Georges Canguilhem “The Living and Its Milieu”

Canguilhem, Georges 2008. The Living and Its Milieu. In: Knowledge of Life. New York: Fordham University Press, 98–120.

Historically speaking, the notion and term milieu were imported from mechanics into biology during the second half of the eighteenth century. The mechanical notion (though not the term) appeared with Newton, and in its mechanical meaning the term can be found in the article “Milieu” in d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Lamarck, inspired by Buffon, introduced it into biology, but he used it only in the plural. This usage was established by Henri de Blainville. Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (in 1831) and Auguste Comte (in 1838) used the term in the singular, as an abstract term. Honoré de Balzac introduced it into literature in 1842 (in the preface to The Human Comedy), and Hippolyte Taine established it as one of the three principles of the analytic explanation of history – the other two being race and moment. It is from Taine, rather than from Lamarck, that neo-Lamarckian biologists after 1870 […]inherited the term. (99)

The French mechanists of the eighteenth century called “milieu” what Newton had referred to as “fluid”. In Newton’s physics, the type – if not the sole archetype – of fluid is ether. In Newton’s time, the problem of mechanics had to solve what was that of the action of distinct physical bodies at a distance. (99)

The notion of milieu is an essentially relative one. When we consider separately the body that receives an action transmitted by the milieu, we forget that a milieu is a medium, in between two centers, and we retain only its function as a centripetal transmitter, its position as that which surrounds a body. In this way, milieu tends to lose its relative meaning and to take on that of an absolute, a reality in itself. (100)

Comte says that by this term he no longer means only “the fluid into which a body is immersed” (thereby confirming the mechanical origins of the notion) but “the total ensemble of exterior circumstances necessary for the existence of each organism.” But we also see in Comte […] that its usage will remain dominated by the mechanical origins of the notion, if not the term. (101)

[…] the benefit of even a cursory history of the importation of the term milieu into biology during the first years of the nineteenth century is that it accounts for the originally strictly mechanistic acceptance of the term. If in Comte there appears a hint of an authentically biological acceptance and a more flexible usage of the word, this immediately gives way to the prestige of mechanics, an exact science in which prediction is based on calculation. To Comte, the theory of milieu seems clearly to be a variant of the fundamental project that the Course of Positive Philosophy endeavors to complete: first the world, then man; to go from the world to man. (102)

The milieu becomes a universal instrument for the dissolution of individualized organic syntheses into the anonymity of universal elements and movements. When the French neo-Lamarckians borrowed from Lamarck, if not the term milieu in the singular and in its absolute sense, then at least the idea of it, they retained of the morphological characteristics and functions of the living only their formation by external conditioning – only, so to speak, their formation by deformation. It is enough to recall J. Costantin’s experiments on the forms of the arrowhead leaf or Frédéric Houssay’s experiments on the form, fins, and metamerism of fish. Louis Roule was able to write, in his small book La vie des rivières, that “fish do not lead their lives on their own; it is the river that makes them lead it; they are persons without personality.” We have here an example of what a strictly mechanist use of the notion of milieu necessarily leads to. We are brought back to the theory of animal-machines. In the end, this is just what Descartes said, in saying of animals that “it is nature which acts in them by means of their organs.” (103)

Lamarckism is not mechanist, and it would also be inaccurate to call it finalistic. In reality, it is a bare vitalism. There is an originality in life for which the milieu does not account and which it ignores. Here the milieu is truly exterior, in the proper sense of the word: it is foreign, it does nothing for life. This is truly a vitalism because it is a dualism. Life, says Bichat, is the ensemble of functions that resist death. In Lamarck’s conception, life resists solely by deforming itself so as to outlive itself. (104)

[…] for Darwin, to live is to submit an individual difference to the judgment of the ensemble of living beings. This judgment has only two possible outcomes: either death or becoming oneself part of the jury for a while. So long as one lives, one is always judge and judged. As a result, in Darwin’s oeuvre as he left it to us, the thread linking the formation of the living being to the physico-chemical milieu can seem fairly thin. (105)

These two authentic biologists are complementary. Lamarck thinks of life in terms of duration, and Darwin thinks of it mostly in terms of interdependence: a living form presupposes a plurality of other forms in relation to it. The synoptic vision that is the essence of Darwin’s genius is missing in Lamarck. Darwin is more closely related to the geographers, and we know how much he owed to his voyages and explorations. The milieu in which Darwin depicts the life of the living is a bio-geographical milieu. (106)

It is essential to note that Ritter and Humboldt applied to their object – the relations between historical man and milieu – the category of totality. Their object is the whole of humanity on the whole Earth. With Ritter and Humboldt, the idea of determining historical relations by the geographical substrate was consolidated in geography. It gave rise first to Friedrich Ratzel and anthropo-geography in Germany, and then to geopolitics. (107)

The theory of milieu was at first the positive and apparently verifiable translation of Condillac’s fable of the statue. When the air smells like roses, a statue is rose-scented. In the same way, the living, within the physical milieu, is light and heat, carbon and oxygen, calcium and weight. It responds by muscular contractions to sensory excitations; it responds with a scratch to an itch, with flight to an explosion. But one can and must ask: Where is the living? We see individuals, but these are objects; we see gestures, but these are displacements; centers, but these are environments; machinists, but these are machines. The milieu of behavior coincides with the geographical milieu; the geographical milieu, with the physical milieu. (108)

Von Uexküll and Goldstein agree on this fundamental point: to study a living being in experimentally constructed conditions is to make a milieu for it, to impose a milieu on it; yet it is characteristic of the living that it makes its milieu for itself, that it composes its milieu. (111)

From the biological point of view, one must understand that the relationship between the organism and the environment is the same as that between the parts and the whole of an organism. The individuality of the living does not stop at its ectodermic borders any more than it begins at the cell. The biological relationship between the being and its milieu is a functional relationship, and thereby a mobile one; its terms successively exchange roles. The cell is a milieu for intracellular elements; it itself lives in an interior milieu, which is sometimes on the scale of the organ and sometimes of the organism; the organism itself lives in a milieu that, in a certain fashion, is to the organism what the organism is to its components. In order to judge biological problems, we thus require a biological sense, to whose formation von Uexküll and Goldstein can greatly contribute. (111)

