What comes before vibes? On norms & psychophysical aesthesis

As I argued in my April 2022 essay in Real Life, norms are becoming less central to the patriarchal racial capitalist governance of inequality generally and sexuality in particular. This waning salience of norms is rooted in a shift in the kind of mathematical models corporations and states use to surveil and govern people: whereas the statistical tools used throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to measure and control populations model probability as a temporal rate on a normal (or “bell”) curve, the algorithms behind 21st century tech platforms model probability speculatively, as a spatial orientation.

To get a better sense of what vibes and spatial orientations are doing today, I want to think more about norms because vibes are upgrades to norms, doing the work traditionally performed by norms, but in a slightly different fashion. 

One of the things norms do is braid together qualitative senses of “norm” as iteratively-performed standards and quantitative norms as averages. In “The Right to Death and the Power Over Life” section in History of Sexuality v1 and in Society Must Be Defended, Foucault explains that 19th century biopower mobilizes two different kinds of norms: disciplinary normation, where individual bodies are compelled to conform to an established standard (or norm), and biopolitical normalization, where populations are administered to maintain a regular rate or distribution of a variable such as birth, morbidity, mortality, crime, etc. So, there are qualitative norms applied to individual bodies and quantitative norms applied to populations, and (racialized) sexuality is the hinge that, according to Foucault, biopower uses to link the individual to the population. 

If the discourse of sexuality links individual to population, what links qualitative norms to quantitative ones? According to philosopher Mary Beth Mader, there’s something distinctive about normal curves/distributions that makes it easy to transduce this form of quantification into qualitative measures. Although individual bodies and populations represent two very different objects of knowledge, normal distributions or “bell curves” are built upon a method of analysis that allows any phenomenon, no matter its scale, to be placed on the same ontological plane. Rooted in the monitoring of plague cases in defined city districts, this method breaks phenomena down into “an organizational, structural continuity” of smaller parts that are then measured at regular intervals to establish “a temporal continuity of surveillance” (Mader, 47). Specifically, by breaking things down into regular parts (like blocks or districts) and measuring them at regular rates, normal distributions adopt a “gradational ontology” (Mader 45) in which anything as large as a population or as small as an individual preference can be compared as relative ratios. As Mader thus explains, “the mathematical notion of continuous magnitude replaces the notion of analogy [e.g. between the monarch’s authority and God’s] as the operative concept that homogenizes relations of individuals to larger social unities” (45). This two-pronged method of spatial and temporal portioning allows individuals and populations to be assessed gradationally as relative proportions or rates. (This ontology of continuous gradation is “the specific nature of statistical measurement” that “helps to distinguish the norm from a law and from a rule, custom, or habit” (43), which do not treat individual and population/group as continuous or inter-comparative.)

Gradationality or rate is the medium through which qualitative norms and quantitative norms transduce into one another. Normal curves model the distribution of the rate at which a variable occurs in a population. As Foucault explains, normal distributions take as their object of knowledge things that “are, finally, phenomena that occur over a period of time, which have to be studied over a certain period of time, they are serial phenomena. The phenomena addressed by biopolitics are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a population that exists over a period of time.” At the level of the individual person, it’s really hard to predict someone’s death; however, when you zoom out and survey a population, you can track deaths over time and establish a normal mortality rate. Normal curves model the rate at which a variable occurs in a defined population.

Individual qualitative norms, like gender norms about vocal pitch or gait, are serial phenomena maintained through individuals’ repeated iteration of them. This is Judith Butler’s point in Gender Trouble: gender norms are maintained–and adapted–at the level of serial iteration or performance. At the qualitative level, the focus is not on rate but on the quality of re-production: because iterations can and do vary, the specific qualitative contours of norms adapt and change across iterations. This seriality or iterativity also allows qualitative norms to be assessed gradationally: as philosopher Sandra Bartky notes in her article on the “feminine disciplines,” photographer Marianne Wex’s 1979 series of candid images of seated men and women invite observers to compare individuals’ relative grade of closed or open posture (Bartky, 30). The 2000 photos in Wex’s series articulate a gradational gendered norm around posture, which we would today call a norm about “manspreading.” Wex’s series is especially helpful in showing how the iteration of a qualitative norm effectively functions like the districting of space or the (sub)division of a population—each image functions as a “district” which is then assessed for the gradation of the qualitative norm expressed in it. As serial phenomena that can be compared gradationally, qualitative norms are not all that different from quantitative ones.   

