Review: Pasi Väliaho, Biopolitical Screens: Image, Power, and the Neoliberal Brain, by Jakob Nilsson

logo95x95Review of Pasi Väliaho’s Biopolitical Screens: Image, Power, and the Neoliberal Brain 

By Jakob Nilsson, Stockholm University



9780262027472_0Book details



Biopolitical Screens maps a set of image-related parameters that regulates the neoliberal present. This set of parameters crosses diverse areas and is quite a challenge for any one mapping venture. Väliaho confronts this challenge by way of bold and imaginative transdisciplinary synthesis. What is imaginatively synthetic here regards not so much the combination of inspected areas – there are other studies that take on similar intersections of media, images, and the brain, as governed by a neoliberal logic – as to how it weaves together a large amount of diverse theoretical references (on a small amount of pages), that spans contemporary media-, cinema-, and game theory, visual culture theory, continental political philosophy, neuroscience and the history of psychology. While synthesizing here means a sometimes problematic avoidance of preserving delicate theoretical differences, the many references are put to use in a dense, ambitious line of argument.

The line of argument – traversing modern warfare and finance capitalism over case studies of first-person shooter video games, military Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, and political art – regards the central function of images within what is argued to be a contemporary form of biopolitics: a military-entertainment-financial complex with a new scientifically shrewd grasp of our adaptable neurological core, a grasp that is mediated by screens, and that functions as an apparatus of capture in the sense of modulating our affective, gestural- and cognitive patterns, so as to conform with the demands of neoliberal capitalism. As a contemporary form of biopolitics, this “capturing” is no mere disciplinary molding of subjects into static identities, but a modulation of our very brains, neuroscientifically understood as plastic and adaptable. Biopolitical Screens can be said to hereby read Foucault’s concept of biopolitics primarily through Gilles Deleuze’s short 1990 essay Postscript on Societies of Control (1992 [1990]). Väliaho works so securely in the aftermath of this influential essay that it does not have to be mentioned. Deleuze’s essay, however, only provided the outlines of a burgeoning new logic of power and a lot has happened since it was written. Biopolitical Screens makes a vital contribution to current efforts to fill in the blanks of how this new logic has developed in our time.

It contributes, more specifically, to the understanding of how images work within this new logic. “Images”, however, is given a “broad” but rigorous definition through combining several theories of images found in Hans Belting, W. J. T. Mitchell, Nichilas Mirzoeff, Rancière, DiDi-Huberman, Simondon, Kracauer, and others – a combination that deserves a longer comment than what is allowed in this short review. In brief: “images” refers to a politically, socially, technologically, phenomenologically, and neurologically “complex interplay” – “spanning screen technologies, scientific rationalities, cerebral modulations, and the like” – in which “material images fix mental ones and vice versa” (89). Images are political in that this subjectivity-forming interplay is part of a neoliberal “visual economy” – with the word economy understood in the classical sense of “the management of lived realities” (6f). Images are political also in the sense that this interplay involves resistances, cuts and interferences, which may redistribute how sensations and modes of thought are organized within this visual economy.

Neuroscience plays a key role here. Following Catherine Malabou, Väliaho argues that the current neuroscientific understanding of the brain as an adaptive, plastic, self-organizing system, so “closely corresponds to the economic order of present-day societies and the neoliberal rationalities sustaining them” – with its decentralized, hierarchically relaxed, flexible logic – that the “cerebral subject is where [this order] finds its scientific legitimization” (83, 21). This connection is “critical to the biopolitical apparatus in charge of our lives today” to the point that neuroscientific conceptions of the brain has “come to frame the normative understanding of ourselves as embodied beings, ranging from biological psychiatry and cognitive science to new areas such as neuroeconomics and neuroethics” as well as neurochemistry and criminology (16, 17, 21).