Umwelt designates the milieu of behavior proper to a certain organism; Umgebung is the banal geographical environment; Welt is the universe of science. The milieu of behavior proper to the living (Umwelt) is an ensemble of excitations, which have the value and signification of signals. To act on a living being, a physical excitation has not only to occur but also be noticed. […] A living being is not a machine, which responds to excitations with movements, it is a machinist, who responds to signals with operations. (111)

[…] the question lies in the fact that out of the abundance of the physical milieu, which produces a theoretically unlimited number of excitations, the animal retains only some signals (Merkmale). Its life rhythm orders the time of this Umwelt, just as it orders space. (111–112)

The Umwelt is thus an elective extraction from the Umgebung, the geographical environment. But the environment is nothing other than the Umwelt of man, that is to say, the ordinary world of his perspective and pragmatic experience. Just as this Umgebung, this geographic environment external to the animal, is, in a sense, centered, ordered, oriented by a human subject – that is to say, a creator of techniques and a creator of values – the Umwelt of the animal is nothing other than a milieu centered in relation to that subject of vital values in which the living essentially consists. We must see at the root of this organization of the animal Umwelt a subjectivity analogous to the one we are bound to see at the root of the human Umwelt. (112)

Biology must first hold the living to be a significative being, and it must treat individuality not as an object but as an attribute within the order of values. To live is to radiate; it is to organize the milieu from and around a center of reference, which cannot itself be referred to without losing its original meaning. (113–114)

Pascal knows perfectly well that the Cosmos has broken into pieces, but the eternal silence of infinite space terrifies him. Man is no longer in the middle [milieu] of the world, but he is a milieu (a milieu between two infinities, a milieu between nothing an everything, a milieu between two extremes); the milieu is the state in which nature has placed us; we are floating on a vast milieu; man is in proportion with parts of the world, he has a relation to all that he knows: “He needs space to contain him, time to exist in, motion to be alive, elements to constitute him, warmth and food for nourishment, air to breathe. He sees light, he feels bodies, everything in short is related to him.” (117)

[…] the milieu on which the organism depends is structured, organized, by the organism itself. What the milieu offers the living is the function of demand. It is for this reason that, within what appears to man as a single milieu, various living beings carve out their specific and singular milieus in incomparable ways. Moreover, as a living being, man does not escape from the general law of living beings. The milieu proper to man is the world of his perception – in other words, the field of his pragmatic experience, the field in which his actions, oriented and regulated by the values immanent to his tendencies, pick out quality-bearing objects and situate them in relation to each other and to him. Thus the environment to which he is supposed to react is originally centered on him and by him. (118)

Despite finding his ordinary perceptual experience contradicted and corrected by scientific research, living man draws from his relation to the scientist a sort of unconscious self-conceit, which makes him prefer his own milieu over the milieus of other living beings, as having more reality and not just a different value. […] In all rigor, the qualification real can be applied only to the absolute universe, the universal milieu of elements and movements disclosed by science. Its recognition as real is necessarily accompanied by the disqualification, as illusions or vital errors, of all subjectively centered proper milieus, including that of man. (119)


Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky “Nothing Is Political, Everything Can Be Politicized”

Deuber-Mankowsky, Astrid 2008. Nothing Is Political, Everything Can Be Politicized: On the Concept of the Political in Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt. Telos 142: 135–161.

[…] the development of knowledge about life, the improvement of agricultural techniques, the observations and measurements of the living, and the use of statistics and probability have led to the result that life has become manipulable and that the optimization of this manipulability of life has become the object of politics. As Foucault thoroughly discussed in his lectures on the history of governmentality, politics has been transformed into political economy. (137)

In contrast to sovereignty, which capitalizes a territory, and in contrast to discipline, which architectonically sketches out a space and poses the problem of the functional and hierarchical ordering of elements in this space, security, as Foucault characterizes this new discursive formation, attempts to deploy a series of events and possible elements as a “milieu”. (138)

Biopolitics shares with cybernetics not just the universalization of the statistical point of view, but also the point of view of a consistent immanence. (140)

While Marx, like many others, pleads for a separation of politics from nature and politics from biology, and insists on the right of each individual over his or her own body and life, Foucault warns against the belief that one could undermine the regime of biopower by appearing to the life and the rights of humans as living beings. For this life, as well as the human as living thing, can only “assume office” through biopower itself. (141–142)

The population, considered in terms of its status as human species and as public sphere, should be understood as a new reality to the extent that both “are for the mechanisms of power the relevant elements and the relevant space within which and with respect to which action can take place.” (144)

Schmitt’s concept of the political refers solely, as becomes obvious, to that political action that he calls “high politics”, or foreign affairs. He has little to say about an analysis of the political dimension of the police at the origins of the modern state as about the analysis of the significance of economic relations for the origins of a plurality of states. Only under the condition of these omissions can he link the model of the plurality of states with the restitution of sovereignty in such a way that he is able to declare, in the first sentence of Political Theology (1922), that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” and, at the same time, can characterize the ideal state as “a political entity that maintains a peaceful cohesiveness within and a cohesiveness of sovereignty without in the confrontation with other sovereigns.” Schmitt’s concept of the political is not only based on an ideal model of the plurality of states, but also on a simplified and mythologized model of the state and of sovereignty. (150)

The politicization of life, and with it the transformation of numerous individuals into a population, is the task that falls to the police as it is constituted in the seventeenth century. (150)

What Schmitt suppresses  […] with his one-sided determination of the political through foreign policy is the interdependence of the reason of state with the continental equilibrium between states and the police. He misses the fact that the state is predicated upon the transformation of sovereign power into biopower and the interdependence of various governmental rationalities. (152)

While Schmitt ultimately bases his concept of the political on foreign affairs and the politics of representation, Foucault seeks the political in the resistance against governmentality. (152)

Foucault: “what is at issue is to say: nothing is political, everything can be politicized, everything can become political. Politics is nothing more or less than that which arises out of resistance to governmentality, the first uprising, the first confrontation.” (153 – F: Birth of Biopolitics)

[…] it is precisely this extremely ambiguous idea of the decision that demonstrates the decisive difference between Schmitt’s concept of the political, based on the figure of the legislator, and Foucault’s concept of politicization. (155)

Jeffrey Bussolini “What is a Dispositive?”

