On Melinda Cooper’s LIFE AS SURPLUS

As part of my lit review on post-probabilist neoliberalisms, I’ve been working through Melinda Cooper’s Life As Surplus. I’ve written up (barfed on the page) some thoughts that I’ve linked here. Below are a shortlist of the main takeaways. 

  1. What Cooper calls “neoliberal biopolitics” is a calculative regime that fits with what I call post-probabilist neoliberalism. I would reframe her distinction between “neoliberal” and “state” biopolitics as the difference between probabilist/Foucaultian and post-probabilist/post-Foucaultian neoliberalisms. 
  2. The most helpful concept in the book is what she terms “capitalist delerium.” This describes the imperative to work beyond the laws of physics as they are on Earth right now–i.e., to speculate. Capitalist delirium is basically what I call resilience as basic ontological principle: everything needs to be pushed past its point of no return in order for us to bounce back stronger than ever before. Ontological resilience replaces cost/benefit calculus: there’s no need to balance costs with benefits (i.e., to find an equlibrium) because all costs will eventually be overcome. And just as I argued in R&M that resilience is a way of producing surplus value, Cooper argues that capitalist delirium is a technique for creating a property right to stuff that doesn’t even exist (yet).
  3. In this sense, though capitalist delirium “frees” privileged groups from the limits of basic life on the planet we find ourselves on, it doubles down on limits for everyone else. I want to think more about how this impacts our understanding of the role of “nonmetric space” and “nonmetric time” (105). Linda Alcoff argued in the 80s that Deleuzian “nomadism” is normatively white, masculine, etc., an attribute of only privileged bodies, something granted only to those recongized as full persons–the figure of the undocumented migrant is, after all, racialized and criminalized. Similarly, capitalist delirium’s “nonmetric” experience of space and time are reserved for privileged bodies; they are something granted only to those recognized as full persons. For the rest, behavior that doesn’t follow the laws of metric space and time is criminalized. 
  4. Two main points about the aesthetics of capitalist delirium:
    • Because at some point we have to abandon mathematical models of factual reality, we have to rely on the “feel” of a situation. We are thus required to maintain a state of hypervigilance on guard for anything that feels out of place, the demand to always be on the lookout so we can react as soon as possible–the point is to see something, say something, but to sense them before we can even see them IRL. Cooper identifies a neoliberal and a neoconservative version of this alertness: “both economies mobilize speculative affect, attuning it to the emergence of the unpredictable,” but they privilege different ends of the spectra of affective possibilities. Neoliberalism frames speculative risk in terms of “euphoria” (e.g., YOLO), whereas neoconservatism frames speculative risk as “alertness (that is, a state of fear without foreseeable end)” (97). No wonder anti-anxiety meds and chill playlists and mindfulness and all that shit are exploding in popularity–they help us maintain the practice of alertness while mitigating its actual psychological and physiological impacts on our body. 
    • Soars are examples of a part of the structure of feeling post-probabilist neoliberalism wants us to adopt. The ever-intensifying rhythmic buildup sonifies the “fractal” (38) and “generative processes of growth, reproduction, and regeneration escape the boundaries of organic space and time.” (138). The drop represents the transgression of those boundaries into some new metaphysics–indeed, it’s like a cycle of intensifying compression then rarefaction. This is one way to understand Cooper’s claim that in this regime of neoliberal biopolitics, “continuing evolution…is intimately dependent on periodic waves of…crisis” (36). These periodic waves of crisis are unending cycles of crisis and resilience where growth intensifies to “thresholds…actualize [their] continuous intensities in the form of abrupt, discontinuous actualizations of difference” (120). It’s like intensification reaches a threshold where there’s a qualitative shift, like a shift from difference in degree to difference in kind. That’s where the delerium comes in: this misperceived feeling of transitioning to a different reality. Cooper describes this varously as “a dissipative structure evolves through successive thresholds of disequilibrium, at which point it is impelled to bifurcate along one of several paths of organization, none of which can be predicted from initial conditions” (37), and “a series of catastrophic bifurcation events out of which universes continuously rebirth each other” (39) without beginning or end. There’s no resolution or “progressive exhaustion of differences” (34) (which is basically what tonal harmony does with dissonances), just continual cycles of crisis and recovery. Because these are post-probabilist, the cycles of crash and resilience don’t fall into regular or regularizable rhythms. These ateleological, irrationally patterned periodic waves of intensifying condensation and rarefaction as we phase-shift to a different register constitute “the particular kind of structural breakdown that characterizes the post-Fordist” era (125).
