Exe0.1 Magda Tyzlik-Carver

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posthuman curating and its biopolitical executions 

[images coming soon :)]

Biopolitics has been recently proposed as ‘a historically specific formulation of experience and embodiment’ (Blencowe, 2011, p. 1). This interpretation of Michel Foucault’s account of biopolitical modernity by Claire Blencowe focuses on the positive forms of biopower able to create new embodied experiences. Unlike in Agamben’s (2005) forms of biopolitics which produce a state of exception, Blencowe uses biopolitical nature of modernity as a way to exercise ‘positive critique’ which recognises experience as ‘a matter of processuality, connectedness and openness of relationships and forces in the world, rather than embedding, continuity, stability or security of a subject’ (2011, p. 6).

It is this take on biopolitics which is explored in this article by focusing on curating and its increasingly posthuman status.[1] Curating expands from managing, displaying and organising art to a process which not only manages data and digital objects, but is operative as a form of managing life. Curating as a practice that participates in distribution of power/knowledge is interrogated by looking at the example of content curator. This subject born out of relational processes involving humans, machines, data and software helps to investigate experiences and forms of embodiment in the age of big data capture. By following multidimensionality of content curating the focus is on how this process is distributed across humans, machines, software and data, and what is executed through content curation.

This paper investigates content curating in its capacity as processes of subjectivation and individuation giving rise to the new subject of content curator. Content curating is a practice that negotiates the relationship between the self and other [selves] (that include other humans but also content applications, online tools, practices of reading, interpreting and meaning making, etc.). Content curating is analysed here as a method to construct the self (individuation) and a way to present the self to the world as a formed subject (subjectivation). In effect it is proposed here as a technology of the self and as a multidimensional process that performs as part of technology of knowledge/power.

The short format of this article does not allow for expanding on the genealogy of curating which situates curating as a historical subject. In this genealogy posthuman curating is part of the trajectory from curator to curating to the curatorial. Indeed I dedicate a substantial part of Chapter One in my thesis to developing genealogy of curating. On the one hand proposed there curatorial genealogy responds to the need to historicise curatorial practice and go ‘against the amnesia of curatorial history’ which ‘obscures our understanding of experimental exhibition history’ and ‘affects innovative curatorial practice’(Obrist, 2001, p. 31). And on the other hand, historicising curating helps in situating these forms of curating which are regularly excluded from traditional curatorial discourse, i.e. content curating. Most importantly, this genealogical approach to curating interrogates the traditional notion of what curating is, where, who and what performs it, and what is produced as a result of such processes. It focuses on power/knowledge distribution facilitated by curating and technologies which support curatorial processes.

Subjectivation and Individuation

Subjectivation for Foucault is a process through which the individual subject becomes an object of knowledge about self and about the world around. Foucault’s extensive work into the genealogy of madness (2006 [1961]), punishment (1995 [1975]), and sexuality (1998 [1976 -1982]) has shown how institutions have been involved in processes of subjectivation. His historically situated analysis of discourses and practices demonstrates how prisons, clinics, barracks, etc. define people as objects of their practices and as subjects of their discourse. Furthermore the process of subjectivation is also concerned with the production of truth about the self in that it is the process in which individuals create themselves as subjects. Foucault (1982) recognises how individuation and subjectivation function together within state power that combines techniques of individuation and totalising procedures. The ability of the state to exercise simultaneously these two forms of power is traced to the fact of integration within the state power of an old power technique that originated in Christian institutions, the pastoral power and its concern with the soul of a believer. As Foucault suggests the modern state did not develop above the individuals ‘but on the contrary as a very sophisticated structure, in which individuals can be integrated, under one condition: that this individuality would be shaped in a new form, and submitted to a set of very specific patterns’ (1982, p. 214). Defining the relation between individuation and subjectivation shows how they become inherent; in the modern state, pastoral power was distributed throughout state institutions such as prison, school, hospital, etc.

In the regime where software extracts and organises data, the structure which integrates individuals into its totalising procedure, expands further. It is exponentially distributed and naturalised through the daily activities of individuals which include aesthetic choices, technical skills and increasing capacity to stay connected at all times. This results in production of affective data where algorithms, bodies, technical platforms and proficiency in taking selfies (Fig. 1) or instant messaging are always in relation with each other.[2]

The integration of individuation as part of the process of subjectivation can be observed today on social media platforms. Olga Goriunova explains individuation with examples of memes and other aesthetic objects of internet culture. Individuation, a process of becoming a thing or a person different from other things and persons, is further complicated in highly mediated and technologically advanced culture. A meme, according to Goriunova (2013) is not just a product of popular culture on internet but it is proposed as ‘an aesthetic performance through which individuation takes place’. I would argue, that this insight suggests the posthuman character of individuation where aesthetic object and its experience are mediated and complex. Individuation is an aesthetic process not limited to traditionally defined aesthetic activities but directly an expression of aesthetic experience of individuation as multilayered and outlined as:

(...) essentially collective, technical and physical: it is the individuation and consummation of ideas, norms, snippets of codes, codes of practice, cultural events and political acts, creative forms, sets of behaviours, gestures and performances, conceptual figures, youth practices, and technical platforms that unfolds online.