Bussolini, Jeffrey 2010. What Is a Dispositive? Foucault Studies 10: 85–107.

Given the particular choice of this term over against appareil, and the associated difference in theory of state (étatisation in Foucault) from Althusser’s (appareils idéologiques d’État), dispositif has an important specificity in this context—as distinct from the State itself, more distributed, and an important element of the theory of security and governmentality. (86)

In Histoire de la sexualité I: La volonté de savoir, where he first and most extensively develops the notion of the dispositif, Foucault gives an exposition of it in terms of its analytical function and its relation to resistance, but also in terms of its relation to historical processes and the operations of power. Foucault’s usage of the concept dispositif is relevant to an aspect of his theory of history as that which we are no longer or that which we are becoming, a perpetual inventiveness. When considering ‛the multiple relations of force which are formed and operate in the apparatuses (appareils) of production,‛ he writes of a ‛general line of force which traverses local battles and links them together.‛4 If his genealogical approach to history is one that emphasizes continual change in institutions and concepts, the dispositif is an important conceptual
development enabling him to elucidate it. It allows him to evaluate a moving field of continuities predicated on continual change. (88)

One dispositive does not neatly and simply substitute for another, but the very interaction between them is an aspect and signature of the historical change, and mobile field of forces, being analyzed. (90)

The concept of the dispositive in Foucault is also integrated with his theory of power and his descriptions of its operations. As already broached in the previous section about history, the dispositive is a tool for analyzing or understanding a multiplicity of forces in movement and contest. Indeed the way Foucault described the concept, it seems first and foremost a tool to think about power in the perpetually dynamic social field. (90)

Within a heterogeneous and dynamic field of relations, the dispositive would seem to be a kind of moving marker to allow some approximation of a particular preponderance or balance of forces at a given time. It helps to identify which knowledges have been called out and developed in terms of certain imperatives of power, and it aids in the discernment of the many resistances that also necessarily run through the multiple relations of force according to Foucault. (91)

The dispositive is not so much the individual elements which make it up—the long list that Foucault gives in the first paragraph—as it is the particular arrangement and relations between them. It is this distinctive (moving) form that is decisive. As seen in his analysis of the dispositives of alliance and sexuality, or of discipline and security, the same ‛elements‛ or institutions can be part of more than one dispositive. This is an explicitly relational concept predicated on a view of continual dynamism. (92)

Rather than a descriptive account of power, the dispositive is part of an ontological reckoning of it as a multiplicity of forces. It is strongly relational, emphasizing a particular arrangement and conjunction of plural forces. (92)

But, neither is the account entirely relativistic, as if any given force could disappear or cease immediately or simply. Though his view of history and power is based on continual change, there are inertias, partially-formed systems, configurations of institutions and practices that persist over time (though their meaning and the nature of their interaction may change over time). (93)

The ways in which bodies, selves, and discourses are created and shaped are much more far-reaching then relatively simple codes of allowed and banned activities. Identifying what is at stake in his inquiry about power, Foucault remarks that ‛in fact what is at issue is the production of sexuality itself.‛17 Again, given the ontological substrate of the play of forces in his view, perpetual inventiveness and the manifestation of new configurations of forces would be a necessary and regular correlate. (93)

In trying to account for why we have so insistently thought of power as interdiction and prohibition, Foucault says that ‛there is perhaps a historical reason for this. The great institutions of power which were developed in the middle ages—the monarchy, the State with all its apparatuses.‛18 The apparatus here is clearly associated with the State in a way that the broader notion of the dispositive could not be, as it would always encompass a greater frame than the State or cut across its techniques and discourses depending on the particular conjunction of forces. (93)

Although the concept of the apparatus is clearly indispensable to his description and identification of the dispositive, he does not see them as the same thing but as related concepts, such that apparatus is a distinct subset of dispositive. As in Althusser, the apparatus maintains a tie to the State and its exercise of power. Although Althusser’s concept was itself a move to expand and make more diffuse, or encompassing, the operations of power, Foucault’s archaeology of the dispositive goes much further still in looking at diffuse and multiplicitous power relations, and he much more circumscribes the role of the State. (94)

Appareil is a contrivance, telephone, aircraft, system, or apparatus. Dispositif names the enacting terms (of a law or decision), disposition of troops in battle, or a device or contrivance. Similarly, in Italian apparato is a machine, system, military deployment, state apparatus or critical apparatus. Dispositivo refers to an appliance, device or equipment, or to the act of putting things into place, ordering (or deciding upon purview, jurisdiction, or applicability, as in the legal sense). (95)

The main area of overlap between them is in terms of the technical meaning, where both can be used as a general reference to a tool, piece of equipment, or mechanism. (95)

[…] we might tentatively be able to put forward (or ‛set out‛ in the sense of pono) the following provisional distinction regarding their technical significations, especially as informed through the usage in Foucault and Agamben. Apparatus might be said to be the instruments or discrete sets of instruments themselves—the implements or equipment. Dispositive, on the other hand, may denote more the arrangement—the strategic arrangement—of the implements in a dynamic function. (96)

A dispositive acts in part by determining what we can see and say in a certain historical configuration of forces. Deleuze emphasizes this perceptual but also onto-creative aspect, describing the curves of enunciation he says they are ‛not subjects and not objects, but the regimes which must be defined for the visible and the sayable, with their derivations, with their transformations, their mutations.‛40 He situates the dispositive in respect to Foucault’s ongoing interest in the articulation of the visible (seeable) and sayable in a certain time or context. (100)

Deleuze identifies the dispositive as a conceptual tool in accounting for that which we have been, that which we are no longer, and that which we are becoming. As such he sees this as an ontological concept in Foucault and as crucial for discerning possibilities for resistance and for the elaboration of new subjectivities. (102)

Dominique Lecourt “Georges Canguilhem on the Question of the Individual”

Lecourt, Dominique 1998. Georges Canguilhem on the Question of the Individual. Economy and Society 27(2–3): 217–224.

