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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Visceral exposure : Melanie Gilligan, Hito Steyerl, and the biopolitics of visibility Steinmann, Catherine A.


This study considers a small group of recent video works by artists Melanie Gilligan and Hito Steyerl through the Foucauldian lens of biopolitics. I argue that these works implicitly reveal how biopower viscerally exposes and abstracts the neoliberal subject, constructing it in precarious tension as ostensibly coherent yet infinitely fissionable. Introducing the study by discussing the concept of biopower in Michel Foucault’s work, I also draw on work by Gilles Deleuze, Boris Groys, Brian Massumi, and others to suggest how biopower shapes the subject through ever-expanding forms of surveillance and documentation. Biopower does not merely take advantage of the subject’s legibility, however; instead, I argue, it produces subjectivity through visual and data-driven forms of description that tend to both function and be masked as representation. In the second chapter, I contend that Steyerl’s Strike (2010) and Strike II (2012) and Gilligan’s Popular Unrest (2010) intimate how biopolitical subjecthood is fashioned through photographic, behavioral, physiological, and other technoscientific forms of tracking and modelling. These works propose “strikes” against biopower’s relentlessly visualizing drive. I argue in chapter three that Gilligan’s Popular Unrest and Steyerl’s Lovely Andrea (2007) and Red Alert (2007) make explicit the relationship between contemporary forces of intensity and abstraction (formal, economic, social), revealing them as complementary dimensions of biopower that produce a fractured, divided subject amenable to “orderly” visualization. These works propose the redemptive potential of redeployments of affect. In the fourth chapter, I argue that Gilligan’s Self-Capital and Steyerl’s In Free Fall (both 2009) demonstrate the relationship of global economic crisis to crises of biopolitical subjectivity. Gilligan’s work suggests the character of the archetypical neoliberal subject Foucault describes as “entrepreneur of himself,” tracing its modes of self-production and projecting its imminent collapse. Steyerl’s turns away from the subject, exploring the vitality and agency of the object and questioning object-subject distinctions. In different ways, Gilligan and Steyerl offer proposals for shedding a biopolitical subjectivity that is increasingly untenable. Illuminating the role of visceral exposure in the biopolitics of subjectivation while reconfiguring this very process, their work extends and exceeds other forms of political engagement with the problem of biopolitics.

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