Hyper Obedience, Malicious Compliance and NYC Cycling

In Security, Territory, Population Foucault analyses a number of themes of counter-conduct in relation to the Christian pastorate. Choosing counter-conduct, rather than dissidence, Foucault is drawing attention to the way relations of power shape and invest the body, postures, comportment and conduct. To resist these relations, they need to be countered with practices and strategies that “redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth”.

One such strategy is hyper-obedience – an “exaggerated and exorbitant element” of obedience. This is not merely disobedience against an authority, but an intimate work of the self on the self that disrupts the pastors authority.

Foucault describes this strategy as  “a sort of close combat of the individual with himself in which the authority, presence, and gaze of someone else is, if not impossible, at least unnecessary.” In adopting the countering-conduct of hyper-obedience the individual or group “stifles obedience through the excess of prescriptions and challenges that the individual addresses to himself.”

The logic of hyper-obedience is articulated more precisely by Gary Ransom, a change management consultant. When asked “What kind of obstacles should business leaders anticipate as they endeavour to manage change?” Ransom responds:

[T]here are even worse things than outright resistance. One of our financial services clients coined the term “malicious compliance”… essentially, doing exactly what’s asked of you – no more, no less. Malicious compliance can be a killer because it’s hard to reprimand and because it undermines the credibility of the whole process. People come back to you and say, “See? I did just what you asked, and look at how it screwed things up”.

In doing the very thing that is being asked, the employee frustrates the goals and processes of the authority asking them to act in a particular way. A similar approach has been suggested by Matthew Woessner in response to Penn State University’s wellness plan. According to Woessner the plan requires all staff to

“complete an online wellness profile” as well as undergo a “preventive physical exam” designed to “help employees and their spouse or same-sex domestic partner learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”

Failure to do this will result in a $100 monthly surcharged deducted from the employees paycheck. Woessner calls on his colleagues to resist not through disobedience, but compliance. He proposes that employees fill out forms with volumes of irrelevant “lifestyle” information and use personal doctors rather than the insurers mobile medical teams. According to Woessner,

if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable. (More details here).

Woessner calls this approach civil disobedience. I would suggest it is hyper-obedience. But whatever it is, I hope it works.

Here is another humorous example:

Gary Ransom and Tom Knighton, “Stepping up to the challenge of change,” Managing Service Quality 6, no. 5 (1996): p.13.

see Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. (p. 200 – 201)

Neoliberal Public Health and the Rhetoric of War

If we look beneath…the State and State apparatuses, beneath the laws and so on, will we hear and discover a sort of primitive and permanent war? (Foucault 2000, : 46-47)

At dawn, on 11 November 2008, Julien Coupat was seized by French police and ‘preventively arrested’. French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie regarded Coupat and his associates as ‘pre-terrorists’ part of an ‘anarcho-autonomist cell’ (Anonymous 2008; Nardi 2009). Prior to the raid and arrests of November 2008 Coupat and his eight friends were not ‘pre-terrorists’ but nine individuals seeking to establish an alternate form of life to the consumer-driven existence found in the affluent suburbs of Paris from which they came. Moving to the village of Tarnac the nine grew their own food and “reorganized the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly” {Toscano, 2009 #191}. According to the villagers they were charming ‘self-sufficient students’ (Anonymous 2008). However, when a nearby section of railway was sabotaged through a small explosion the farmhouse transformed into a cell, the individuals into ‘pre-terrorists’ and the friends became known as the Tarnac 9 an anti-capitalist anarchist group with global reach.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations.

Community garden in the Bronx. Anarchist flag amidst the nations. Photo: C. Mayes

The seizure of Coupat as a ‘pre-terrorist’ serves as an example of the political rationality influencing governmental strategies seeking to forecast and control not only threatening events, but pre-empt the very possibility of the events occurrence. The governmental drive to pre-empt, mobilizes the biopolitical seizure of life by taking control of individual bodies and regulating the life of the population. The imperative to target subjects that threaten the security of society produces a need to identify subjects prior to the actualisation of the subject as a threat. For Coupat, his irregular form of life attracted the gaze of the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI), provoking preventive intervention in order to secure the population from a possible terrorist threat. Thus the urgency to prevent a terrorist event provided the conditions in which the production and seizure of ‘pre-terrorist’ subjects is possible.

