The Ancient Origins of Biopower, Part III: Domestication


Biopower, the Subject & the Apparatus

The idea of Biopower is a Foucauldian concept defined simply as the practice of nation-states and their regulation of their subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.” The science of Biopower, by extension, is known as biopolitics. Foucault elaborates:

…By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species. This is what I have called biopower.

Biopolitics is thus more simply a science of controlling and managing populations of people using the knowledge of their biological needs and impulses. The focus here is the manipulation of our sensual experience of everyday life, the effective recuperation of an entire species from their era and displaced into an increasingly technocentric and inversed society. One example would be the transition from fascist control to democratic control. Implementing the tools of voting, representation, and state- funded aid to further pacify citizens and implement them within the process of control. Labor unions and other progressive reforms in modern mass society could even be within the interests of power, creating a more passive population, blurring the lines of responsibility for the traumas inflicted by the culture as a whole. The population then feels invested in the flow of capital, even identifying with the their productivity. The idea that a job is not something one does simply to survive, but that one is encouraged to pursue a job that blends leisure with labor, therefore paid hours and unpaid hours are all spent toward the same ends, is another aspect of Biopower. This is, of course, a controversial idea. To imply that today’s social democracy is a refinement of yesterday’s national fascism would be a tragic and impossible truth for many.

Subjectification is the process through which individuals and groups of people are molded and lured into accepted roles and identities by dominating mechanisms and disciplinary technologies as permitted and assimilable by Empire. The formation of foraging people into agriculturalists might be the original process of subjectification. Today we experience constant subjectification and re-subjectification: In the store I am the shopper, at home, the consumer, or in the kitchen, the cook. Identities such as male and female, gay and straight, hipster, musician, or entrepreneur are all identities as subjects. At the protest, we are collectively channeled into the role of the activist, or even terrorist. In this sense, Empire has successfully and constantly absorbed, or assimilated, dissident elements of society by channeling them into a group that can be either demonized or democratized into the system, thereby eliminating subversive activity. The act of turning individuals into subjects, more generally, is to make them digestible to Empire; they then are circulated between apparatuses as needed by capital as a means toward generalized control. There is a place for everyone, and no one is left out.page19image15448

The crisis of presence becomes chronic and objectified through an immense accumulation of apparatuses.

Tiqqun, This is Not a Program

The next arm of power is the apparatus. The apparatus here is another Foucauldian term, defined by Giorgio Agamben as:

Literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, judicial measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and–why not–language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses–one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that he was about to face.

One apparatus, the highway system, functions “with its wide turns, its calculated, signalized uniformity – solely in order to merge all types of behavior into a single one: the non-surprise, sensible and smooth, consistently steered toward a destination, the whole traveled at an average and regular speed”. The relationship, then, between the subject and the apparatus revolves around the intent of biopolitics, acting under the lead of Biopower’s restructuring of forms-of-life into accepted roles and identities.

The Crisis of Presence

Dasein, or being-there/being-here, as it is translated, is a concept originating from Hegel, but later by others like Heidegger, Agamben, and most recently, Tiqqun. Being-there could be thought of as the moment of one’s most conscious being in the time and place that they are, feeling that moment in its entirety and occupying that space in every sense. It has been related to words like “existence”, and in this case, “presence”. Paul Shepard also mentions what he curiously calls “being here”, a sense of being between a before and after, a here and there, a sense of place amidst a whole. He attributes it to the visual sense of periphery – the blurred indication of the space around us, positioning ourselves in a grand surrounding.

Tiqqun enters the discussion by distinguishing between two ages of presence: one common to the primitive “world of magic” and one to “modern man”:

Human presence is always under threat, is experienced as in constant danger. And this instability places it at the mercy of every intense perception, every situation saturated with affects, every inassimilable event. In extreme cases, known by various names in primitive civilizations, being-there is totally engulfed by the world, by an emotion, by a perception. It is what the Malay call latah, the Tungus olon, certain Melanesians atai, and to which is related, among the same Malay, amok. In such states, singular presence fades, becomes indistinct from phenomena, breaks down into a simple mechanical echo of the surrounding world. Thus a latah, a body affected with latah, will place his hand over a flame following the vaguest gesture that one makes to do so oneself; or, suddenly finding himself face to face with a tiger, he will start to imitate it furiously, possessed by this expected perception.