(Goriunova, 2013).

Individuation is a property of individual persons and things while at the same time it also belongs to methods, platforms and ways of being online. It facilitates a process by which the self becomes discrete while at the same it is defined as a part of wider phenomena. Individuation can be understood as a particular expression of difference and a never-ending process of realising and reconstituting the self; the becoming one not as a subject but as an other. In that individuation is different to subjectivation although and as has been suggested they occur simultaneously.

Curating content as technology of the self

Content curating is an example where subjectivation and indviduation can be observed. Taking place regularly it involves many basic activities performed daily by users of social media platforms. It is inclusive of different technologies that facilitate and support regular activities of re-blogging, posting, linking, or RSS feeds. Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube are platforms where social content curation takes place relentlessly while integrating individuality according to specific patterns of behaviour that combine the desire to perform the self with the ability to use mobile devices and online tools. All this supported by perpetual access to online platforms and massive participation in social media.

For example sites such as Wikipedia, Newslines.org, Scoop.it, Digg.com or EContentmag.com function as specialised repositories of content and links to articles, rich media and similar. Whereas tumblr, Instagram or Pinterest have similar functions but their users curate own online profile. Curating content produces, manipulates and transforms digital things and objects online. Technologies of production are implicitly part of content curating, as are technologies of sign systems such as visualisation techniques, posting images or writing. If we think of the internet as a collection of various technologies of power such as surveillance, data monitoring or face recognition (Rajagopal, 2014; Winokour, 2003), the function of curating content requires scrutiny which reveals the complexity of relations between computational technologies and practices that sustain them. As such content curating can be considered a biopolitical strategy through which ‘the (correct) manner of managing individuals, goods and wealth’ can be interrogated (Foucault, 1991).

According to Foucault (1988), technologies of the self are described as focused on interactions between oneself and others, as forms of individual domination and how individuals act upon themselves. These technologies are linked with a set of practices that are concerned with self and taking care of ‘yourself’ that Foucault traces back to the ancient Greek practice of epimelēsthai sautou. Other forms of technologies which execute different forms of domination and which most commonly function together are also accounted for:

(1) technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform, or manipulate things; (2) technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols, or signification; (3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; (4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.

(Foucault, 1988, p. 18).

By focusing on curating content as internet-born practice, my intention is to determine how these different technologies constitute not only the practice itself, but also how content curating participates in the creation of particular publics which use online platforms and content as source material for practices of individuation and subjectivation. This argument should be perceived as the other side of concepts which characterise the internet as a panopticon (Winokour, 2003) and disciplinary technology (Rajagopal, 2014). I am interested not just with recognising how bodies are coerced to particular forms of subjectivation, but also how they disrupt it and what subjects are produced in result.

Content Curator

There are many definitions about what content curating is, and many expectations as to what content curator should be doing. Curating content has been proposed as ‘an important participation and collaboration skill for digital citizens’ (Rheingold, 2011) and considered ‘emerging literacy’ which can help in accessing the content ‘critically’ (DiDi, 2011). Elsewhere, digital curators are seen to be ‘the future of online content’ (Rubel in VanPeursem, 2013) and an answer to the amount of information constantly generated and distributed online. A content curator DiDi, active on Scoop.it, says this about curators of online content:

In this Age Of Super Abundance, one of the things we need more than anything is trusted filters... We need folks whom we trust to lead us to where we would not go on our own. Ideally, these people will do more than just lead us to good work; they will expand our mind, and widen our social circles. But where are they?


Online curators deal with information and content, and their aim is to organise it in a way that allows its audience quick, just-in-time access to it. However, along with the curation of content which requires regular reposting, re-blogging and commenting, DiDi recognises also another role that might be performed by content curators beyond filtering information. The author articulates the desire and need for content curators to be more like gurus. Not just leaders but also directly influencing users’ personal development.

It is now possible to suggest how content curating can be seen to define two kinds of disciplinary practices. On the one hand it is a way in which digital citizens can engage with their institutions (internet, state, corporations) by managing content online. And on the other, it is a practice that creates new subjects that of the content curator charged with helping users/digital citizens defined as those subjects not yet digitally literate or unable to critically engage with the sheer mass of content online. Value of content curation is generated through recognition that ‘(…) in the process of doing “serious”, “quality” curation, even at the personal level, me and you are helping others understand and make sense of their worlds more easily’(Good, 2011) (my italics). Important to this is the case of how content curators link the value of their work to their ability to build strong links with users of their content. In effect curating can be applied in many ways. It ranges from a pedagogical tool in education (Mihailidis and Cohen, 2013) to its use in retail shopping online where ‘a tailored experience is no longer just a desire for shoppers, it is an expectation’ (Whitehead, 2013) making it particularly suitable for marketing purposes. At the same time, however, it is also a method to apply in curating one’s own life (Good, 2013) or/and that of others. Content curating is more than aggregation of links and comments as it aspires to production of enlightened minds and socially rich subjects while at the same time it is a disciplinary practice and a practice of subjectivation.

