Nicole Suetterlin: "The Biopolitics of Virtual Bodies (Sibylle Berg, Benjamin Stein, Black Mirror)

 European Languages and Studies     Apr 17 2020 | 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM Zoom

NOTE:  This event will take place via Zoom video conferencing.  


Digital technologies have rapidly increased their impact on human life in recent years. From biomedical advances in genetic engineering to artificial intelligence innovations in surveillance software, new technologies have generated both hope and concern. What kinds of consequences will these developments have? Who should have the power to control them? What kinds of social injustices might be produced by, for example, a commercialized gene-editing industry or a racially biased facial recognition program? In the past twenty years, a new field of bioethics has been tackling the dangers of bioeconomic exploitation in the health industry, while more recently, emerging algorithmic justice movements have started advocating for a more inclusive AI-technology. In the humanities, intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama and Jürgen Habermas have called for normative limits that protect human rights, dignity and identity from violations emerging in an increasingly digitalized society.

Under the heading The Biopolitics of Virtual Bodies I investigate how contemporary literature and film portray “virtual bodies” – people’s virtual yet increasingly corporeal presence on social media, government databases and other online resources – and the power struggles that confront them. Benjamin Stein’s Silicon-Valley novel Replay (2012) – which directly anticipated Dave Egger’s best-selling dystopia The Circle (2013) – critically portrays an AI-society whose formidable algorithms take hold over people’s lives while discriminating against specific groups. The link between digital environments and a suppressive surveillance state is even more acute in Sibylle Berg’s recent novel GRM: Brainfuck (2019). Berg’s post-Brexit novel directly responds to today’s divisive political environment in Western democracies and the role played by social media in stoking these divisions. Charlie Brooker’s British-American sci-fi series Black Mirror (2011-), finally, bleakly points to the ways in which digital inventions threaten to suppress the virtual as well as the real bodies of minority citizens: the episode “Black Museum” (2017) exposes a digital “necropolitics” – Achille Mbembe’s term for a politics of life whose flip side has always been a politics of death – at the heart of the U.S. criminal justice system.

Using these three texts as indicators, I argue that contemporary literature and film expose a politics of virtual bodies at the heart of what we might call the “discourse network 2000” (to appropriate Friedrich Kittler’s influential term). What is at stake in these texts is the transformation of biopolitical power in the wake of digital technologies and especially digital networks. Paying particular attention to poetic form, I will also inquire into the narrative strategies with which Replay, GRM and “Black Museum” discuss topics such as surveillance, algorithmic injustice and the virtualization of (corpo-)reality. I thus aim to map the narrative forms produced by – and producing! – the discourse network 2000.