Avatars and Immaterial Labourers: Online Identity Performance Analysed through Foucault’s Biopower 

“The irony of this deployment,” Foucault states, of biopolitical sexual conditioning, “is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance” (History of Sexuality 159). Our participation online exists in much the same way that Foucault positions our notions of sex: we imbue it with lofty metaphors of freedom, making it more difficult to recognise the insidious power that is exerted on an individual level. The internet acts as an institution of subtle imperial biopower, preaching decentralized communication and inclusive environments of identity performance while concealing mass surveillance, a reliance on exploitative labour, and embedded hegemonic narratives. Most disturbing is the perpetuation of Foucauldian biopower by the individual nodes in the network, unknowingly exerting insidious dominance through self-branding and the performance of a singular, humanist ego. With increasing digital fluency, biopower is inserted into each networked action we imbue with emancipatory potential, advertising hierarchal narratives under the guise of decentralized subject-hood. Citizens online are distracted by a falsified humanist narrative of bodily transcendence, while biopower is exerted over them offline and online simultaneously, perpetuating the humanist myth of the perfectible self.

Foucault’s biopower can be defined as a hierarchical control that is exerted over the life of the subject through disciplinary means embedded in education, workplaces, prisons and hospitals. Biopower relies on the mechanisation and regulation of the movements of the human body. While the semantics of Foucault’s discussion of biopower deal explicitly with “the body”, the mental conditioning of the subject are also implied in this control. Roy Boyne states, of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: “Although there is no doubt that the new disciplinary regime aims to control the mind, Foucault’s point is that it does this by operating upon the body” (111). Therefore, I think it is very relevant to apply the term “biopower” to the way we construct identity online; while we consider it to be an immaterial realm, it can have repercussions on every facet of subject-hood. In his lecture "From Biopower to Infopower", Colin Koopman translates Foucault’s biopower to contextualize it in the networked surroundings of the 21st century. While I would agree that the body does become abstract chains of information via location tagging, fit bit, facial recognition and other applications, I think there is still a direct relationship to the body that is hidden by a binary separation between “digital” and “real”. Humanist concepts of mind/body dualism and individual autonomy online serve to blind us to the exploitation and repercussions of our online behaviour. The body of the avatar becomes an extension of the humanist subject, perpetuating capitalism though notions of individual perfectibility. In her essay on Second Life artist Cao Fei, Alice Ming Wai Jim quotes the artist saying “When you are online in a totally new world, your physical self is more invisible, and it’s your inner self that’s revealed” (91). Unfortunately, its this kind of rhetoric that perpetuates mind/ body dualism online, and makes our actions online seem less embedded in our everyday lives, and thus less biopolitical. This humanist narrative of bodily transcendence (also employed by many sci-fi and virtual reality movies) serves to dissociate our bodies from what goes on online, a concept that is weaponized so that our data collection is not considered to have physical repercussions. This is an obfuscation of the truth, relating much more to Foucault’s notion of the pre-18th century sovereign hierarchy of power.

Implicit power is much more complicated than such binary terms would indicate, and becomes further blurred when institutions, corporations and beings are all flattened into a single space. “Power has become more sinister in a post-hegemonic age. In the age of hegemony, power only appropriated your predicates: in the post-hegemonic present, it penetrates your very being. Power, previously extensive and operating from without, becomes intensive and now works from within” (Lash 59). This statement can be read in direct relation to Foucault’s outlining of biopower, as something that is exerted over each facet of our lives, rendering bodies docile and disciplined. Additionally, as our work and leisure become increasingly entangled with our online presence, the lack of distinction makes power harder to escape. “the separation of factory from home, as well as work and free time from production and consumption has disintegrated” (Atzert 58). Power is no longer associated with an architecture, place, or set of documents, but is rather carried with us at all times.

