Massumi: The Autonomy of Affect

From Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Chapter 1)

Affect is equated with intensity.

                Intensity: the strength or duration of effect.  It is embodied in purely automatic reactions most directly manifested in the skin, at its interface with things. It is outside expectation and adaptation, as disconnected from meaningful sequencing, from narration.

Intensity is asocial, but not prescoial- it includes social elements but mixes them with elements belonging to other levels of functioning and combines them according to different logic (p. 30).

Emotion and affect follows different logics and pertain to different orders.

Emotion: the form/content (qualification) level: depth reactions.

An emotion is a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progression, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning (p. 28).

The relationship between the levels of intensity and qualification is not one of conformity or correspondence, but rather of resonation or interference, amplification or dampening.

Will and consciousness are subtractive.

Will and consciousness are limitative, derived functions that reduce a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed.

The body is as immediately virtual as it is actual.

Virtual: the excess of incipiencies and tendencies, a realm of potential. It is the autonomy of relation, the condition under which “higher” functions feed back.

The realm of the virtual has a different temporal structure: the past and future brush shoulders with no mediating present; recursive causalality.

The autonomy of affect is its openness.

Affects are virtual synesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them. The autonomy of affect is its participation in the virtual: the simultaneous participation of the virtual in the actual and the actual in the virtual, as one arises from and returns to the other.

The power of images is indeterminate; it is a postmodern power after ideology.

Images are conveyors of forces of emergence, vehicles for existential potentialization and transfer.

Induction and transduction: the non-ideological means by which ideology is produced. Induction is the triggering of a qualification, of a containment, an actualization; transduction is the transmission of an impulse of virtuality from one actualization to another and across them all.


In Massumi’s description, affect is asocial. It is an indifferent capacity of human bodies. It seems to me that the body here is generic/universal body without any differences or social markers.  How do we engage Massumi’s theory of affect to critical studies, which stress particularities, difference, history, etc. of human bodies?

Affective Labor (Hardt)

Michael Hardt: Professor of Political Literature (& political philosophy) at the European Graduate School in Switzerland and a professor of Literature and Italian at Duke University. He has often co-authored manuscripts with Antonio Negri, an Italian Marxist sociologist and political philosopher. Hardt and Negri developed the concept of affective labor in their books Empire and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.

Framework: Today’s reading is situated just prior to the publishing of Hardt & Negri’s Empire (2000) and provides a foundation for the further development of the concept of affective labor in today’s post-modern economy/global order that occurs in Empire.

Affective labor: “the creation and manipulation of affects” (96); occurs in-person, either actual or virtual; affective labor is a form of immaterial labor (94)

  • Products: social networks, forms of community, biopower (96)
  • Development:
    • Modernization allowed for the industrial and social transformations allowing for the production of affective labor (92)
    • Post-modernization refers to the ‘informatization’ of the economy
      • Producers respond to the market in continual interactivity, rather than the previous production, followed by information from the market (demand), followed by adapted production (92-94)

Immaterial labor: production that results in immaterial (non-material) or abstract things, such as emotions or knowledge (94)

  • There are 2 (general) faces of immaterial labor: the model of communication and intelligence (computer) and affective labor.
  • Examples: informational, affective, communicative & cultural (97)
  • Immaterial labor is the dominant form of labor in the current mode of production, particularly in developed nations. [*This does not mean quantity] (91)

Argument:Hardt argues affective labor (AL) is a direct product of capital and is the dominant form of labor in the current capitalist economy. He also argues AL is a form of life, via the production of biopower.

