Phantasmagrams of Population

Michelle Murphy

Image from IBM

Imagine a desk-sized IBM 1130 computer in 1971. There is no screen attached to the computer’s bulky body. Instead, above the keyboard is a printer that spits out results intermittently. In 1971, this machine pulsated with the future. The computer is programmed using FORTRAN with the Carolina Population Center Family Planning Administrator Training Game that promises to train players in the arts of altering the future of a national population.1

The intended players are visiting civil servants involved in family planning programs in their home country. In this role playing game, a group of players are assigned roles as “decision makers” within a hypothetical country and charged with overseeing a national family planning effort. Players are prompted to allocate a finite amount of funds towards different family planning project options. The players’ decisions are entered on programming cards that are fed into the computer, and run through a simulation of the relationships between population growth, “averting births,” death rate, literacy, family planning demand, contraceptive supply, and income per capita, and other variables. The computer then prints out the results as a tally of “births averted” and “cost per averted birth,” and another round of play begins.

The creators of the Family Planning Administrator Training Game were upfront that their simulation inadequately captured the multitude of uncertain and obscure relations that made up “population” and its effects on “the economy.” Their game, however, was intended to imbue players (assumed male in their literature) with a palpable sense of the “interrelationships that link with uncertainty” making up “population.”2 The game gave players a feel for population. “It is not meant to be a facsimile of any society or governmental structure,” the game designers explained, “It is to family planning what the game of chess is to chivalry. One plays the game to gain experience in making decisions in the face of uncertainty.”3 The game thus aspired to conjure “population” as an aggregate form moving into the future replete with correlations and uncertainties into player’s imaginaries.

For the game designers, developing countries were profoundly plagued by “the irrational use of human reproductive powers.”4 Their game contributed to the “urgent need for more systematic approaches” towards the governing of population that was becoming a dominant goal within US foreign policy. While family planning administrators were not expected to understand the equations behind the simulation of population, it was hoped that such training would imbue them with the sense of population as a changeable constellation of relationships that could be systematically steered towards desirable or dangerous futures, especially by following US policy recommendations. The Family Planning Administrators Training Game offered a pedagogy weighted with emotion, but also an embodied sense of a massive phenomenon beyond calculative apprehension.

This simulation game joined other computer simulations, demographic models, five year plans, simple graphs, and other forms of quantitatively summoning the future, all of which contributed to miraculating “population” as a dense cloud of correlations that could be felt and worried over. Population became a forceful intangible of cold war/postcolonial governance. Population, I suggest, was a kind of phantasmagram, an intangible form brought into sensibility as a palpable presence with the help of quantitative practices.5 Models, simulations, and forecasts are examples of speculative quantitative practices that in the second half of the twentieth century propagated popular imaginaries, lured feeling, and hence had supernatural effects in surplus of their calculation.6

The term phantasmagram points to the affectively charged and extra-objective relations that are part of the speculative force of numbers. In other words, it asks us to notice the ways calculative speculations dream our world. Quantitative models do not merely explicate population, they conjure a greater dissipated canopy of forces whose conspicuous existence exceeds capacities to calculate. In the second half of the twentieth century, “population” became a forceful phantasmagram, a fulsome beyond of immaterial forces propelling subjects, as well as subject not yet and perhaps never born, into uncertain futures, some hopeful others apocalyptic.

The speculative future of population was invested with aspirations and anxieties tied both to the promissory economic abundance of planned intervention and to the threatening nightmares of planetary collapse. While many social scientists factored in demand, approval, happiness, and other psychological states of individuals in their explications of population dynamics, the notion of the phantasmagrapm points to an extra-subjective affective dimension to quantification practices. Quantification helps to dream ineffable realms that can take shape as a collectively felt form in excess of the representational and logical limits of quantification practices themselves. One does not need to understand the mathematical models behind population to join in the feeling of being surrounded by a possible future of overpopulation.