This kind of decentralized power is often misconstrued, both online and offline, as less impressionable or invasive because it is less overtly noticeable.Comparably, while Foucault’s History of Sexuality suggests that “the ancient right to take life was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (138), he is suggesting that the same kind of dominance is still in existence, it just manifests itself in different, more insidious ways. Similarly, NickDyer-Witheford argues, in his book Cyber-proletariat:

A dominant stratum exploits all the others. Since the concept of class identifies a process of predation, it is unsurprising that no message is more frequently transmitted through the intellectual organs of society than that class does not exist...it is suggested that the polarity between workers and owners has dissipated into infinite, negotiable gradations (Dyer-Witheford 7).

This quotation illustrates that hegemonic power is still incredibly present, despite popular opinion that it has dispersed. Even if notions of class are less relevant, in a post-industrial age, especially in a networked context, they are simply transmogrified into equally divisive social strata of corporate beings and free digital labourers. “The denial of class...is one of the most powerful and destructive weapons” (Dyer-Witheford 8). This denial, however, is what makes it possible to render our surroundings more opaque; we are not labeled as exploited digital labourers, but made to feel as though we house just as much power as every other actor online.

Every media consumer is performing unpaid digital labour hidden under the guise of “individual expression” on sites like Instagram. This internalization of power often re-affirms capitalist branding techniques. In Discipline & Punish, Foucault says, of the scale of control over the body: “it was not a question of treating the body, en masse, ‘wholesale’, as if it were an indissociable unity, but of working it ‘retail’, individually; of exercising upon it a subtle coercion... an infinitesimal power over the active body” (137). Our online identities become instruments of power in and of themselves, making us both more survey-able and analysable, but also more predictable. “Mass customization has traditionally been viewed as a means of customizing services to meet the needs of an existing market. However, mass customization also appears to be invested in actually customizing consumers to meet market needs” (Coll 213). Our ability to self-customize is understood as emancipatory by many, but it allows our preferences to be tracked and carefully marketed to, allowing corporations to create a demand for products that we did not know we had. Additionally, the palette we are given by the architecture of social media environments narrows the field o fpossible interaction while gleaning critical information from us such as location, gender, shopping habits, search history etc.

In A History of Sexuality, Foucault states: “biopower was without question an indispensible element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production” (141). The contemporary “prosumer” assumes a similar (and no less consequential) role in their immaterial content 
through personal profiles, anthropomorphizing and re-enforcing corporate aesthetics. We have each become sales associates of our own life styles. The pixelated body of the avatar too finds itself co-opted as a distributed sales associate. Under a sub-heading proclaiming “Avatars as Persuasion Agents,” Holzwarth, Janiszewski and Neumann argue: “If avatars enhance the personification of technology, they should influence the purchase process in a manner similar to human sales agents” (20). Here we see our ingrained humanist tendencies employed against us: rather than in the machinery of production, it is the means of direct distribution and consumption to consumers. If an anthropomorphic means of e-advertising is enticing to us, it becomes even more attractive if it is exerted from all around us by the people we know. In my personal experience on social applications like Instagram and Facebook, I see posts of friends, artists, and consumable goods all flattened into the same clean white architecture. This subtle insertion of advertisements next to posts from people we know imbues the advertisements with a sense of familiarity, while simultaneously causing our friends and acquaintances to adopt the aesthetic vocabulary of consumption in their own personal posts. As a result, each person exerts normative biopower on another, re-affirming trending fashion, food and lifestyles. Often I notice people who have sway over social media are bought up by corporations and sent free products to advertise on their blog, channel or feed. We can also cite examples of popular celebrities being used to sell perfume, cosmetics and accessories.

