In the last post I ended with the problem that biopolitics has to acknowledge a constructive aspect of public health that is not merely control of a vital impulse nor a collapse of the science of biology and the control technologies of governments. One concept that is important in this tension is that of population. (I am setting aside the economic-demographic notion though not completely).

Population in biology has a complicated history but now tends to mean a spatial cluster of a particular species. This then begs the question of how does one define species as there is not an adequate definition though a group of individuals that can breed (which is Ernst Mayr’s definition) is quite common. Though as Godfrey-Smith and others have pointed out this is not uncomplicated.

Continue reading ‘What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics? (pt 3)’


So last time I set up this progression:

1-Teleological (Kant, Blumenbach)

2-Functional (Cuvier, Bernard)

3-Organizational (Schelling, Herder)

4-Morphological (Goethe, Oken, St-Hilaire)

The bio-political (in the negative sense) of these could be:

1-Anthropological Racism (Races or Cultures are seen as more or less advanced)

2-Physiologies of Health (Disciplined body as ‘healthy’ productive body)

3-National Organicism (Healthy society is harmonious and homogeneous)

4-Monsters and Mistakes (Outsiders and mutations are an ‘error’ to be corrected)

As I wrote here, these clusters compact and rearrange themselves through the 19th century.

The constructive aspects of these clusters in a bio-political sense seems to be:

1-Life is goal oriented in a regional sense (Korsgaard)

2-Health is internal to the organism, not mapable onto an ideal form (Canguilhem)

3-Nature is self-organizational but across all layers (organic, inorganic, etc) (Schelling, Simondon, Ruyer)

4-Structure is contingent but directs contingency unexpectedly as it accumulates (Thom, Waddington)

I think we can look at the last two clusters in relation to Covid-19 in the following way. 

1-The virus is Chinese and/or a Chinese bio-weapon

2-The virus is from poor hygiene and ‘strange’ eating habits

3-The virus is nature’s revenge

4-The virus is a temporary bad flu

Continue reading ‘What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics (pt 2)’


Given Agamben’s recent gaff and some of the responses to it, it seems important to ask what is the bio- in biopolitics (as I ended the last post)? The problem is not only that certain trends in contemporary biology have dominated the popular perception of it (internal and external to the discipline itself) but also that biopolitics often has tighter alliances to lebensphilosophie or 20th century vitalism than to actual biology.

It also has become apparent that biopolitics was, at least in the ill-defined west, only a thin veneer on marketization of life. Data that could be used for public health was mostly just used to sell and advertise. Full-fledged biopolitics was thus too expensive and was just window dressing on already-existing ideologies (a means to control immigration, politicization of non-normative bodies etc).

Again as I already wrote about the fact that eugenics balked at the difficulty of actually tracking the traits they wished to promote meant that they used biological rhetoric but far less modern and pseudo-scientific concepts. The fact that the nazis embraced and then abandoned Darwinism for using blood as a marker of purity is one of the most clear cases of this.

Continue reading ‘What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics? (pt 1)’

Flattened Herds



Flattening the curve and herd immunity are terms that are being thrown around quite a bit during the last few days. The former refers to getting the number of cases down so that they do not overwhelm the carrying capacity of a given countries’ health care system while the latter refers to the notion that enough immune individuals protect the vulnerable through sheer numbers. As pointed out here the first makes dubious assumptions about what carrying capacity means as it is limited as much or more by objects (beds and ventilators) than by a general notion of how many patients can be treated by hospitals.

The notion of herd immunity has been trotted out by UK officials as a strategy to basically accept most people will get infected and that this will lead to a faster herd immunity. Of course, as many others have pointed out, this means risking the lives of all of those more susceptible until immunity occurs (and no one seems to be able to say how long that takes though adaptive immunity can occur in weeks). The phrase herd immunity usually refers to a population’s collective immunity post-vaccine not acquired by immune systems alone. In addition, viruses mutate faster then immune systems adapt (hence why flu shots have to be consistently re-engineered).

Obviously these dovetail in the event that you need humans to adjust and expand the carrying capacity of hospitals and produce and distribute the devices required (Germany for instance is utilizing the military to gather and distribute ventilators). And if you let 60-70% of a population get sick who is going to be able to isolate and protect the elderly, immuno-deficient etc.?

Continue reading ‘Flattened Herds’


Reading through science studies, sts, history of science, and philosophy of science it is easy to lose all sense of what science is to the fields that attempt to study it. The multiplication of philosophy of fields of science (such as philosophy of chemistry or philosophy of biology) also begs the question of what is philosophy of science in a general form…does it make any sense to take about philosophy of science other than as a collection of types of theory applied to specific sciences?