The identification of pre-terrorists in order to lead a preemptive battle in the war on terror is mirrored by features in the public health’s war on obesity that seeks to identify and target pre-obese bodies in a war on obesity.  Although some may object to the suggestion of parallels between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on obesity’, particularly the comparison between counter-terrorism and public health, however, it is important to note that these comparisons are not my novel creation or the cynical and hyperbolic imaginings of social theorists (Biltekoff 2007). Politicians, public health advocates, health policy makers and the media have drawn metaphorical and literal parallels between the threat to global and national security posed by terrorism and that posed by obesity.  Perhaps the most widely publicised comparison was made by the former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who described obesity in the US as ‘the terror within’ and that ‘[u]nless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9-11 or any other terrorist attempt’ (Carmona 2003). Public health advocates and the media in Australia have also drawn links between the threat of obesity and the threat of terrorism (Bartlett 2008; Gard 2007). These comparisons could be explained as merely misguided attempts to draw on the rhetorical force of the post-9/11 terrorism discourse in order to heighten the urgency for action on obesity. However, I contend that the appeal to war is not merely rhetorical, but indicative of the ambiguous relationship between neoliberal politics, public health and war in the West.

created by Brandon Knowlden, an art director from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com/#/obesity-is-suicide/

“Obesity is Suicide” by Brandon Knowlden from Struck Creative. http://brandonknowlden.com

The militarisation of public health discourse and policy serves as an example of Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s principle that “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” (Foucault 2004, p.48). The appeal to war enables the neoliberal state to justify intervention in the life of the population and individuals as matter of security. Rather than considering the ‘war on obesity’ as merely mirroring the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’, I contend that they share a political rationality that aims to secure the life of the population by pre-empting future threats through acting on subjects prior to their manifestation as an actual threat.

The suggestion that the ‘war on obesity’ and public health campaigns are manifestations of neoliberal political rationality could be seen to jar with critiques that such initiatives are examples of the Nanny or Welfare State. However, while the neoliberal state may withdraw from nationalized financial system, it does not abandon its monopoly on war and violence (Foucault 2004, p.48; Harvey 2009, p.82).

Of course the war waged against terrorism is of a different order to that waged against obesity. While the former requires an explicit appeal to the state’s monopoly on violence, the latter is a ‘peaceful’ continuation of war through a politics that is “perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language and even the bodies of individuals” (Foucault 2004, p.16). The continuation of war through politics “sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war” and instils this disequilibrium in the political institutions and the bodies of individuals.

In launching a ‘war on obesity’, the intervention in the life of the individual and population is framed by the Hobbesian mythos that the state provides security and protection. Considering obesity as threat to be secured and in employing the terms of war, the neoliberal state can justify intervention into the lives of the people. Against the background of the neoliberal monopoly of war the future is secured through the production and governance of subjects in the present. It is here that the wars on obesity, drugs, gangs, poverty and terrors begin to resemble each other.

References

Anonymous. 2008. “Cabbage-patch revolutionaries? The French ‘grocer terrorists’.” The Independent, December 18, 2008.

Bartlett, Lawrence. 2008. “Obesity more dangerous than terrorism: experts.” The Age, February 25, 2008.

Biltekoff, Charlotte 2007. “The Terror Within: Obesity in Post 9/11 U.S. Life.” American Studies no. 48 (3).

Carmona, Richard H. 2003. Remarks to the American Medical Association’s National Advocacy Conference. edited by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Foucault, Michel. 2000. “Society Must Be Defended.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin.

———. 2004. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76

. Translated by David Macey. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. London: Penguin.

Gard, Michael. 2007. “Is the War on Obesity Also a War on Children?” Childrenz Issues: Journal of the Children’s Issues Centre no. 11 (2):20-24.

Harvey, David. 2009. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nardi, Sarah. 2009. The Coming Insurrection. Adbusters, 14/07/2009.

No Opinion: A lesson in silence from Cambodia and Kierkegaard’s lilies

Yesterday, Cambodia held a general election. It appears, as most commentators expected, Prime Minister Hun Sen will continue his 28 year rein. However, the opposition – Cambodia National Rescue Party – gained an additional 26 seats (55 in total). I have added little to my knowledge of Cambodian politics since high school classes on Indochina, at a time when Hun Sen was still in the early stages of his career. So I am not trying offer any analysis of these election results. My interest however is in a report that the Cambodian people are not too fond of opinion polls.

