Post-Probabilist Neoliberalisms, Orientation, & Sexuality

This is all very much at the work-in-progress stage, but I think I’m onto something here. This is the background theoretical stuff informing my recent Real Life article about Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy.”

  1. As post-probabilist rationality

According to Amoore, possibilist calculus uses the aesthetic sensibilities of programmers, engineers, and users to supplement the mathematical and computational tools used by finance capital and the contemporary security state. “Inviting speculation and inference in to calculation” (Amoore 75), this combination allows the math to do more than it could on its own–namely, identify counterfactual (and improbable) scenarios, which Amoore calls “imaginable, if not strictly calculable, possibilities” (Amoore 10). Relying on things like “personal convictions” (Amoore 45), “guesswork, gut feelings, and instincts” (Amoore) 30), one can “approximate beyond the limit point of measurement” (Amoore 32). For example, whereas probabilist normalization identifies disproportionately abnormal instances as candidates for exclusion, possibilist calculus identifies “something that ‘feels right’ or ‘looks out of place’” (Amoore 25) for possible exclusion. Examples include the US Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” campaign, which deputizes private citizens to seek out violations of their sense of the usual or proper arrangement of things (rather than just violations of the law).  As a form of governmentality, the “If you see something, say something” campaign relies on citizens’ commonsense perceptions of how things are oriented with respect to one another and with respect to them as perceivers.

Possibilist calculus arranges an ever-expanding set of possibilities in what Amoore calls an “array,” which “allows for multiple possible sequences of events to be held together horizontally within a single purview” (69); in other words, arrays are situated on a horizon to which individuals and groups find a regular or usual orientation. Constituents of the array are then evaluated for the intensity or degree of their disorientation. They can be disoriented either/both externally with respect to its surroundings or internally with respect to the composition of its parts. The important thing is that orientation is commonly measured in degrees (think back to that plane gauge); this makes orientation a suitable metric for a kind of governmentality and a kind of value that centers intensity and capacity over quantity. Unlike frequency, which measures intensity over time, degree measure intensity without reference to a chronological frame: for example, when measuring pressure or concentration, degrees refer to the intensity within a given volume. More pertinent for my argument here is that in geometry, geography, and astronomy, degrees measure comparative orientation. In criminal law, degree measures the severity of an illegal act, which is effectively a measure of one’s disorientation from the horizon laws frame for their society. A nonchronological metric of orientation, degree is the mathematical unit or principle best suited to post-probabilist calculus. Degree and orientation are for post-probabilist neoliberalisms what rate and ratio are for probabilist ones.

  1. Interpretive horizon & orientation

Phenomenologists call this “affective judgment on the look and feel of a place with which one is familiar” (Amoore 142) one’s “horizon” or “interpretive horizon.” Horizon names something similar to what 2-dimensional visual arts call “perspective”: it’s the frame that orients both the position of the perceiver vis-a-vis a perceptual field, and the perceptual qualities of that field and the things in it vis-a-vis the perceiver. For example, it makes objects that are nearer to the viewer in space appear larger and lower in the frame, and more distant objects appear smaller and higher in the frame. As Linda Alcoff explains, “interpretive horizon…constitutes the self in representing the point of view of the self, and it also constitutes the object which is seen in the sense that it is seen as what it is from the frame of reference and point of view that the horizon makes possible” (Visible Identities, 100). It’s not just that things out there appear to me on a horizon: this horizon also serves as the condition of possibility of my own perception. For example, past perceptual experiences train me to perceive in specific ways: a native English speaker, it took me a while to hear and properly pronounce the umlauted vowels I was learning in German class. As feminist phenomenologists of color such as Alcoff and Sara Ahmed have demonstrated, horizons are relational, social, and iterative (i.e., they are built out of repeated experience): “orientation…is about how the bodily, the spatial, and the social are entangled” (Ahmed QP 181n1). Emphasizing their “material and embodied situatedness” (VI 102), Alcoff argues that horizons are produced in our interactions with other people and with the world around us. They’re the background of mostly extra-propositional knowledges such as sensory habits, muscle memory, or kinesthetic choreographies that we use to navigate our daily lives. While possibilist calculus may not build norms out of patterns in past events, it nevertheless incorporates past patterns in the form of horizons–individuals’ horizons are built from their past experiences and the habits they’ve formed in response to them. 

