PRINT January 2018


Two parental pronuclei in a newly fertilized human egg. Photo: Alan Handyside.

THE EARTH IS TRANSITIONING. Power is transitioning. We are going through a paradigm shift that, when all is said and done, may turn out to be as consequential as the set of epochal ruptures conventionally grouped under the rubric “early modernity.” Yet we have no systematic diagnosis for the changes we’re experiencing. Before we can develop effective strategies of resistance, we have to draw a cartography of already-operating power techniques, and to forge a critical language commensurate with our circumstances. And this, in turn, necessitates a shift in the focus of our critique.

Most studies of the transformation currently under way are concerned with processes generally identified as key attributes of neoliberalism: financialization of the economy, abstraction of value, digitization of information, proliferation of interconnected networks of computation, automation of industry, and robotization of labor. Power in these analyses is still understood primarily as a set of social rules for the appropriation, liberalization, and management of the forms of production. But while it is of course necessary to theorize the changing nature of production, we have not yet adequately accounted for power as it relates to reproduction.

It is there, in the field of reproduction—sexual, social, cultural—that we confront the most crucial dimension of contemporary power. It is the relationship of power to life that is mutating most drastically. And I do not refer only to the restricted notion of biopower that Foucault popularized in the 1970s, but to all the modalities—from pure force, violence, and the ability to give death (necropolitics) to the capacity to decode, preserve, replicate, and modify living forms—through which power acts on all life. The “art of governing ourselves,” the relationships, institutions, discourses, and techniques that allow a living organism to be considered “human” or to be recognized as a reproducible citizen, and the processes through which a certain body (organic or mechanic) becomes capable of saying “I,” are mutating.

Life in the most basic sense, as defined by many different communities of knowledge, is a system that can sustain and reproduce itself. In order to do so, the system has to convert energy (food, sunlight, fossil fuel, etc.) into heat, channeling a part of this energy into its metabolism so as to survive and reproduce. Any political regime regulates the collective ways of capturing and distributing energy and of reproducing life. In the case of what has been historically recognized as the human species, the evolution of the reproductive biocode has been paired with, and perhaps surpassed by, the rapid development of semiotic codes, the ever-accelerating flux and mutation of language, knowledge, and practice that we call culture. And the evolution of culture (technology, ideology) feeds back into the regulation of life, influencing—and obfuscating—the means by which power carries out the fundamental task of controlling and managing reproduction.

It is in the field of reproduction—sexual, social, cultural—that we confront the most crucial dimension of contemporary power.

Both liberal and communist theories of power naturalize reproduction and treat it as ahistorical (if they consider it at all). It is thus urgently necessary to denaturalize reproduction. To that end, what follows are notes toward the historicization of different regimes of power that operate on life and that, in their entangled complexities, constitute us as subjects—as political living fictions. This history can be usefully thought of in terms of the interaction among three types of power technologies:

First, there is the archaic necropatriarchal power regime, under which only the male body is a fully sovereign body. The bodies of women, children, and nonhuman organisms are inferior. Male sovereignty is defined in necropolitical terms as the legitimate monopoly of violence. Paternal and male authority is primal and absolute. The father is he who has the right to give death and decide the fate of his wife, children, and all other dependents. This necropatriarchal definition of sovereignty is the oldest and most widespread way of exercising power, unfolding as extractivism in relation to natural resources, as occupation in relation to territory, as domination in relation to the social sphere, and as rape in relation to sexuality.

Oron Catts, Corrie van Sice, and Ionat Zurr, The Mechanism of Life—After Stéphane Leduc, 2013, customized rapid-prototype printer, computer, chemicals, dyes, dimensions variable.

Second is the heterosexual-colonial regime, which developed with modernity. The capitalist and colonial system of production that originated in the fifteenth century enfolds and exceeds patriarchal sovereignty. It could not exist without the new political category of race, which deployed the emergent discourses of empiricism and scientific inquiry to legitimize the plantation system, slavery, and antimiscegenation laws. The (apparently) anatomical and psychopathological concepts of sexual difference, heterosexuality, and homosexuality instrumentalized these same discourses to govern the practices of reproduction in colonial empires. Monique Wittig, Guy Hocquenghem, Angela Davis, Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, Achille Mbembe, and others have offered indispensable insights into the ways in which heteronormativity and race have been constructed as (respectively) sexual and physiognomic conditions, as opposed to power technologies that determine the position of bodies in a system of production and reproduction. Women, children, people of color, the indigenous, the “disabled,” deviants, and animals are considered nonhuman, infracitizens who have no access to techniques of governmentality or knowledge production and no influence on hegemonic formulations of what it means to be human in the first place.