Now, in a context such as this I can see largely three different ways of treating neuroscience: 1. Critically analyzing it as an episteme or image of thought aligned with the present order. 2. Using neuroscience itself as a method to analyze this order (as a kind of immanent critique). 3. Reading aspects of neuroscience itself as radical and potentially progressive. Väliaho keeps to the first two. His descriptions exclusively follow how neuroscience tends to function as biologically reductive major science within the order. He thereby brackets the path partly taken by many of his closest theoretical references – e.g. Malabou and John Protevi, not to mention Deleuze in Cinema 2 – on which neuroscience is treated also as in parts a minor science, or at least containing such tendencies, that can be understood from, lets say, “new materialist” points of view. Still, Väliaho treats neurological plasticity as axiomatic in his investigation of how our brains can be progressively stimulated by critical art, the object of chapter 4 (which we return to below).

How warlike video games tamper with our neurological constitution is investigated in Chapter 2. First-person shooter games perform an “affective capture” on unconscious bodily levels (37) that educates our sensations so as to harmonize with a neoliberal logic. On a technical, neurological level, these games to a large extent take over perceptual and sensorimotor functions and grip and affect core parts of the brain regulating primitive emotions such as fear. But as Väliaho notes, this “description of the immersive embodiment of video games [….] says nothing about the role of player’s ‘higher-level’ consciousness in gameplay” (41), a note he leaves hanging (which in turn leaves the question open as to how to assess the role of “higher-level” critical distance that during playing may allow immersion for the sake of temporary gratification of reptilian impulses). What is most intriguing and interesting here, however, is the argument that these games affect players – by modulating the brain’s basic cognitive ability to predict and anticipate coming events – towards conforming to a neoliberal logic of crisis, contingency and “preemption”. While most clearly found in finance capitalism and the preemptive war on terror, current neoliberalism entails a general preoccupation with securitization from possible future threats. Increasingly virtual, decoded, and deterritorialized, the system reproduces a reality of constant crisis and “anticipated catastrophe”, which it then imaginatively secures itself against (reterritorializes) in a manner that Väliaho describes as resulting in “the transformation of a dissimilar future into a similar present” (125, 58). But if this capturing crystalizes a general logic of biopolitical subjectivation, which Väliaho argues, I wonder which other everyday screen practices, besides certain video games, that capture and modulate neurologically in a similar way and for the same ends?

Chapter 3 shifts focus from the handling of the future to the managing of the past. It investigates Virtual Iraq, a game-like VR exposure therapy program designed to treat posttraumatic stress disorder of American war veterans. This program, however, does not recreate individual memories of traumatic events, but instead utilizes a set of generic (uncritical) imagery designed to connect with “cerebral folds and stratifications of our brains” that are in one sense “fixed” since they consist of “ancestral” sediments of the brain shared by all humans, but in another sense plastic and therefore adaptable and open to modification (82). This therapeutic modification of brain-memory, it should be added, is not the subtle everyday media-centered “modulation of memory” “exercised on the brain” that Maurizio Lazzarato has labeled “noo-politics” (2006: 186). It is rather an instance of explicit therapeutic adjustment within a military sphere having to do with the specific experiences of war. So how representative is this treatment of a larger social logic? Väliaho argues that the traumatized soldier here “crystalizes what it means to be a person in the neoliberal era – a person in a self-perpetuating state of crisis” (85). How can that be?

First of all, the therapy forces these soldiers to relive warlike images so as to adapt them to the psychic and affective content associated with a perpetual state of crisis and war (although this point is made somewhat ambiguously: at one point Väliaho describes the therapy as “eras[ing]” the “private horror movie” (125) and at another as “producing, instead of salvation from the trauma, the world as never-ending nightmare” (87)). The point here is the manner in which they are treated as neurologically adaptable, and how the goal is adaption to a neoliberal crisis-driven global order (which includes a perpetual war). What these soldiers are “paradoxically emblematic of”, then, is “the adaptive, flexible, and constantly, transforming individual” – and as the “fundamental marker of indetermination, trauma crystalizes the basic neoliberal imperative that the subject always be ready to become something other than it was” (84). Now, if these soldiers are emblematic in this sense of plastic identity, can the therapeutic treatment of these soldiers, as Väliaho writes further down, be said to also “crystalize the logic of contemporary biopolitics” (87, emphasis mine)? These patients, he writes, represent “the other side of the […] biopolitical subject” as part of a “suicidal logic of biopolitics” (84, 87).

