Culture in the Age of Biopolitics: Migrant Communities and Corporate Social Responsibility in China

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Litzinger, Ralph
Allison, Anne

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This dissertation examines the conjuncture of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and migrant social life in the urban space of Beijing as a problematic of what Foucault called biopower, where distinct logics of market and state power deploy techniques of civil society and culture in the form of public-private partnerships. The unique effect of this conjuncture is an expanding logic of power that obfuscates lines of antagonism between capital and labor, requiring new theoretical and methodological insight into how power, resistance, and antagonism might be conceived in the biopolitical era.

Drawing on recent work on biopower and new theories of antagonism and subjectivity, I argue (following Badiou's work) that both power and resistance must be articulated in their divided tendencies, which allows us to work through how certain tendencies may be contradictory and complementary, and to redraw the lines of antagonism at the level of subjectivity in terms of these divided tendencies. These lines of antagonism don't fall between public/private, market/state, or civil society/state, but along a process by which subjectivities are produced and sustained at a "distance" from the logic of their placement in society, or integrated into power by various strategies of civil society and culture. The practices and theoretical productions of one migrant cultural organization in Beijing, whose project centers on the production of new migrant subjectivity and culture in the transformation of self and society, provides insight into how we might conceive of politics as new forms of "distance" from the logic of biopower.

Through over twelve months of intensive fieldwork from 2010-2011 and follow up trips the following year on the intersection between Corporate Social Responsibility and migrant social life in Beijing, I trace the techniques by which antagonistic subjectivity is intervened upon. First, I examine the surrounding discourses, logics, and conditions of knowledge production on culture that inform the projects of migrant subjectivity from a historical perspective, and reveal a theoretical impasse in the displacement and disavowal of revolutionary culture to grapple with how to re-think antagonistic contradictions in the pervading market logic of difference. The continuation of this impasse into the biopolitical era is brought into focus through the state and market turn to "culture industries" that include, mirror, and delimit migrant social life in Beijing. Problematizing the rise of self-articulated migrant subjectivity and migrant culture amidst these public-private projects, I then turn to the practices of one migrant organization whose project draws upon a legacy of struggle for self-organized and self-run migrant collective practices to successfully confront and block a situation of forced demolition and displacement. Analyzing how elements from state, market, and "civil society" interacted through public-private partnerships in the situation of daily migrant struggles, I identify the importance of the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility in the urban space of Beijing and the growth of biopolitical practices of intervention upon the migrant issue. I argue that the effect of the diffusion of Corporate Social Responsibility as a social practice is to enroll migrants as active participants in a social life that makes their subjectivities and productive activities visible to the public sphere. Lines of antagonism can thus be drawn by taking up distinctions between subjectivities oriented toward "the public," "self-governance," and the CSR "community," versus collective self-organizing. I conclude by arguing that if biopower seeks to mirror practices of resistance and power by drawing upon the self-activities of cooperative subjects, then thinking about the self-organized and self-run migrant organization as a new form of "distance" may shed light on how antagonism and political struggle might be redefined today.





Chien, Jennifer (2013). Culture in the Age of Biopolitics: Migrant Communities and Corporate Social Responsibility in China. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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