Unlike Australia, where opinion polls seem to be conducted on a daily basis and have the power to overthrow Prime Ministers, in the lead up to the Cambodian election there were only two polls. What interests me about these polls is not what was said, but in what was withheld. In the two polls 60% and 21% offered “no opinion”. I do not claim to know why this was the case, it could be due to a variety of factors: fear of expressing an opinion, distrust of the polling agency, or unfamiliarity with the polling process. However, I do think that the “no opinion” option is something alien yet instructive for Australians.

In a Newspoll survey from 1st July 2013 on Federal voting intentions and leaders’ rating only 2% of Australians polled refused to answer. Refusing to give an opinion goes against much of Australian and Western culture. We are all unique individuals. We have voices. We have desires. We have opinions. And they should be heard. Or in the sardonic grist of Harry Callahan, “opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one”. Blogs, facebook, twitter and the humble letters page all reflect the idea that we have opinions that should be heard.

Yet perhaps it is in voicing these opinions, specifically in allowing them to be quantified in opinion polls, that the quality and power of the opinion is eroded. In a society where the cacophony of voices is reduced to quantifiable data, then perhaps it is better to follow Bartleby and respond with – “I would prefer not to”. This strategy obviously has its risk, however perhaps it is time our culture valorized silence and inaction.

In examining the confession, Michel Foucault traces the way power induces speech and “spread its effects far and wide”. The imperative to speak occurs in private and public, in the most intimate relations and “in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life”. Speech, we are told, distinguishes us from the beasts. But speech also makes us a particular kind of beast. According to Foucault “Western man has become a confessing animal“. In response to the imperative to speak, silence and refusal can have a subversive power.

While agreeing that speech “distinguishes man above the beasts” (and the lilies), Søren Kierkegaard does not think this means that “to be able to keep silent is no art”. Kierkegaard invites us to use “the lilies and the birds as teachers” of the art of silence. It is an advantage to be able to resist the temptation to speak and “it is a great art to be able to keep silent”. Perhaps in learning from the lilies and following Bartleby, we can begin to value silence and recognize its political force.

Silence and refusal to answer is not without risk or effort. Bartleby starved. And Kierkegaard notes that it is an art to restrain oneself from speaking, an art that requires practice. However, if this art was more widely practiced, then a refusal to participate in opinion polls could serve to limit their eroding effect on democracy and strengthen speech when it really matters.

Reference

Foucault, The Will to Knowledge, Penguin: 1998, p 59.

Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses and The Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air, and Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays. trans. by Walter Lowrie, D.D. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 1974.

The Trial of Homo Abacus: Security through Calculation

From out of the whirlwind:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

(Job 38: 4-7)

Fate, providence, karma and the “sins of our fathers” are some of the paradigms used to explain disasters – from the micro to the macro. Each paradigm has a certain economy of security – prayer, sacrifice, confession – that wards off (or halts the cycle) of disaster. In this predictive age of the present, however, there is a continual fine-tuning of statistical analyses, scientific measurements, and mathematical models that purport to replace superstitious incantations with scientific exactitude. Prayers are still offered, by some, but like software licensing agreements that are hastily clicked on, earlier economies of security have become a mere formalities. Haollowed practices. Remnants of a simpler past.

Moving away from fatalistic or providential understandings of disaster and toward calculating control has placed human agency at the centre of prediction and prevention. It is not a god that can save or destroy us, but homo abacus. The fallout from recent events such as the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the L’Aquila earthquake demonstrate this shift.

The scientific community, government inquiries and investigative journalists increasingly place human agency in the centre as the cause and control of disaster.[1] Was the Fukushima plant designed and maintained to withstand a tsunami? Did BP, Transocean and Halliburton cut costs in construction and maintenance in order to increase profits? Why didn’t the scientists of the Major Risks Committee predict the effect of the L’Aquila earthquake? The inability for these scientists to adequately answer this final question resulted in jail sentences “for underestimating an earthquake that killed 309 people in the town of L’Aquila in 2009”.[2]  Although natural events undeniably play a role in these scenarios, contemporary security strategies and discourse position human agency as the crucial point on which attempts to govern unknown futures stand or fall.