If biopolitics was mentioned by Foucault only a few times (in the context of discussing earlier eras), it has by now spawned a large literature that has entailed, as Catherine Mills notes, a “conceptual proliferation and consequent confusion” in which “the idea of biopolitics risks diversification to the point where it will have little critical force” (2013: 73). Väliaho, well-read on the diverse literature on the concept, synthesizes, over the course of the book, several partly conflicting definitions (Foucault, Agemben, Mbembe, Esposito, etc.) into a notion of biopolitics that appears as synonymous with all neoliberal military or non-military practices on a global level.

In his detailed account in chapter 1 of what is called “neoliberal biopolitics”, however, Väliaho defines biopolitics closer to Foucault and here it appears as a more specific area of conduct having to do with the care and control of populations in order to maximize life, which as part of more recent neoliberal shifts now involves the governing of “dynamic multiplicities of autonomous, competitive, speculating, entrepreneurial, and consuming” subjects, which are “controlled through their freedom” (20). One could furthermore say that biopolitics today – superimposed on still remaining disciplinary forms – consists of everyday practices now administered at least as much by private interests as increasingly welfare-reduced Western states, raging from entrepreneurial education, new public management, personal data collection machines like Facebook, employment flexibility, and constant calls to reinvent oneself into a marketable brand.

 The subsequent chapters, however, which investigate precisely (image-based) practices of current neoliberal biopolitics, actually do not focus on biopolitics (or noo-politics/neuropower) as much as what could be called thanatopolitical, disciplinary handlings of limits and even outsides of biopolitical orders. A core part of Väliaho’s analyses consists of Western war-related or war-like involvement in or with the Global South – from drones killing innocents in Afghanistan to soldier training and therapy (i.e. the managing of those that manage the outside) to films that critically analyze walls between the West and the rest. But, as argued by M.G.E. Kelly (2010), Western involvement in the Global South – spanning aid, austerity measures, investments, brain draining, sanctions, occupations, and wars – can also be interpreted to (advertently or inadvertently) mostly disrupt the biopolitical development of countries in the Global South. While there certainly is a global neoliberal logic of power, it is questionable that there is a global biopolitics. Or if we say there is, how that services the critical force of the concept.

Chapter 4 analyses three video art works that counter established affective and cognitive structures. The discussions of these works can be interpreted to point in two directions: 1. Deconstructions of dominant meaning and redistributions of the sensible. 2. Mappings of global structures. Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision (2010) is described to self-reflexively reedit drone surveillance imagery, in a manner that leaves voids of meaning which open spectators to “the randomness and indeterminacy of [their] reactions” and to their own imaginative “associating, linking, and delinking” (116, 104f). Similarly, Chantal Akerman’s From The Other Side (2002), Väliaho writes, “invites observers to question dominant ways of partitioning reality”, and it is, quoting Rancière’s description of the same film, “an interrogation into the power of representation” (109).

Much of the discussion here appears as a kind of update of the 1970s notion of “counter cinema” – deconstructing dominant representational meaning (and making visible what’s in the margins). Although the dominant logic has of course precisely shifted since the 1970s, and I wonder how many of the strategies discussed in chapter 4 hold up in a supple capitalist system – with a highly developed capacity of incorporating and disarming critical or dissenting art – and which holds up an image of itself that is already somewhat devoid of coherent meaning. As Fredric Jameson once famously argued, contemporary capitalism has become so intricate and abstract that it is increasingly difficult for individuals to orient themselves within the world system, a difficulty that, according to Jameson, blocks agency and utopian imagination (1991, 1995). Known forms of political art appear equally incapable of organizing the system into a coherent experience, which leads Jameson to speak of a need for new yet unknown artistic forms of – social and spatial – “cognitive maps”. Such maps would not themselves provide any answers; they would form orienting prerequisites serving as catalysts for awakening the utopian imagination of the human beings observing the maps.

