhaps I should just say, Italian and French) view of biopolitics, which Esposito summarizes so well (and variants of which are upheld by Agamben, Negri, and others) ironically seems to ignore two things: biology, and political economy. It is telling that Esposito says nothing whatsoever about the ways in which biology and life have themselves been so totally reconfigured in the (more than) half-century following Watson and Crick’s determination of the structure of DNA. Biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, genetic engineering, etc etc — all of these have profoundly changed how we conceive “life”, as well as how governments and corporations seek to manage and contain it — yet Esposito writes as if none of this were relevant. You wouldn’t know, from reading his genealogies, that today we tend to conceive a life force more on the model of mindless viral replication, than as anything like Bergson’s elan vital. Nor that eugenics has been recast, in its contemporary variant, as a matter of “bad genes” rather than “bad blood” (both formulations are lying, ideological ones, but they have entirely different connotations). Nor that the alleged fatality of genetic makeup has become an alibi for all sorts of social discrimination and inequality. Nor that the goal of contemporary biotechnology has to do with the pragmatic manipulation of genetic material — and hence with a certain notion of flexibility and differential control, rather than with the old-style racial essentialism. Although he is ostensibly concerned with how our society conceptualizes “life”, Esposito fails to consider how changes in biology have changed this conceptualization, and how things are still very much up for grabs today, as witnessed both by the continually emerging new potentials of biological research and bioltechnology, and by the ways in which, on a theoretical level, the orthodox neodarwinian synthesis is itself under considerable challenge from other biophilosophical visions (as I have written about before).

But not only is Esposito’s account of biology incomplete; his account of politics is, as well. This is due to the fact that, like far too many contemporary theorists, he considers questions of domination and authority, and political-philosophical arguments about the nature of law and sovereignty, without giving any thought to matters of political economy (more specifically, to processes of the extraction of surplus value, and the circulation and accumulation of capital). He has no account, in other words, of the ways in which conceptualizations of, and decisions about, “life”, are today at least as overdetermined by considerations of money and economy as they are by politics and political considerations. Biological research today is an expensive proposition; it must be publicly or privately funded (cf. the race between public and private bodies to sequence the human genome). Money sets the agenda. Even as the management of “life” expands, in terms of everything from health care to biometrics in the name of “public safety,” priorities are set more by cost-benefit analyses than by strictly “political” forms of decision. “Biopolitics” today is intimately entangled with neoliberalism, alike in theory, in policy, and in practice. And this is yet another dimension that Esposito altogether ignores. It’s significant that Foucault himself, in his lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics, presciently focused his analysis mostly on the strategies and doctrines of a then (1978-1979) just emerging neoliberalism. Foucault discusses both the post-War German state-guided version of neoliberalism, and (at lesser length, but even more crucially for an understanding of the world today) the neoliberalism of the Chicago School of Milton Friedman, and especially Gary Becker. Rather than offering any judgment on neoliberal practices, Foucault discusses them with the icy objectivity of an entomologist describing the habits of parasitic wasps. His emphasis, nonetheless, is on “the generalization of the grid of homo oeconomicus to domains that are not immediately and directly economic” (page 268). This expansion of the “economic” (as narrowly understood by neoclassical marginalism, as a form of calculative rationality) to all forms of human activity is indeed the largest “ideological” change we have experienced in the years since Foucault’s death; it has altered our very sense of the social and the political. It is odd that, even as Foucault, at the extreme limits of his own thought, proclaimed the fundamental significance of this transformation of the modern episteme, his supposed disciples almost completely ignore it. (And I should note that the crisis we are currently undergoing does not in the least represent the “end” of neoliberalism — the state’s rescue of financial institutions, and its efforts to reboot the economy through spending and re-regulation, come out of the same economistic principles that motivated the deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s in the first place).

I don’t have any conclusion to this discussion, except to say that a biopolitics that is relevant to, let alone adequate to, the contemporary world, and that at least tries (even if not altogether successfully) to be “as radical as reality itself,” is yet to be born. Certainly none of the currently fashionable European theorists and philosophers provide anything like it — or even a starting place.