The standardized heterosexuality of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with its logic of identity and difference, underpins sexo-industrial Taylorization and genital Fordism. This medicolegal conception of sexuality helped to make biological reproduction as fast and cheap as possible, so as to build the labor force of industrialism and the new nation-states. Its ultimate result: the enshrinement of the nuclear family—insular, constructed around procreation, and easily transplanted, the better to facilitate racial and economic segregation—as the basic unit of society. Modernity invented not only a new laboring body adapted to the machine, but also a new soul capable of desiring only that sexuality that was reproductively profitable.

Anna Dumitriu, Engineered Antibody, 2016, polymer clay, crystallized amino acids from HIV-positive blood, dye, embroidered cotton calico, antique crocheted linen, 11 3/4 × 11 3/4".

The third type of power technology is the pharmacopornographic regime, which has been ascendant since the ’60s, although its beginnings may be traced to the discovery, in 1953, of the double-helix structure of DNA. This regime is defined by the mapping and manipulation of genomes; by the use of hormonal and surgical techniques to alter the body’s appearance and metabolism; and by the invention of novel conceptions of gender, inter-sexuality, and transsexuality. These new modalities of social management are reactions to the crisis of the epistemic regime of sexual difference. Whereas it seems clear that gender can’t be reduced to two sexes, nor defined by the form of the so-called reproductive organs, medical and legal institutions insist on technically reconstructing the binary to maintain social hierarchies. Meanwhile, the techniques that control heterosexual reproduction have been increasingly externalized in recent decades. First, the (female) pill separated heterosexuality from reproduction, rendering obsolete the rationale that originally justified the hetero- versus homosexual schematic as an opposition between normal reproductive and pathological nonreproductive sexualities. Second, with the advent of in vitro fertilization, sexual recombination began to take place outside the body. Soon, the industrialization of the external womb will make the archaic distinction between masculinity and femininity obsolete, too. An inevitable distinction between organic breeders and artificial breeders will be accompanied by a new field of reproductive workers. Third, the internet, a global multimedia masturbatory prosthesis offering unlimited access to porn and consumption, provided the coup de grace for the already-beleaguered understanding of the body as a container of reproductive energy that should only be used to beget children. Within this regime, reproductive energy is funneled into productive channels and transformed into financial value.

Pharmacopornographic production and reproduction seem to require moments of “creative destruction.” In the mid-twentieth century, the exploitation of radioactive elements granted humans the power to destroy every living thing (except maybe bacteria) on the planet. Nuclear war, connecting pharmacopornographic technologies with necropatriarchal drives, continues to loom as a possibility. And there is also a potentially necropolitical synergy among pharmacopornographic methods of assisted externalized reproduction, new techniques for modifying and monetizing genomes, and new types of interventions into the design of the soul. Together, these phenomena offer unprecedented opportunities to exercise control over, to exclude, and to exterminate other human and nonhuman living beings. The cavalier tinkering with genes and biomes will have unintended consequences, which we are axiomatically incapable of imagining or predicting. We need to take responsibility for this new condition: We are the first species capable of endangering life on the planet.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Part 8.

In short, the very survival of life on earth depends on the invention of cooperative and symbiotic technologies of production and reproduction.

The evolution of linguistic codes of social and cultural reproduction is a key element to consider in any investigation of the uses of power. Learning, a process that could be considered the cultural analogue of genetic recombination, is our individual and collective way of mutating within brief time spans and adapting to rapid change. What can we learn from our shared history? Can a new form of masculinity be defined in nonnecropolitical terms? Is it possible to depatriarchalize and decolonize the institutions of family and nation-state? Is there an equitable way to govern the use of reproductive fluids (semen, milk, blood), organs (uterus), cells (ovules, spermatozoids), and genetic materials? Is it possible to redistribute them, or even to collectivize them? We must apply the principle of cultural recombination to our strategies of producing and reproducing life, so as to transform our technologies of power and (politically) mutate.

We live in a time of baroque juxtapositions of technologies and regimes of power. We are dealing not with neat, flat strata of historical phases, but with a dizzyingly complex topography of interconnecting and short-circuiting forces. Sometimes, unexpected connections are established among radically distinct technologies; sometimes two or more technologies fight for the control and territorialization of the same energy route, the same reproductive fluids, cells, organs, and bodies. For instance, the nation-state and the biomedical industry compete for control of women’s wombs, the former seeking to maintain women’s unpaid reproductive labor as a national resource, the latter dreaming about the transformation of the uterus into a bioenvironment subject to free-market economics. The Trump era is a recrudescence of necropatriarchal technologies of power and an implementation of the colonial notions of race and sex within a highly sophisticated pharmacopornographic framework. This new digital and biotech fascism can also be the last.

Paul B. Preciado is a philosopher, a curator, and a transgender activist. He was Curator of Public Programs of Documenta 14 (Kassel/Athens) and is currently a writer-in-residence at the LUMA Foundation, Arles, France.