US Policing and the State

In this blog, I synthesize multiple theories in order to produce an approach to policing sufficient to understanding police violence in contemporary US American society. While much of this approach sufficiently describes policing in neoliberal democracies generally, the unique history of the United States colors policing in specific ways.

Along the way, I will address Max Weber’s definition of the state, Mark Neocleous on the fabrication of social order, W.E.B. Dubois and Joel Olson on the color line, Martinot and Butler on sovereignty, and finally Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben on states of exception.

My attempt with this blog is to communicate an approach to policing that operates in my research, but to do so for a more general audience. I understand that by appropriating the language from political theorists, sociologists and philosophers, and by attending to the origins of the ideas discussed here, the blog might be received as intimidating. I hope readers who are put off by this style of attribution will be so generous as to disregard some of the stylistic decisions I’ve made to be in both worlds, academic and public alike. These two worlds aren’t so separate. Many criticisms of the former result from a reactionary anti-intellectualism, and yet it is fair for some readers to approach citational writing as alien. Also, the suggestion that public communication not be intellectual in orientation is to presume too little of the many publics among whom this material will likely be relevant.

A Monopoly on Violence

Policing has been defined very broadly as the administration and enforcement of law with the latent authorization to use violent force in doing so. Continue reading

On Derrick Jensen’s and Lierre Keith’s Transphobia

Lierre Keith’s and Derrick Jensen’s transphobia is a difficult one to pin down, largely because there’s many issues going on that aren’t so carefully teased apart. I’ll try to do a favorable reading here in order to expose how even such a reading cannot allow their politics to hold up. It would probably benefit those who are confronting Keith and Jensen do so by attending more carefully to their words and less to rather formulaic rhetoric. I would think that people criticizing Keith and Jensen would like to do more than force out them and DGR, that this could be a situation that much more could come from. If so, converting the assault on these individuals into chants and slogans probably isn’t very productive, since we probably have millions of appropriate targets for those approaches.

To summarize my understanding of Keith’s and Jensen’s position:

  1. Keith’s and Jensen’s stance begins with the idea that gender is entirely socially constructed.
  2. Under patriarchy, everyone’s gendering is largely (even entirely) a product of patriarchy.
  3. They envision a world without patriarchy, and therefore one where patriarchy would not contribute to anyone’s gendered subject formation.
  4. Therefore, they envision a world where it’s likely far more (perhaps all) people would be comfortable in the bodies they were born with.
  5. Based on this, they therefore hope that those persons not rely on the medical-industrial complex’s pharmacology and surgeries to become comfortable.
  6. Their motivation is partly because they want to do away, entirely, with the medical industrial complex.
  7. But they are also motivated by seeing these pharmaceutical and surgical procedures to be a physical torture and mutilation in response to the psychological torture and trauma of patriarchy.
  8. They take a turn here, though, by taking their imagined future situation and projecting it into the present, to guide the way people can and should behave now.
  9. On this basis, they think that it’s wrong for people to use hormone treatments, have surgeries, and so forth, now.

Continue reading

Genetic modification of foods is a contemporary form of biopower

I have to admit that discussions of genetic modification of foods is an issue I’ve never been interested in addressing. It seems as though the issue is confronted from every angle and from global governance to local grassroots groups. Further, it would seem that the debate is part of everyday discussion in households, neighborhoods and workplaces all over. With documentaries like Food, Inc., The Future of Food, King Corn, and so on, even people who hate reading those cover stories in their mainstream news rags covering the controversy can supplement their news viewing covering the issue on nearly any channel.

It would seem to make sense that the issue has become commonplace. About half the hectares in the world that are planted with genetically modified seed are in the United States. Genetically modified corn and soybeans are rapidly becoming the supermajority of those crops grown in this country.

Considering the global picture, 74% of GM crops are in affluent nations. That’s interesting considering that GMO advocates argue that genetic modification is a boon to the world’s poor. While intellectual property contributes to this situation, the significant cost of R&D and development of technical expertise require significant infrastructures that advantage the global rich. Progressive liberals and socialists might suggest that the barriers to the benefits of GM foods reaching the world’s poor is a matter of political economy, this argument depends on a very simplistic understanding of bureaucracy and technology.

As mentioned above, some GMO crops account for the majority of those grown in the U.S., but add to that an increasing rate of organic crops contaminated with invasive GMO seed and pollens. The U.S. has done almost nothing to protect non-GMO farmers and invested millions in protecting Monsanto and other large firms, not only to invade ecosystems and other farms with their experimental crops (for which the longterm effects are unknown), but also to open up other markets around the world for both production and consumption.

