On Michelle Murphy’s THE ECONOMIZATION OF LIFE
I’m blogging my way through the texts for my feminist theory seminar this spring. Here’s week 5.
“At the turn of the twenty-first century, girls’ futures existed in a dense constellation of anticipatory relations, imagined as cascades of probabilistic reactions that could be preemptively intervened in. With the arrival of ‘invest in a girl’ calculations, the differential value of life was becoming increasingly financialized, oriented through both anticipation and preemption” (115).
Michelle Murphy’s book The Economization of Life examines a slice of the history of the concept/technology of “the population.” She studies practices that think population together with economy, such as Cold War development projects that framed birth rates as a problem of GDP. Such projects aimed to reduce birth rates in “underdeveloped” nations in order to improve those nations’ economic futures; economic development, in other words, was hitched to the population’s rate of reproduction.
I will focus on the last section of the book, which addresses the last decade of the 20th century and first decades of the 21st. This part studies financialized approaches to population; these approaches see life primarily as a matter of entrepreneurship and investment. This basically full-on neoliberal biopolitics, a biopolitics that models the life of the population on neoliberal homo economicus. In this framework, some lives will appear to be better bets than others.
Murphy’s analysis reveals that conventional wisdom is that the best bet is “The ‘Third World girl’–typically represented as South Asian or African, often Muslim,” who “has become the iconic vessel of human capital” (117). This isn’t so much homo economicus as it is kore economicus. The Girl is not any empirical or IRL person or set of persons–it’s a figure or caricature. “The abstract and universalized girl-child” (117) is a neoliberal parallel to Romantic notions of the “eternal feminine.” The girl is the best bet because she is both (1) extremely low-status and (2) sufficiently docile and compliant. As Murphy explains, “her returns are so high because her value begins so low” (116)–due to her multiply marginalized femininity, she’s near the bottom of the status and privilege hierarchy, and she literally is so oppressed and impoverished that modest investments can have a significant effect on her human capital. However, because she is thoroughly cisheterofeminized, she is understood to be obedient, compliant, and otherwise unlikely to behave in risky ways. “Thoroughly hetersexualized, her rates of return are dependent on her forecasted compliance with expectations to serve family, to adhere to heterosexual propriety, to study hard, to be optimistic, and hence her ability to be thoroughly ‘girled’” (117). In addition to lowering her status and privilege, (cishetero) feminine gender norms also act like a kind of insurance–to the extent that she follows these norms, she won’t make bad choices with her human capital. (The problem with brown boys, then, is precisely that they are boys–they do the macho thing and take risks and are unruly and noncompliant. The Girl figure thus also uses gender to racialize brown and black boys as “terrorists” and “thugs” etc. etc. For every magical black girl there is a “superpredator.”) There’s even a hint in Cooper’s text that financialization reworks traditional constructions of ideal (white/cis/hetero/able/etc/etc) femininity to better fit its own contours. For example, ideal femininity is commonly tied to virginity and sexual respectability. The figure of the virgin is one of innocence and purity, sure, but also of readiness and awaiting–virginity is not supposed to be a permanent state, but a state that leads up to something. In the 2010s, hegemonic femininity isn’t so much about sexual respectability as it is about financial responsibility. We have pop stars like Ariana Grande who use sexual self-ownership as a sign of their post-feminist empowerment (rather than their nasty transgression, like Madonna decades earlier); we don’t expect her to be virginal, just in charge of herself, i.e., responsible (and as Cooper argued, the idea of sex as a cost:benefit calculation has been in the air for a few decades). In this context, the figure of purity and innocence awaiting purpose affixes not to the sexual virgin, but the “unbanked” (130): “The Girl is phantasized as a potential awaiting financial inclusion” (131). So the same basic concepts and affects that adhered to the virgin also adhere to The Girl, but they concern themselves with different behaviors–instead of sexual respectability, financial responsibility.
This figure of normative cishetero femininity is a version of what Melinda Cooper calls the neoliberal logic of preemption. According to Cooper, neoliberals like Hayek think preemptively about risk. They are all for liberating social mores around stuff like sexuality and simply viewing sexuality as one cost:benefit calculation among the rest. However, they are also deeply invested in the traditional patriarchal nuclear family as a site of care and reproductive labor. They want the state to get out of the welfare business and turn that over to the private sphere, both in its corporate and domestic form. This reliance on “family responsibility” pre-empts any redistributive effects that liberating social mores might have had. Murphy even uses the language of preemption. For example, she says that for invest-in-a-Girl logic “preventing birth had become preemptive” (114). In Cooper’s use of the term preemption liberalizes access to stuff but ties that strictly to family responsibility. Invest-in-a-Girl campaigns liberalize girls’ access to just about everything (but especially education and productive labor/capitalism) because they think girls are more likely to show fidelity to family responsibility. “With human capital low value is improvable in the future under the right risk conditions” (116), and cishetero femininity is the thing that creates the right risk conditions for investing in Girls’ human capital.