There is, however, a second aspect to the notion of ‘individual’ that has been constructed here, and there is a very high degree of internal tension between the two. It is noteworthy that its second aspect is also borrowed from Goldstein. The individuality of a living thing, writes Canguilhem (1946-7b: 144)’ ‘no more ends at its ectodermic boundaries than it begins with the cell’. Individuality is not the ultimate (indivisible) term that marks the end of the analysis. It is not some eighteenth-century notion of a ‘being’ or a ‘thing’. It is never anything more than a ‘term within a relationship’. The other term in the relationship consists of the ‘environment’. It should be possible to discover, at any given level of life a similar relationship that establishes its own terms. The ‘organism’s internal environment’ therefore cannot, as Claude Bernard initially thought, be identified with its ‘external’ physical environment. It thus becomes apparent that, being at the top of the hierarchy, man does not, qua individual, have ‘any purely physical environment’, or even a purely biological environment. As human beings are historically and geographically situated beings, their environment is primarily cultural. (219)

The ‘lottery of heredity’ seemed to guarantee that the discrete would triumph over the continuous, and an aleatory multiplicity over the substantial unity of meaning. All biochemists knew from this point on that the problem of individuality was eminently divisible. The notion of the individual therefore never again plays the central and totalizing role it had in Canguilhem’s early works. The last collection he published ends by taking stock of the situation, and with a simple demand for coexistence: ‘There is room for a Buytendijk and a Goldstein alongside the biochemists’ (Canguilhem 1977: 138). In the second edition of La Connaissance de la vie, Canguilhem adds a note (Canguilhem 1945: 78n) to the text I cited at the beginning of this essay. It is a tribute to the ‘clarifications’ supplied
in 1964by Gilbert Simondon’s thesis on the individual and his physico-biological genesis (Simondon 1964). Now, Simondon’s argument is intended to rid the notion of the individual of its Aristotelean ontological ballast. The individual emerges only as the result of a process of individuation, and it is futile to look for the principle in the form taken by the result. The speed of this process is always affected by the ‘pre-individual’, from which the individual is never more than sporadically and partially detached, as well as by the ‘transindividual’ into which its being must be inserted. One of the most striking features of Canguilhem’s own texts is that the notion of individuality is now reserved for human beings as such; it is within the philosophy of medicine that it continues to play a major role. But its role has been rewritten, and it now has definitely Nietzschean overtones. The human individual has now been desubstantialized; and its normativity is now its unrivalled capacity to create new norms within a balance of power that traverses it. In similar fashion, health is redefined in more audacious terms as ‘robust health’. Health is no longer a mere margin. It is a risk taken by, and assumed by, an individual attempting to transcend limitations and to open up new horizons. Insofar as it is specificially human, the environment is now reconceptualized, and the ghost of Vidal de la Bache fades away. The face of Michel Foucault appears. From Birth of the Clinic (Foucault 1963) to his last works, Foucault’s studies of the imbricated history of knowledges and powers will follow the path opened up by Canguilhem. An ethics of risk is outlined, and it is openly opposed to any morality of equilibrium and self- preservation. (222)

It is, however, worth meditating upon the misadventure~ of Canguilhem’s vitalism: this specificity vanishes when it is surreptitiously recuperated by a philosophy of Being, even if Being has been reduced to meaning the almost imperceptible fluttering of a primal difference. Perhaps we should abandon the word ‘vitalism’, given that it is so ambiguous. If it were freed from all substantialist ontologies, vitalism might be able to set itself the task of helping to elaborate a new and non-Aristotelean notion of form appropriate to living things. It might help to stimulate effective co-operation to that end between mathematicians and biologists. (223)

Hannah Arendt “The Human Condition”

April 16, 2018 Leave a comment

Arendt, Hannah 1998 [1958]. The Human Condition. Chicago and London:  The University of Chicago Press.

  1. The Human Condition

Imbedded in a cosmos where everything was immortal, mortality became the hallmark of human existence. Men are “the mortals”, the only mortal things in existence, because unlike animals they do not exist only as members of a species whose immortal life is guaranteed through procreation. The mortality of men lies in the fact that individual life, with a recognizable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. This individual life is distinguished from all other things by the rectilinear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movement of biological life. This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order. (18-19)


The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things – works and deeds and words – which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves. By their capacity for the immortal deed, by their ability to leave non-perishable traces behind, men, their individual mortality notwithstanding, attain an immortality of their own and prove themselves to be of a “divine” nature. The distinction between man and animal runs right through the human species itself: only the best (aristoi), who constantly prove themselves to be the best (aristeueuin, a verb for which there is no equivalent in any other language) and who “prefer immortal frame to mortal things”, are really human; the others, content with whatever pleasures nature will yield them, live and die like animals. This was still the opinion of Heraclitus, and opinion whose equivalent one will find in hardly any philosopher after Socrates. (19)


  1. The Public and the Private Realm

To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. In Greek self-understanding, to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis, of home and family life, where the household head ruled with uncontested, despotic powers, or of life in the barbarian empires of Asia, whose despotism was frequently likened to the organization of the household. (26-27)


[…] according to ancient thought on these matters, the very term “political economy” would have been a contradiction in terms: whatever was “economic”, related to the life of the individual and the survival of the species, was a non-political, household affair by definition. (29)