Väliaho at one point writes that he opposes “clearly drawn cognitive maps for meaning and action” (103), which (apart form signaling alignment with Rancière) seems like a somewhat misrepresenting nudge against Jameson and his notion of cognitive mapping. This is worth some attention since between aspects of Väliaho’s discussion of political art and Jameson’s concept I can see several informative both differences (notwithstanding the obvious differences in conceptions of affect, ideology, etc.) and similarities, the latter with regards to spectators, the role of imagination, and mapping itself. Väliaho shares the focus on sparking the political imagination of spectators through works such as Akerman’s From the Other Side that demands “a particular cognitive engagement from the observer” (109), and he discusses aspects of this work as well as of the third example, Steve McQueen’s Gravesend (2007), in terms of making connections between separated geopolitical elements and mapping global flows, and the very last sentence of Biopolitical Screens states that “[w]hat we need are montages that critically tap into and reveal the patterns shaping existence even as they invent new ones” (129). But of course, from a Jamesonian perspective such mapping would counter how the dominant neoliberal image of the system is itself vague, fragmented, and incoherent, while Väliaho regards this mapping as part of a deconstruction and fragmentation of dominant meaning (that can lead to the production of new meaning). And the primary strategy championed by Väliaho is montage, not mapping. However, since he also describes the order itself to already make “montages of our lives” (16) – montages that Biopolitical Screens maps really well – a truly progressive montage may have to go beyond know forms of artistic experimentation, so as to both grip the order and affect real redistributions of the sensible. Whatever the formal or strategic means, for Jameson, Rancière, and Väliaho alike, “novel figures of thought” (106) are considered to arise primarily through the (pre-individual) imagination of “emancipated” spectators. I would suggest a third path, in which the film itself expresses imaginative new forms of thought that are neither programmatically representational nor mere cues for spectators, but a kind of specifically filmic form of conceptualization.


Jakob Nilsson is a researcher and lecturer in film studies at Stockholm University. Recent publications include articles in Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, in Cinema & Cie. International Film Studies Journal, in Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, and in Rhizomes, as well as the edited volume Foucault, Biopolitics, and Governmentality (ed. with Sven-Olov Wallenstein, 2013).




Deleuze Gilles (1992 [1990]), Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59: 3-7.

Jameson Fredric (1991) Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Jameson Fredric (1995 [1992]) The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Kelly M.G.E. (2010) International Biopolitics: Foucault, Globalisation and Imperialism. Theoria 57(123): 1-26.

Lazzarato Maurizio (2006 [2004]) Life and the Living in the Societies of Control. In: Martin Fuglsang and Bent Meier Sørensen (eds.), Deleuze and the Social, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 171-190.

Mills Catherine (2013) Biopolitical Life. In: Nilsson J and Wallenstein S.O. (eds.) Foucault, Biopolitics, and Governmentality, Huddinge: Södertörn Philosophical Studies, 73-90


Readers may also be interested in some of the following related material:

James Ash interviews Pasi Väliaho on video games and rhythm

The Special Issue on Rhythm Edited by Julian Henriques, Milla Tiainen and Pasi Väliaho, Body & Society, September & December 2014; vol. 20, 3-4

‘Video Games and the Cerebral Subject: On Playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3′ Pasi Väliaho, Body & Society, September & December 2014; vol. 20, 3-4: pp. 113-139.

‘Rhythm Returns: Movement and Cultural Theory’, Julian Henriques, Milla Tiainen, and Pasi Väliaho, Body & Society, September & December 2014; vol. 20, 3-4: pp. 3-29.

‘Affectivity, Biopolitics and the Virtual Reality of War’, Pasi Väliaho, Theory, Culture & Society, March 2012; vol. 29, 2: pp. 63-83.

‘Attention, Videogames and the Retentional Economies of Affective Amplification’ James Ash, Theory, Culture & Society, November 2012; vol. 29, 6: pp. 3-26., first published on November 5, 2012