I don’t have the time to flesh all of this out as I’m in the middle of grading, but I wanted to raise the question of just how much we’ve managed to think the materiality of power. Among us critical theorists it seems that the term “materialism” functions as a sort of shibbolith, a term d’art that everyone must embrace to participate in these discussions. The odd thing is that much of our critical theory– when evaluated from the standpoint of the tradition descended from Democritus –doesn’t look very materialist. We spend a lot of time analyzing discourses, language, ideologies, and institutions, investigating how these things exercise control and power, yet oddly these things don’t look particularly material. Indeed, they look downright idealist when you think about it. The premise seems to be that if we can just debunk these things then people will change their ways. In other words, political and social change seems to occur at the level of beliefs or thought.
I hasten to add that the issue here is complicated. If materialism is true and only matter and void exist, if it is true that mind is brain and that everything that is requires a material carrier to act in the world, then it follows that beliefs, institutions, ideologies, language, and institutions are themselves material entities. I’ve tried to develop this point in my discussions of simulacra on this blog on prior occasions. Recognition of the materiality of things like signs and ideologies leads us to consider things that we might otherwise overlook in the functioning of power. In addition to the content-based analysis of ideologies, epistemes, discourses, and systems of signs, we’re led to attend to the speed and geographical range presiding over messages or information, the bandwidth required for a particular message to be integrated or processed by a cognitive or social system, the calories and energy required for messages to both be understood and transmitted and so on. Speed, range, and bandwidth are forms of power that pertain not to the content of a message or sign, but to the sign purely as a material entity that must conquer time and space to exercise its power and that must contend with requirements of energy and calories to function. For example, empires would not have been possible without writing, and this not by virtue of what the writing said, but by virtue of what writing is. Writing allows shared identity and regulation to be produced across large geographical expanses in a way that’s simply not possible without speech. Writing, however, must deal with issues of bandwidth with respect to human brains and social systems: it must navigate what brains and social systems are able to process and integrate in a timely and integrative fashion. The greater the difficulty of the message, the greater the likelihood the message will be coded as noise, thereby having no social-genetic effects. It is likely that these bandwidth and energetic issues are actually measurable, allowing for predictions as to whether or not messages structured in particular ways will be capable of selecting/affecting system states for a social system.
But I digress. There’s another form of material power we barely attend to at all. Today in The Atlantic Emily Badger discusses the short and long term effects of poverty on the brain. As she writes,
Poverty shapes people in some hard-wired ways that we’re only now beginning to understand. Back in August, we wrote about some provocative new research that found that poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain. It sucks up so much mental bandwidth – capacity spent wrestling with financial trade-offs, scarce resources, the gap between bills and income – that the poor have fewer cognitive resources left over to succeed at parenting, education, or work. Experiencing poverty is like knocking 13 points off your IQ as you try to navigate everything else. That’s like living, perpetually, on a missed night of sleep.
Those who grew up poor later had impaired brain function as adults—a disadvantage researchers could literally see in the activity of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex on an fMRI scan. Children who were poor at age 9 had greater activity in the amygdala and less activity in the prefrontal cortex at age 24 during an experiment when they were asked to manage their emotions while looking at a series of negative photos. This is significant because the two regions of the brain play a critical role in how we detect threats and manage stress and emotions.
Poor children, in effect, had more problems regulating their emotions as adults (regardless of what their income status was at 24). These same patterns of “dysregulation” in the brain have been observed in people with depression, anxiety disorders, aggression and post-traumatic stress disorders.
This is a very different kind of power than the sort we find Zizek analyzing under the title of ideology, Horkheimer and Adorno analyzing with respect to things like the culture-industry, Lyotard with his critiques of master-narratives, Lacan with his analysis of the agency of the signifier, or that deployed by Derrida in his critique of foundational operations governing our thought and culture. Perhaps Foucault comes closest to analyzing this form of power with respect his final work on biopower, but even there the focus is more on discourses pertaining to life and ways of controlling life, rather than what is going on at the organic level.
What we have here is a form of power that assaults the very fabric of the organism in its organic being– not at the level of the “lived body” of say Merleau-Ponty –and that developmentally forms that body in the ways that define that of which it is capable. There’s a strange blurring of the nature/culture divide that’s very difficult to think about. Clearly the milieu in which these bodies develop has strong semiotic or cultural components, but these things are not just signs. Diet, for example, is structured by culture in all sorts of ways, but the developmental effects of diet on the body and nervous system are all too real and play a role in defining that of which a person is cognitively and enactively capable.
We need tools for critically thinking about these forms of power and, above all, for responding to them. As always, the issue is not one of rejecting the tools of semiopolitics. It’s not being suggested that we should reject Zizek, Adorno, Lacan, Lyotard, Derrida, and so on. It’s a question of recognizing the limitations of these analyses of power and the practices that issue from them, while also recognizing the importance of these critiques in their proper domain of thought and practice. Sometimes it seems to me that critical theorists become very defensive whenever it’s suggested that there are other forms of power that they’re overlooking and that play a key role in maintaining patterns of power, negentropic systems, that define oppression within our social system. I find these forms of power terrifying as they’re simultaneously so intimate and yet so alien– no one can really recognize that their “spirit is a bone” –but nonetheless, there they are and all sorts of work in neurology and developmental systems theory in biology attests to their existence. What tools need we develop to bring these ambient fields into greater relief and what practices can we enact to combat them?