Horizon serves the function that proportionality or normality serves in probabilist calculus–it is the standard against which phenomena are evaluated for in/exclusion. As Amoore explains, “the emphasis of risk assessment ceases to be one of the balance of probability of future threat and occupies instead the horizon of actionable decisions, making possible action on the basis of uncertainty” (Amoore 58; emphasis added). So, exceptions are determined not by disproportionate relation to the norm but by disorientation to the horizon. Ratios and proportions are balanced–cost:benefit calculus, for example, is designed to keep risk in proportion to reward, just as statistical normalization identifies members of a population who are disproportionately distant from the range of normal frequencies as candidates for exclusion or policing. Horizon isn’t about balance or proportion so much as it is about orientation. For example, airplane pilots use the altitude indicator to judge their craft’s orientation with respect to the Earth’s horizon. Similarly, as Ahmed notes, “orientation is commonly described as a bodily spatial awareness (as the ‘sixth sense’) and is related to proprioception and kinesthetics” (QP 181n1); like instinct or gut feeling, orientation is a qualitative knowledge put to work in post-probabilist judgment.

  1. Orientation & capacity

Though she doesn’t explicitly frame it in these terms, Ahmed’s analysis of orientation points to the way orientation builds or diminishes capacities. The direction of our orientation “affects what we can do, where we can go, how we are perceived, and so on” (Ahmed QP 101). Orientation is an iterative extra-propositional knowledge developed through our mundane interactions with the world around us. These worlds are arranged to make it easier to do some kinds of things and harder to do others. “Through being orientated in some directions and not others, bodies…get twisted into shapes that enable some action only insofar as they restrict the capacity for other kinds of action” (Ahmed QP 91). For example, most anglophone academic philosophers ascribe to one of two orientations: analytic or continental. My background is in continental philosophy, and this has led me to be better at reading German than doing symbolic logic and to converse with and read work by scholars in other humanities fields that also use “theory” in the “theory wars” sense. An analytically trained philosopher would likely be at least as good if not better at doing logic as they were at reading German (or French), and they would forge interdisciplinary connections more often with scholars in STEM fields. So, the direction of one’s philosophical orientation makes it easier and more rewarding to engage with specific kinds of tools and develop particular types of competencies or capacities. In this way, “to be orientated is also to extend the reach of the body” (Ahmed QP 8). But because the world is also oriented, such capacity-extension happens if and only if the individual’s orientation matches the orientation of their material, social, and historical situation. As Ahmed explains: 

we are orientated when we are in line. We are ‘in line’ when we face the direction that is already faced by others. Being ‘in line’ allows bodies to extend into spaces that, as it were, have already taken their shape. Such extensions could be redescribed as an extension of the body’s reach” (15).

“Being in line” is another way of expressing the fact of having adopted the horizon hegemonic social forces compel you to have. Most workplaces, for example, extend the professional reach of people with few domestic care responsibilities further than people with more intensive ones. Ahmed’s analysis of orientation thus helps to illustrate how post-probabilist neoliberalisms cultivate the kinds of capacities it finds most profitable and rewarding, and at the same time punish people with alternative capacities. In general, neoliberalism manages social exclusion in a fairly hands-off fashion: instead of directly excluding particular types of people, it nominally includes everyone but hypervigilantly maintains background conditions that ensure differential success and failure along racial, gender, sexual, class, ability, and all the other conventional axes of oppression. Ahmed’s account of orientation describes how the arrangement of those conditions interacts with people inhabiting such conditions to encourage them to fall in line or face punishment if they don’t. As a being and falling in line, orientation isn’t disciplinary conformity to a norm, but a directionality or course or tendency to have capacities that will contribute positively to the reproduction of hegemonic society. Orientation is having the capacities to augment the capacities of the world that oriented you and that you in turn orient,  building wealth/capacity that can pay forward what has been invested in you. As I will explain below, because post-probabilist neoliberalisms frame orientation as a debt relationship, it is governed not via normation or normalization, but by legitimation. The issue isn’t conformity to a norm or proportional proximity to a normalized range, but about the quality of capacities you can grow: do they contribute to the ongoing patriarchal racial capitalist transmission of wealth, value, and status, or do they impede that transmission?