Natural community in the household […] was born of necessity, and necessity ruled over all activities performed in it. The realm of the polis, on the contrary, was the sphere of freedom, and if there was a relationship between these two spheres, it was a matter of course that the mastering of the necessities of life in the household was the condition for freedom of the polis. Under no circumstances could politics be only a means to protect society – a society of the faithful, as in the Middle Ages, or a society of property-owners, as in Locke, or a society of a process of acquisition, as in Hobbes, or a society of producers, as in Marx, or a society of jobholders, as in our own society, or a society of laborers, as in socialist and communist countries. In all these cases, it is the freedom (and in some instance so-called freedom) of society which requires and justifies the restraint of political authority. Freedom is located in the realm of the social, and force or violence becomes the monopoly of government. (30-31)


[…] the rise of the “household” (oikia) or of economic activities to the public realm, housekeeping and all matters pertaining formerly to the private sphere of the family have become a “collective” concern. In the modern world, the two realms indeed constantly flow into each other like waves in the never-resting stream of the life process itself. (33)


The “good life”, as Aristotle called the life of the citizen, therefore was not merely better, more carefree or nobler than ordinary life, but of an altogether different quality. It was “good” to the extent that by having mastered the necessities of sheer life, by being freed from labor and work, and by overcoming the innate urge of all living creatures for their own survival, it was no longer bound to the biological life process. (36-37)


In ancient feeling the privative trait of privacy, indicated in the word itself, was all-important; it meant literally a state of being deprived of something, and even of the highest and most human of man’s capacities. A man who lived only a private life, who like the slave was not permitted to enter the public realm, or like the barbarian had chosen not to establish such a realm, was not fully human. We no longer think primarily of deprivation when we use the word “privacy”, and this is partly due to the enormous enrichment of the private sphere through modern individualism. (38)


[…] modern privacy in its most relevant function, to shelter the intimate, was discovered as the opposite not of the political sphere but of the social, to which it is therefore more closely and authentically related. (38)


It is decisive that society, on all its levels, excludes the possibility of action, which formerly was excluded from the household. Instead, society expects from each of its members a certain kind of behavior, imposing innumerable and various rules, all of which tend to “normalize” its members, to make them behave, to exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement. (40)


To gauge the extent of society’s victory in the modern age, its early substitution of behavior for action and its eventual substitution of bureaucracy, the rule of nobody, for personal rulership, it may be well to recall that its initial science of economics, which substitutes patterns of behavior only in this rather limited field of human activity, was finally followed by the all-comprehensive pretension of the social sciences which, as “behavioral sciences”, aim to reduce man as a whole, in all its activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal. If economics is the science of society in its early stages, when it could impose its rules of behavior only on sections of the population and on parts of their activities, the rise of the “behavioral sciences” indicates clearly the final stage of this development, when mass society has devoured all strata of the nation and “social behavior” has become the standard for all regions of life. (45)


One of the characteristics of privacy, prior to the discovery of the intimate, was that man existed in this sphere not as a truly human being but only as a specimen of the animal species man-kind. […] The emergence of society has changed the estimate of this whole sphere but has hardly transformed its nature. The monolithic character of every type of society, its conformism which allows for only one interest and one opinion, is ultimately rooted in the one-ness of man-kind. It is because this one-ness of man-kind is not fantasy and not even merely a scientific hypothesis, as in the “communistic fiction” of classical economics, that mass society, where man as a social animal rules supreme and where apparently the survival of the species could be guaranteed on a world-wide scale, can at the same time threaten humanity with extinction. (46)


Society is the form in which the fact of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else assumes public significance and where the activities connected with sheer survival are permitted to appear in public. (46)


Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. If the sameness of the object can no longer be discerned, no common nature of men, least of all the unnatural conformism of a mass society, can prevent the destruction of the common world, which is usually preceded by the destruction of the many aspects in which it presents itself to human plurality. This can happen under the conditions of radical isolation, where nobody can any longer agree with anybody else, as is usually the case in tyrannies. But it may also happen under conditions of mass society or mass hysteria, where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family, each multiplying and prolonging the perspective of his neighbor. In both instances, men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective. (57-58)


To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life: to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an “objective” relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things, to be deprived of the possibility of achieving something more permanent than life itself. The privation of privacy lies in the absence of others; as far as they are concerned, private man does not appear, and therefore it is as though he did not exist. Whatever he does remains without significance and consequence to others, and what matters to him is without interest to other people. (58)


The obvious contradiction in this modern concept of government, where the only thing people have in common is their private interests, need no longer bother us as it still bothered Marx, since we know that the contradiction between private and public, typical of the initial stages of modern age, has been a temporary phenomenon which introduced the utter extinction of the very difference between the private and the public realms, the submersion of both in the sphere of the social. (69)


Seen from this point of view, the modern discovery of intimacy seems a flight from the whole outer world into the inner subjectivity of the individual, which formerly had been sheltered and protected by the private realm. The dissolution of this realm into the social may most conveniently be watched in the progressing transformation of immobile into mobile property until eventually the distinction between property and wealth […] loses all significance because every tangible, “fungible” thing has become an object of “consumption”; it lost its private use value which was determined by its location and acquired an exclusively social value determined through its ever-changing exchangeability whose fluctuation could itself be fixed only temporarily by relating it to the common denominator of money. (69)


Closely connected with this social evaporation of the tangible was the most revolutionary modern contribution to the concept of property, according to which property was not a fixed and firmly located part of the world acquired by its owner in one way or another but, on the contrary, had its source in man himself, in his possession of a body and his indisputable ownership of the strength of this body, which Marx called “labor-power”. Thus modern property lost its worldly character and was located in the person himself, that is, in what an individual could lose only along with his life. (70)


Necessity and life are so intimately related and connected that life itself is threatened where necessity is altogether eliminated. For the elimination of necessity, far from resulting automatically in the establishment of freedom, only blurs the distinguishing line between freedom and necessity. (71)


  1. The Vita Activa and the Modern Age

One of the most persistent trends in modern philosophy since Descartes and perhaps its most original contribution to philosophy has been an exclusive concern with the self, as distinguished from the soul or person or man in general, an attempt to reduce all experiences, with the world as well as with other human beings, to experiences between man and himself. (254)