With the example of content curator the curatorial task is yet again explicitly invested with the care of souls, which refers pastoral powers and its connection to the care of self. [3] The care of souls was a concern which used to be a domain of the curate, a parish priest looking after spiritual wellbeing of the members of the parish in the Christian tradition. With the practice of curating content care of souls and care of self are tasks of content curator online. Galloway and Thacker (2006) comment on the connection between the practice of curating art and the practice of taking care of parish members, by investigating the etymology of the word ‘curate’ and its roots in the Latin curare meaning to cure. They propose the combination of ‘curate, care, cure’ (2006, p. 154) and then make further biopolitical connection between curating as management of art and curing as management of life. When curating content these two forms are brought together as data and life are managed.

Effectively, curating is not just an affective practice but also about affect and truth. Its value is directly linked to the affective potential that such form of curating generates. In this way curators can orchestrate and choreograph their own value and further align individual practice of curating with curating as disciplinary practice of generating value through affect. The function of affective data in social media is important as it relates to experience and embodiment that these biopolitical processes generate. Foucault defines subjectivation and individuation as practices that co-exist and where the human subject is situated in complex power relations where: (this) form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individual subjects (1982, p. 212) It is the specific, as Foucault says ‘empirical’ (1982, p. 210) relation between the subject and power that defines rationalities behind particular practices of subjectivation. Big data is an expression of exponential growth and availability of qualified and unstructured data. The relation between big data as a form of power and the subjects that it brings to life needs to be explored closely. Scrutinising processes of curating content contributes to this.

Affective data

To conclude I want to draw attention to affective data which I consider a side effect of big data. Generated as a result of big data’s inability (yet) to function without bodies is the evidence that subjectivation and individuation take place and are performed through bodies. Content curating is not just about selecting, contextualising, organising and distilling content ‘to its most relevant, essential parts’ (Rubel, 2008) but it is already a part of some form of counting and visualisation facilitated by computation (Fig. 5). Together with various technologies, such as social media, aggregator sites and other applications, it translates the subject into body of data. It executes the experience of the self as my Facebook wall or your tumblr dashboard. Of course this is not to say that they are ‘me’ or ‘you’, at least not yet. But the experience of the self is defined as a consumer and producer of content and at the same time the self is captured by that content, while subjects become the products with processes of dataification. Production of subjectivity cannot be reduced to linking, liking, deleting, or reposting of content as such, but those online gestures have to be situated within much broader assemblage of forces which reaffirm themselves as daily practices that turn into daily performances of the self. They constitute the individual not only defined by the data (s)he produces but becoming the data body.

The immediacy with which curating content turns affective practice into quantifiable data makes it particularly attractive to businesses as a marketing strategy tool (VanPeursem, 2013). Indeed, marketing and advertising is one of the very few industries which recognise the value of affect in data and are increasingly better at making it work for trade. The growing professionalization of content curating, and the recognition that ‘there will always be a market for Digital Curators’(Rubel, 2008) fits into the process of administering big data through collection, managing, displaying, distribution, communication and meaning-making. In effect curating content produces online users as consumers whose interest in searching for information on the internet is to find more suitable (read: personalised) products with which to construct and reaffirm their digital ‘self’, which in return was always already a number.

Such practices, however, can be described as driven by a desire to ‘count as subject’ and to ‘become eligible for recognition’ (Butler, 2009, p. iv). Driven by these aspirations these activities can be defined not just as politically potent, but as political where data, like body, is not just personal and definitely not private. Curating content involves a mix of technological tools, various practices performed by the curator/user releasing their agential force. Autonomy and agency are reconsidered anew, taking into account that ‘it is not simply that subjects are governed, disciplined or regulated in ever more intimate ways, but even more fundamentally that notions of choice, agency and autonomy have become central to that regulatory project’(Gill, 2008). It is the tension between individuation and subjectivation, processes further complicated by the participation of nonhuman others, that is inherent to posthuman curating.


[1] The concept of posthuman curating is introduced in depth in my doctoral thesis (due early 2016, Aarhus University) and it is defined by the intra-actions between people, machines, software and data in relations. I follow these relations also to challenge curating as a property of a curator as human subject.

[2] This relationality is situated and material gathering of human and nonhuman subject in specific relations. Therefore relationality is not an abstract value in itself but it is dependent on materialisations that are ‘intra-actively produced’ and which are ‘intra-actively demarcated through the specific production of marks on bodies.’ (Barad, 2007, p. 232)

[3] See more on technologies of the self in Foucault (1998, 1988)


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