Orientation, especially in Ahmed’s theorization, describes both the way I have become attuned and accustomed to a particular type of situation and the way specific situations are designed for or assume particular kinds of people. For example, a building with only single-gender bathrooms is both designed for binarily gendered people and assumes that these are the only kinds of people that ought to be in that space. This mutual fitting of situation and inhabitants could also be described as “purposiveness” in Kant’s sense of “subjective material purposiveness.” According to Kant, something possesses subjective material purposiveness if we feel (i.e., subjectively) that either artistic or natural objects in the world (a.k.a. material) was designed (or at least feels like it was designed) to fit within the limits of our perceptual and cognitive capacities and the bounds of our aesthetic preferences. Or, more directly: it feels like it was designed for us to perceive and appreciate. Amoore describes how possibilist calculus relies on purposiveness of form to distinguish between acceptable and exceptional (in the sense of the politics of exception) cases. Unlike classically liberal aesthetics, which prioritize content and expression to the exclusion of form, possibilist calculus appeals to a neoliberal aesthetic that prioritizes form to the exclusion of content and expression. “The content of data nodes is of less significance than the form of their assembly” (Amoore 135). As Amoore explains, such calculus “is concerned less with what it calls the ‘nodes’ of specific items of data (the ‘dots’) than it is with the inferred relations across those nodes (‘connecting the dots’)” (Amoore 133)–that is, it’s concerned with these nodes’ mutual orientation. Paying attention to the composition of variously connected dots, possibilist calculus judges “the aesthetic form of data itself” (Amoore 133). Form is evaluated for its purposiveness or “pleasing quality” (Amoore 139): configurations that don’t feel like they were designed for or oriented to a hegemonically-oriented perceiver stand out as candidates for expulsion. “The detection of emergent threats takes place WITHIN FORM ITSELF, in the links and patterns that materialize and take shape” (Amoore 133). Something counts as a threat when its arrangement of parts or orientation of parts isn’t oriented to the hegemonic orientation of the world. In Ahmed’s terms, forms appear risky or threatening when they are queerly oriented to the kind of world and the kind of subjects possibilist calculus is designed to support. 

  1. Orientation & Sexuality

According to Ahmed, if white supremacist capitalist patriarchy orients the world to support specific kinds of people and ways of living and in turn demands people orient themselves to that world-orientation, then queerness is a form of “disorientation” (QP 4). “Queer orientations might be those that don’t line up, which by seeing the world ‘slantwise’ allow other objects to come into view. A queer orientation mightt be one that does not  overcome what is ‘off line,’ and hence acts out of line with others” (107). Queerness, in other words, is a lack of purposiveness to patriarchal racial capitalism, a failure to adjust to its horizon. Ahmed’s theorization of queerness as disorientation and non-purposiveness is especially helpful for understanding how post-probabilist cisheteropatriarchy works. Because homosexuality was originally understood as an abnormality in the traditional 19th century biopolitical sense of abnormal deviation, norm, abnormality, and deviation have been fundamental concepts in queer theory. For example, in May 2015 differences published a special issue titled “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity.” The premise of this issue was that queer theory has conventionally, if not orthodoxically, understood “queer” to be antinormative, but that this convention had run its course. For example, as LaDelle McWhorter argues in a different journal, queer’s conventional antinormativity can seem to be in quite close alignment with neoliberalism’s imperative to limit-transgression. But normalization, abnormality, and antinormativity are grounded, at least historically, in Gaussian normalization and probabilist math. Ahmed’s theory of queerness as disorientation is thus better suited to post-probabilist variants of cisheteropatriarchy than these other concepts of queerness. This is why, for example, the  the ‘terrorist’ figure, the figure motivating the “see something, say something” campaign, is percieved as queer or through queerness.

Post-probailist cisheteropatriarchy governs sexuality as a matter of dis/orientation rather than ab/normality. This also has implications for how sexuality functions as a node for managing social reproduction–or, more specifically techniques of governmentality mobilized or deployed through discourses about sexuality. As Foucault explains, “sexuality”–both the concept itself and discourses of sexual normality and abnormalit–arose in the late 19th century at the dawn of probabilist social science. In The History of Sexuality volume 1, he argues that sexuality became a Thing because it was an especially useful tool that tied the disciplinary normation of individuals to the biopolitical normalization of populations: in other words, it links up the requirements for individuals to conform to racialized norms about sexuality and gender to the statistical management of populations because sexual reproduction involves both how and with whom individuals have sex and and shapes the composition and health of populations. However, as I mentioned earlier, post-probabilist neoliberalisms model the market on the purportedly infinite resilience of asexually reproducing cells (this is Cooper’s argument in Life As Surplus). Reconceiving sexuality as orientation rather than as norm allows it to continue to be a crucial factor in producing and governing white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal inequality even as the market shifts from logics of sexual reproduction (such as the Fordist nuclear family) to logics of asexual reproduction. 