The rise of society brought about the simultaneous decline of the public as well as the private realm. But the eclipse of a common public world, so crucial to the formation of the lonely mass man and so dangerous in the formation of the worldless mentality of modern ideological mass movements, began with the much more tangible loss of a privately owned share in the world. (257)


[…] what most drastically distinguished the new world view not only from that of antiquity or the Middle Ages, but from the great thirst for direct experience in the Renaissance as well, was the assumption that the same kind of exterior force should be manifest in the fall of terrestrial and the movements of heavenly bodies. (258)


The modern astrophysical world view, which began with Galileo, and its challenge to the adequacy of the senses to reveal reality, have left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they affect our measuring instruments, and – in the words of Eddingtion – “the former have as much resemblance to the latter as a telephone number has to a subscriber”. Instead of objective qualities, in other words, we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe – in the words of Heisenberg – man encounters only himself. (261)


In the experiment man realized his newly won freedom from the shackles of earth-bound experience; instead of observing natural phenomena as they were given to him, he placed nature under the conditions of his own mind, that is, under conditions won from a universal, astrophysical viewpoint, a cosmic standpoint outside nature itself. (265)


With the rise of modernity, mathematics does not simply enlarge its content or reach out into the infinite to become applicable to the immensity of an infinite and infinitely growing, expanding universe, but ceases to be concerned with appearances at all. It is no longer the beginning of philosophy, of the “science” of Being in its true appearance, but becomes instead the science of the structure of the human mind. (266)


Introspection, as a matter of fact, not the reflection of man’s mind on the state of his soul or body but the sheer cognitive concern of consciousness with its own content (and this is the essence of the Cartesian cogitatio, where cogito always means cogito me cogitare) must yield certainty, because here nothing is involved except what the mind has produced itself; nobody is interfering but the producer of the product, man is confronted with nothing and nobody but himself. Long before the natural and physical sciences began to wonder if man is capable of encountering, knowing, and comprehending anything except himself, modern philosophy had made sure in introspection that man concerns himself only with himself. (280)


This sense now was called common merely because it happened to be common to all. What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds, and this they cannot have in common, strictly speaking; their faculty of reasoning can only happen to be the same in everybody. (283)


Theoria, in fact, is only another word for thaumazein; the contemplation of truth at which the philosopher ultimately arrives is the philosophically purified speechless wonder with which he began. There is, however, another side to this matter, which shows itself most articulately in Plato’s doctrine of ideas, in its content as well as in its terminology and exemplifications. These reside in the experiences of the craftsman, who sees before his inner eye the shape of the model according to which he fabricates his object. To Plato, this model, which craftsmanship can only imitate but nor create, is no product of the human mind but given to it. As such it possesses a degree of permanence and excellence which is not actualized but on the contrary spoiled in its materialization through the work of human hands. Work makes perishable and spoils the excellence of what remained eternal so long as it was the object of mere contemplation. Therefore, the proper attitude toward the models which guide work and fabrication, that is, toward Platonic ideas, is to leave them as they are and appear to the inner eye of the mind. If man only renounces his capacity for work and does not do anything, he can behold them and thus participate in their eternity. Contemplation, in this respect, is quite unlike the enraptured state of wonder with which man responds to the miracle of Being as a whole. It is and remains part and parcel of a fabrication process even though it has divorced itself from all work and all doing; in it, the beholding of the model, which now no longer is to guide any doing, is prolonged and enjoyed for its own sake. (302-303)


It is not wonder that overcomes and throws man into motionlessness, but it is through the conscious cessation of activity, the activity of making, that the contemplative state is reached. (303)


The victory of the animal laborans would never have been complete had not the process of secularization, the modern loss of faith inevitably arising from Cartesian doubt, deprived individual life of its immortality, or at least of the certainty of immortality. Individual life again became mortal, as mortal as it had been in antiquity, and the world was even less stable, less permanent, and hence less to be relied upon than it had been during the Christian era. Modern man, when he lost the certainty of a world to come, was thrown back upon himself and not upon this world; far from believing that the world might be potentially immortal, he was not even sure that it was real. And in so far as he was to assume that it was real in the uncritical and apparently unbothered optimism of a steadily progressing science, he had removed himself from the earth to a much more distant point than any Christian otherworldliness had ever removed him. Whatever the word “secular” is meant to signify in current usage, historically it cannot possibly be equated with worldliness; modern man at any rate did not gain this world when he lost  the other world, and he did not gain life, strictly speaking, either; he was thrust back upon it, thrown into the closed inwardness of introspection, where the highest he could experience were the empty processes of reckoning of the mind, its play with itself. The only contents left were appetites and desires, the senseless urges of his body which he mistook for passion and which he deemed to be “unreasonable” because he found he could not “reason”, that is, not reckon with them. The only thing that could now be potentially immortal, as immortal as the body politic in antiquity and as individual life during the Middle Ages, was life itself, that is, the possibly everlasting life process of the species mankind. (320-321)

Catherine Mills “Biopolitical Life”

April 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Mills, Catherine 2013. Biopolitical Life. Södertöm Philosophical Studies 14: 73–90.