Furthermore, the type of philosophy applied to any given science puts the field into narrower and narrower spaces as philosophy of science tends to mean analytic philosophy of science while continental philosophy of science is usually viewed as science and technology studies or sociology of science. The French tradition of continental philosophy of science is a partial exception (Koyre, Bachelard, Canguilhem etc) but it is more and more treated as a bygone form of post-war philosophy that transformed into a type of social constructivism (a la Latour).

If there was a general philosophy of science it would seem pulled between a general epistemology and a general metaphysics. But then immediately we can ask is this any different from epistemology and metaphysics as such? In the analytic context it would seem that the answer is ‘no’ but for the continental tradition it is ‘yes.’ Yet how this question can be answered in this split fashion relies upon a very different attitude towards the history of science and the conceptual consequences of that history vis a vis the disciplinary divide of philosophy from science.

Continue reading ‘Conceptual History of Biology (pt2)’


Agent: Teleomechanism

Theories: Epigenesis/Preformation

Temporal Dimension: Natural History

Figures: Blumenbach, Kant

Agent: Self-Organization

Theory: Life force/Vital matter

Temporal Dimension: History of Nature

Figures: Herder, Kielmeyer, Schelling

Agent: Function

Theory: Degeneration/Transformation

Temporal Dimension: Catastrophe

Figures: Stahl, von Haller, Cuvier, Bichat

Agent: Morphology

Theory: Metamorphosis/Archetypes

Temporal Dimension: Gradualism

Figures: Goethe, St-Hilaire, Oken

This is a working draft of a map of biological or pre-biological concepts at work especially in the 18th-19th century (at least up to Darwin). The idea is to find clusters of concepts that fit together and hope to draw some traces of influence also across national lines. Some of the more known figures in naturalism and early biology are well known specifically because they synthesized or attempted to synthesize two clusters of concepts.

Lamarck, I would argue, attempts to synthesize the left side of the grid in that soft inheritance in terms of use/disuse is a type of extended functionalism while combined with a transformationist force of complexification. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species synthesizes the bottom clusters of concepts combining the locality of functionalist adaptation with the developlemental side of the bottom right morphological program (and early cell theory). Thus fitness is extracted from the bottom left (and combined with Malthusian population concerns) while the bottom right concepts grounds inheritance and the gradualism of deep time.

Continue reading ‘Conceptual History of Biology (part 1)’


Last time I wrote about (among other things) how the mistake of confusing the normal with the healthy should not be merely combined with a critique of the biometric approach in biology (or even more generally the mathematization of life). Canguilhem is well known for repeating over and over the impossibility of equating the normal and the healthy though he does this less in terms of a critique of statistical analysis in neo-Darwinism but by way of his own philosophy of the concept. In other words, it is on historical-conceptual grounds that healthy and normal should not be collapsed not necessarily because of the political misuse (or biopolitical imperative) smuggled within the shift from healthy to normal but because they invoke very different epistemological relations between concepts and practices. We can also say this makes it easy for Foucault to later extract these concepts and discuss the history and structure of hospital separate from the more particular experimental and clinical examples focused on by Canguilhem.

Canguilhem cites the famous physiologist Charles Bernard again and again throughout his career in relation to such a problem since for Bernard there is no perfect organism – he famously quipped he had never seen health only instances of not quite healthy specimens. But, also as mentioned in the last post, this does not guarantee any safety for the specimens declared less than perfect (as Bernard was infamous for his vivisectional brutality). Bernard’s functionalism is in this sense both highly empirical and yet always claims to be in a service of a ideal type as guiding principle – the empirical fails to be the ideal but only the empirical can give hints and lay out trails towards it.

Continue reading ‘Shiny Flesh – Ideals in biology’


A long erratic path has led me back to looking at biology and bio-philosophy as part of a book project on the relationship between German Romanticism/Naturphilosophie and French Structuralism and Materialism. Having read both analytic Philosophy of Biology (especially Grene and Depew) and various Bio-Philosophies (Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Canguilhem’s Knowledge of Life, various Deleuzian takes etc) it seems that there is not only the usual continental/analytic rift at work but a serious gap regarding the post-Darwinian pre-Modern synthesis story about the relation of philosophy and biology.

While some continental theorists touch up the neo-vitalists (such as Driesch) or celebrate the complexity of cell theorists (such as Deleuze on Weissman) little attention is paid to how the disagreement between Mendelians and Neo-Darwinians were shaped by previous debates as well as then contemporary worries about the status of biology as a science. Those who rediscovered the work of Mendel (such as de Vries) were generally seen as non-gradualist evolutionary theorists or mutationists (believing that the genes and alleles meant for the possibility of saltationism or evolution by jumps. This view which is often seen as fortified by William Bateson (father of the cybernetician/anthropologist Gregory Bateson) is opposed to the work of bio-statisticians or bio-metricists (such as Galton, Pearson, and Weldon) who used statistical methods to prove, in a somewhat reverse sense, the existence of natural selection.

