From Statistical to Logistical Populations

Stefano Harney September 26, 2010

Brian Knott

As the private sector has come to discover the potential wealth in commodities that produce and extend attention, mood, communication, social relations and opinion, the one commodity key to this production, commodity-labour, has increasingly yielded its secrets to that sector. Not only has this commodity-labour been trained in the university to do so, to be research active, in the most degraded sense of research as the mining of oneself and others for instrumental purposes, as in the research assessment exercise in the UK, but the university has experimented not just with the production but also the management of such subjectivities. Those experiments form the basis of the structure of today’s private knowledge management firms. Marketing firms, software firms, media firms, creative industries firms resemble nothing so much in the way they operate today as university departments, full of peer review, mentoring, collaboration, experiment and crucially the bringing of all life into work, so familiar to the academic like no else except perhaps the artist, as Andrew Ross has well noted in his revealing book No Collar.

But this is not the end of the story, because if this real knowledge transfer was indeed so successful, why the change to social and economic impact? Of course there is no direct answer to this, but I would suggest it is symptomatic of a change in the universities, indeed a change in research itself under capitalism. The research park is dying, its armed response teams, its manicured lawns, and its protection of intellectual property rights behind reflective glass will not save it. Capital is not going to pay for all this any more, even indirectly through the state, nor does it need to. Capital is following research out into its new dispersed forms, its forms before and after intellectual property rights, and particularly and most importantly into its human form, where the investment is not in glass buildings and spraying ponds, but only in the upkeep of body and mind. And that upkeep, as Christian Marazzi puts it, is now the responsibility of the labour-power housed within it. So much cheaper, and so much more effective, as even popular concepts like ‘wikinomics’ hint, this new form of research and development occurs in ‘communities’ of people who work together out of a shared passion. Sound familiar? It ought to, and by the way it is very post-disciplinary, in both senses of the word. The self-motivated, self-organized teams of researchers populating this landscape starting everything from slow food movements to free software movements to new music scenes are today the generators of innovation ‘harvested’ by business. Pick up any business magazine and this ‘open innovation’ will be featured. And although this style of working together to invent new knowledge might have been pioneered, incubated we might say, in university departments, it may be bad news for them, and not just because this way of working cannot be rented out. The massive disinvestment undertaken by governments in Europe and North America occurs not just at the behest of bond markets, but with the acquiescence of capital as whole. Everyone in business and government is betting they can get their research for free in these communities of practice, the very communities whose spirit owes so much not just to the university at its best, but to the history of the Left, a history of mutual aid, shared property, and egalitarianism.


But here’s the final thing. The university is not passive in this process. It is still ‘innovating’. No longer a place producing experts suitable to what Foucault would understand as a set of statistically organized populations, today the university produces what I would call experts for a logistical population, experts in logistics not statistics. And here the important new work of Ned Rossiter, Brett Neilson and their Transit Labour research group is itself pioneering. Business, and government, are no longer a matter of productivity through statistical variation, or at least not this alone, but about making different things fit together, things that look like they would not fit, and making them fit faster, and in more directions. If statistics produced a population engaged in explorations of more and more relative surplus value, finer and finer ways to achieve productivity or public policy, depending on its application, logistics explores absolute surplus value. Logistical populations extend themselves absolutely by breaking through statistical categories and making connections, between life and work, public and private, political and economic, and organic and inorganic. Logistics is the work of extending circuits through new adaptions, translations, governances, scales and approximations.


And a new logistical subjectivity is being produced in the university in keeping with this dispersed and in some sense humanized form of R&D. This is a logistical subjectivity that mines information for compatibility, one that can plug itself in anywhere, without an adapter, as the labouring conduit between disparate forms of information, goods, cultures, languages, finances and affinities. This logistic subjectivity is the one we talk about when we talk about our teaching, when we say it is not the content of the play or poem or ethnography we are teaching that transfers skills to the student, but some general capacity to move between such contents, connecting them in a process of lifelong learning. What is the distance between what we say and what we mean here? Is our work not something like this connecting? Have we become only logistical experts ourselves?


I don’t think so. Just try to study in the university today. Study – as what Fred Moten and I understand as that permanently immature premature activity of collective thought without (an) end – is almost impossible in the university. The university wants us to come to a decision, an answer, a model, a theory, a policy. It wants to measure results. It wants deliverables. It wants us plugged in to the circuits. It wants to do logistics. But study unplugs, unplugs and yet remains in touch. Connects by disconnecting, in a dialectical irony CLR James, who exhorted us to only connect, would surely relish. We can still do this in the university through study, by disconnecting, drawing attention to the difficulty, care and undecidability of connection, by dragging connection down with us into the undercommons of the university. In the undercommons where many of us cannot not study, we find something incommensurate, untranslatable, something that sticks, causes friction, does not easily give itself up, something that stays common, that cannot be operationalized. In the face of logistical dispositifs, study does not work, does not connect. This kind of connection that does not connect in study may seem a fragile alternative, a local one in the face of the global, but measured by the statistical and now logistical resistances of state and capital deployed against it, it hardly seems fragile at all. Indeed its real impact may be precisely what the knowledge transfer and social and economic impact measurements are designed to regulate.


Excerpt from 'The Real Knowledge Transfer'. Cross-posted from Social Text Periscope, 26 August, 2010.