Population in the twentieth century came to inhabit just such a collective dreaming, helping people to feel dystopic or promissory futures for themselves, their family, their nation, or the planet. Beyond simulation and models, the mass dreaming of population as an aggregate of relations stretching into the future was aided by national and transnational infrastructures of data making – from censuses to demographic and health surveys – as well as a visual vocabulary of crowds, slums, and poverty. Population became a speculative aggregate form that surrounded everyone, made of a throng of correlations connected together as anticipatory trends in surfeit of what any individual dreams or does alone. As an artifact of a technical infrastructures and quantitative practices, population contributes to a non-individual and non-conscious dreaming that substantiates the world and is built back into government, institutions, and policy, into birth control technologies, family planning programs, and clinics. Uncertain and yet felt, it structures the world.

Image from the Population Research Bureau

Undergirding “population” within the Family Planning Administrators Training Game was one of the most influential phantasmagrams of the second half of the twentieth century – the demographic transition. The demographic transition was typically represented with a simple graph that plotted birth rate, death rate, and population growth over time. It plotted a set of shifts in birth and death rates that, according to an influential signature study, had accompanied the historical progress of Europe as it transformed from a “primitive” economy, to a “pre-industrial” economy, and finally to a “modern industrial” economy.7 This transition was elevated as an abstract model that tied together economic futures and population futures.

Accordingly, in primitive economies, birth and death rates were both high, leading to a steady population. In the pre-industrial economy, new technologies and interventions lowered death rates, yet birth rates remained the same, and hence the overall population grew rapidly. With the arrival at a modern industrial economy, the birth rate would also fall, leading back to a stable population. In the mid-twentieth century, many demographers and social scientists in synchrony with US foreign policy believed that post-colonial regions of the world were stuck in a state of high population growth that would thwart their arrival at a proper economic modernity.8

In this influential yard stick of modernization, economic practices, people, and regions were temporized as more or less forward or back in time, and it was typically only at the modern horizon where new futures began.9 Non-Western nations were largely categorized as existing in a state of not yet having arrived at modernity. They were declared in a temporal state of not-yet, of waiting to achieve the horizon where the future starts.10 Economic development then became a “formative speculative” project aimed at moving regions into universalized industrial modernity. This temporal imaginary was given grammar and number by the work of cold war/postcolonial social scientists, who crafted the many measures and indexes that were correlated with the passage into modernity: increased GDP per capita, birth rates, and women’s social status were among the most enduring and potent of such measures that were used to auger the chances of transitioning into modernity.

Moreover, such measures often took women and girls as their objects of speculative concern. In South Asia, older colonial logics had long deployed the status of women as a sign of cultural barbarity, and thus as a condition that legitimated colonial intervention.11 In the age of postcolonial development, women’s status continued to signal the temporal lag or promise of a racialized nation. Yet, in the first three decades of globalized family planning, women and girls were largely—and merely–abstractions of social science models.

From the 1960s through 1980s, US supported cold war/postcolonial social science in particular plotted a global schema of uncertain modernization in which the fecundity of racialized abstract female bodies threatened to derail the future.12 As GDP became a universalized measure of the performance of a nation’s “economy” at mid-century, and because population size had a direct mathematical effect on the comparative measure GDP per capita, the sense of the future hinging on averting birth, and thus on the future life-making capacities of women’s bodies, intensified.

How to arrive at the future of low birth rate, high GDP and industrial modernity? While some social scientists believed birth rates would only fall after economic development had been achieved, others, including the influential social scientists at USAID’s Office of Population, believed that preventing births was a necessary precursor to economic development. Fertility, and thus the “irrational reproductive powers” of women’s bodies endangered the future of economic progress. Thus, the model of the demographic transition staged a new kind of postcolonial futurity and speculative problem. How to intervene in the many clouds of relations that directed the future of national “population” for the sake of the future macroeconomy? How to prevent future life? How to avert future birth?