I use Esposito’s discussion as a springboard for reconsidering the role of norms in Foucault’s own work on biopolitics—especially in light of his essay on Canguilhem, in which he emphasises the productive capacity for error internal to life. I conclude that it is in the relationship of error and norms that the connection between life and politics may be made apparent. (75)

The reciprocal production of social and vital norms in the human as living being, and their specific conjunction in concerns such as population health, eugenics and new genetics, precipitates a biological politics that then extends into other domains of living. This point of view suggests that biopower is less a matter of controlling life that it is a matter of managing error—or rather, it is the former by virtue of the latter. It also highlights the way in which the biopolitical state is fundamentally reactive in relation to life. (75)

This correction to emphasise the relationship between the organism and its environment may seem like a relatively minor interpretive point; but I want to suggest that it actually has important implications, two of which I will mention here. The first point goes to the fact that the environment that human beings are located in is necessarily social, and as such, cross-cut with the force of social norms. (83)

This locatedness means that the “normal” is always an effect of a complex co-mingling and expression of vital norms in the midst of socially defined ways of living. Human life is never simply biological; and nor, for that matter, is it ever simply social or political. (83)

The second point to make derives from this, for while the existence of human beings is fundamentally conditioned by social norms, it cannot be assumed that vital and social norms are conceptually equivalent. Rather, what needs to be taken into account is the disjuncture between vital and social norms, and consequently, what requires explanation is the means by which they intermingle. In other words, vital and social norms may well be empirically inseparable, but they are nevertheless analytically distinguishable. (84)

In the postscript to The Normal and the Pathological, Canguilhem argues that while physiological norms are immanent to the organism, social norms have no equivalent immanence. In a living organism, norms are “presented without being represented, acting without deliberation or calculation,” such that there is “no divergence, no delay between rule and regulation.” In contrast, rules in a social organization must be “represented, learned, remembered, applied.”34 Further, while biological norms are geared toward a functional end, social norms are not— speaking of the “health” of a society is metaphoric in a way that speaking of the health of a living body is not. The point of this is that forms of social organisation cannot be understood as analogous to organisms; nor, then, can social norms be simply derived from organic norms. (84)

Foucault suggests that normalisation works in opposing ways in discipline and a biopolitics of population. In the former, infractions of the norm are produced as a consequence of the prior application of the norm, insofar as the phenomenal particularity of an individual is itself identified and calibrated through the application of a norm. Normalisation produces individuals as the necessary mode and counterpart of the operation of norms, that is, as a material artefact of power.43 In a biopolitics of population, Foucault suggests that norms are mobilised in exactly the opposite way, insofar as “the normal comes first and the norm is deduced from it.” (87)

Thus, it is through the notion of error that life is placed in a relation of contiguity and contingency with truth and structures within which it is told. “Error,” or the inherent capacity of life to “err” both establishes the relation of life to truth and undermines that relation by disentangling man from the structures of truth and power that respond to the potential for error. Hence, “with man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to ‘err’ and to be ‘wrong.’”49 From this point of view, the biopolitical state appears as simply the modern response to the possibility of error. (89)

If this is so, the potential for error in life directs us to an important point about the operation of biopower, specifically, that the biopolitical state is necessarily and systematically reactive. The errancy internal to life constantly provokes the biopolitical state, forcing it to respond to the contingencies of the living and the phenomena of life. (89)

Giorgio Agamben “The Use of Bodies”

Agamben, Giorgio 2016. The Use of Bodies. Homo Sacer IV, 2. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Ivan Illich observed that the conventional notion of life (not “a life”, but “life” in general) is perceived as a “scientific fact”, which has no relationship with the experience of the singular living person. It is something anonymous and generic, which can designate at times a spermatozoon, a person, a bee, a cell, a bear, an embryo. It is this “scientific fact”, so generic that science has given up on defining it, that the Church has made the ultimate receptacle of the sacred and bioethics the key term of its impotent foolishness. In any case, “life” today has more to do with survival than with the vitality or form of life of the individual. (xx)


  1. The Human Being without Work

The soul is to the body as the master is to the slave. The caesura that divides the household from the city persists in the same threshold that separates and at the same time unites body and soul, master and slave. And it is only by interrogating this threshold that the relationship between economy and politics among the Greeks can become truly intelligible. (4)

That the slave is and remains a human being is, for Aristotle, beyond question (anthropos on, “while being a human being”; 1254a 16). This means, however, that there are some human beings whose ergon is not properly human or is different from that of other human beings. (5)

“the work of the human being is the being-in-action of the soul according to the logos

the work of the slave is the use of the body”

energeia and chresis, being-at-work and use, seem to be juxtaposed precisely as are psychè and soma, soul and body. (5)

The slave is here compared to equipment or to an animate instrument, which, like the legendary automatons constructed by Daedalus and Hephaestus, can move itself on command. […] let us note that for a Greek, the slave plays, in modern terms, more the part of the machinery or fixed capital than of the worker. […] it is a matter of a special machine, which is not directed to production but only to use. (11)

In the expression “use of the body”, use must therefore be understood not in a productive sense but in a practical one: the use of the slave’s body is similar to that of a bed or clothing, and not that of a spool or plectrum. (12)

A first, necessary precaution is therefore that of abstracting the slave’s “use of the body” from the sphere of poiesis and production, in order to restore it to the sphere – according to Aristotle by definition unproductive – of praxis and mode of life. (12)

[…] it is necessary to restore to the Greek term organon its ambiguity: it indicates both the instrument and the organ as a part of the body (in writing that the slave is an organon praktikon kai choriston, Aristotle is obviously playing on the double sense of the term). (13)

The strategy that leads Aristotle to define the slave as an integral part of the master shows its subtlety at this point. By putting in use his own body, the slave is, for that very reason, used by his master, and in using the body of the slave, the master is in reality using his own body. The syntagma “use of the body” represents a point of indifference not only between subjective genitive and objective genitive but also between one’s own body and that of another. (14)

[The slave’s] praxis is not defined by the work that he produces but only by the use of the body. (15)

The separation of something like a labor activity is here possible only by separating the body as object of use from its activity as alienable and remunerable: “the worker is divided between two zones of law that correspond respectively to what he is as body and what he is as merchandise, as incorporeal good” (Thomas 2, p. 233). (16-17)

[…] while the one who acts or uses without producing possesses energeia in his very action, the artisan who produces an object does not possess in himself the energeia of his activity, which instead resides outside him in the work. For this reason his activity, constitutively submitted to an external end, is presented as inferior to praxis. (19)

The slave in fact represents a not properly human life that renders possible for others the bios politikos, that is to say, the truly human life. And if the human being is defined for the Greeks through a dialectic between physis and nomos, zoè and bios, then the slave, like bare life, stands at the threshold that separates and joins them. (20)

Let us attempt to fix in a series of theses the characteristics of the activity that Aristotle defines as “use of the body”.