  • Instrumental action (industrial processes) has merged with communicative action (human relations)
  • Thus production has been elevated to the level of human relations and is consequently internal to and a product of human capital; Hardt also suggests AL is directly exploitable by capital (96-7)
  • Suggests affective labor has transformed:  the extent to which it is productive of capital has increased significantly and AL is now a generalized practice throughout the global economy, such that holds a dominant position (“of the highest value”) in the global economic hierarchy (97)
  • What is meant by “generalized practice?” – AL permeates all levels of the workforce, but gender and racial divisions still exist (97-8)
  • Hardt argues three forms of immaterial labor exist that drive the service sector to the top of the economic hierarchy:
    • The informationalization of industrial production (production has incorporated communication technologies & manufacturing is now equivalent to a service)
    • Analytical and symbolic tasks including creative manipulation and routine tasks
    • The production and manipulation of affects (human contact required, either actual or virtual)
    • Finally, Hardt argues AL utilizes and produces biopower (the production of collective subjectivities, sociality and society) and is thus a “form-of-life”
    •  He critiques Foucault’s view of biopower as a “view from above…as a prerogative of the sovereign” (98)
    • Suggests a view from below: instead of governmentality, the creation of value and the production of capital are central to the production of life
    • This view arranges biopolitical production as gendered
    • “AL, in this sense, is ontological – it revelas living labor constituting a form of life and thus demonstrates again the potential of biopolitical production.” (99)
    • Affective Labor (production and reproduction of life) is embedded as a necessary foundation for capitalist accumulation and patriarchal order, but the production of affects may hold potential for autonomous valorization (100)


  1. Have you seen the new commercial for Kindle Fire – the “Mayday” button? What are your thoughts re: the automated “in-person” technician attached to a smart device? Do you envision affective labor added to all levels of technological interaction?
  2. How does Hardt’s suggestion that communicative action and instrumentalized action are “intimately interwoven in informationalized industrial processes” compare with Hannah Arendt’s differing characterizations of labor, work and action?
  3. Hardt suggests at the point where instrumental action and communicative action unite, the boundaries of culture and economy break down. I have often felt this way throughout the readings (possibly because much of my studies have focused on anthropology), but I am wondering if any of you could draw the line between culture and economy if affective labor entails the production of social networks and “sociality?” [Or do you disagree completely with Hardt?]
  4. Hardt states that regarding the production of the soul, we should look to “today’s dominant economic forms…to production defined by a combination of cyberkinetics and affect.” What does that say about human society? Particularly, what does that say about social media and the new generation?

berlant, lauren. “nearly utopian, nearly normal: post-fordist affect in la promesse and rosetta.” public culture19, 2(2007): 273-301.

lauren berlant is a professor of english at the university of chicago.  she writes about intimacy and belonging (particularly in relation to the history and fantasy of citizenship), and on public spheres as affect worlds.  her monographs include anatomy of a national fantasy (1991), the queen of america goes to washington city (1993), the female complaint (2008), and cruel optimism (2011).  a version of the assigned article appears in cruel optimism.