National family planning programs around the planet were caught up in this new speculative temporal orientation. The future was uncertain and conjectural, and yet the present had to be altered for the sake of possible futures. Women’s bodies themselves were conduits to these different futures. Their possible fertility had to be preempted. In South Asia and elsewhere (tracing a geography of US cold war intervention), pilot projects, experimental field sites, and social surveys proliferated from the 1960s through 1980s, all oriented towards uncertain and aspirational crosshairs of averting future life. India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, for example, all resided in the forecast of a population bomb that demanded to be peremptorily defused, such that the present could be declared in a state of emergency for the sake of a possible apocalyptic future.

Through the phantasmagram of population, technoscience dreamed futures through poor women’s figurative bodies, resulting in the concreteness of sometimes coercive and violent family planning campaigns. Despite the fact that academic demographers have vigorously debated the veracity of the demographic transition model, it continues to travel as a potent phantasmagram today, directing policies and undergirding the collective imaginary of population. Poor, brown women’s bodies have been, and continue to be, dense with speculation.

  1. R. Scott Moreland et al., “The Carolina Population Center Family Planning Administrator Training Game,” Management Science 18, no. 12 (1972): B – 635. 

  2. Ibid. p. B-636. 

  3. Ibid. p. B-636 

  4. Ibid. p. B-635. 

  5. Michelle Murphy, Economization of Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming). 

  6. In thinking through the phantasmagram in the cold war period, I am drawing inspiration from the work of Joseph Masco which demonstrates that one of the crucial accomplishments of cold war US nuclear and military techniques and infrastructures were powerful new imaginaries and affective orientations. Joseph Masco, “‘SURVIVAL IS YOUR BUSINESS’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America,” Cultural Anthropology 23/2 (2008): 361-98; Joseph Masco, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014). Jackie Orr’s work shows the “psychopolitics” as the affectively distributed panic of cold war cybernetics and militarism: Jackie Orr, Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). 

  7. S. Sretzer, “The Idea of Demographic Transition and the Study of Fertility: A Critical Intellectual History,” Population and Develoment Review 19, no. 4 (1993): 659–701. 

  8. Crucial to the dominance of the demographic transition was the transnational work of Frank Notestein, the founding director of Princeton’s influential Office of Population Research as well as the director of Population Council from 1959 -1968. 

  9. On temporizing regions of the world as forward and backward, see A. McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995); Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (Columbia University Press, 2002). On the history of modernization theory, see D. Engerman et al., Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003); M. Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and National Building in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Michael E. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development, and U.S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present (Cornell University Press, 2011). 

  10. The sway of this temporization of the world was so forceful that it is still at work, and scholars continue to refute it. For example of this continued refutation, see the 2015 special issue of the East Asian Science Technology Studies Journal, “We have Never Been Latecomers” 

  11. On this history, see Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); M. Sinha, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). 

  12. On the history of globalized family planning, see M. Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008); K.A. Ali, Planning the Family in Egypt: New Bodies, New Selves (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); D. Critchlow, “Implementing Family Planning Policy in Postwar America,” in With Us Always: Private Charity and Public Welfare in Historical Perspective, ed. D.T. Critchlow and C.H. Parker (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 211–41; M. Kaler, Running After Pills: Gender, Politics and Contraception in Colonial Rhodesia (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003); S.L. Pigg, “Globalizing the Facts of Life,” in Sex in Development: Science, Sexuality and Morality in Global Perspective, ed. S.L. Pigg and V. Adams (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 39–65; S. Halfon, The Cairo Consensus: Demographic Surveys, Women’s Empowerment and Regime Change in Population Policy (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006); F. Akhter, Depopulating Bangladesh: Essays on the Politics of Fertility (Dhaka: Narigrantha Prabartana, 1992); S. Ahluwalia, Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008); N. Chatterjee and N. Riley, “Planning an Indian Modernity: The Gendered Politics of Fertility Control,” Signs 26, no. 3 (2001): 811–45; R. Petchesky, Global Prescriptions: Gender Health and Human Rights (London: Zed Press, 2003). 

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