The purported obesity epidemic is another example. Although in this instance everyone is expected to adopt the practices of homo abacus – the calculating and measuring human. There are obvious differences between the obesity epidemic and the L’Aquila earthquake or Deepwater Horizon disaster. My point is not that they represent equivalent threats to society, but that a similar rationality is in operation that seeks to govern unpredictable and incalculable events that are entwined with human agency. Just as the L’Aquila earthquake cannot be dismissed as tragic natural disaster beyond human control, the obesity epidemic cannot be dismissed as relatively benign social and biological phenomenon that is plateauing.[3] Rather both have provoked countless experts that are producing knowledge, developing techniques and deploying strategies to govern future unknown threats to population health, safety and economic security.

Further, like the scientists of L’Aquila who stood trial and were sentenced for failing to predict the earthquake, each of us are on trial while simultaneously serving as jurors in the trials of others. Although some more so than others. Counting calories in. Counting calories out. Measuring waist circumference. Assessing daily percentage intake. Weighing bodies. Pinching flesh.  Dividing body mass by the square of height. These are some of homo abacus’s (in)calculable duties that secure the self and others. These are the new incantations of control that make us believe we can prevent the whirlwind and answer any questions it may pose.


[1] Risa Maeda, “Japan Fukushima probe urges new disaster prevention steps, mindset,” Reuters, July 23, 2012; Steven Mufson, “BP, Transocean, Halliburton blamed by presidential Gulf oil spill commission,” Washington Post, January 6, 2011.

[2] Sunanda Creagh, “Researchers alarmed by jail sentence for Italian scientists,” The Conversation, October 23 2012.

[3] Michael Gard, The End of the Obesity Epidemic  (New York: Routledge, 2011)., 168

Inviting Judgement: A Note On Everyday Life, Eating and Smartphone Apps

I recently purchased an iPhone for the purpose of researching an app called The Eatery. According to a review from Time The Eatery “asks you to snap a picture of your food, and provides you with a healthiness meter that rates not just your current meal, but your noshing habits over time”. The stated logic of this app is that others are better at judging the healthiness of your food than you are. Over the past 28 days I have snapped 214 meals. Each meal has been assessed by other users along a spectrum from “fat” to “fit”. An aggregate of the individual meal ratings in a week tells me how I ate in comparison to previous weeks, days and other users. For example, in the week of June 3rd I “ate 73% healthy” which was “4% healthier than last week. Thursday was [my] best day, and Monday was [my] worst day.” The more data the more details. I eat most of my meals at home. My “healthiest” meal was at Korean restaurant. And my “unhealthiest” meal was at my parents.

Of course, there are several significant disconnects in all this:

  1. The description and visual representation of the food is not identical to its actual nutritional content. E.g. A meat pie described “homemade” accompanying a well-lit photo gets a healthier rating than a mere meat pie in a dimly lit room.
  2. The “healthiness meter” does not account for the overall diet. E.g. Mandarins and apples get ratings of 90-99%, yet a diet consisting of only mandarins and apples could not be consider “healthy” let alone 99% healthy.
  3. Nutritional health is valued over Well-being. E.g. This app, like many others emphasises the nutritional function of food. Leaving aside the place of exercise in physiological health, food also plays a significant role in individual and communal well-being. One user put a picture of a piece of chocolate cake with the label “My 16th Birthday Cake”. On the scale of “fat-to-fit” this would rate poorly, but is the “health” of a birthday cake only located in its nutritional value or can it include notions of well-being and hold symbolic importance.

There are many other ways to consider this app and the increasing use of smartphones to measure and quantify life. However one of my primary interests is in the way everyday life is increasingly colonized by dual operation of smartphones and biomedical norms of health. Innocuous habits such as snacking on crackers with peanut-butter are not only judged against purported values of nutritional health but we willing offer up these practices for judgement. Not unlike the penitent turning to the confessional, perhaps we recognise a value in having these activities judged and scrutinized by others.

The allusion to the confessional is not incidental. Michel Foucault writes that Western society has become a confessing society. “One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctors, to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell anyone else…Western man has become a confessing animal.”[1] There’ll be more on the confession in a future post, but the point I am currently interested in is the attention given to the mundane and quotidian as effective of social and biomedical reality.