nearly utopian, nearly normal: post-fordist affect in la promesse and rosetta

  • as the title suggests, berlant uses la promesse and rosetta, two films by belgian filmmakers luc and jean-pierre dardenne, as sites through which she explores the affects of aspiration normativity in the globalized labor networks of late capitalism (and, particularly, in relationship to the figure of the child).  in other words, berlant asks and attempts to ask the question: “how do fantasy-practice clusters […] become the grounds for political and social conservatism?” (278)
  • “post-fordist affect as a scene of constant bargaining with normalcy in the face of conditions that can barely support even the memory of the fantasy.”
    • the post-fordist scene as a scene fragile and contingent communities, enmeshed impersonality and intimacy, and mass without collectivity. 
    • the “ordinariness of crisis” (280) (which renders the “catastrophic time of capitalism” (281) banal) as the temporality of post-fordist affect.
    • post-fordist agency as “that which bargains with [the world] by developing affective bonds or “promise” within the regime of production”; belonging as purchased by participation in the everyday economy.
    • hypervigilance as the main register of post-fordist affect.
    • affect (rather than emotion) as the unqualified/nonconscious (unqualifiable?/preconscious?) intensities that exist under or beyond meaning.
      • “the intensity of the need to feel normal is created by economic conditions of nonreciprocity that are mimetically reproduced in households that try to maintain the affective forms of middle-class exchange while having an entirely different context and anxiety to manage.” (292)
      • according to berlant, affect is deeply tied to modes of production and, “the productive instabilities of the contemporary capitalist economy” engender their own.
        • citizenship as “an amalgam of the legal and commercial activity of states and business and individual acts of participation and consumption” (274)
        • “dissatisfaction leads to reinvestment in the normative promises of capital and intimacy under capital.” (281)
        • the  promise of the “good life” presents itself as accessible through the “proper” capitalist life and is accessed (the promise of the promise, as it were) in moments that anticipate the better life (moments in which “the feelings of belonging to a world that does not yet exist reliably” (277) are approximated).   in other words, the figure of the working-class child scavenges through fantasy-practice clusters in order to access an approximation of what feels like the good life (never the good life itself).
          • these creative approximations are typically rerouted to repeat “some version of their parents’ perverse approximations of the normative good life.  in doing so, they repeat the attachments to fantasies that were made unavailable to them.
          • the “bad life” –> “a life dedicated to moving toward the food life’s normative/utopian zone but actually stuck in what we may call survival time, the time of struggling, drowning, holding on to the ledge, treading water, not-stopping.” <–  imagined normativity as a space of rest (the stillness of a dependable life) from the otherwise precarious existence of surviving.
          • the affective registers of privatization as aggressive fantasies of affective social confirmation in proximity to the political.
          • for berlant, excavating the logics of these affective practices is important insofar as they may odder a better understanding of how it is that forms associate with ordinary violence remain desirable (she offers that the answer may lie in the pleasure of familiarity and the stillness of upward mobility achieved).
          • psychoanalysis
            • love as a bargaining tool for convincing others to join in making a life (and that mitigates the ruthlessness/dehumanization of capitalist subjection).
            • compassionate recognition as both necessary for solidarity/movement-building and potentially politically obfuscating the differences between emotional and material kinds of social reciprocity
            • “children organize their optimism for living through attachments they never consented to making [and] they make do with what’s around that might respond adequately to their needs”  (296) <– to imagine the objects of desire that children develop attachments to as environments (rather than objects) allows for a scene to which one can return (a scene in which the subject negotiates an overdetermined set of promises and potentials).
            • justice as technology of deferral.
            • according to berlant, recognition and reciprocity can take many forms which are ambiguous, compromised, and unstable.
            • normativity as aspirational rather than hegemonic; as “something other than than a synonym for privilege.”  to imagine normativity as aspirational is to understand precarious subjects’ desire for the promise of the normative even as the very elusiveness of this normativity (coded as fantasy-practice clusters) inflicts suffering on the aspirational subject. 
            • “[t]he subordinated sensorium of the immaterial worker, whose acts of rage and ruthlessness are mixed with forms of care, is an effect of the relation between capitalism’s refusal of futurity in an overwhelmingly productive present and the normative promise of intimacy” (301)



  1. how does blackness (and racial alterity) figure within the affective registers of post-fordism?  (i’m particularly interested in the racialized violences visited upon assita in what is otherwise discussed as the (white) affective bargainings of igor.)
  2. berlant recognizes that “even the category of “children is as volatile as the categories of citizen and worker [within] the flux of improvised survival habits that constitute existence in the contemporary economy” (284) yet calls the protagonists “children” as a result of their position within a network of intimacy that the author finds is structured primarily through a parent.  does the (sentimentalized) figure of “the child” (and its attendant normative linearity – i.e. childhood, adolescence, adulthood) haunt berlant’s conclusion (and process)? 

ahmed, sara. “the performativity of disgust.” in the cultural politics of emotion. edinburgh: edinburgh university press: 2004. p. 82-100.