In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed develops a theory of sexuality as orientation. Like canyons carved by flowing rivers, situations gain their orientation from the iterative repetition of people’s movements through them. By compelling individuals to navigate a situation in a relatively consistent way, hegemonic systems like cisheteropatriarchy orients that situation to and for the kinds of people it most privileges. This creates what Ahmed calls lines, like the paths trod into the ground along routes people frequently walk. These lines mark out the paths that will shape people into the most privileged and productive subjects. They are also ergonomic devices for those already so shaped, their mutual purposiveness allowing them easy and comfortable navigation. In this context, Ahmed explains,

queer orientation might not simply be directed toward the ‘same sex,’ but would be seen as not following the straight line…The same-sex orientation thus deviates or is off course: by following this orientation, we leave the ‘usual way or normal course.’ Conversely, heterosexual desire is understood as ‘on line,’ as not only straight, but also as right and normal, while other lines are drawn as simly ‘not following’ this line and hence as being ‘off line’ in the very direction of their desire (70).

In this framework, what determines your sexual orientation isn’t object choice so much as your alignment with a world oriented to particular ways of living. For example, as many queer and trans scholars and activists have shown, since the 1980s gay and lesbian people have been given increasing access to the privileges traditionally reserved for heterosexual people–provided they otherwise follow hegemonic orientations related to race, class, and so on. As long as same-sex object choice didn’t otherwise interfere with the ability to follow lines that continue to carve out a world that was oriented in more or less the same way as always (at least when it comes to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy), non-heterosexuality didn’t need the same policing as before and wasn’t thought to be deserving of exclusion. In other words, as long as your sexual orientation doesn’t impede your capacity to successfully navigate a hegemonically-oriented world, it’s not grounds for exclusion. This is why orientation, though iterative like disciplinary normation, doesn’t govern by compelling individuals to conform to norms, but by rewarding legitimate relationships and punishing illegitimate ones.

As an orienting factor, sexuality impacts the kind and degree of capacities we can develop, both for ourselves and for society: “If we presume that sexuality is crucial to bodily orientation, to how we inhabit spaces, then the differences between how we are orientated sexually are not only a matter of ‘which’ objects we are orientated toward, but also how we extend through our bodies into the world.” (QP 67-8). As a factor in one’s orientation to the world, sexuality “shapes what bodies can do” (QP 91) and what can be done through them. And in the context of neoliberalisms that understand market value as capacity, it makes sense that sexualty measures relative capacity. The most prominent LGBTQ rights activist campaign of the late 20th century, the fight for equal marriage, framed sexual equality in precisely these terms. Marriage is fundamentally a property relation, and equating sexual equality with equal access to marriage implies that the ways marriage extends and expands the power you have over private property are necessary for fully accessing the benefits of white bourgeois privilege.

Because orientation “lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created” (QP 16), orientation it links the production of individual capacities to the production of the social and environmental capacities. Just as OG sexuality linked individual and population (the objects of normation and normalization) through sexual reproduction, Ahmed’s concept of sexual orientation links individual and both macro-individual and micro-individual capacity (the objects of post-probabilist governance) through the (asexual) reproduction of capacity. For example, as Ammore argues, the formal orientation of interconnected data points are what algorithmic systems in finance and security study to determine their relative capacity. Sniffing out good risk from bad risk (like the different perceptions of Murphy’s “The Girl” figure as a good investment risk and her masculine counterpart as a “ticking timebomb” of terrorist threat), the point is to figure out whether the connections among these subindividual data points indicative of productive or threatening capacity. In a market modeled on the asexual reproduction of cellular life, orientation is the tool used to govern the separation of included from excluded because orientation is a mark of productive or unproductive capacity. More accurately, it’s what distinguishes the cascading blossoming of resilient overcoming from malginant rapaciousness. 

Cooper’s account of legitimacy in Family Values helps unpack exactly how sexuality is governed as this sort of Ahmedian orientation. As Cooper argues, post-probabilist neoliberal biopolitics upgrades the traditional method of using sexuality to marking out disposable groups:

non-normative sexuality is now much more likely to be accepted, as long as the attendant transmission of biological and economic assets —that is, children and wealth —is appropriately legitimated within the form of marriage. The socially meaningful dividing line, in other words, appears to have shifted from the normative and non-normative expression of sexuality to the legitimate or illegitimate relationship” (165)

 Whereas biopower relies on norms (both disciplinary normation and the probabilist practice of biopolitical normalization), post-probabilist neoliberalisms rely on discourses of legitimacy. Like any good post-probabilist practice, this concept of legitimacy appeals to something like faith or the belief in a reality that can and will overcome our present one. However, whereas the legitimacy of pre-modern European monarchs was grounded upon faith in a divine, metaphysical being, this concept of legitimacy relies on faith in successful performance. It is, in other words, an orientation towards success.  

