Good Vibes Only: from a biopolitics of normalized frequency to a biopolitics of legitimate spatial orientation
It’s SPEP (Society for Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy) week, and it’s my 20th (more or less) SPEP—I gave my first SPEP paper in 2002 at the meeting in Chicago. Below is the paper I’m going to read this week in College Station, TX. Little did I know when I submitted that the paper, which begins from Foucault’s lecture courses, would be effectively an advertisement for my new employer, Palgrave Macmillan, which published the English translations of those courses.
As Mary Beth Mader argues, Foucault’s account of biopolitical normalization is grounded in the mathematics of rate or frequency. I argue that a new form of biopolitical governance has emerged that is grounded in a different kind of math that, used across contemporary tech and finance, takes spatial orientation as its object of knowledge/governance. Reading Michelle Murphy’s analysis of “The Girl” figure through Melinda Cooper’s concept of legitimation, the last section explains how the biopolitics of spatial orientation re-shapes the discourses of sexual ab/normality that are central to Foucault’s account of biopolitics into discourses of il/legitimate orientation.
In late 2021 I was buying concert tickets on the website for the Brooklyn, New York venue elsewhere when I noticed that the interface for the audio playback feature used the phrase “vibe check” in place of “listen.”
Though this use of “vibe check” refers to aesthetic judgment, the idiom typically circulates in popular culture as a way to judge other people. As the Urban Dictionary entry cited in the internet subculture bible Know Your Meme puts it, vibe check is “a process by which a group or individual obtains a subjective assessment of the mental and emotional state of another person, place or thing.” To check someone’s vibe is to judge whether their combination of attitude, mindset, and overall comportment is positively or negatively contributing to the physical and/or social space in which they are present.
As Harvard Crimson contributor Clara V. Nguyen noted in a 2019 piece, a September, 2019 tumblr meme posted by user starion has given rise to a more narrow use of “vibe check” to refer to policing other people’s vibes. The meme is an image of one stick figure hitting the other over the head with a baseball bat while exclaiming “vibe check!” As Nyugen explains, the viral spread of that meme has led “vibe check” to “evolv[e] to represent an unsettling endorsement of physical aggression as a way to eliminate bad vibes.” In this sense, to “vibe check” someone is to punish them for having what you perceive to be the wrong attitude or quality of presence.
The idiom’s direct connection to policing as an institution is reflected in social media users’ frequent use of “vibe check” to refer to TSA screenings. An October 2021 search of Twitter for “vibe check TSA” pulled up over 50 individual uses of “vibe check” as a metaphor for TSA screening. For example, this user with a colorful handle stated in a November 2019 tweet that “TSA is just a vibe check from national security.”
Despite the ironic feel of the tweet, this Twitter user is actually right: TSA screening IS quite literally a vibe check by federal security agents. As the ACLU reported in 2017, “Thousands of TSA officers use so-called ‘behavior detection’ techniques to scrutinize travelers for…behaviors that the TSA calls signs of deception or “mal-intent” such as yawning, whistling, being distracted, or being late for your flight. Throughout the airport, TSA officers observe passengers for what it claims are behaviors that reveal an otherwise hidden criminal intent and send people with bad vibes for extra screening. Assessing passengers for signs of their attitude, mindset, and overall comportment, TSA officers are literally practicing “vibe check” as a form of police profiling.
As an element of contemporary pop culture and the national security state, the vibe police illustrate a form of biopolitical governance different from the kind of statistical normalization Michel Foucault talks about in his lecture courses from the 1970s. In Society Must Be Defended, Foucault ties biopolitical normalization to a particular kind of math: the probabilistic modeling of populations. I call this a biopolitics of frequency because, following Mary Beth Mader’s analysis of Foucaltian biopolitical normalization, probability curves are graphs charting the “normal” rate at which a variable occurs in a defined population–i.e., the range of most frequent frequencies. This paper argues that in the years since Foucault delivered that lecture course, a new form of biopolitical governance has emerged that is grounded in a different kind of math. As anthropologist Nick Seaver explains in his study of recommendation algorithm programmers, the kind of math behind today’s tech and finance imagines reality in spatial rather than temporal terms. Instead of measuring rates over time (i.e., frequency), these mathematical models chart the mutual orientation of variables in space. As Seaver explains, “most machine learning systems parse the entities of the world by first rendering them as vectors…Represented as vectors, objects are defined by their orientation—if two song vectors contain similar numbers, then their arrows will point in roughly the same direction.” The orientation of these vectors are what algorithms then use to make decisions. “Vibe check” is a vernacular version of the technical process of creating mathematical vectors and judging them for their orientation.