Mader’s account emphasizes that gradation or gradationality is the common structure that creates continuity between qualitative and quantitative norms. For example, to establish the rate of a variable in a population, you have to first collect data by recording “a series of fine and constantly observed differences between individuals” such as those “who are ill and those who are not.” (Mader 47). Normal distribution track the rate at which qualitative differences are observed–perceived qualitative gradations are collated, compared, and turned into qualitative gradations (such as the state of being ill). Or, as Mader puts it, “a central part of the uniqueness of normalization…is that it controls precisely by qualifying, but by qualifying bodies with quantifiable qualities. By endowing bodies with measurable features, it installs the conceptual basis for their control and management.” Qualitative individual norms become “quantifiable qualities” measurable and manageable at the level of the population. 

Gradation was the technology that allowed normal curves to weave together micro- and macro-power together in the same ontological plane, linking the qualitative norms applied to individuals (like the gender norms Sandra Bartky famously theorized) to the quantitative norms applied to populations.

As Erica Fretwell has shown in her book Sensory Experiments, gradation was also central to the 19th century science of psychophysics, which aimed to link human physiology to the metaphysical soul through the measurement of individuals’ and populations’ gradational sensitivity to fine sensory differences. In this respect, psychophysics was a science of (racialized) sensory norms: white people were thought to have more refined sense perception (i.e., sensitive to ever-more granular differences in things like pitch or smell) than non-white people. The psychophysical assessment of perception illustrates exactly how gradation links individual iteration of a norm to a population-based norm.

“The interanimation of aesthetics and biopower” (29), psychophysics was the scientific study of “perceptual sensitivity” (16), a combination of the ability to physically perceive and mentally sense. As Fretwell explains “It traded the WHAT of sensation (impression) for the HOW of sensation (experience) [and] split feeling into a set of selse-specific experiences,” such as the perception of harmonics above a fundamental pitch or the smell of delicate floral perfumes (12). As those two examples suggest, psychophysics measured people’s ability to notice small sensory differences, the refinement of their sensory capacity: “what matters here is not how much one feels but the ability to parse whatever it is that one feels,” Fretwell explains (16). Just as statistical norms are measured by subdividing a population spatially and temporally, psychophysical measurements track subjects’ and populations’ ability to parse or subdivide their sensations into ever more “slight gradations of sensation” (16).

Just as evolutionary eugenics presumed that more “advanced” species and races demonstrated greater degrees of sexual dimorphism and differentiation, psychophysics presumed that purportedly more advanced races exhibited a greater average capacity to perceive fine sensory differentiations. In this way, psychophysics reworked the racializing (and gendering) project of enlightenment philosophical aesthetics for compatibility with the new technology of statistical population modeling and normalization. For Kant, for example, aesthetics was an explicitly racializing and gendering project (see for example “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”). Subjective universality—or the ability of each individual subject to autonomously arrive at the same, universal judgments of, say, beauty or morality—was the device Kant used to police the boundaries around personhood. The ability to make judgments of taste that reflected the “sensus communis” or common sense shared by all these subjects independently arriving at the same universal sense of beauty stood as evidence that one was capable of autonomous self-legislation; the inability to demonstrate such taste was seen as evidence one was incapable of autonomous self-legislation and thus deserved to be ruled over by more ‘competent’ masters. If Kant’s aesthetics police personhood through the device of universality (the “sensus communis” was a universal in which all persons participated), psychophysics uses a different tool, the norm: “with perceptual sensitivity, fine-grained feelings are cultivated for the purpose of species progress, not sensus communis,” Fretwell writes (16). The idea of cultivation is crucial here: the more “advanced” races supposedly exhibited, on average, a greater degree of sensory cultivation than the “less advanced” ones. And it wasn’t just the senses that were cultivated: sensory responsiveness was understood as an index of “the agential capacity to respond” and “registered the (human) organism’s autonomy” (16). In this framework, racial groups with greater average sensory sensitivity were thought to be more autonomous than groups with lower average sensory sensitivity. Psychophysics upgrades the connection between aesthetic sense, autonomy, and personhood for a regime of statistical norms rather than universal principles. 

