Modelling Anxiety: The Digital Cold Monster – Maria Dada

Digital Modeling is pervasive in most of what might be defined as the digital, from CGI, 3D modelling, models of high frequency speculative trading algorithms, Google’s Baysian search term suggestions all the way to machine learning and neural networks.  Not to mention some of the less mathematical use of the notion of the business, user or consumer and marketing model.  Baudriallard is not wrong when he highlights the importance of the model in his essay on the topic of simulation. This paper traces the emergence of digital modelling as an apparatus of political economy and questions its relationship to what Frank B. Wilderson III calls the libidibal economy.

Michel Foucault dedicates his lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics to highlighting a multiplicity of shifts within the art of government, one of which is the movement from punitive sovereignty, a form of necro-political techniques, where the state assumes the role of what Foucault describes as “a cold monster” to a more reasonable form of power.  Under the reasonable raison d’etat the sovereign has to negotiate their power with that of nature and its laws. The paradox, of course, is that one cannot reason with nature.  It is in a sense the condition and the limit of rationality.  Therefore, the laws of nature are somewhat imposed on the state.  The latter is, of course, the fallacy that Foucault is exposing in the lecture.

He unveils the fallacy in the description of the shift between the two regimes. The necro-political art of government was answerable to the divine laws of God, not nature. Under it breaking the divine laws of god would force the sovereign to step down.  However, as the mode of power shifts so too do the laws that govern it. If the necro-political king is only accountable to his subjects in relation to the divine laws, the sovereign of governmental reason is not accountable at all but rather limited by nature.

In other words, the laws of nature, which are imposed on the state of the raison d’État, operate differently to the laws of God. Foucault explains, “To say that there is a de facto limitation of governmental practice means that a government that ignores this limitation will not be an illegitimate, usurping government, but simply a clumsy, inadequate government that does not do the proper thing.” (Foucault, 2011: 10).  Put differently, breaking with the internal limitations of governmental reason will not render it illegitimate because these limitations are no longer juridical.  Natural laws are beyond the control and interpretation of any sovereign, man or subject.

Governmental reason is not equivalent to the practice of a particular state or nation.  It should be understood more as a mode of power than the practice of the state.  In addition, it doesn’t assume any ground, the ideal governmental reason. Rather it is a form of governmental habit, which is in perpetual transformation the more recent of which can be possibly described as digital governmental reason.

Now as it happens the most effective form of rationality, which is used in order to, calculate and make sense of the self-limitation of governmental reason, is political economy.  Foucault continues, “the intellectual instrument, the form of calculation and rationality that made possible the self-limitation of governmental reason as a de facto, general self-regulation… is political economy” (Foucault, 2011: 13).

In fact, as he himself admits, all of Foucault’s final lectures on biopolitics need to be understood through the lens of political economy.  Whether it’s political economy as the production and circulation of wealth, a method of government that produces the nations prosperity or a reflection on the organisation, distribution and limitations of power in society.  Whatever the example, or the subtopic, political economy is implicated in some way. It is the intellectual apparatus born out of the raison d’État to enrich the state against its enemies.

The physiocrats were the first the introduce political economy into governmental practice.  As an apparatus, it does not ask about authorisation or origin but about effects, what would happen if the state raises taxes?  It is the intrinsic law of government, a sort of natural law.  It subjects government to the so-called natural laws of the market.  In other words, political economy is the discovery of the natural laws of government as the natural laws of the market.  Political economy, as such, transforms the notion of nature.

In a similar vein to the laws of nature more generally, political economy determines the success or the failure of government but does not illegitimate it.  Governments can simply be mistaken by ignoring the new economic laws of nature.  A bad governor is not wicked but ignorant.  Ignorance does not dissolve a government.  The relationship between truth and self-limitation, however, is not about wisdom of rule such as that of the Machiavellian prince.  In place of the wisdom of the prince, governments rely on economic experts “whose task is to tell the government what in truth the natural mechanisms are of what it is manipulating” (Foucault, 2011: 17).

These economic experts come to rely heavily on predictive, cybernetic models to determine the truth, natural mechanisms and the logic and reason of digital governmentality.  Such is the main thrust of my argument, one that I will elaborate on in a moment. However, for now it’s sufficed to say that the market becomes the site of the possibilities of governmental truth.

