Mapping Biopower

I know it's too late to change topics so i am considering doing two zines. one on cellular energy, which I have an idea for that will be visually interesting but conceptually is very literal. However, the second topic is boipower and I think that one has more dimension.



At first when I googled it I found the definition by Faucoult and planned to integrate this into my interest in societal structures by introducing a less literal version of biopower.  I was going to create something like Foucault's version of biopower but more playful and less extreme. I was going to focus less on the actual physical energy that someone may produce by biking but focus on how society conditions us to hone our bodies into soft but efficient machines that can produce value and perpetuate the life cycle. The energy put into upkeep of these bodies would have been not only the exercise (i guess that would have been the literal biopower) but but also food, brackets that surgeons use to fashion broken bones together, etc to fashion them for more productivity. I was going to focus on how humans exercise themselves to improve stamina and strength and keep their spines straight when they sit and walk to keep their heads up. 

But then I realized that this is too vague and that I don't agree with Foucault's idea that society's control is the only reason why we exercise and keep our bodies healthy.  After all, we enjoy moving for our own personal enjoyment and health. Even one lives in the woods alone without society, moving and keeping the body healthy is in the interest of an individual so that the person can survive. So I decided to look at this more literally in the sense that deriving power from kinetic motion of human bodies can be a sustainable way to produce more energy.


Back to energy

So, I revisit the idea of biopower. I saw that the example Marina gave is a bike powered by a human that produces energy. I then googled "body energy as a power source" and "body as a battery" and found really interesting articles about contemporary body powered wearable devices. Looks like one can use our bodies as batteries. For example, technologists are developing a body heat-powered wrist band that tracks humidity, temperature, heart rate, etc.

Back to Foucoult and to the duality of Biopower

Quickly it became clear that these biopowered devices are not so innocuous and I am back to Foucoult’s idea of biopower, where society controls our bodies and punishes us by not conforming to what the “successful”, “able” human should be. Wearable tech that uses data is different from the innocent powering of your lightbulb through biking because Big Data is involved.

This chapter from Health Industrialization, called Belief, Myth and Biopower explains that by using biopowered tech, you potentially risk giving up privacy about your body: "The whole matter revolves around the duality of this operation or the mediation between the service provided and the risk of being monitored. " 

We see that Foucoult's idea of biopower was not a detour after all. Often if we are using our bodies to power a wearable we often allow a system to gain insight into our biometrics. An interesting duality between using your body to power tech and in that way also allowing society to shape and monitor us, fashion us into the bodies that society sees as the most successful or, in some cases of predatory capitalist practices, even targets our specific health issues to gain profit.

He’s back

He’s back

Example of a project about biopower

UnFitbit, a project by Surya Mattu and Tega Brain that Marina shared with me, is a great example of a work that counters biopower. It is a spoof website that suggests ways you can avoid exercising - tying the fitbit to your dog so that you can play video games in peace for example. This creates fake data to feed to the insurance companies and allows clients to liberate themselves from the control that insurance companies could have on them. In this case the insurance companies would be able to not lower the premiums for people who don’t exercise “enough”, thereby punishing those who are not conforming to the rules. In this way, the medical industrial complex is exerting power over the patients. Society controls bodies.

For the 1-minute presentation I plan to bring in my Nike Fuel bracelet (if i can find it) to show in class and have like a piece of direct mail advertising with me to imply that Nike Fuel found out I have some sort of health issue, sold the data to my insurance company or a pharmaceutical company, and that now I will have to pay more for my health and also be the target of expensive medicine instead of being offered generic, affordable options. My narrowed down map is focusing on health and biopower, so it makes sense to stick with this area. 

Maps and the energy cycle of biopower


Looks like what is most salient from maps and readings is that biopower replaced the welfare mentality of the "right to health" with the neoliberal responaibilitization of "duty to stay well", whether it's fitness or mental health or normative beauty. 

Ideas and terms taken from Rachel Sanders Self-Tracking in the Digital Era.


Another important takeaway is that the normative baselines used by companies are often based on a very limited test population that isn't reflective of the diversity in society. 


Mailee Hung of Bitch Media writes 

" And when you’re talking about “creat[ing] a Google Maps for human health,” who gets excluded from the sample is more than just a rounding error. There are entire demographics that would literally be excluded from what constitutes “the human race.” It matters if the requirement of four annual clinic visits makes participation in the study impossible for people who, for instance, have difficulty leaving their homes, whether that’s due to physical or mental disability, or economic reasons such as lack of childcare or free time. It matters if the sample sets can only be derived from areas near clinics with the right tech. It matters if the only people able to participate are those who already believe in the goal. Without addressing these biases, Project Baseline will not be a radical leap forward in human understanding, " 

The problem is that biopower pushes everyone to conform to the physical norms of healthy, able, white people who are also probably male.  

Bipower at work  (Biopolicy and Social Justice)

Brave New World of Employee Surveillance: How Wearable Technology Combines Disciplinary and Bio-power in the Workplace

Dr. Ivan Manokha

“new technologies that control the efficiency and performance of employees (e.g. software recording employee computer activity, devices that trace the speed of warehouse loaders, GPS tracking of truck drivers’ speed and the number of breaks that they take, etc.), and those that are now part of the so-called ‘corporate wellness programs’”

In other words, both forms of power are now beginning to focus on the individual body, and employees are increasingly exercising both disciplinary and pastoral power over themselves.

Implications on individual rights, labour rights.


Social change and biopower  

This article by Jen Pylypa is a good counterargunent to buying into Foucout's idea of biopwer too much In the way that Foucoult defines it. By claiming that we police and opress ourselves he ignores the fact that power inequalities do exist in society. If we accept that power is so decentralized then there seems to be no hope of "locating domination in order to defeat it". 


Some old maps from last week