Shifting from a regime of universal principles to statistical norms, psychophysics re-draws the connection between aesthetic sense, autonomy, and personhood in a way that echoes Plato and other Ancient Greek philosophers. As I have discussed in The Sonic Episteme, Plato’s concept of sophrosyne (a.k.a., “moderation,” which is in the same general neighborhood as mean or norm, also sometimes translated as “harmony”) held that individuals successfully governed themselves when they kept their body and mind both in proper proportion (the mind is more real than the body) and in proper rank order (the mind rules over the body); only such individuals deserved to rule over others. In other words, Plato thought that full persons, persons capable of ruling themselves and others, were persons who brought themselves into alignment with the logos of the True/Beautiful/Good. Think of the theory of the divided line here—the intelligible is both proportionally more real than the visible, and the intelligible is hierarchically ordered above the visible: this is the same logic or structure the moderate person exhibits. “Ordering…racial groups…by their capacity to differentiate sensory states” and reserving full personhood for individuals and populations who can subdivide and differentiate there perceptual capacities analogously to the way statistical norms subdivide and differentiate populations, psychophysics, like Plato, frames personhood as the alignment with or analogousness to the mathematical device hegemonically used to police personhood. (Just as the statistical norm measures rates and proportions, the divided line measures ontological proportions geometrically.)

Aligning the political concept of personhood with the feature of a mathematical tool, psychophysics (and Plato) is a platform for transducing quantitative norms into qualitative ones. As Fretwell explains, psychophysics was the science of “quantitative analysis of the experimental dimension of sensation—that is, of feeling’s qualities” (10). Observing individuals’ qualitative capacities and comparing them on a statistical distribution, psychophysics used the normal curve as the hinge between qualitative norms (aesthetic beauty or taste) and quantitative ones (the average sensory capacities of various racial groups). For example, Fretwell explains how one researcher “surveyed visitors at art exhibitions about their sensory responses to color, form, and line and then used the statistical average of these questionnaires to arrive at a bottom-up definition of beauty and pleasure” (16). Echoing John Cheney-Lippold’s description of “modulating” gender norms that shift and change as algorithmically-collected and filtered data feed back into the algorithm’s own variables to change the boundaries of gender categories as more data is collected, Fretwell’s description of this psychophysical study shows how qualitative and quantitative norms feed back into one another. 

Psychophysics uses statistical distributions to link not only qualitative and quantiatiative norms, but also empirical data and imaginary, possible, or speculative realities. “Under psychophysics,” Fretwell writes, “sense experience is not a stable reflection of the object world but a bodily cognition that anticipates a particular perception as it is being physically processed” (7-8). In other words, psychophysics both indexes empirical sensoriality and speculates possible future perceptions. In this respect, sensory experience is “a relation between self and world that is equal parts calculation and imagination” (21); “its ‘verifications’ are shot through which speculations, with subjunctive formulations about what a particular sensation will become (23). Psychophysics’ attempt to link quantifiable physiological fact to speculative perceptual feelings is helpful in theorizing the kind of work vibes do because vibes work analogously to connect empirical data (e.g., about crime) to speculative possibilities (about, say, future recidivism). This linking of empirical to speculative is something that statistical norms did back in the 19th century, and that algorithms do—albeit somewhat differently-today. 

Describing “psychophysics as a ‘speculative science’ that enjoins physiology to metaphysics” (6), Fretwell’s account hones in on why this linking of empirical to speculative was an important dimension of psychophysics’s racial project: “as a speculative science, psychophysics made possible a new understanding of consciousness as embodied but not strictly biological” (25). Locating perception between physiology and the metaphysical mind/speculative imagination, psychophysics positions sensory experience as the medium for transducing purportedly biological differences or “biologized social arrangements” (26) of race and sex into meta-physical, qualitative terms. In this system, consciousness doesn’t need a body to exhibit a gendered or racial character: racial and gender identity become feelings, such as what Fretwell identifies as Du Bois’s feeling of being “a problem.” As Fretwell writes,  “Perceptual sensitivity, or ‘sense discrimination,’ now supported racial taxonomies by extending the eugenic project of perfecting the human into the domain of consciousness” (18). Because psychophysical conceptsion of perceptual sensitivity yoked consciousness to physiology, it allowed assumptions about the purported physiological differences between genders and races to be expressed in terms of subjective capacities or abilities. “Sensitivity to affective stimuli helped classify whole groups of people–mentally ill people, women, people of color, the newly typed homosexual–as pathologically criminal” (19). Just as vibes are orientations that establish one’s situated capacities—what one can do in a situation, one’s impact on what can happen in that situation—sensory sensitivity is a measure of one’s capacity for possible future capabilities. 