While many pay much justified attention to the wars fought against deterritorialized enemies that end up costing millions of lives and trillions of dollars, and many raise the reasonable concern for health and environmental risks of GMOs, we haven’t done enough to recognize and discuss genetic modification as a contemporary form of biopower or to address a new form of imperialism that colonizes organisms and ecosystems in addition to human geographies.

Vandana Shiva has done much to point in this direction, but her essentializing of a pure state of nature that is invaded upon is added to her transcendental discourse to rub many critical theorists the wrong way, and for good reason. But she’s on to something that may be a slight translation away from a useful analysis of the biopolitical situation in genetic modification. Food politics is not an area I’m interested in investing much specific attention, but I would urge those who are to develop this kind of analysis (in concert with others — I wouldn’t suggest any one approach is complete).

And while I think the political economic often misses both the technological dimension and matters of the physical control of bodies, the biopolitical often combines with the political economic in productive ways. So, while most acknowledge that the oil economy is fully dependent upon the war machine, we should recognize that similarly the food economy is dependent upon a violent, colonizing complex that functions much like war. This consideration is only amplified when we recognize that agribusiness and the oil economy are intimately wedded to one another.

What do we do with this? Well, I think we need to develop a critical analysis that better understands the political dimensions of genetic modification. The issue has been framed in ways that either essentialize a natural condition or are wedded to progressive liberal politics. (I’ll just assume my reader is following with me on why both of these are unfavorable.) It would be a political and analytic failure to say that what we need is government intervention and regulation, because the existing development of GMOs and agribusiness was and is heavily dependent upon a very involved government — it could not have existed otherwise.

It has often been small farmers and radical environmentalists who have disrupted business-as-usual and sparked the initial debates that have captured so much attention. This is one avenue where support is needed and worthy. In addition, we also might consider the origins and motives behind contemporary biopower and recognize where there are connections between instances, for instance between mass incarceration (of millions of human bodies in the U.S.) and the over 115mil hectares of land planted with GM crops.

My colleague at RPI, Jon Cluck, noted yesterday a curious connection in what he referred to as the “microbiopolitical”: ‘shooting beams of radiation into things means “safety” for both the TSA and the USDA.’ This considerations give a whole new dimension to micropolitics that need to be explored intellectually — and intervened in politically.

On Technology and Human Agency

A perennial debate in technology studies is over the question of agency and determinism. Does technology drive history? Is technology socially constructed? Who or what exercises agency in sociotechnical development? In this blog, I summarize and analyze the ideas that have emerged from this debate that I find most useful. Specifically, I  touch on the work of Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner.

For Ellul, “when technique enters into every area of life, including the human, it ceases to be external to man and becomes his very substance.”[1] Donna Haraway has taken this point to the extreme, suggesting that humans are cyborgs, inextricably linked to their devices, not only to participate in social life, but in their conceptions of self.[2] “This transformation, so obvious in modern society,” wrote Ellul, “is the result of the fact that technique has become autonomous.”[3] By autonomous, Ellul meant that “technique pursues its own course more and more independently of man.”[4] Humans are directed to technical ends by their reliance upon its means for every aspect of their lives, whereby humans are “reduced to the level of a catalyst…”[5] It is not technology alone that requires this relationship, but the role of technology in society. “When technique enters into the realm of social life, it collides ceaselessly with the human being to the degree that the combination of man and technique is unavoidable, and that technical action necessarily results in a determined result.[6] This characterization has led some to dismiss Ellul’s philosophy as “technological determinism.” Winner rejects that Ellul commits to determinism, and finds utility in this approach – that of autonomous technology – when he presents Ellul’s vision “that technology is somehow out of control by human agency.”[7] In this view, “far from being controlled by the desired and rational ends of human beings, technology in a real sense now governs its own course, speed, and destination.”[8] Ellul argued that “there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy.”[9] Continue reading

Techno-utopians, then and now

“the wealth of networks is just as concentrated as financial wealth.”


Techno-utopianism has a history that extends beyond the widespread use of the personal computer. The champions of the PC itself have a past that extend into the 1960s counterculture. In this blog, I examine the relationship of the Whole Earth Network to the techno-utopianism of today.