As with resilience discourse — which perhaps we can situate as the equivalent of The Girl effect for white Western women — the point isn’t to actually help girls, but to improve the global economy and further enrich those people and institutions that have always benefited from unequal distributions of wealth. “The Girl Effect offers up a phantasmagram in which the weight of the world’s economic futures rests on the risky subject of Investment into the Girl becomes a way for national and economic futures to rejuvenate themselves’ (117).
I wrote a whole book about the aesthetics of resilience discourse; I argued that the tension-release structure in EDM-influenced pop music called the soar is an analog of resilience. It intensifies damage to or past the breaking point, and then uses that as a source of aesthetic pleasure (that intensification is the climax of the song). In fact, soars sound just like noise artists rybn’s sonification of a crashing stock market. The collective took data describing market behavior during a famous crash (called the “Flash Crash” of 2010) and sonified it (i.e., they assigned a sound to each data point and then played these sounds in chronological sequence). Nicholas Knouf describes the way lead-up to the crash sounds in terms that are basically analogous to my description of the soar: “Four minutes from the end, the high-frequency pulses become louder and more rhythmic, sounding as if the spaces between them were slowly decreasing. A few seconds before the sonification ends, the pulses rapidly start to smear together until they merge into a continuous sound, thereby ending the piece” (How Noise Matters to Finance 46). When the behavior of a crashing market is turned into sound data, the market sounds like a soar: there’s a Zeno’s-paradox like intensification of rhythmic events up to and implicitly past the point of our ability to tell distinct events apart. The point of resilience discourse is to transform damage into something profitable; the soar transforms sonic damage into aesthetic pleasure.
With the soar and its connection to resilience in mind, I want to think about Murphy’s description of The Girl as a cascade, blooming, or bomb of consequences. This cascade/bomb is a kind of anticipation, which Murphy describes as the affective side of financial speculation.
The value of a girl, then, was caught in this cloud of anticipatory calculations. Anticipation names both a temporal orientation toward the future and an affective state, an excited forward-looking subjective condition of yearning, desire, aspiration, anxiety, or dread. At both epistemic and affective levels, anticipation makes the future palpable in the present. Entangled with speculation, anticipation orients finance, enlivening its probabilistic and gambling urges with feeling (114).
Anticipation is the non-quantitative version of the structures and logics in the equations economists use to model financialized markets. It’s also what “orients finance,” what makes those financialized mathematics seem plausible and real.
Murphy discusses two sides of anticipation: cascades of positive effects–blooms–and cascades of negative effects–bombs. There are “two possible futures–one in which she is ‘invested’ in and the other in which she is not–each accompanied by a chain of correlations” (117-8). First I want to look at the overall form both the positive and negative examples share, which Murphy describes as “cascades of risk…imagined as chain reactions, where an intervention in one variable could set off changes in many others” (114). “Financial investment by a donor propels a chain reaction” (117), such as “an equation of cascading correlations: “Girl→ School→ Cow→ $–> Business→ Clean H2O→ Social Change→ Stronger Economy→ Better World’” (117). This is something like a snowball of positive outcomes, where outcomes compound the successes of their antecedents in one big feedback loop. Murphy’s prose alludes to this snowball effect when she describes these cascades as “an avalanche of purported effects leading to the increased value of her life to her village, to women’s rights, to national production, and finally to world salvation” (117). (In both these examples, each step in the cascade is levels up from a slightly more microcosmic to a slightly more macrocosmic level; I am not sure if/how this is significant yet?) This isn’t just any intensifying rush, it’s a feminized intensifying rush–Girling (i.e., attributing this effect to the figure of The Girl) is a form of feminization that ‘pinks’ the cascade. As Murphy puts it, “the Girl is calculated as a risk pool that draws together a bloom of possibility, a boquet of potential, a cluster of affect, applicable to any dispossessed condition anywhere, as long as it is ‘girled’” (120; emphasis mine). Booms and boquets are highly feminized things. The figure of the Girl turns a dispossessed position (low human capital) into something that could potentially bring this sort of positive, productive cascade. Bad cascades are either gendered masculine or as a kind of racially unruly and therefore imperfect feminine. “If the Girl is not invested…the Girl is a ticking time bomb of risk. ‘Chance’ is translated into only two possible paths; the unproductive life and the productive life” (117). In this context, ideal femininity is a kind of low status that can be made profitable for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Other kinds of low status, those kinds that can’t be efficiently rendered profitable to WSCP, these generate cascades of affect that can often result in states of exception. Think about the affects around “terrorists” or “superpredators” and so on. These often include similar avalanches of consequences, but consequences that are destructive rather than productive for capital.]