(when i do the copy-paste, the formatting gets lost.  this technology will be the death of me.  please don’t pay attention to the bullet pointing, as this blogging has rendered it meaningless and i cannot figure out how to fix it.)

sara ahmed is an australian/british black feminist scholar of race and cultural studies at goldsmiths.  she has published a number of monographs (and over 60 articles), including the cultural politics of emotion (2004), queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others (2006), the promise of happiness (2010), on being included: racism and diversity in institutional life (2012), and willful subjects (forthcoming).

the performativity of disgust

  • explores disgust not as a reaction to a quality inherent in objects felt to be disgusting but, rather, as a sticky process/project of abjection and ejection (as well as coherence and adherence) that is mediated by a concatenation of historically contingent ideas.
  • disgust and abjection
    • the materiality of feelings – like objects, feelings do things; there are not pure interiority (or exteriority) but, rather, a series of relationships between objects
    • the spatiality/mobility of disgust
      • disgust involves both desire for and repulsion by the object of disgust (an unresolved movement towards and from that animates the object)
      • it is dependent upon a contact (or proximity imagined as contact) that registers as offense (this is where the object becomes animated through the perceived movements of desire).
      • its mobility (a of substitution, metonymic or metaphoric) is not free but, rather, sticky.
      • it often works through and towards the spatialization of power to the extent that objects of disgust are associated with belowness/beneathness vis-a-vis subject, preserving the aboveness of the latter (at the cost of the latter’s vulnerability, which is also the cost of bodily survival).
  • the abject is that which threatens the fantasy of ontological integrity (an integrity threatened from the outside only insofar as that which threatens is already within); it is a turning “inside out, as well as outside in” (86).
  • disgust as both the cause and effect of borders (and as a contact zone): “borders need to be threatened in order to be maintained, or even to appear as borders, and part of the process of “maintenance-through-transgression” is the appearance of border objects” (87)
  • temporality of disgust – like other performative utterances, disgust involves both:
    • a time lag – the antecedent necessary for the availability of the “re” in reiteration, insofar as the object it generates/anticipates must be recalled an imagined past
    • futurity – insofar as it generates effects in the constitution of the object it anticipates; the iteration generates the object through the act of recoiling (an anticipatory act that generates the object it responds to).
    • stickiness
      • stickiness as “an effect of surfacing, as an effect of the histories of contact between bodies, objects, and signs.” (90) <– a historically contingent effect of contact and form of relationality (a “withness”) with questionable integrity.
      • things (can) become sticky as a result of contact with other sticky objects (affective transference); the production of stickiness is a process of re-surfacing.
      • stickiness binds and blocks through repetition.
      • performativity
        • performativity – “the way in which a signifier, rather than simply naming something that already exists, works to generate that which it apparently names” (92)
        • a successful performative utterance relies on the citation of norms and conventions already in existence;  it opens up the future by repeating past conventions (see note on temporality above).
        • because of its reliance on repetition in order to maintain itself, iterations (and iterability) relies on context that can be cut (stickiness resists such a cutting).
        • performative utterances anticipate not only the objects they name, but also the subjects that distance and define themselves through that naming (as well as the communities that are imagined as witnessing a particular utterance).
        • the performativity of disgust thus generates a community bound by the intelligibility of disgust, with the imperative to abject/expel the object of disgust (and to secure its stickiness) which has penetrated the integrity of the collectivity.
        • adherence does not always translate into coherence (disgust doesn’t always stick or, indeed, may work to unstick the object of disgust by resticking the sign to a different object).


  1. ahmed ends her chapter by asking “what sticks?” (100).  in a similar vein, and insofar as the “bad tastes” produced by disgust are “bound up with questions of familiarity and strangeness” (83) (with badness sutured to strangeness),  how do some strangenesses (for instance, the foundational stranger) come to elude disgust’s metonymic/metaphoric slide?  in other words, what are the fields of contingency that allow for the mobilization of benign affect in response to some strangenesses?
  2. to the extent that disgust relies largely on the fantasy of ontological integrity, what might an alternative ontology (specifically one that does not imagine itself in unitary/sovereign terms) do to disgust?  (i guess a better question to begin with would be:  does ahmed imagine ontological integrity to be prediscursive, as (if i remember correctly) kristeva does?)