The Whole Earth Network emerged not only out of 1960s counterculture, but also out of new modes of work and organization that emerged during and after WWII. These modes stressed collaboration, flexibility, and, at times, decentralization. “[M]embers of the Whole Earth network helped reverse the political valence of information and information technology and turn computes into emblems of countercultural revolution,” writes Turner. “At the same time, however, they legitimated a metamorphosis within – and a widespread diffusion of – the core cultural styles of military-industrial-academic technocracy that their generation had sought to undermine” (2006, p. 238). This network, which Turner refers to as the New Communalists,” began with “the bohemian artists of cold war Manhattan and San Francisco, and later the hippies of Haight-Ashbury and the youthful back-to-the-landers,” which later in the 1980s and 1990s became the pioneers of internet culture. Contrary to the New Left, the New Communalists “in fact embraced technocentric optimism, the information theories, and the collaborative work style of the research world” (p. 240). Continue reading

Autonomous Technics & Civilization: Mumford and Winner in conversation

In Technics & Civilization, among Mumford’s other work, he develops a rich historical account of technological development. Being “the last generalist,” I would imagine unfamiliar readers today might be surprised by Mumford’s ability to eloquently transcend disciplinary boundaries among sociology, anthropology and history. He was particularly skilled at conveying nuance and the important interactions among environment, artifacts, techniques, human organization, labor, infrastructure and so forth. Additionally, Mumford articulates an approach to ‘social construction’ that avoids the solipsistic idealism now popular. Instead, technics and society are constantly engaged in remaking one another – and confining and constraining one another. Certain innovations are either promoted with vigor and others stalled or abandoned because technics serves the worldview and values of the society that shapes it. Simultaneously, existing technics transform how we see and relate to ourselves, one another and our environment. This process is shaped by values, as specific paths are chosen among others because they fit the ethics and motives of those steering innovation, but also as the material, machinic and organizational demands of existing technics. Winner’s discussion of autonomous technology carries a similar theme to the latter point, addressing specifically how existing technical systems create demands of their users and the society in which they are embedded. Social reproduction in a highly complex technological society generates a considerable momentum for increasing the role of technology in social and individual life, an apparently out-of-control juggernaut. Mumford demonstrates that this has deep historical roots, particularly over the last 1,000 years. This is not the experience of industrial society, but the experience of civilization in toto. Continue reading

“The Whole World Is Watching”: Protest Videos as Techno-Fix

“People don’t want to get involved. They’d rather watch on TV,” said Troy Simmons, 47, who joined demonstrators as he left work. [1]

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

The crowd resounds, chanting condemnation in unison to an army of police abusing Occupy Wall Street protesters.They are, of course, referring to a contingent of protesters and media armed with still and video cameras, who appear to outnumber those protesters without.

Let’s consider this chant, and what’s being said. Continue reading

The Crisis and The Way Out Of It: What We Can Learn From Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street movement more effectively addresses the cause of the financial crisis than economists and discussions in the mainstream press. Further, this movement embodies democratic solutions for a way beyond the crisis. This essay focuses on Occupy Wall Street’s facilitating of political action from disparate, heterogeneous partisans; increasing of transparency and participation in decision-making; and relying upon both human-scaled and participatory technologies. Through these processes, the Occupy Wall Street micro-community embodies a vision for a pluralistic, direct democratic society and demonstrates it through practice. Continue reading

Selling the lie: will the technophiles eat their own virtual hats?

When Kirkpatrick Sale was finishing up Rebels Against the Future, he was interviewed by Kevin Kelly for Wired.[1] This interview, however, became more of a debate, between a technophile and someone urging caution and limits with regard to technology – a neo-Luddite.

Kelly begins by wondering whether the Luddites accomplished anything “other than arson and a lot of vandalism.” Perhaps a brief history is in order for some of my more casual readers. Even Kelly doesn’t seem to understand the Luddites, as he claims:

The Luddite cottagers thought it was inhuman to be put out of work by machines. But what’s really inhuman is to have cloth made by human labor at all. Cloth should be made by machines, because machines make much better cloth than humans. Making cloth is not a good job for humans… Continue reading

Economics without people

The fastest growing area in the social sciences: economics! Since all human behavior is thought to be able to be boiled down to processes of exchange, some economists see themselves as those most social of the social scientists, or at the very least the most fundamental (and fundamentally important). Economists believe they are studying the most rudimentary of human functions. But they seem to have devised an economics without people. Continue reading