As a metric of orientation, legitimacy marks out good investments–people who will contribute to the ongoing reproduction of a world oriented by patriarchal racial capitalism, people who will continue to flow in the way that carves that specific river–from unproductive debts. Debt and investment are central to Ahmed’s account of the politics of orientation. As she explains, “following lines also involves forms of social investment. Such investments ‘promise’ return…Through such investments in the promise of return, subjects reproduce the lines that they follow” (QP 17).  From this perspective, individuals are indebted to those who have carved the world into its existing orientation, and they pay that debt by following the lines that orientation lays out for them, “return[ing] the debt of its life by taking on the direction promise as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course.” (Ahmed QP 21). Because orientation is always mutual orientation, when we do not respond as we should to the demands of phenomena that want to orient themselves to us, this feels like lack of repayment, bad debt (as opposed to the good kind of debt that keeps finance capitalism’s coffers full and fuels what Cooper calls “debt imperialism). A relationship marking the successful or unsuccessful transmission of property to future generations and policed as a debt relationship (e.g., in the contemporary anti-abortion’s reconception of pregnancy as debt service women owe the nation, as Cooper discusses in the last chapter of Life As Surplus), Cooperian legitimacy fits Ahmed’s conception of orientation. Legitimacy is the discourse post-probabilist neoliberalisms use to transform sexuality qua sexual orientation into a tool for governing and producing a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. 

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s use of DNA tests to identify what CNN calls “individuals posing as families” is an example of how sexual legitimacy is used to police and criminalize non-white migrants. Similarly, though he doesn’t put it in quite these terms, Nick Mitchell’s analysis of the role of Title IX in the contemporary academy illustrates how, via this law about sexual harassent, sex and sexuality mark the line between legitimate and illegimate contact among faculty, staff, and students. According to Mitchell, “one of the reasons that universities police sex is that they are in the business of commodified intimacy—sex included. The organization of such intimacies, and the unstably limned boundaries that they entail, set the university’s labor environment into motion.” (Mitchell). Higher Ed institutions organize who comes into intimate contact with whom, how, and for whose benefit and at whose expense. For example, TA assignments will determine which grad students in the program I get to chitchat with most often, and thus whom I’ll get to know best, whether it be their hobbies, weekend plans, or what they’re working on at the moment. Advisee and mentorship relationships play a role in determining who will come into my office crying, which students in the program will reach out to me in times of personal crisis because they need either/both course accommodations and/or advice. On the other end of the spectrum, my own personal network, built and reinforced through all the informal kinds of relationships Mitchell talks about in his article (conference drinks, social media, grad school friendships, and so on), plays a role in determining if and where my students get accepted to graduate school. These are all intimacies of varying sorts, and they all occur because of how the university organizes its “labor environment.” Education and learning generally do require intimacy in the form of, for example, trust, proximity, and repeated context. But, as Beauvoir argues in The Ethics of Ambiguity, the fact of our mutual dependence on one another makes exploitation both possible and contemptible.

The academy’s organization of intimacy not only allows for, but fosters and relies upon, abuse and exploitation…because without those structural and structuring harms, there’d be no academic prestige for people to accumulate and traffic in. Mitchell thus argues that universities don’t single sexual harassment out simply because it is abusive and exploitative: “had Reitman’s charges [against advisor Avital Ronnel] lacked components of sexual misconduct, they might have simply been considered relatively normal” (Mitchell). Rather, sexual harassment is singled out for intensive policing because Title IX makes that abuse and exploitation productive of capacities and possibilities that diminish the institution’s (and the academy’s) ability to grow its capacities (i.e., value) and reproduce its legitimacy by continuing to transmit that value disproportionately to privileged people and institutions. As Mitchell explains, “because Title IX violations can threaten a university’s brand, as well as its eligibility to receive federal support for research and financial aid, sexual harassment is often granted the status of so exceptional a form of abuse that it triggers an entire set of institutional risk- and reputation- management protocols.” The other kinds of abuse and exploitation found in the academic workplace get a pass because they create the good kind of risk, the kind of risk that allows for the university to grow its value, wealth, and prestige. So, by marking a distinction between risk that facilitates the ongoing transmission of wealth and status and risk that impedes that transmission, “sex” functions as an instrument of de/legitimation, a component in a regime of legitmacy. Title IX makes workplace sexual relations illegitimate.