Foucault and Feminist Art — or, how to subvert the biopolitical administration of populations

As you know, I’ve been thinking—not primarily, but sort of in the background—about how we subvert or resist Foucaultian “biopower.” I’m not talking about the “disciplinary” aspect—I think Butler gives us a good account of how to subvert discipline (i.e., through repetition). I’m stuck on how we subvert the population-level administration/management that MF talks about, for example, in the lecture courses. I’m not talking about the production of docile bodies; I AM talking about the management of averages (e.g., standard deviations, the bell curve) and the elimination of aleatory events (e.g., instances that defy the standard deviation, or don’t fit on the bell curve). How does one subvert THAT?

The only instances of possible subversion I had been able to think of were (1) social norming campaigns; and (2) the Guerilla Girls. The GG’s frequently use statistics to critique the exclusion of female artists and artists of color from galleries, museums, the artworld, Hollywood, and other creative institutions. So, for example, we have this poster:

This piece, like others in the GG’s ouevre, uses statistics to show that the distribution of female artists and artists of color in the artworld is in fact a skewed one, one that isn’t proportional to the number of women and people of color in the general population. They use statistics to show how white patriarchy creates a bad average.

Now that I just finished teaching a summer course on Gender and Aesthetics, I’m starting to think that feminist artists really do hold the answer to this question about how to subvert biopower. It’s not just the Guerilla Girls. It’s also, perhaps even more brilliantly, Martha Rosler. Her video “Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained” is all about biopower. In the video, she claims “This is a work about the tyranny of expectation.” It’s about the tyranny not just of discipline, but of the management of populations, averages, and aleatory events. You can watch it here.

Rossler begins with a visual-free voiceover; this exposition tells us what she, as the artist, indends the work to mean, what its content is. She tells us that “It’s about the perception of self. It’s about the meaning of truth. The definition of fact.” These statements are evocative of Foucaut’s work on power-knowledge (i.e., how relations of power and discourses of truth exist in mutually sustaining systems). Later, Rossler clarifies what sorts of “facts” she’s going to examine: “statistics.” She mentions statistics—again, the main medium of biopolitical administration—in explicitly biopolitical terms, such as references to Nazism and the banality of evil. For example, Rossler says:

I needn’t remind you about processing and mass extermination. You remember about the scientific study of human beings. This is a work about coercion….Bureaucratic crime can be brutal or merely devastating, we need not make a choice.

Statistics. For an institution to be evil, it need not be run by Hitler.

“Processing and mass extermination” are hyperbolic examples of biopolitical administration (condemning some to death in order to foster life). Mentioning “the scientific study of human beings,” Rossler also alludes to race science, Foucault’s privileged example of biopolitical administration. So it is clear even from the exposition that Rossler is focusing on the use of statistics in order to manage populations. We get further evidence of this later, around the 9:00 mark, when someone refers to “growth curve[s]” and “IQ rating[s].

The video then begins. It shows her being measured in every way possible—including and especially totally “useless” measurements, like the height of her hands from the ground when she is standing on her tiptoes. These “useless” measurements quantify the elements of her life that are generally thought to be less than essential or foundational elements of her life as such. That is to say, these apparently useless measurements are “vital” data (data about Rossler’s life) that are less than “vital” (essential or necessary) to her life as such. Rossler’s point here is to show the contingency of the “vital”—why is it that we view height or weight to be more strongly indicative of health than, say, the length of one’s hair, or the circumference of one’s head (indeed, 19th c race science thought this measurement determined everything).

So, Rossler’s method of subverting the administration of populations might be quite similar to Butler’s method of subverting discipline—Rossler seems to be repeating or performativley reiterating the methods of biopolitical administration (measurement, averageing, etc.). So maybe my earlier intuition that biopolitical administration couldn’t be subverted by repetition was wrong. Maybe repetition is key to subverting both the discipline of bodies and the administration of populations.

Regardless, I do want to emphasize that late 20th c feminist art already had the answers to my questions. I didn’t need to pull answers out of the ether of abstraction—just look at what artists were already doing. I think this method is really important for doing good philosophy. I often find that people are already doing the thing I’m trying to theorize, and that this step outside philosophy is really necessary to do good philosophy.