Many aspects of The Eatery and other apps that quantify life through measuring everyday habits are not new. Although food, exercise and health-related activities have been made conspicuous but smartphones, these developments are just the most recent in a long history of interrogating and routinising everyday life.

Charles Taylor elucidates some of this history in comparing Aristotelian to Protestant ethics. According to Taylor, “traditional, Aristotelian ethics” regarded ‘ordinary life’ – the life of production and the family – as holding mere “infrastructural importance”, serving as “the necessary background and support to ‘the good life’ of contemplation and one’s action as a citizen”.[2] In the Reformation, Taylor locates “a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life”.[3] Rather than finding the ‘good’ or ‘higher’ life in philosophical contemplation or monastic retreat, Taylor, following Max Weber,[4] argues that ordinary and everyday life becomes a locus for political action and self-understanding. The importance and affirmation of everyday life “becomes one of the most powerful ideas in modern civilization” and “colours our whole understanding of what it is truly to respect human life and integrity”.[5]

The measuring and quantifying of everyday habits and health-related behaviors is arguably a continuation of these processes – a secular working on the self that serve (bio) political ends of physical health and longevity rather than salvation in the next life, or in more Calvinist tones evidence election. Instead Th Eatery and practices like it demonstrate a vigilance over ones bodily health and attempt to align the everyday with norms promoted by putative nutrition experts.

In reinforcing the place of the everyday at the centre of the good life, The Eatery contributes to a ressentiment that values nutrition over pleasure or the “high rating” mandarin over the “low rating” celebratory cake. This is not inevitable, although the tide certainly appears to be moving in that direction. However, I contend that new pleasures will respond. Rather than nutrition over pleasure, there will be pleasure and nutrition, binging and purging, and detoxing and retoxing. That is, an agonism of consumption that is both/and not either/or. But more on this another time.


[1] Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge (New York: Penguin, 1998), p.59.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge Classics, 2001).

[5] Ibid., p.14.

From Mental Illness to Personal Responsibility: A Technological Transformation of Bulimic Purging

The continuing crusade against overweight and obese individuals has taken yet another bizarre and grotesque turn with the unveiling of “AspireAssist”, a personal “stomach pump [that] sucks food out of the user’s belly before the body can fully digest it”.

AspireAssist

Such a development is not all that surprising. The so called obesity epidemic has transformed ethical and social norms to position those with bodies, habits or attitudes that represent obesity as fair game – the hunting metaphor is apposite.

The state of emergency that is the obesity epidemic has seen public health advocates earnestly recommend that obese children be placed in foster care, bioethicists argue that obese adults should be stigmatised and discriminated against, and hospital CEOs suggesting it is acceptable to refuse to hire overweight or obese people.

In this milieu of panic and desire for strategies that “really work”, AspireAssist has developed a personal stomach pump. The video on the ABC News website is more detailed, but the clip below is clear enough.

According to AspireAssist it “works by removing a portion of the food from the stomach before it is absorbed”. By using AspireAssist 20mins after eating, the pump removes 30% of the stomachs contents to reduce the amount of calories, nutrients, fats etc absorbed by the body and thereby making the individual slimmer. My interest in AspireAssist is not the extraordinary and ethically questionable attempt to normalize bodies to conform to artificial measurements such as the BMI. But the way this technology transforms a practice that most medical professionals characterise as a mental disorder.

This act of removing the contents of the stomach to achieve the goal  “normal” weight and body image is not dissimilar to bulimia nervosa, a condition that since the 1980s has been regarded as a mental illness. The DSM-IV describes individuals with bulimia nervosa as engaging “in inappropriate behavior to avoid weight gain (e.g., self-induced vomiting), and are overly concerned with body shape and weight. However, unlike individuals with anorexia nervosa, binge-eating/purging type, individuals with bulimia nervosa maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal level.”

For an individual to excuse themselves from the table to go and vomit in the toilet 20mins after sharing a meal with friends would be, according to the DSM-IV,  inappropriate. Such behavior ordinarily invokes social concern and justifies medical intervention. However, the technology of the stomach-pump transforms medically defined deviance (purging) into medically approved compliance. Performing a near identical function to purging, the use of the personal stomach-pump does not incite medical intervention as it is the medical intervention and it does not invoke social concern as it is a response to the social concern of obesity.