In Calcutta, Sex Workers Organize (Ditmore)

Background: Melissa Ditmore is a “freelance consultant specializing in issues of gender, development, health and human rights, particularly as they relate to marginalized populations such as sex workers, migrants, and people who use drugs” ( Most of her work is carried out in the United States, Asia, and Africa, with clients ranging from the Asia Development Bank to the AIDS Fonds Netherlands. Melissa Ditmore’s recent books include Prostitution and Sex Work  (2010), Sex Work Matters (2010), and the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work (2006). The article “In Calcutta, Sex Workers Organize” is from the book The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, edited by Patricia Clough and Jean Halley.

Important Points and Definitions: Ditmore’s essay discusses her work with the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an organization located in Calcutta, India with 60,000 members. Her essay incorporates formal writing as well as personal anecdotes. The goal of her essay is to “explore the affective labor of sex workers and the influence of an empowerment approach to labor” (171).

  • Ditmore distinguishes between the terms “prostitution” and “sex worker” and argues that the latter allows for the recognition of prostitution as work and, therefore, for labor organizing
  • Affective labor is defined as “work that aims to evoke specific behaviors or sentiments in others as well as oneself, rather than it being merely about the production of a consumable product” (171).
  • Immaterial labor à social relationship à economic value
  • Ditmore utilizes Ivan Wolffers’ distinction between three kinds of empowerment: personal, community, and social empowerment
  • The DMSC has used an “empowerment approach” at all three levels (but primarily at the “social” level) and has included sex workers in every stage of organizing
  • The affective (and immeasurable) labor of sex workers includes making and maintaining personal connections, aesthetic labor, and maintaining the illusion of romance and/or recreation
  • Ditmore points out that because sex work is illegal, it cannot be regulated, which makes sex workers vulnerable to abuse, particularly at the hands of law enforcement
  • The DMSC offers several services including health services, literacy and English classes, education programs for the children of sex workers, and, most importantly, a credit union
  • The DMSC’s work has three significant characteristics: (1) its multi-issue approach (2) its size (3) its encouragement of the self-representation of sex workers at every level
  • More specifically, the DMSC works against trafficking in two ways: (1) forming committee on trafficking that is free of police involvement and membership and (2) developing a grassroots approach that includes trafficked persons, prostitutes, and NGOs
  • According to Ditmore, the DMSC’s work offers a model for the organization of other affective workers

Takeaway Point: The DMSC’s organizing work has been successful for a number of reasons. It moves past typical “rescue” narratives that presume to know what is “best” for sex workers. In addition, it allows for self-representational advocacy, self-surveillance among sex workers themselves (rather than by law enforcement), does not require sex workers to quit sex work, and focuses on improving working conditions rather than on the morality of sex work.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is affective labor in general, and sex work in particular, a biopolitical concept?
  2. How does Ditmore’s discussion of a law enforcement (the fact that police officers are more harmful than helpful for sex workers) point to the flaws of a Western-centric human rights discourse?
  3. Is Ditmore’s call to stop focusing on moralistic rescue narratives (in terms of sex workers, but also more generally in terms of “Western” feminism) undermined by her positionality as a white, Western woman?


Reading Notes on Eric Michaels

Eric Michaels- Excerpts from Unbecoming

Michaels is the author of Bad Aboriginal Art, For a Cultural Future, and The Aboriginal Invention of Television. At the time of his death, he was a Lecturer in Media Studies at Griffith University in Brisbane.

Description of the book by Duke University Press:
In 1982, the American-born anthropologist Eric Michaels went to Australia to research the impact of television on remote aboriginal communities. Over the next five years, until his death, he became a major intellectual presence in Australia. Unbecoming is Michaels’s gritty, provocative, and intellectually powerful account of living with AIDS–a chronicle of the last year of his life as he became increasingly ill. Michaels’s diary offers a forceful and ironic rumination on the cultural phenomenon of AIDS, how it relates to his concerns as both an anthropologist and a gay man, and the failure of medical and governmental institutions to come to terms with the disease…Unbecoming provides a view of the AIDS epidemic from a distinctly new vantage point.