With that said, it’s important to stress that the site of the possibilities of truth is not the discipline of economics but the market.  The economists, cognitive psychologists and other experts model scenarios of truth within the possibilities of the market. “One must govern with economics, one must govern alongside economists, one must govern by listening to the economists, but economics must not be and there is no question that it can be the governmental rationality itself.” (Foucault, 2011: 286).  Foucault makes this claim in order to point to an emancipatory ‘other’ to economics within this structure.

The market on the other hand is a specific form of distribution of resources through a gathering of fixed duration, which involves buying, and selling commodities.  The root of the word ‘market’ only dates back to the Latin mercatus, a word for trading, buying and selling.  It refers to sales as controlled by supply and demand.

The crux of Foucault’s argument, however, is that all markets are regulated and therefore socio-politically constructed.  Economics is merely the current method of construction and regulation. The issue, and what troubles Foucualt, is that politics and the law are no longer set in relation to the governance of citizens but rather to the regulation of markets.  The market is the medium between sovereign and subject.  As a medium it reduces the subject into a market actor.

The laws, or regulations, on the other hand, are no longer concerned with subjectivating citizens directly but rather with how to make the markets work better for the raison d’etat, or in other words, how to make sure the market continues to ‘freely’ or i.e. ‘naturally’ balance itself.  The notion of ‘natural’, as will be shown, is the central tenet of the raison d’etat which leads to the mathematical modelling of the market.

Subsequently, digital modelling, which is largly mathematical, shares its lineage with the economic modelling that emerges as a method to naturalise the market. What I will show in the next few paragraphs are the events that lead to the emergence of digital modelling and the market’s recourse to the natural laws of physics as well as digital infrastructure in order to insure its resilience in the realm of the neoliberal art of government. In order to do so I will resort to the work of Philip Mirowski.

According to Mirowski prior to the Second World War the hegemonic, rational choice, mathematical model based economics that engulfs our current economic system was not the dominant discourse.  Donald Mackenzie agrees, “Economics had developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries predominantly as what the historian of economics Mary Morgan calls a “verbal tradition.” Even as late as 1900, “there was relatively little mathematics, statistics, or modelling contained in any economic work””(Mackenzie, 2008: 7).

In fact, there wasn’t a particular dominant form of economics.  Mirowski insists, “there was no dominant orthodoxy in American economics prior to World War II, although the indigenous strain of American Institutionalism held some key strategic outposts at Columbia and Wisconsin”(Mirowski, 2006: 190).  Institutionalism was of the view that institutions played a major role in shaping the markets and encouraged the broader understanding of their role in such a process.

After WWII in the 1950s the rise of the American economic model of laissez fair and the increasing availability of data fortified the link between mathematical modelling and the market.  The relationship between the two fields was also influenced by the burgeoning field of Operations Research (hereafter OR) and the impact of the cold war’s reinforcement of technical innovation.

Mirowski’s claim is that the mathematical models and tools developed during world war two created a highly specialised new disciplined called OR which was largly concerned with the the use of mathematical modelling in economics and finance.  OR is regarded as the predecessor to most digital disciplines.  It owes its existence to the early proponents of the computer such as Charles Babbage. However, by definition it is the application of mathematical modelling in the aid of market based decision-making. It was key in spawning grand economic theories such as game theory and Cybernetics. It is in many ways responsible for the explosion of digital modelling from within the discipline of economics outwards into the various fields that are called simply the digital.

At the moment, digital modelling is not only pervasive in mathematics but in various areas most readily defined as the digital, from CGI, 3D modelling, high frequency speculative trading algorithms, Google’s Baysian search term suggestions all the way to machine learning and neural networks.  Not to mention some of the less mathematical use of the notion of the business, user or consumer and marketing model.  Baudriallard was not wrong when he highlighted the importance of the model in his essay on the topic of simulation.

The missing element in this analysis, and what I would like to explore further, is the role of feeling, desire and the libidinal economy in market construction and regulation.   Foucault is excellent in his account of political economy, rationality and its limits but there is no mention in his work on what Frank B Wilderson calls the libidinal economy, which he defines as “the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification, of energies, concerns, points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, and phobias—the whole structure of psychic and emotional life—that are unconscious and invisible but that have a visible effect on the world, including the money economy” (Wilderson, 2010:7).

Market norms are constructed in collaboration with digitally enhanced market models of political economy, however, as Judith Butler claims in the Psychic Life of Power, for the subject to internalise them they must be become integrated within the libidinal system.  Therefore, the libidinal economy operates at two registers within the market.  On the one hand, it legislates in conjunction with the digital modelling, for instance recently, according to Donald Mackenzie, the models behind high frequency trading algorithms have recently forced legistlative changes in the way that financial markets operate. On the other hand, it allows for the internalisation of market norms by the subjects of the market.