The disagreement in part was about treating genes as a kind of force or driver for natural selection, as instigating morphological change at a pace rapider than Darwin predicted or whether changes in populations could be seen as natural selection looking at the movement between communities of breeders and how traits could develop depending on population distribution. These positions while opposed on their general view of Darwinism were synthesized since the metrics of the biostatisticians could be seen as measuring the patterns of tendencies of genes while emphasis on genes allowed one to explain how selective material was transmitted hereditarily.

The critique of many biophilosophers of these approaches (when they are addressed at all – instead often one simply looks at Darwin or Cuvier or Buffon) is that it does not account for the force of life or the source of creativity (this is part of Bergson’s critique of Darwin – that there is no real account of creativity). But Bergson ( who was actually better versed than many of his philosophical contemporaries in then current biology such as neo-Lamarckianism and neo-Darwinism of the late 19th century) of course would have rejected such mathematical approaches out of hand even though they, in essence, make the flow of genes and the organisms that bear them the force of creativity itself.

Continue reading ‘Philosophy of Biology/Bio-Philosophy’


Elvia Wilk’s novel Oval is about a green-washed near-future Berlin that moves straight into disaster without anyone seeming to notice it is too late, without anyone talking about the actual problems around them. All the characters seem too invested with a narrow vision of their immediate situations, of wondering about their social circles, with small pleasures of distraction. The main character Anja is the only one who seems capable of developing real solutions to climate change and yet we see what is possible only towards the end and when things already seem too dire. Why don’t we find out more about her work, why is she so worried about her boyfriend, what actually happens in the end?

Of course most of the knee-jerk reactions to the novel feel like they could be succumbing to traps (and some hints to this are explicit in the book). At one point in the novel it is mentioned that women are seen as being too emotion or caring to much about relationships which should warn us about reading Anja’s portrayal that way. The world that leads to disaster is one of men who are comfortable before, during, and after, who are giving funds and support for solutions that seem radical when in fact they are merely a shiny-looking shortcut.

The near future Berlin of the novel does seem familiar but only in a few details but this is not because it has radically changed rather it is because a place where everyone lives but never lives in (ex-pats who work elsewhere) is reflected in the Berg itself. The Berg (an artificial mountain eco-living collective community built on the ruins of Templehof) is a fantasy island/housing development. Nothing works quite right but that’s (at least in part) because no one follows the rules. People leave and work and consume normally but enforce micro-discipline when it comes to the garbage (or owning pets). Berlin is lived in for its short term cultural life but not really lived in – the Berg is a eco exception zone that does not really mean the people on it ‘are’ ecological.

If I have a criticism of the novel it is that the time it spends too much time lampooning the art world. It is not that the art world does not deserve this (it does) it rather that I think that the art world does a good enough job making fun of itself most of the time.

The strongest take away from reading the novel for me was this: Anja and Louis both demonstrate – the ecological crisis seems to necessitate the growing of roots but this makes us too often mistrust technological solutions in social isolation as well as social-engineering as if it is a straight forward affair or hopelessly manipulative.  The novel also makes clear that this distortion has more than a few feminist concerns – and that part of this requires changing one’s perception of feminism as stuck in 2nd wave performativity. Part of the hope of the novel is that there can be an eco-feminism which is sufficiently weird and sufficiently technological.

Note: I also was not sure how to draw the threads between the novel and Wilk’s non-fiction other than (as others have pointed out) to insist that Anja is infected by her eco house and that, at the same time, Louis could have drugged himself and others in to being socially empathic. There is still much territory to be explored in terms of the relation between ecological and the weird. There is an old text of mine here as well as the work of Ali Sperling among others.

There is a well known letter that Mark Twain wrote to his friend Joe Twichell soon after the death of Twain’s wife ‘Livy’ which constantly returns to me. It has come to my mind more and more recently as I have had too many occasions to think about the death of someone I knew. In the letter Twain writes:

“Dear Joe,

‘How life and the world – the past and future – are looking – to me? (A part of each day and night) as they have been looking to me for the past 7 years: as being NON-EXISTENT. That is, that there is nothing. That there is no god and no universe; that there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible thought. And that I am that thought. And God and the Universe and Time and Life and Death and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that insane thought.”

Twain’s words are repeated in various versions of his last and unfinished work the mysterious stranger. Satan seems to endorse’s Twain’s notion that the only certainty is oblivion and that life is a vapor, a delusion, a dream. Yet we are in that dream and what does it mean to think the dream from within a dream, to think the limit of thought if thought imposes its own limit in its dreamy non-logic? The oldest (or certainly one of the oldest) problems of philosophy is that of the unfortunate lot of mortals being trapped between thinking about that which is and that which is not.

Continue reading ‘Idealism, Solipsism, and the Mournful Mind’