Copyright, again

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Sorry I haven’t written for so long. Things have just been too busy, and too hectic, for the last several months. I hope to return to more frequent posting after the New Year.

Anyway, about a year ago I was bitching and moaning about copyright issues. This is sort of an update of that. I mentioned then about how a publisher I coyly called “C” — the press in question was Continuum — had ridiculously harsh contract terms, and how I wouldn’t give them an essay for an anthology they were publishing unless they modified those terms. Basically, the contract stipulated that the press would get permanent, exclusive rights of publication in all media, specifically including electronic — this means, for instance, that, were I to put an article I gave them on my own website, I would be in violation of contract. The only exception to this is that they permit the author to reuse the article in a collection of his/her own writings — but this is not allowed until FIVE YEARS after publication in the Continuum volume.

Well, they backed down in that case a year ago, and I got a compromise I thought could live with — I was permitted to publish my own book, which contains the text of the article in question, without having to wait five years. The anthology in question is finally out: it is called Deleuze, Guattari, and the Production of the New, it is in hardcover only, and it can be yours for a mere $95.11 from Amazon (a considerable savings from the list price of $130).

So think about it: if I had signed the contract originally offered by Continuum, my article could not be posted on my own website, nor included even in a book exclusively written by myself until 2014. It would have only appeared in an anthology so expensive that even most libraries would refuse to buy it, let alone individual readers. In return for getting a line on my academic vita, representing an officially “peer-reviewed” publication, I would have had to agree to a situation in which nobody would actually ever get a chance to read my writing.

There is clearly something wrong here. Authors are not permitted to disseminate their own work, and that work is made available by the press that controls it at an absolutely ridiculous price. Some of the best theory books of the last decade have received far less notice than they deserved, all because they have been caught in the limbo of this sort of publishing arrangement. I would cite, for instance, all from different publishers:

There are loads of more examples. These are just a few books that I happen to have read, and that I can recall offhand. (I read them, either by getting my hands on illicit and illegal pdfs, or by getting them through interlibrary loan).

In any case, I was recently solicited to write an article for another anthology of essays, on a subject that interested me. So I said yes. However, it turned out that Continuum was again going to be the publisher, and they offered me the same egregious contract terms as they had previously. This time, rather than negotiate, I simply withdrew from the anthology. I suppose I could have tried to negotiate again, but I am sick of the situation in which the default is so horrible and you can only get something different by making a stink. In addition, at this point I am sufficiently fed up that I would no longer accept the compromise they agreed to last time.

I should also mention that, in addition to the lousy contract, Continuum this time also sent me advisory guidelines stating that “text (prose) extracts of more than 400 words, or a total of 800 words from the same volume if there are several shorter extracts, require permission from the copyright holder.” This represents a far more restrictive interpretation of “fair use” than has ever been the case before; its
effect, I believe, is to make honest scholarship impossible. I believe that fair use guidelines extend considerably further than this, and I will simply not publish with a press that restricts fair use so harshly. Not only am I not allowed by this sort of policy to disseminate my own words, I am also not allowed to remix the words of others.

I can get more readers for anything I post on this blog than for an article published under such circumstances; so what’s the point? I realize I am in a privileged position in this regard; I already have tenure and a senior position at my university, so I am not faced with the “publish or perish” situation that forces many (junior or younger) academics to agree to publication under such horrible circumstances with regard either to price and availability, or the right to be able to disseminate their own work on the web and elsewhere.

There obviously needs to be some sort of open access policy for scholarship in the humanities, as there already is to a great extent in the sciences. We don’t really get paid for our writing, except very indirectly in the sense that a scholarly reputation increases your “marketability” and hence the kind of salary you can get as a professor. In these cases, the policies of presses like Continuum (which I am singling out here only because of my own dealings with them; many other academic presses are just as bad) serve the interests neither of writers nor of readers. I don’t have a blueprint of how to get there (open access) from here (restrictive copyright arrangements), but a first step would be for those academics who, like me, can afford to forgo the lines on their vitas, to refuse to publish with presses that have such policies.