In both positive and negative cases, these cascading snowballs are attached to currently low-status people–they are the possible futures of someone with very low status. Murphy repeatedly emphasizes that The Girl’s positive future possibilities are represented aesthetically as vibrancy of color, emotion, and affect: “through music, color, and animation, the icon of the Girl is excited with enthusiasm, hope, ambition, and responsiveness” (118). The Girl’s characteristic ebulence and its aesthetic manifestations are likewise feminized.
This can tell us a few things about contemporary pop music aesthetics in North America and Europe. Anticipation is also, as any viewer of Rocky Horror knows, a tool composers use to build and release tension in a song. Music builds tension; it uses patterns to build expectations, and then interrupts those expectations to create the sonic version of narrative conflict, which it then resolves and listeners feel pleasure in that resolution. Murphy even notes that the “equation[s] of cascading correlations” are often accompanied by “swelling music” (117). One form such swelling can take is a soar; as I discussed above, the soar literally mimes the behavior of a swelling and crashing market. Maxed-out structures of anticipation used to be really common, from about 2009-2013, but now everything is “chill.” Demonstrating that banging avalanches are feminized, Murphy’s analysis suggests one reason why that maximalism–and its soars–is out of style (a reason besides the fact that molly is out and xanx is in): the cascade or avalanche as structure of feeling is identified with low-status people, and not just any low-status people, but ideally feminine low-status people. So for otherwise privileged people, “chill” is a way to disidentify with low-status affects and structures of feeling. For otherwise oppressed people (I’m thinking about black cismen rappers mainly), the low-key wooziness of lean aesthetics is a way to fail to perform the maxed out affects otherwise associated with you.
- Murphy argues that feminist projects that frame liberation as a matter of choice participate in broader neoliberal narratives that make individuals responsible for systemic problems: “Infrastructures of choice are…inventive of the very terms of neoliberal governmentality. Infrastructures built narrowly in the name of individual choice have been repeatedly coupled to the selective minimization of supports of life. Systems of minimized supports provided services or technologies that selectively mitigated conditions, without disrupting them” (139). Minimized supports make bad conditions more survivable (e.g., Murphy discusses how NGOs in Bangladesh treated endemic cholera by providing at-home treatments that could be administered by non medical professionals instead of building plumbing and sanitation systems). How might this critique of individual “choice” apply to the common rhetoric of “choice” around abortion and reproduction?
- Murphy argues that the infrastructures of government and economy (or government by economy) create relationships that categorically implicate everyone in harming others.“My consumption is connected to your injury–and even our collective planetary injury. Accumulations and diminishments become distally and unevenly entangled and concentrated. Capitalist biopolitics does not just distribute life and death possibilities between bodies; it bundles antagonistic arrangements of life potential and exposure to death as the very terms of living” (140). The everyday activities of living are cost:benefit calculations about self/other harm and benefit. What sort of ethics would be adequate to this sort of situation?
- Rawls offered distributive justice as a solution to problems with the math in utilitarian moral calculus (e.g., kill a single baby to save everyone!). To what extent is Murphy’s idea of distributed reproduction comparable to Rawlian distributive justice? (The first way I’d approach this question is to consider whether or not Murphy’s distributed reproduction is ideal theory…)
- “Given the necropolitical history of population and the limits of the liberal politics of choice, I suggest that reproduction needs to be retheorized, yet again, to critically account for the ways living-being has, and is, decomposing and recomposing in capitalist formations…I think we can rework reproduction to conceptualize how collectivities persist and redistribute into the future and to query WHAT gets reproduced. In contrast, population as a figure of aggregate life has been concerned with the governance of quantity and quality, foreclosing questions of the infrastructural DISTRIBUTION of life chances, past, and futures. Population suppresses the possibility of a politics of redistribution…The ‘problem’ requires flipping from the question of how much and which BODIES get to reproduce to what DISTRIBUTIONS fo life chances and what kinds of infrastructures get reproduced. DISTRIBUTED REPRODUCTION names this better than population” (141)