The libidinal economy also operates against so-called best economic decisions.  Some desirable decisions are made even if they do not make economic sense, for example, according to historian David Eltis it would have made a lot more economic sense to enslave Europeans rather than Africans but no one had the desire or there was a heightened level of anxiety around implementing something like that.

The enslavement of Africans occurs in a mode external to the logic of political economy through the libidinal but once the commodification of the slave occurs the violence incurred is within the logic of neoliberal governmental reason.  In other words, violence is inflicted through the mode of making a market such as creating a slave market.

The questions that remain and that I would like to open up during the workshop are: What is the relationship between digital modelling and desire? How do models operate in the entanglement between libidinal and political economy?




Works Cited



Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford Univ. Press, 2006.


Callon, Michel. The Laws of the Markets. Blackwell, 1998.


Callon, Michel, et al. Market Devices. Blackwell, 2008.


Eltis, David, and David Richardson. Routes to Slavery: Direction, Ethnicity, and Mortality in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Frank Cass, 1997.


Foucault, Michel, and Michel Senellart. The Birth of Biopolitics Lectures at the College De France, 1978-1979. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.


MacKenzie, Donald A. An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets. MIT Press, 2008.


MacKenzie, Donald, et al. Do Economists Make Markets?: On the Performativity of Economics. Princeton University Press, 2008.


Mirowski, Philip. More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics: Physics as Natures Economics. Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Mirowski, Philip. Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006.


Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010.


“Online Etymology Dictionary.” Index,













  1. Hi Maria…

    Thanks for this post. I have very similar research interests and I wanted to ask you something specific​ally about the verbal basis of economics that you bring up – “Donald Mackenzie agrees, “Economics had developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries predominantly as what the historian of economics Mary Morgan calls a “verbal tradition.” Even as late as 1900, “there was relatively little mathematics, statistics, or modellin​g contained in any economic work””(Mackenzie, 2008: 7).” This is quite interesting as I’m trying to understand theories of performativity or at least Austinian theories of speech acts in relation to machine learners and their categorical statements. Do you think that the answer to your questions about desire and modelisation are related to the very decision trees and decision architectures that are inscribed into machine learning systems? Is there perhaps something outside of the speech act that is more interesting to be spoken about in relation to desire and machine learners? Something immeasurable? Unpredictable?


  2. Hi Maria, thank you for sharing. You ask a very important question regarding the relationship between digital modeling and desire – one I am too curious about.

    Per what you have posted, I am specifically interested in the following paragraph, especially given my own research and passion within the post-colonial framework, you write, “the libidinal economy also operates against so-called best economic decisions. Some desirable decisions are made even if they do not make economic sense, for example, according to historian David Eltis it would have made a lot more economic sense to enslave Europeans rather than Africans but no one had the desire or there was a heightened level of anxiety around implementing something like that.”

    It is important to attempt to pin down desire here regarding the body / the human that was enslaved and why. Perhaps, I am curious about the desire / what kind of desire wants to dehumanize (such as enslave) a group of ethnically identified humans to began with? There are multiple reasons the Indigenous were colonized, however, from the economic standpoint, it remains obvious. Though, I am not sure where ‘desire’ resides regarding colonization. In fact, this leads me to asking how digital modeling is a tactic for compartmentalization . . . or rather, I ask, how is such an economically designed sense of boundedness (i.e. digital modeling) linked to desire?

    I look forward to the discussions!


  3. hi maria– thank you for sharing. I am attracted to your injection the “the market is the medium” through which sociopolitical concepts (like economics) construct and regulate power. The relationship between “model” and “nature” in your framework is collapsed as the model takes on a certain rationality or autonomy to predict and control future forms. I am reminded of Wendy chuns work on climate models, where data collection and aethesthetic representation of climate change becomes the rationale used for government climate policy making.

    I too am interested in questions of the libidinal economy, and how the invisible or ubiquitous data flows of contemporary computational capitalism predict and foreclose the future of the subjects within through playing on affect. Interesting to me is the fact that in this current social media data regime, models are constructed of subjects themselves (reduced to users, of course) in order to affectively predict things like taste in clothes, music, or political preferences in order that companies might more effectively advertise to them. We don’t simply operate within models but have become models of desire ourselves. i am really interested in talking more about the relationships between desire and economy and wonder what it means to speculate on desire as it might be retooled for radical means that serve rather than limit subjectivity.

    looking forward to more conversation!


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