I begin the paper by briefly reviewing the biopolitics of frequency. Then, I draw on work by Seaver, Louise Amoore, Melinda Cooper, and Michelle Murphy to establish what the biopolitics of horizon is and how it works. Reading Murphy’s analysis of “The Girl” figure through Cooper’s concept of legitimation, the last section explains how the biopolitics of horizon re-shapes the discourses of sexual ab/normality that are central to Foucault’s account of biopolitical normalization into discourses of il/legitimate orientation.
- The Biopolitics of Frequency
Foucault is far from the only person to theorize biopolitics. I’m hewing closely to his account because he grounds biopolitics in a particular form of math: the statistical modeling of probabilities across populations. Hints of this grounding appear in the last chapter of The History of Sexuality volume 1, where he argues that “a biopolitics of the population” focuses on variables across populations, such as “birthrate.” Birthrate tracks average frequency of births per defined population unit. Here is our first hint that he’s talking about a biopolitics of frequency because frequencies measure rates.
We can find a more in-depth discussion of rate, frequency, and normal curves in chapter 11 of Society Must Be Defended. Here, Foucault argues that “a biopolitics of the human race” involves “a set of processes such as the RATIO of births to deaths, the RATE of reproduction, the fertility of the population, and so on. It is these processes—the birth rate, the mortality rate” that are the “objects of knowledge and the targets it seeks to control.” This form of biopolitics is defined by its use of frequencies as both objects of knowledge and governance.
More specifically, this type of biopolitics is interested in determining the population-wide frequency of events that are, at the individual level, aleatory and unpredictable: for example, you can’t predict when any one person will die, but you can establish the average mortality rate in a defined population unit. As Foucault explains, biopolitics aims to govern
phenomena that are aleatory and unpredictable when taken in themselves individually, but which, at the collective level, display constants that are easy, or at least possible, to establish. And they 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.
With its repeated emphasis on time and seriality, this passage is especially helpful in establishing the centrality of frequency to Foucault’s account of biopolitics: this is a technology for measuring and managing rates. By measuring the rate at which “accidents, infirmities, and various anomalies” occur within a population unit, you can figure out what the most commonly-occuring or “normal” rate is and, if that’s not an acceptable rate, you can develop interventions to raise or lower it accordingly. Foucault calls this practice “the norm of regulation” and connects this form of regulation to probability curves a.k.a normal curves: the norm of regulation is the norm “which tries to control the series of random events that can occur in a living mass, a technology which tries to predict the probability of those events.” Probability curves, better known as bell curves, plot out the range of rates at which X random event occurs in Y group, and the hump or bell in the curve indicates the “normal” range. Here, norm is not a single standard to which individuals are compelled to conform, but a distribution of frequencies within a population. So, for Foucault, the biopolitical “norm of regulation” is fundamentally a technology of frequency.
II. A Biopolitics of Spatial Orientation
Beginning in the 1990s a new, “neoliberal” biopolitics has emerged as math and technology advanced. As Melinda Cooper notes, unlike Foucault’s biopolitical normalization, which “speaks the language of Gaussian curves and normalizable risk,” this new biopolitical logic is modeled on “neoliberal theories of economic growth [which] are more likely to be interested in the concepts of the non-normalizable accident and the fractal curve.” Whereas probabilities track the frequency of aleatory events in past data, neoliberal biopolitics uses speculative tools that orient our perception to possible but presently counterfactual realities like Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns.” As Louise Amoore explains, these tools “invit[e] the intuitive and the speculative within the calculation of probability,” layering this speculative or possibilistic calculus on top of existing probabilistic math. More specifically, algorithms incorporatewhat Cooper calls “essentially speculative…movements of collective belief, faith, and apprehension” into numbers computers can crunch.
