Foucault, the West Wing, Populations, Semiotics

A weird synchronicity of moments.

Like Craig, I am not a fan of the West Wing, however currently screening on Australian TV are the ‘kidnapping’ episodes and I have a score to settle with my busyness. I had seen the first episode in the two-parter some time ago and it has bugged the shit out of me that I had not got to see what happened. I am a bit like that, I will keep on reading a book to 4 or 5 in the morning, not because the prose is sweeter than chocolate or the subject matter allows me to ponder my very existence, but because I have a (possibly pathological) desire to find out what happens. This is not the same thing as desiring a resolution, which would be a projection onto the text of a certain kind of completedness or totality. No, it is the slightly more mundane desire to witness how the author unfolds events and at what point of the events does the ‘story’ end.

Craig also points to a column by Dana Polan in the online scholar-zine Flow about the appearance on the West Wing of a translated book version of one of Michel Foucault’s annual lecture series at the College de France in the 1970s titled Society Must Be Defended. Polan reads the West Wing off and through Foucault’s text.

On a related vibe, Joost van Loon over at Space and Culture posts an interesting essay-type text that looks at the shifts towards post-welfare states. Joost writes:

The problem with the disciplinary form of individualism is that it is entirely formed by social regimes of an institutional or collective nature. That is, the individual produced by discipline is far from sovereign and autonomous, incorporated into complex and expanding systems of communication and control, and as a result ‘moulded’ by the collective consciousness of such systems. Radical capitalism sought to develop a new type of individual, however: one that was not held back by dense and complex figurations and social bonds; one that did not care about collective consciousness. This careless, undisciplined individual became the heroic subject of a new market and enterprise culture (e.g. monetarism, neo-liberalism) that swept through most of the Anglo-Saxon dominated world.

So how to think populations not as collectivities as such but the sort of massification of the crowd, such as contemporary football fans or football audiences? What is the nature of the individuation in effect here?

I am using ‘populations’ here in the specific sense of biopolitics. In the first volume of the History of Sexuality, Foucault talks about ‘discipline’ as an anatomo-politics of the human body, and ‘regulatory controls’ as a biopolitics of the population. One way to read these non-collective, massified forms of population still as a collectively individuated population, is in terms of singularities, where the singularity of the event of individuation (or ‘stream of singularities’) has a primary role. This is different from collective individuation than that required in the ‘permanent suspension’ of becoming in structural group identities.

Individuation is an event in itself (becoming), however instead of existing in a serial form codetermined with social structures, where such structures form a problematic part of the identity of each cybernetic subject (the union, the nation, the family, the team, etc), the event-based individuation relies on an enabling infrastructure within which an individuation can be posited (a team, a nation, etc). The first implies a belonging and exclusion to the social structures while the second implies an ownership of resource. What is owned (or rented [television pay-per-view], purchased [overseas sporting sojourns], etc) is not an identity, but the capacity to trigger a particular event whereby such an identity, or one very similar, or at least one referenced in terms of the first, catalyses. What about the fan in a football stadium? Sometimes a collective individuation is demanded for the individual’s experience, what Adorno talked about in terms of being in the company of and witnessing the pleasure of others, which in turn implies the command and responsibility, “Enjoy yourself!” This is different to Massumi’s discussion of becoming-together, which is of a football team, not the crowd.

Consumers are therefore aficionados of individuation and singularities. What food does this restaurant do? How does this band sound? How fast does this car go? What sort of humour is on what blog? Adorno was wrong for collapsing the recognition of commodities into that of a mere semiotic game, and cultural studies researchers were doubley wrong for extending this into the realm of identity politics. I was asked recently why I did not seem to support ‘identity politics’, well it is because I approach such ‘recognition’ in terms of being a game of competence of the appreciation of a commodity’s or a person’s capacity for individuation, not a cybernetic component to their identity. Adorno’s ‘What is it?’ is short hand for Deleuze’s ‘What does it do?’

Is this the ‘real’ consumer choice for the elite? Not between identities reflected by commodities or commodified objects or spaces, but through the resource or capacity to individuate or not, and on one’s own terms? This is captured perfectly in the difference between iPod vs radio and internet (or tivo) vs television… But also individual mobility of the car vs the collective mobility of public transport, which leads me to my last point. On a massified ‘population’ scale (of certain privileged populations) there is a much longer history to such forms of identity production and infrastructures of individuation resource, than the era of where it became the most visible, i.e. back to at least 1920s rather than contemporary era of post-welfare state capitalism.

Actually this is summed up very well in a well known quote from Ashliegh Brilliant’s book The Great Car Craze: How Southern California Collided with the Automobile in the 1920’s of a woman who says something like, “You can’t drive to town in a bathtub.” Brilliant reads that in terms of the compulsion to social respectability symbolically represented by automobile ownership; specifically that it is better to be seen in a car than it is to be clean from a bathtub. Why? Why not read it literally in terms of someone who lives in a semi-rural setting telling you that their car allows them to drive into town, while a bathtub does not allow you to do this? That it is, in fact, a choice between two technologies with particular capacities and where it has nothing to do with ‘symbols’.