Thursday, May 23, 2013

Secretion, privation

from a talk given at the Biomediations conference last week

The democratisation of consumption effected by the commodity form is also always sacrilegious. Certain forms of knowledge are not part of the commons; knowledge proper to post-puberty, pre- and post-childbirth, and to post-menopausal women or initiated young men or elders. Such knowledge is not secret, in the sense of a trade secret, nor property but proper, justum, fitting, befitting a person or station in life. Nor is it a right but a role, a task. Such things cannot be copyright-free any more than they can be patented.

Compare and contrast the hierophantic tribalism of the City of London revealed in Michael Chanan's Secret City: the accumulation of wealth under guise of ancient liveries, the old school ties that bind, the guild mysteries defining inclusion and exclusion. These secrets are indeed secretions, like pheromones released to announce the provenance and bona fides of acquaintances. This form of secretion divides an us from a them by excluding them from participation in a powerful knowledge. This is the form of secretion that belongs to the intellectual property regime. An ancient practice of parceling out knowledge in the interests of binding a whole tribe together has become a modern practice of securing privilege by process of exclusion, at the cost of any community other than those in the know and on the square.

Western property is defined by the right of the owner to deny access to the property. In this sense it is not common but private, in the sense that it is defined by the act of depriving another. The owner enjoys property while the other suffers privation. We should speak properly then not of the privatisation of publicly owned industries, but of their privation, and of those from whom they have been taken as the deprived.

Wealth and power operate through the twin functions of secretion and privation. The alienation of both knowledge and bodies from the commons changes the nature of life profoundly enough for us to ask for a new political economy of life, as the global financial crisis enters its sixth year, a state of emergency poised between utopia and collapse. Nicholas Rose (2001: 17) presents us with one vision of this: 'the management and maximization of life itself have become the life’s work'. Warning against ascribing reductionist, eugenic or individualist motives to the new (post)genomics, Rose argues that we are entering a new etho-politics of humanity. Missing however is Fanon's insight, that it is in living that we become ourselves; that it is the experience of social becoming and social strife, and centrally the experience of both sameness and difference, that makes us. The sociogenesis (Fanon's term - see Sylvia Wynter's essay) of difference takes place in a history of environmentalisation which is at once alienation of the commons and externalisation from capital, both processes that de-value (in the economic sense) the well-being that accompanies inhabiting, making, knowing and now living, as the bare life of the body becomes an alien environment for management or despoliation.

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