Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 4, 2008

The Biopolitics of Networks

Filed under: Discussion — jjpulizzi @ 9:01 pm
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The connections that Galloway and Thacker trace from their work to Hardt and Negri, Foucault, and Deleuze has led me to wonder how useful their protocol and network theory Galloway and Thacker would be for thinking about biopolitics—specifically in relation to media and technology. Galloway and Thacker define protocol “as a horizontal, distributed control apparatus that guides both the technical and political formation of computer networks, biological systems, and other media” (28; page 3 of the PDF). In one sentence they have presented protocol as a sort of rhizome that forms and constitutes media, which can somehow be political and technical. At the same time they equate computer networks and biological systems as instances of media. What does it mean for both of them to be media, however? Both being media would preclude us from pairing the biological and computational as user (agent) and computer (actor), but I suspect most of us (myself included) have no significant objections to that. Computer networks somehow flow into biological systems and vice versa.

Galloway and Thacker then come close to biopolitics without ever mentioning it explicitly. This asymptotic approach happens not only in their text but indirectly through the theorists they cite. They rely and build upon Hardt and Negri’s theory of empire and distributed control, but biopoltiics plays a substantial role in this pair’s new model of organization and regulation for the global empire. Hardt’s and Negri’s chapter on biopolitics draws heavily on Deleuze’s brief essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (originally published in 1992). Galloway and Thacker similarly draw on that Deleuze essay to fit their network model onto human society. Deleuze in turn writes his essay as a response to and updating of Foucault’s disciplinary society for the information age. By replacing Foucault’s model of discipline with control, Deleuze perversely liberates the previously disciplined individual from the spaces (school, prison, etc.) of correct training and releases him or her into a world that controls with codes and restricted access. Discipline of the body becomes control of the population. Foucault undertakes a similar rewriting of his disciplinary society in The History of Sexuality by introducing the concept of biopolitics to describe government’s new concern with the health and life functions of the population rather than the behavior of the individual.

Perhaps, then, biopolitics could enter the discussion of networks, through the tension between cohesive, homogeneous whole and individual, heterogeneous nodes, which Galloway and Thacker find at the heart of network and graph theory. What little development Foucault was able to give the concept of biopolitics in his lectures, he gave in the direction of racism and nationalism. The identification—and in the case of the Nazis, pathologization—of racial groups within a national population destroys the illusion of the nation state’s wholeness and replaces it with a biologically differentiated and classifiable population. Does this reorganization of whole and part in biopolitics relate to the tension that Galloway and Thacker see between network and node? To diverge further from Foucault, one could also resize the network to ask how genetic engineering allows governments, other institutions, and even the organism to imagine DNA as not the belonging to the organism (the old whole of the individual) but to other networks, including corporations that hold a patent on a specific genetic sequence.

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