AspireAssist’s stomach pump probably won’t become a common tool. The panopticon was not widely implemented either. But like the panopticon, the personal stomach-pump represents a rationality of a specific (bio)political moment in which the bodies of individuals are considered to pose such a threat to the population (and themselves) that spectacular interventions are justified that transform the logics of pathologies into the logics therapies.

The Ethics of Spotify and the Social Determinants of Health

On March 16,  I woke to the news that Jason Molina had died. Molina’s struggles with alcoholism and associated health problems became widely known in 2009. It also became known that his family were struggling to pay his medical bills and that Molina did not have insurance.

Molina’s death is a singular event. It is unique. It is his death. But a feature bears comparison to the deaths of Mark Linkous (2010) and Vic Chestnutt (2009). All three died without health insurance and with financial difficulties. This scenario is not isolated to these three.

Artists like Molina, Linkous and Chestnutt were never chart-toppers, but during the 1990s they developed strong and loyal followings, including the likes of REM, Glenn Hansard, Tom Waits and others.  Despite gaining more exposure into the 2000s, this did not necessarily translate into greater sales or financial security.

A factor, not the cause, but a significant factor in the scenarios surrounding these deaths has been the rise of websites like Spotify or Grooveshark and the decline of musician income from record sales. Arguments about legality of these sites and their impact on the music industry go back and forth. Most consumers minds appear to be made up – there are 24 million users on Spotify, 6 million of which pay $5 or $10.*

My aim here is not to defend the music industry, but connect points whose relationship isn’t immediately apparent. I contend that the decline in artist royalties due to streaming sites is a social determinant of the poor health and life expectancy among artists. And this places an ethical obligation on consumers.

If consumers are only paying approximately $10 a month, but consuming more music than ever before, and artists** are only receiving 0.5-0.7 cents per stream while also living lives that are socially and medically insecure, then it is time to broaden the scope of questions from legality to ethics.

Spotify and other sites like it may be legal, but are they ethical? There is a lot talk about ethical sourcing of coffee beans or the conditions of workers in clothing manufacturers. This is important. But it would be a sad situation if this ethical concern was not also extended to those who produce the music that enriches and shapes our personal and social realities.

Many musicians of lesser fame than Molina struggle to secure basic needs such as medical care or permanent residence. This is part of mythos of the struggling artist, but it is also a reality that has been compounded by developments in music consumption via music streaming websites.

I am not suggesting that consumers necessarily need to stop using Spotify or other websites – although I am not excluding that option either – but they do have an obligation to ensure an equitable and just compensation to the artist. This could be achieved by hearing a song on Spotify and then buying the album directly from an artists website. I am sure there are many more imaginative approaches. But the point is that if we love a song or an album, then we should extend that love to the person that produced it.

* This fee isn’t for the music, but for the privilege of not having advertisements.
**By Artist I mean people who put their lives into their music. People who may have interim jobs but predominately depend on sales of records and concert tickets to live. I am not referring to hobby artists, people who have a profession and some artistic endeavor on the side.

People Like Us

The Australian reaction to the recent events in Boston has been typical. A Prime Ministerial address; expressions of concern for friends in Boston; Australians in Boston reporting their safety yet vulnerability; saturation of analysis and human interest stories in the news media; and opinion makers discussing the potential for similar events to occur in Sydney, Melbourne, or anywhere, but definitely here.

The tragedy, fear, excitement and terror provoked by events like Boston is that it happens to people like us, in places we like to visit, in places we dream of living, or perhaps where our dreams live. Australians don’t dream of living in Damascus. Australians don’t holiday in Baghdad. Our dreams don’t reside in Mogadishu.

Events like those in Boston should remind us that our order and security, our policies and planning, our bodies and bones are not that different from those of people not like us, who live in places that we don’t visit or dream about. These events should remind us that we bleed and break like anyone. But the people in Boston are not anyone, they are like us.

At this stage there is no information on the ‘them’ that did this to us. But whatever their rationale, events like this, like 9/11, like London do not invigorate the Western imagination – or more accurately the Anglo-American imagination – to consider that like them, we live a finite, vulnerable, and precarious life. Rather events like this reinforce our resolve to protect and love people like us as ourselves.

