This essay employs the concept of population to articulate the logic of a dominant style of contemporary thought, practice, and affect. This style, which underwrites cultural productions as diverse as reality TV, para-scholarly endeavors such as Wikipedia, and biomedical initiatives such as personalized medicine, hinges upon locating individual idiosyncrasies within large populations. The essay's first two sections draw on Michel Foucault's account of the historical emergence of biopolitics to illuminate the metaphysical assumptions that underwrite the modern concept of population. The third section proposes that these assumptions allow us to see the concept of population as an implicit media theory (i.e., populations are media that capture individual variations) and provides as an early twentieth-century example Leland Stanford's interest in applying horse trotter breeding techniques to human populations. Sections four and five sketch the expansion of population logic in the post-WWII period in areas such as the US higher educational system, personalized health, and the neoliberal concept of “the market.” The sixth section proposes that these developments eventuate in “population aesthetics,” as the logic of population becomes the enabling frame for judgments concerning what is beautiful and ugly, as well as for our intuitive sense of the relationships between individuals and collectives.
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Robert Mitchell; Biopolitics and Population Aesthetics. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 April 2016; 115 (2): 367–398. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-3488464
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