Future(s) of Critique. Theorising Governmentality and Power in the Digital Age

Call for Abstracts for a Special Issue of “Behemoth”. Deadline: July 15, 2020

Janosik Herder (Universität Osnabrück)
Felix Maschewski (Humboldt Universität Berlin)
Anna-Verena Nosthoff (Universität Freiburg/ Universität Wien)

“Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity,” wrote the former editor-in-chief of WIRED Chris Anderson more than a decade ago. Yet, his much-cited essay held another provocative punch line: “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.” Anderson was not only referring to the superiority of real-time algorithmic correlation analysis vis-à-vis the more lengthy procedures of scientific verification and falsification. His essay heralded the “end of theory” in the age of “Big Data” and “Reality Mining” and predicted that scientific hypotheses and theoretical reflections would soon become irrelevant.

Anderson’s euphoric declaration of the end theory is by no means new. It is a faint echo of the epochal claim that cybernetics—the discipline preceding computer science—had already formulated after the Second World War. From the beginning, the discipline of cybernetics tried to establish itself as a new and universal science that would make any other discipline more or less superfluous. After all, the famous Heideggerian dictum of the “end of philosophy” stemmed directly from his own philosophical preoccupation with cybernetic’s claim to this universal significance.

In a present—which has been described as “cybernetic” by various disciplines, from media theory to political sciences––Anderson’s dictum needs to be critically assessed once again. The claim that collected and processed data supposedly speaks for itself, risks not only the disappearing of theory but the possibility of critique along with it. After all, critique—which entails a precise description and questioning of specific forms of dominance and power—is the radical challenging of a present that is taken as given. With the omnipresence and expansion of Big Data and information technology, the present is increasingly inscribed as a simple, datafied, “objective” fact into the political–economic structures of our social fabric.

Against this background, Behemoth’s special issue “Future(s) of critique: Theorising governmentality and power in the digital age” aims to intervene in the supposed objectivity and neutrality of Big Data analysis, and to critically take into consideration the proclaimed “end of theory.” The issue seeks contributions that search for new possibilities of critique that take on our increasingly digitized—that is,  cyberneticized—present. The following exemplary thematic topoi are of particular interest:

  • How can we conceptualize a present that increasingly relies on the supposed “evidence” of correlative and probabilistic “Big Data” analysis, which, as is assumed and often proclaimed, speaks for itself?
  • How can the locus of critique–--a critique that constructively defies an alleged “end of theory”—be redefined in a digital society?
  • Which traditions of critique—from ideology critique/critical theory to feminist to post-colonial or genealogical critique—may be utilized to question the self-referentiality of supposedly “objective” data (see also algorithmic biases) or digital (-economic) asymmetries of power?
  • How may more classical critiques of cybernetization and technicization processes be reread constructively with respect to the digital present?
  • Which new forms of political power, dominance, and governance—i.e., dispositifs and concepts such as “nudging,” “social physics,” “direct technocracy,” “algorithmic or cybernetic governance/ governmentality,” or “psychopolitics”—does such a critique need to take into account?
  • How does a genealogy of these forms of governance and being-governed contribute to a critical understanding of our present? Which historical and genealogical hints may shed light on their becoming-dominant in the present?

Abstracts for contributions (approximately 20,000–25,000 characters) from different disciplines can be sent to behemoth(at)mail.uni-freiburg(dot)de by July 15, 2020.

Selection of abstracts: July 31, 2020.
Submission of manuscripts: October 15th, 2020
Peer review: November 31st, 2020
Submission of revised manuscripts: January 31st, 2021
Publication: April/May 2021

Further Information and German Language Version (PDF)