To be clear, this is not some smug reminder that other people are dying too, so get over it. That is an all to typical response. Rather, this shattering of our normalcy should join us with those that have their normalcy shattered on a much more frequent basis. Or in other words, the abnormal horror visited on people like us, should open us up to the normal horror visited on those we don’t imagine as us.

It is not our genetics but it is your lifestyle

Gene therapy is the great promise continually reported in the media as ‘just around the corner’ and that ‘soon’ our family physician will “be able to tailor drugs to a patient’s genetic profile.”[1] While gene therapy may eventually deliver on these promises the current situation is that they have not.

The absence of effective genetic therapies is acutely evident in the areas where genetic technology has been most successful in isolating specific genes associated with particular diseases. In such cases a clear and powerful diagnosis is possible. Yet the equivalent precision and power is lacking in therapeutics. Thus a healthy woman with no symptoms can be diagnosed as carrying the BRCA1 genetic mutation, which translates as having an “80% risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer”.[2] Having been exposed to this devastating information through the precision of genetic diagnostics the therapeutic options are surprisingly limited: more frequent screening or hormonal therapy. A third option, arguably the most effective[3], is prophylactic mastectomy.[4] This is an extremely aggressive procedure first performed around 550AD. Thus through advances in genetic diagnosis we are placed in an embarrassing and tragic situation in which we can ‘know the future’ using technologies inconceivable to scientists a generation ago, yet the therapeutic response is a brutal surgical method first performed over fifteen hundred years ago.

I contend that although there is often animosity between public health and biomedicine, the (as yet) lack of effective genetic therapies for diseases arising due to a known genetic mutation has resulted in a re-emphasis on public health strategies, and particularly individual lifestyles, as both a therapeutic and preventive response. Writing in 1992 Richard Lewontin notes the difficulties in translating genetic knowledge to effective therapies, yet he argues that this difficulty “does not discourage the advocates of the Human Genome Project because their vision of therapy includes gene therapy.”[5] Here Lewontin touches on the mono-casual theory of disease stemming from Louis Pasteur, that a single gene is responsible for the manifestation of particular disease or behaviour. In questioning whether the mapping of the human genome will revolutionize medicine Holtzman and Marteau counsel that “medical and science policies in the next decade would do well to see beyond the hype” as “social structure, lifestyle, and environment account for much larger proportions of disease than genetic differences.”[7]

In the decades following the HGP a general skepticism rose around ideas of genetic determinism, being replaced with epigenetic theories and debate surrounding the efficacy of gene therapy.Not only has there been an emphasis on the interaction between genes, the environment and lifestyle in determining disease, but as Petersen and Bunton observe the therapeutic role of genetic technology is increasingly being re-framed as providing ‘empowering’ information enabling individual’s to make “the most appropriate choice about health and life-style.”[8] For example, Breastcancer.org advises women diagnosed with a genetic mutation associated with breast or ovarian cancer of “lifestyle choices you can make to keep your risk as low it can be”[9]. Such choices include maintaining a healthy weight, nutritious eating, exercise, limiting alcohol consumption and never smoking.

I am not suggesting that research into genetic therapy has been useless or that it should be abandoned. Rather the interventions into the biological life and health of individuals and populations following the HGP and development of genetic technologies have redeployed genetic knowledge to inform individual lifestyle choices. Thus rather than providing therapies to improve lived experience, these technologies further disrupt and undermine lived experience by bring a future into the present that requires a modification of the present for the sake of the future.


[1] Holtzman, N. A., & Marteau, T. M. (2000). Will Genetics Revolutionize Medicine? New England Journal of Medicine, 343(2), 141-144. doi: doi:10.1056/NEJM200007133430213. (p. 141)

[2] Breastcancer.org. (2011). Breastcancer.org  Retrieved 4/4/2011, from http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/genetics.jsp

[3] Hartmann, L. C., Sellers, T. A., Schaid, D. J., Frank, T. S., Soderberg, C. L., Sitta, D. L., . . . Jenkins, R. B. (2001). Efficacy of Bilateral Prophylactic Mastectomy in BRCA1 and BRCA2 Gene Mutation Carriers. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 93(21), 1633-1637. doi: 10.1093/jnci/93.21.1633