This invitation occurs as a demand to check the vibe or orientation of data modeled on a spatial axis. Anthropologist Nick Seaver traces the origins of recommendation algorithms back to the method for quantifying perceived similarities and dissimilarities among phenomena called non-metric multidimensional scaling (MDS). Geographic space serves as the epistemic framework for MDS modeling. In his survey of how English-language textbooks introduce MDS, Seaver finds a pedagogical convention where students are taught to read MDS models like they would read a map. These textbooks plot a table of distances between major U.S. cities on an x/y axis, which reveals something that looks like a map of the 48 contiguous states. The fact that this method of data analysis and visualization produces a model that reflects American audiences’ general sense of what the US looks like on a map is then used as both proof of concept and as pedagogical exercise. “Having thus confirmed that the technique works, textbooks move from physical distances to conceptual ones” where students are asked to use their visual-spatial intuition to find meaning in models of non-geographic data, such as the perceived similarities among different fruits. Vibe checks are the last step in building the algorithms behind recommender and machine learning systems, and these checks consist in interpreting the spatial orientation of data points.
Contemporary algorithms automate this last interpretive step by computing the relative similarity of data modeled as vectors in space. Vectors are objects with both a magnitude and a direction, and they are modeled by a line of defined length pointed in a specific direction. Seaver explains that when “represented as vectors, objects are defined by their orientation,” i.e., by what they unfold toward and what they put behind them. Algorithmic systems then compare orientations among vectors to produce decisions about things like what shoppers are likely to buy or whether a student taking an online exam is cheating. As Amoore notes, the relevant metric here is degrees, such as the geometric or cartographic degrees used to measure orientation in space. For example, vectors that are oriented at 90 degrees to one another are held to have no relation to one another. Algorithmic vibe checks clock the degrees of spatial orientation among vectors. Used across contemporary tech, finance, and security, these algorithms constitute a form of biopolitics whose object of knowledge and mode of governance is spatial orientations or vibes.
III. From norm to legitimacy
These vibes are checked not for their ab/normality, but for their legitimacy–that is, for their perceived capacity for private responsibility/property ownership. As Cooper has shown, over the last 40 years US government policy has replaced the forms of social insurance designed to normalize risk across the population with various practices of private family responsibility: “An aspect of neoliberalism that eludes the terms of Foucault’s now classic analysis [is that]…the antinormativity of Chicago school neoliberalism is contingent upon a moral philosophy of prudential risk management that leaves no excess costs to the state. This…finds expression in the idea that non-normative sexual relationships must ultimately be channeled into the legal form of marriage.” Cooper’s language here is helpful because it tracks the shift away from governing sexual normality and towards sexual legitimacy, which is both the legal status conferred by marriage and the expression of private family responsibility. In Foucault’s account, the discourse of sexuality emerged because sex qua procreation was the hinge between individual bodies and the population. However, with algorithmic vibe checks, sexuality is governed in terms of legitimacy rather than normality.
Michelle Murphy’s discussion of The Girl figure is a perfect illustration of sexuality qua legitimacy. Murphy finds that in the 21st century, social science has shifted from modeling life as populations to modeling it as markets. She calls this “the economization of life.” “The Girl” is Murphy’s term for how contemporary biopolitics imagines its ideal subject. As she explains, the “‘Third World girl’–typically represented as South Asian or African, often Muslim–has become the iconic vessel of human capital” for whom “‘chance’ is translated into only two possible paths: the unproductive life and the productive life.” A “productive” life is one where cisheterogender roles and participation in the patriarchal nuclear family govern sex and reproduction. As Murphy puts it, “thoroughly heterosexualized, her rates of return are dependent upon her forecasted compliance with expectations to serve family, to adhere to heterosexual propriety…and hence her ability to be thoroughly ‘girled’.” The issue here is less sexual normality and more the girl and her family’s ability to privately assume the costs of her sexual choices. Murphy’s counterexample of the unproductive life–”married by fourteen, pregnant by fifteen, after which she may have to sell her body”–makes this clear: to be unproductive is to be unable to privately assume the costs of one’s sexual choices and to engage in illegitimate sexual behaviors (figured here as sex work).