  5. So, if Adkins shows how housework gets folded into the logic of speculation, Cooper’s LAS shows how the labor of biological reproduction gets folded into that logic: “what neoliberalism wants to capitalize is not simply the public sphere and its institutions, but more pertinently the life of the nation, social and biological reproduction” (LAS 9). One of Cooper’s more interesting claims is that reproductive work shifts from labor to replenish labor-power to debt service, and the kind of sexual property in women’s bodies that’s subject to this debt service is their actual sexual reproduction.
  6. According to Jeffery Nealon, one of the things that distinguishes neoliberalism from traditional capitalism is its shift in method of surplus value production from exchange (M-C-M) to intensification (M-M1). In The Time of Money, Adkins shows how post-probabilist neoliberalisms update practices of intensification so that it’s not the quantity of money that gets intensified, but money’s capacity to do things (like, this is literally about making less money, quantitatively, DO more, capacity-wise). Cooper’s analysis of neoliberal biopolitics identifies more or less the same shift. In this model, both life and the market “regenerate [their] own potential for surplus, indefinitely” (142), and they can do that only when they “maintain[ their] full spectrum of transformative possibilities” (127)–i.e., their capacity for resilience or overcoming.
  7. The Sonic Episteme shows how “resonance” gets used to translate probabilist math into non-quantitative terms. Interestingly, Cooper uses the term “resonance” to describe the non-metric relations or concepts central to post-probabilist neoliberalisms & biopolitics. For example: “Developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the morphogenetic field thesis allowed embryologists to account for the nonmetric relations of difference and resonance (action at a distance) that seemed to animate the early moments of embryogenesis. They noted, for example, that although no precise spatialization of the future organism could be found in the fertilized egg, the morphogenetic field was emphatically not devoid of differences. These differences, however, were of an intensive or non metric nature—continuous variations of field intensity (gradients), fuzzy neighborhoods defined by field resonances or actions at a distance (polarities), and sheets of migrating cells moving at different speeds or dividing at different rates…In their conceptualization of the morphogenetic field most embryologists appealed to the topological language of force fields and resonance, but few attempted to formalize these nonmetric relations in mathematical terms” (117). This is obviously something I need to look into further. “Resonance” here doesn’t mean acoustic resonance, because that’s metric–it’s about the phase relationships among frequencies. In this context, where people are primarily interested in varying fields of intensity, they’re using “resonance” in the sense of patterned pressure waves–the frequency of interval between condensation and rarefaction isn’t the primary concern, but rather the image of a cartography of more and less compressed air molecules. So, yeah, not frequency but variable intensity.
  8. Traditionally, legitimacy and legitimation drew status differences among different kinds of sexual reproduction in order to maintain a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal distribution of property and personhood. In LAS Cooper shows how legitimation works in relations extra-sexual reproduction to maintain that same basic distribution of property and personhood. Given the reframing of surplus value production as the intensification of capacity, it makes sense that this form of neoliberalism uses techniques of legitimation focused on regulating the intensity of capacity. For example, Cooper talks about the way a combination of patent law and genetic engineering “depotentializ[es] the future possibilities of life” such as “where a plant’s capacity to reproduce itself is both mobilized as a source of labor and deliberately curtailed, thus ensuring that it no longer reproduces “for free.”” (25). Patent, here, is the legitimating technology; it creates a property relation that determines who gets to control the reproduction process for the plants in question–authorized and unauthorized control of the potentiality and capacity of, like, seeds. Applications of such potentialities that maintain patriarchal racial captialisms’s distribution of property and personhood will read as legitimate; applications that don’t, won’t.