Fretwell’s work on psychophysics establishes that this technique of transducing somatocentric identity categories into qualitative sensory orientations is one of biopower’s fundamental tactics because it allows for the translation or transduction of biological qualifications around what is compelled to live and what is left to die into extra-biological, cultural terms—i.e., in terms of psychophysical aesthesis in normative bio politics, or in terms of vibes in the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation. Further, this idea of extra-biological sensory consciousness suggests how this 19th century practice connects to the data science behind contemporary finance, AI, and ML: both combine (purportedly) hard facts with qualitative senses—norms, vibes—in order to make speculative judgments that reaffirm and reproduce patriarchal racial capitalist distributions of personhood. The analogous nature of vibes and psychophysical aesthesis helps illustrate how vibes do the work that norms performed in 19th century biopower.

Here are a few more things I want to note at this point:

  • In the technological upgrade from normal distributions to algorithms like the ones used in collaborative filtering or ML training, gradation morphs into degree. As any thermometer or map makes clear, degree can be a quantitative measure. And, as the vernacular use of the term “degree” to describe things like the amount of stress or freedom one experiences evinces, degree is also a qualitative measure.
  • According to Fretwell, psychophysics treats the senses as “genres of feeling” (25). The fact that there are GENRES of senses is important; as I have written earlier, there are important differences between vibes and genres. The fact that psychophysics categorizes feelings into genres is further evidence of the parallelism between vibes and psychophysical aesthesis. Importantly, Fretwell connects genres to norms: “Genre is a form of recognition, a set of attachments and identifications processed in the prerational domain of experience that makes historical moments legible to us. Once genre dilates to include not only literary norms but also social norms, it becomes a ‘bundle of promises’ that bridges the ‘cultural feelings [that] find their place in how you find yourself’” (25). Genres are bundles of stylistic norms: drum & bass has norms about how breakbeats are used, etc. One way to understand the work vibes do is to consider them as analogs for genres, doing the work in legitimating regimes that genres do in normative ones. 
  • Another point of clear demarcation between psychophysical aesthesis and vibes is their approach to the laws of thermodynamics (i.e., the law of the conservation of energy). As Fretwell emphasizes in her chapter on sight, this idea that energy never goes away but just changes form gave epistemic grounding to the idea that the soul could be both physical and metaphysical: “That all living matter (atoms, animals, stars) are subject to the law of the conservation of energy radically reframed the soul as physical matter, a ‘form of vibrant energy that radiates out of the body even after death’” (42). If psychophysics assumes the veracity of the laws of thermodynamics, they they must be of a different yet complementary regime than vibes, because as Melinda Cooper argues in Life as Surplus, one of the key features of neoliberal biopolitics is its rejection of the laws of thermodynamics in favor of a calculus of infinite resilience. In neoliberal biopolitics, energy doesn’t merely not dissipate or disappear, it is resilient, it becomes “stronger than ever, ever before.” LINK TO SO! PIECE ON KMFDM . Psychophysical aesthesis is how biopower governs feeling/perception in a normative regime where the laws of thermodynamics are assumed to be binding; vibes is how biopower governs feeling/perception in a legitimating regime where the laws of thermodynamics are not assumed to be binding.

Psychophysics was an attempt to connect human physiology to the metaphysical soul. Vibes attempt to connect empirical data to speculative possibilities. Psychophysics and vibes each represent different biopolitical modalities–evolutionary population normalization and neoliberal algorithmic legitimation, respectively–but what remains constant across each modality is the need to connect the material and the immaterial, the empirical and the ideational. In this respect, vibes upgrade 19th century eugenics for 21st century technoculture.