Though she doesn’t use the language of vibes specifically, Murphy’s account is especially helpful because she highlights how The Girl’s perceived il/legitimacy is represented as a vibe: “The Girl is a calculated risk pool that draws together a bloom of possibility, a bouquet of potential, a cluster of affect, applicable to any dispossessed condition anywhere, as long as it is ‘girled.’.” As a vibe “The Girl” is less a description of empirical, living people and more an orientation whose alignment with the neoliberal imperative to private responsibility gives rise to good vibes in people and institutions who are similarly aligned. Just as MDS relies on users’ extrapropositional knowledges to interpret spatialized data, neoliberal biopolitics recruits the “structures of feeling” we learn from interacting with a world ordered by patriarchal racial capitalism as markers of il/legitimacy.
Neoliberal biopolitics favors legitimation over normalization because vectoral math can do something Gaussian population models can’t: represent sex and procreation as independent variables. Returning to Seaver’s study of contemporary algorithms’ roots in MDS, it’s significant that his primary example of how people talk about modeling relations among vectors centers on the relationship between sex and procreation. As Seaver explains, in the keynote speech at the 2011 meeting of the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, David Huron uses “a striking pair of values: sex and procreation” to argue that vectorial models are advantageous because they allow mathematicians to disarticulate phenomena that otherwise appear mutually dependent. Seaver explains,
For most of human history, Huron argued, people have valued sex and procreation but have been unable to pursue one without the other. In vector terms, sex and procreation are correlated: they point in the same direction. The advent of contraception, Huron claimed, rearranged these vectors, pushing them to (almost) 90o apart by making it possible to move in the direction of the sex vector without simultaneously moving toward procreation. As Huron put it, contraception decorrelated these values, making them orthogonal to each other.”
The rise of the human sciences and the widespread use of normal curves to model populations lead power to study and govern sexual normality because these tools treat procreation and sex as dependent variables: the size and health of the population depends on people’s sexual behaviors, so the population can be managed by compelling people to behave normally when it comes to sex. Neoliberal biopolitics models life not as a population but as a market, and can take advantage of mathematical tools that can represent the varying degrees to which sex and procreation are independent variables, depending on people’s differing circumstances. As Huron’s example demonstrates, vectors do just that. For neoliberal biopolitics, legitimation emerges as the preferred mode of governance–cutting the line between what should be invested in and what should be divested from–because it is no longer tied to modeling life as a population and can thus take advantage of mathematical models that represent sexuality and procreation in varying degrees of independence.
In this paper, I have argued that evolutions in math since the 1970s have allowed a new form of biopower to emerge. In addition to the disciplinary normation of individual bodies and the statistical normalization of populations, there is now the legitimation of vibes or vectors. Or, more simply: neoliberal biopolitics governs via vibe check. This governance via vibe check has direct implications for how sexuality is regulated and who is folded into life and who is left to die. The next stage of this project turns to Sara Ahmed’s theorization of sexuality as dis/orientation to explore how biopolitical vibe checks work both in technical and in vernacular contexts. The recent proliferation of the term “vibe” on social media that New Yorker writer Kyle Chakya dubbed the “vibes revival” is the vernacularization of biopolitical legitimation into layperson pop culture practices. Thus, although writers such as Vivian Lam think the vibe-ification of gender is cause for celebration because it represents a move away from strict binaries, it is more accurate to see vibe as a way to rework gender from a norm into something this new form of biopower can know and govern via practices of legitimation. “Good vibes only” may be, if not bad, at least dangerous.