Whether one is participating in a chat forum, in social media or in a virtual reality environment like Second Life, the notion of democratic decentering is one that dominates; we can pose a question, talk to whomever we choose, and control what kind of engagement levels we wish to have. While hierarchical power may not seem present in these scenarios, each moment of our online existence serves the dual purpose of capitalist labour to re-affirm existing norms: “There is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants” (Discipline 202). It is not the architecture alone that places our digital bodies in perpetual surveillance and commodification, but also the ingrained behaviours of those who inhabit the space around us. In Hello Avatar, Coleman states, of their experiences in SecondLife: “As far as I could tell, everyone has beautifully fit and perfectly sculpted avatar bodies” (18). Here we see reliance on physical signifiers to exude a certain aesthetic of dominance; the sour echo of physical biopower through online environments. This undermines the emancipatory potential of creating multiple selves, when one still feels the need to rehearse the existing body politics of Western idealism. Second Life artist Cao Fei also notes an adherence to predominantly Western landscapes and bodies (Jim 91). The un-variedness of an online environment open to anyone on the globe is disturbing, and speaks to an underlying Western humanist impulse to perpetuate the existence of a singular or "ideal" type of being.

Simultaneously, self-surveillance is a huge facet of the capitalist employment of the humanist “ideal self.” In Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses the ongoing possibility of being watched in the Panopticon, resulting in a continual state of self-surveillance: “the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so”(201). This state is exemplified by the constant desire to post, tag, and comment on social media, as if re-affirming our presence and cooperation to a distant despot. Self-surveillance is also perfectly exemplified in the trend towards workout applications, fitness bloggers and personal fitness devices such as fitbit. These devices “render individuals’ bodies more visible and thus more amenable to regulation, promote normalization, and lead individuals to adopt self-disciplinary mentalities” (Sanders 39). The tracking and surveillance are symptoms of biopower, but so is our internalized desire to be disciplined and productive. These mechanisms compound and perpetuate our subservience to these ideals, providing us with congratulatory remarks when we complete a work-out.

In conclusion, through dispersed internalization and intentional obfuscation, humanist biopower is exerted over and through each digital participant. Because power online does not immediately or overtly affect our bodies, it is overlooked as a formidable form of biopower. The flattening of labour and leisure through the marketization of our data means we are constantly being propelled into a capitalist sphere, and thus employed as assets to perpetuate a humanist agenda. This humanist-capitalist schema perpetuates the notion of the perfectible individual at the center of the equation, while ignoring collective, symbiotic relations with our “non-human” companions.

Works Cited

Atzert, Thomas. “About Immaterial Labor and Biopower” translated by FrederickPeters. Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 17 no. 1, 2006. Pp. 58-64. Taylor & Francis.http://www-tandfonline-com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/doi/abs/10.1080/10455750500505424

Boyne, Roy. Foucault and Derrida: The Other Side of Reason. Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Coleman, B. Hello Avatar: Rise of a Networked Generation. MIT, 2011.

Coll, Sami. “Consumption as Biopower: Governing Bodies with Loyalty Cards.”Journal of Consumer Culture, vol. 13, no. 3, 2013. Pp. 201-220. Sage.http://journals.sagepub.com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1177/1469540513480159

Dyer-Witheford, Nick. Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Votex. Pluto,Between the Lines. 2015.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by AlanSheridan. 2nd ed. Vintage- Random House, 1995.

Foucault, Michael. “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” A History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Translated by Robert Hurley, Pantheon, 1978, pp. 135- 159.

Jim, Alice Ming Wai. “The Different Worlds of Cao Fei” Mass Effect: Art and theInternet in the 21st Century, edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter, MIT and The NewMuseum, 2015.

Koopman, Colin “From Biopower to Infopower?: A Genealogy of One Aspect of Contemporary Politics” OSU: School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. 3rd December 2014, Oregon State University, Guest Lecture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTGvaG6T_G4 

Lash, Scott. “Power after Hegemony : Cultural Studies in Mutation?” Theory, Cultureand Society. 24, 55. 2007. pp 54-78.

Sanders, Rachel. “Self-tracking in the Digital Era: Biopower, Patriarchy, and the NewBiometric Body Projects.” Body & Society, vol. 23, no. 1, 2017. Pp. 36-63. Sage.http://journals.sagepub.com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1177/1357034X16660366 

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