Biopolitics, unlike other conceptual rubrics such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, or the subaltern, does not contain a singular theoretical origin. While Michel Foucault is often cited as the progenitor of contemporary biopolitical thought, a number of other theorists and philosophers have also been credited with significantly shaping its critical lineage, from Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and Achille Mbembe. By extension, the relation between biopolitics and Asian America is an open-ended one, insofar as no one set of theoretical terms or axioms grounds this relation. Moreover, insofar as biopolitics in its widest sense encompasses the intersection of politics and life, including the inverse of life, its domain is potentially infinite. The conjunctions between biopolitics and Asian America, then, can be defined tactically through the following questions: what are some prominent motifs and concerns within Asian American history, culture, and scholarship that may be illuminatingly narrated within a biopolitical framework? Conversely, how have Asian American writers and scholars themselves analyzed these nexuses, and in what directions have they developed their inquiries? Finally, what does an Asian Americanist criticism bring to the study of biopolitics? These questions can be usefully pursued via three thematics that have formed core concerns for Asian American studies: orientalist exoticism and exhibitions of the Asian body, associations of the Asian body with pollution and disease, and structures of US governmental power over Asian bodies and populations. Asian Americanist criticism has often centered on analyses of the body as a site for the production of racial difference, whether or not they explicitly adopt a biopolitical theoretical lexicon. What Asian Americanist engagements with biopolitics bring to biopolitical thought is a spotlighting of intersectional politics—the insight that the politics of life never simply operates in relation to abstract bodies but always occurs within power economies of race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and other forms of social difference and stratification. Conversely, biopolitical theories allow Asian Americanist criticism to develop in multiple new directions, from medical humanities and disability studies to science and technology studies, from animal studies to post-human feminisms, from diaspora studies to surveillance studies. Ultimately, an ethical impetus and an orientation toward justice continue to animate Asian Americanist critical practices, which hold out the promise of a positive biopolitics within prevailing paradigms of negative biopower.
Although frequently associated with the digital era, data is an epistemological concept and representational form that has intersected with the narration of lives for centuries. With the rise of Baconian empiricism, methods of collecting discrete observations became the predominant way of knowing the physical world in Western epistemology. Exhaustive data collection came to be seen as the precursor to ultimate knowledge, theorized to have the potential to reveal predictive patterns without the intervention of human theory. Lives came to be seen as potential data collections, on the individual and the social level. As individuals have come to see value in collecting the data of their own lives, practices of observing and recording the self that characterize spiritual and diaristic practices have been inflected by a secular epistemology of data emphasizing exhaustivity in collection and self-improvement goals aimed at personal wellness and economic productivity. At the social level, collecting data about human lives has become the focus of a range of academic disciplines, governmental structures, and corporate business models. Nineteenth-century social sciences turned toward data collection as a method of explanation and prediction in earnest, and these methods were especially likely to be focused on the lives of minoritized populations. Theories of racial identity and difference emerging from such studies drew on the rhetoric of data as unbiased to enshrine white supremacist logic and law. The tendency to use data to categorize and thereby direct human lives has continued and manifests in 21st-century practices of algorithmic identification. At both the individual and social scales of collection, though, data holds the formal and epistemological potential to challenge narrative singularity by bringing the internal heterogeneity of any individual life or population into view. Yet it is often used to argue for singular revelation, the assignment of particular narratives to particular lives. Throughout the long history of representing lives as data in Western contexts, life writers have engaged with data conceptually and aesthetically in multiple ways: experimenting with its potential for revelation, critiquing its abstraction and totalization, developing data collection projects that are embodied and situated, using data to develop knowledge in service of oppressed communities, calling attention to data’s economic and political power, and asserting the narrative multiplicity and interpretive agency inherent in the telling of lives.
Claire A. Culleton
For almost four decades, from 1936 to 1972, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, fueled by intense paranoia and fear, hounded and relentlessly pursued a variety of American writers and publishers in a staunch effort to control the dissemination of literature that he thought threatened the American way of life. In fact, beginning as early as the Red Scare of 1919, he managed to control literary modernism by bullying and harassing writers and artists at a time when the movement was spreading quickly in the hands of an especially young, vibrant collection of international writers, editors, and publishers. He, his special agents in charge, and their field agents worked to manipulate the relationship between state power and modern literature, thereby “federalizing,” to a point, political surveillance. There still seems to be a resurgence of brute state force that is omnipresent and going through all matters and aspects of our private lives. We are constantly under surveillance, tracked, and monitored when engaged in even the most mundane activities. The only way to counter our omnipresent state surveillance is to monitor the monitors themselves.