Some Notable Themes/Quotes
*General Reflections on Living with/Understanding the Disease or a Diseased State

  • “Perhaps the oddest thing about AIDS is that it takes so very long; one is required to live through all its stages, at each point confronted with insane, probably pathological choices” (3)
  • ”managing disclosures” (5)- who do you tell and how; for what reasons?
  • ”what begins here is a process of labeling, a struggle with institutional forms”…labels that are “inflicted” and practices “to deal not so much with disease…but…with sin and retribution” (4-5)
  • ”the rhetoric may kill us before the virus!” (8)
  • A fear of losing one’s mind, one’s rationality (24)
  • his experiences of being denied access to staying in the country because of his rejection of “nationalism and the nuclear family” (24-5)
  • critiques of AIDS activism – Queensland AIDS council (26)

*Death, Memory and Legacy?:

  • Aboriginal obliteration of memory of the deceased and how that works with and against his own understanding of death and legacy (9-10)
  • a social body created during life that exists after the self no longer does
  • ”questions of property ownership or custodianship”
  • his “resistance to fixed notions of property, ownership, which is superseded by ideas of custodianship, utility, of ‘looking after’: a processual model” (13)
  • ”I think now, perhaps more than ever, it is important to have regrets, to admit mistakes (don’t you just hate that ‘I wouldn’t do anything different’ bullshit….) and to cultivate carefully a few feuds” (48)

*Diagnoses and Reading of the Body:

  • a self monitoring of the body (one’s own and others’) for signs of disease (5)
  • ”trying to read the body so that one can use it as a text for the construction of a narrative called ‘diagnosis’ too easily becomes an obsessive pastime in my condition” (13) and for doctors; necessary?
  • ”I’d exhausted my body’s tolerance to the antibiotic. In short, I’d wrecked myself…no defense against anything, and…teetering on the edge. I was surrounded by people convinced I would die” (9)
  • (self?)-perceptions of vulnerability: “I feel like they can smell me now, like an injured member of the pack…And they go for me, the sons of bitches, they go for the throat” (30)
  • a feeling of the body more acutely, a knowing and simultaneous not knowing of one’s own body (30)
  • others’ (friends/family) reactions: “indescribable contradiction between illness and wellness which appears to alternate in PWAS” (38); is his body diseased or not? How is disease conceptualized and by whom differentially? What is it dependent on? (40)
  • Questions about care and responsibility- family? University? State? (39, 41)
  • perceptions of self and treatment: “Do I start chemotherapy and add another layer of medicalization, routine and poison cures which further confound my ability to judge sensually my own condition? Or do I let myself degenerate into a deformed and frightening creature? Or is there an alternative?” (44)
  • visibility of diseased state- in the mirror, in travel, in lecture (work), walking down the street (49)

*The paradox of “tidiness”

  • contradictory discourses; connections to discourses on fitness- “both terms obscure the very principles they claim to promote…substitutes the appearance of health for health itself, often in a most unhealthy manner” (15)
  • ”tidiness is a process which…is only interested in obscuring all traces of history, of process, of past users, of the conditions of manufacture”…”the tidy moment does not recognize process, and so resists deterioration, disease, aging, putrefaction” and therefore is “an appropriate discourse to inflict on the diseased” (17)
  • his examples of the antiques, the carpet, the waxing of the ward’s floors

*Reflections on writing:

  • process of creating an autobiographical account of this experience with disease- why we write? how do we write? how will our work be received? (4)
  • non-chronological as an attempt to invoke ‘activeness’ (19)
  • his perceptions that the effect of his “textual moves” wasn’t “riveting”…”I leave nothing generic for the reader to hang on to…Hoping the effect will be art is even more arrogant than hoping the effect will be sense” (34)

*Relationships and Survival:

  • ”I had better get more careful right quick about alienating the decreasing number of allies who may be willing to help me in my hour of dependency” (24); “attempts to set up some kinds of support which I’m told will be…necessary for me to live outside of hospital” (26)
  • various expressions of loneliness

*What is his intended goal in writing a piece like this? What kinds of feelings does reading a piece of writing (his writing) evoke for readers? What kinds of thinking does it provoke? Evoke?