[4] Also prophylactic ovary removal

[5] Lewontin, R. C. (1992). Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. New York: Harper Perennial. (p. 69)

[8] Petersen, A., & Bunton, R. (2002). The New Genetics and the Public’s Health. London: Routledge. (p. 6)

Lifestyle Intervention and the Aesthetics of Obesity and Smoking

The sustained concern over obesity as a threat to population and economic security has led to a proliferation of medical and non-medical experts intervening in the daily lives and practices of individuals. These interventions commonly fall under the rubric of lifestyle. Seen as both the cause and solution, the modern lifestyle is the target of modification strategies and techniques.

Of course, interventions into lifestyle are not entirely new or exclusive to obesity. Smoking, homosexuality, extreme sports or drug-use have all been described as lifestyles with associated health risks that justify outside intervention. Yet, I contend that obesity is unique in its characterization as a political, economic, aesthetic and public health problem that emanates from individual choices and practices.

The uniqueness of obesity is partly evidenced in comparison to smoking. While smokers have attracted a significant share of vitriol and harassment, much of the blame for smoking and the associated health impacts is reserved for “Big Tobacco”. If repentant, smokers can be characterized as the victims of industry deception and chemical addiction. Although there is anger directed toward “Big Food”, obesity is primarily framed as the result of individual choice and lack of control.

Furthermore, there is an aesthetic difference that distinguishes obesity from smoking. While there are active efforts to counter the “coolness”of smoking, the iconic images of Humphrey Bogart or Audrey Hepburn with cigarettes in hand continue to influence Western aesthetics. And the more recent fictional characters, Don Draper and Joan Halloway stubbornly resist the cliché that “kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray”. In contrast, the aesthetics and celebrity of obesity are comical, grotesque or both. Cartoon characters like Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin who eat anything within reach, from a week old sandwich to the legs of a paralytic friend, serve to confirm the message that obesity is grotesque in form and the result of lack of control.

This aesthetic also carries with it a judgement on the ability of an individual to self-govern and also to govern others. Kim Beazley, the former leader of the opposition in Australia was once told by Prime Minister Bob Hawke that the Australian people wouldn’t elect a fat prime minister. A contemporary example in the US is Chris Christie. Since at least the 2012 Republican primaries Christie’s weight has been a continual talking-point. These discussions are set to increase as speculation grows over his intentions to run for President in 2016.

Contemporary concerns about obesity and its relation to aesthetics, self-governance and the governance of others resembles regulations over sexual conduct in Ancient Greece. In examining the problematization of sexual practice in Ancient Greece, Michel Foucault outlines the link between a husband’s sexual conduct, household management and governance of the city. According to Foucault, the Greek husband’s authority and control over his home (of which his wife was a part) reflected his ability to have authority and control over himself and the life of the city.  While the husband was free to engage in sexual practice outside of the conjugal relation, “having sexual relations only with his wife was the most elegant way of exercising his control” (HSII, 151). Further, when Aristotle condemns extra-marital sexual relations as dishonourable it is not that the activity deviates from a moral law or order, rather such action demonstrates the husband’s inability to conduct himself in relation to the ethical substance of pleasure with the appropriate degree of self-control and mastery.

The example of Nicoles the ruler of Cyprus illustrates this point. According to Isocrates, Nicocles explains his conjugal fidelity in saying, “I am the king, and because as somebody who commands others, who rules others, I have to show that I am able to rule myself.” Therefore if Nicocles wishes to rule others and the city with glory and authority then he must rule himself first. Foucault argues that for the Greeks the mode of subjection was politico-aesthetic in which “political power, glory, immortality and beauty are all linked together at a certain moment.” Thus the Greek free man is at liberty to engage in sexual activity with someone other than his wife, however if he has accepted the politico-aesthetic mode of subjection, if he wishes his existence to be characterized by self-mastery and beauty, then he will recognize the particular rules of conduct that are constitutive of that subjectivity.

In a somewhat similar fashion, the American (or Australian, or any citizen of a Western liberal democracy) is free to indulge in whatever culinary and dietary activity he or she wishes, however, in return the society will discount beauty and the capacity for self-governance and the governance of others and thereby justify interventions into their daily choices, activities and practices.

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