Tiqqun goes on to describe a “drama of presence”, where all “magic beliefs, techniques, and institutions exist in order to respond to the situation – to save, protect, or restore threatened presence”. This is undoubtedly entering the phenomenon of animistic experience as described by Abram in Spell of the Sensuous. If we are to accept the premise characterized by what is described as “presence”, then the individual exists in a constant fluctuation of wondrous tension, a crisis of presence where he or she must always respond to every situation by fulfilling a new and spontaneous presence. In this way the individual engages in magic, becoming part of his surrounding, reflecting the tiger in order to protect himself from his predator, or to become part of the flow of water when bathing in a stream, or in a presence of stillness within a calm forest, listening for the presence of other beings, maybe humans as either friend or enemy. In this sense, the life of the hunter-gatherer is that which eliminates the possibility of stale subjectification, the staple of Empire’s control, by constantly evading the hazard of being crystallized as any single identity or role. Empire functions off of the ability to turn individuals and groups of people into subjects, in order to efficiently channel them as bodies of Capital, as working parts of an overall machine. Any de-subjectification is then met with an almost re-subjectification, letting even the most bored of individuals retain a sense of novelty in an otherwise mundane world. The former, that of the primitive person, is a life full of magic and transformation, the latter, that of the modern subject, is a life of material without quality, without magical experience and without the acknowledgement of phenomena. Today, we still feel the crisis of presence, but without release and without response, except in the permitted consumption of commodities. Tiqqun elaborates on this idea:

Each apparatus functions as an ek-sistential [sic] prosthesis which [Empire administers] to [the subject] so that he is able to live within the crisis of presence, albeit unwittingly, and to remain there day after day without succumbing: a cell phone, a sedative, a shrink, a lover, a movie – all make for decent crutches provided they can be changed up often enough.

Abram makes a strikingly similar observation about “mass-produced artifacts of civilization”, like milk cartons, washing machines, and computers, that “draw our senses into a dance that endlessly reiterates itself without variation.” To our bodies, these artifacts are, “like other phenomena, animate and even alive, but their life is profoundly constrained by the specific ‘functions’ for which they were built.” And what about when we master these functions? “The machine-made objects commonly teach us nothing further; they are unable to surprise us, and so we must continually acquire new built objects, new technologies, the latest model of this or that if we wish to stimulate ourselves.” The qualities in these objects still allures us, likely because of the materials that reside in them from which they are made, albeit trapped within and shaped by the workings of machines.

And what is the purpose of this monopolization of presence? To maintain “at all cost and everywhere the dominant economy by managing authoritatively, omnipresently, the crisis of presence; to establish globally a present opposed to the free play of comings into presence.” The presence that humans occupy in the “world of magic” is that of the synaesthetic fluidic sequence of ecstatic events, where coming-into-being is cyclical and free play the manner in which one engages with the world.

And finally, we face the world of today, industrial civilization. Torn away in a violent wrath of disassemblage, categorized by subjectification and wished away by apparatuses, the human experience has been seized by power and displaced into a coerced life of labor and passivity, our crises of presence, our being-there, ever-suspended by the consumption of commodities, reflecting and becoming them instead of reflecting and becoming part of a wild, living world. Now is a time of complete domination of every aspect of life.

Domestication as Biopower

Again, Foucault defined Biopower as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species.”

To join Foucault’s and Camatte’s ideas, the human species’ basic biological features were accepted as a terrain of control; the fragmentation and destruction of the species has effectively succeeded in the recomposition of community and of human beings by capital. Simply put, the same Biopower that Foucault said originated in the 18th century, is more appropriately the modern extension of the process of domestication itself.

And here we are; we have arrived again at presence, but one that is in all is entirely monopolized by civilization. The synaesthetic connection that humans once had with the natural and wild world is now shared with a lifeless world of dead objects, flickering empty screens, and a society of completely atomized individuals who identify only with the commodities in their hands and the omniscient image of the spectacle.

Our circumstances are complex and daunting. There may or may not be a solution, but the writing of Tiqqun leaves us with some food for thought:

A politics that challenges this monopoly [over the remedies of our crisis of presence] takes as its starting point and center of gravity the crisis of presence, Bloom. We call this politics ecstatic. Its aim is not to rescue abstractly – through successive re/presentations – human presence from dissolution, but instead to participable magic – techniques for inhabiting not a territory but a world. And this creation, this play between different economies of presence, between different forms-of-life, entails the subversion and liquidation of all apparatuses

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