*How do we talk about or theorize the treatment of AIDS as a biopolitical phenomenon without denying or obscuring the materiality of emotions and understandings of “self” of those with the disease?

Reading Notes on Vinh-Kim Nguyen

About the Author

Vinh-Kim Nguyen is a medical anthropologist and an HIV physician. He is a researcher at the CRCHUM (Centre de recherches du Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal) and is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Preventative Medicine at the University of Montreal where he heads the PhD program in Health Promotion. He is the author of The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS.


Qualitative methods (Nguyen does not write about methods explicitly, I guess it is critical ethnography , including participant observation or  fieldwork and  interviews).


  • “[H]ow the humanitarian / development complex that has emerged around the HIV / AIDS issue has grown to encompass a heterogeneous and uneven congeries of practices and techniques, present and active in everyday life, to produce particular kind of subjects and forms of life – AIDS activists, resistant viruses, and therapeutic citizens “(p. 126).

Therapeutic citizenship

  • Therapeutic citizenship: “a biological citizenship, a system of claims and ethical projects that arises out of the conjugation of techniques used of govern populations and manage individual bodies” (p. 126). It is a form of stateless citizenship “whereby a biological construct –such as being HIV positive – is used to ascribe an essentialized identity, as in earlier forms of eugenics and racial ordering” (p. 126). It is the dialectic between a global therapeutic economy, local tactics for mobilizing resources, and the biopolitical process through which humanitarian interventions particular subjectivities that gives birth to it.
  • [In The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS, therapeutic citizenship refers to the benefits and responsibilities that AIDS treatment programs offer and impose on those enrolled in treatment programs, akin to the functions of a modern state. With their ability to track individual identity and confer access to support systems, ranging from food to credit, AIDS treatment programs provide what the collapsed government could not provide: a social safety net, along with the bureaucratic machinery to run the safety net.]
  • Therapeutic citizenship was available only to the few (Nguyen calls it “triage”: prioritizing some individuals for medical treatment over others). When access to antiretroviral therapy was limited, Western aid agencies favored those willing to speak publicly about their diagnosis: “train” African with HIV to “come out” with their stories of being diagnosed, and living, with HIV were the cornerstone of development organizations’ attempts to foster self-help. The lifesaving potential of antiretroviral treatments was dramatized and became as a matter of life and death. As a result, the key to survival is to be able to “tell a good story.”
  • Others who got access to medicines include: those who enrolled in clinical research trials, and a select few actively involved in NGOs who received donations, both of whom were the production of public health campaigns as biological “vanguard.”
  • In short, a therapeutic economy conjugates confessional technologies, self-help strategies, and access to drugs in novel ways; “Treatment influence biology, and through these embodied effects representations of the disease, and in turn the subjectivity of those who are able to access them” (p. 143).

Humanism industry

  • Humanism industry, which is most sharply expressed as health issues, constructs a logic of invention that displaces local politics and contributes to the fashioning of new identities, a process that has been described as “mobile sovereignty” (p. 125).
  • First generation of efforts to address HIV epidemic in developing countries focused on preventing HIV infection, when condoms served as the key preventive intervention; a second generation of programs stressed the direct involvement of affected communities through the idioms of “self-help” and “empowerment,” a process referred to by some development workers as “resource-capture driven.”
  • NGOs and other “community-based organizations” (CBOs) were considered as representative of preexisting communities, and could be used to target interventions at these communities and mobilize a response to the epidemic.
  • A myth: conducting clinical research in Africa is fraught with “cultural” and economic barriers.  African patients are believed to be notoriously “noncompliant.” In fact, there was a hierarchy that separates patients from physicians, without a culture of explanation at those institutes (it was considered as normal for staff to barely speak to patients); the most important determents of adherence to follow-up were economic.


As Nguyen argues, the idea that public disclosure of HIV status would spontaneously generate solidarity, which is the dominant discourse in many social movements in the West, arose from a radically different context in Africa. In a world of severely limited resources to medical treatment, what does the discourse of public visibility (“coming out”) mean for group solidarity?