  1. It is a matter of an unproductive activity (argos, “inoperative”, “without work” in the terminology of the Nicomachean Ethics), comparable to the use of a bed or a garment.
  2. The use of the body defines a zone of indifference between one’s own body and the body of another. The master, in using the body of the slave, uses his own, and the slave, in using his own body, is used by the master.
  3. The body of the slave is situated in a zone of indifference between the artificial instrument and the living body (it is an empsychon organon, an animate organ) and, therefore, between physis and nomos.
  4. The use of the body is, in Aristotelian terms, neither poiesis nor praxis, neither a production nor a praxis, but neither is it assimilable to the labor of moderns.
  5. The slave, who is defined by means of this “use of the body”, is the human being without work who renders possible the realization of the work of the human being, that living being who, though being human, is excluded – and through thus exclusion, included – in humanity, so that human beings can have a human life, which is to say a political life. (22-23)
  6. Chresis

The process does not pass from an active subject toward the object separated from his action but involves in itself the subject, to the same degree that this latter is implied in the object and “gives himself” to it. We can therefore attempt to define the meaning of chresthai: it expresses the relation that one has with oneself, the affection that one receives insofar as one is in relation with a determinate being. (28)

Somatos chresthai, “to use the body”, will then mean the affection that one receives insofar as one is in relation with one or more bodies. Ethical – and political – is the subject who is constituted in this use, the subject who testifies of the affection that he receives insofar as he is in relation with a body. (29)

  1. Use and Care

[…] if it is true, as Deleuze observed, that masochism always entails a neutralization of the juridical order by means of its parodic exaggeration, then one can form the hypothesis that the master/slave relation as we know it represents the capture in the juridical order the use of bodies as an originary prejuridical relation, in whose exclusive inclusion the juridical order finds its proper foundation. In use, the subjects whom we call master and lave are in such a “community of life” that the juridical definition if their relationship in terms of property is rendered necessary, almost as if otherwise they would slide into a confusion and a kononia tes zoes that the juridical order cannot admit except in the striking and despotic intimacy between master and slave. And what seems so scandalous to us moderns – namely, property rights over persons – could in fact be the originary form of property, the capture (the ex-ceptio) of the use of bodies in the juridical order. (36)

  1. The Use of the World

It is with this neutralization of handiness that, with a radical subversion of the rank (up until then primary) of the “familiarity that uses and handles,” he can propose the striking thesis according to which intimacy with the world “is a mode of Dasein’s uncanniness [Unheimlichkeit], not the reverse. From an existential-ontological point of view, the ‘not-at-home’ must be conceived as the more primordial phenomenon” (p. 189/234). And it is only after the apparent primacy of familiarity has been swept aside thanks to anxiety that care can appear, in the paragraph immediately following, as the original structure of Dasein. That is to say, the primacy of care has been rendered possible only by means of an operation of annulling and neutralizing familiarity. The originary place of care is situated in the non-place of handiness, its primacy in making the primacy of use disappear. (43)

  1. Use-of-Oneself

In all these texts – whether it is a matter, as for the physician Galen, of affirming the providential character of nature or, as for the philosopher Hierocles, of proving the familiarity of each animal with itself – the decisive element every time is in fact use. Only because the animal makes use of its body parts can something like a self-awareness and therefore a familiarity with itself be attributed to it. The familiarity, the oikeiosis of the living being with itself is dissolved without remainder into its self-perception, and this latter coincides in turn with the capacity of the living being to make use of its own body parts and its own constitution. (51)

The reversal of the relation between organ and function amounts to liberating use from every established teleology. The meaning of the verb chresthai here shows its pertinence: the living being does not make use of its body parts (Lucretius does not speak of organs) for some one predetermined function, but by entering into relation with them, it so to speak gropingly finds and invents their use. The body parts precede their use, and use precedes and creates their function. (51)

Let us reflect on the extraordinary intertwining of familiarity and self-hood, of consciousness and use-of-oneself that Seneca, though of course not without some contradictions, develops […]. Oikeiosis or conciliatio does not have as its ultimate object the constitution of the individual, which can change over time, but, by means of it, its very self […]. This self – despite the fact that the Stoics seem at times to preconstitute it in a nature or an innate knowledge – is therefore not something substantial or a preestablished end but coincides entirely with the use that the living being makes of it […]. If one accepts this relational and non-substantial interpretation of the Stoic self, then – whether it is a matter of self-sensation, of sibi conciliatio, or of use-of-oneself – the self coincides each time with the relation itself and not with a predetermined telos. […] The self is nothing other than use-of-oneself. (54)

  1. Habitual Use

Habit is what renders possible the passage of potential from mere genericity to the effective potential of the one who writes or plays the flute, builds tables or houses. Habit is the form in which potential exists and is given reality as such. (59)

Use is the form in which habit is given existence, beyond the simple opposition between potential and being-at-work. And if habit is, in this sense, always already use-of-oneself and if this latter, as we have seen, implies a neutralization of the subject/object opposition, then there is no place here for a proprietary subject of habit, which can decide to put it to work or not. The self, which is constituted in the relation of use, is not a subject, is nothing other than this relation. (60)

Habit is the point at which subjectivity seeks to make itself master of being, the place in which, with a perfect circularity, having, which derives from being, appropriates the latter to itself. Having is nothing but the appropriation of a being. (61)

There is a text of Aristotle in which a different conception of habit could perhaps have been founded. In the above-cited passage from book Delta of the Metaphysics, one reads that if habit is defined as the relation between the one who has and that which is had, then “it is impossible to have a habit, because if it were possible to have the habit that one has, there would be infinite regress” (1022b 7-10). It is in this elusive, fugitive place that modern thought will situate its subject, which is posited as master of what cannot be had. (61)

Contemplation is the paradigm of use. Like use, contemplation does not have a subject, because in it the contemplator is completely lost and dissolved; like use, contemplation does not have an object, because in the work it contemplates only its (own) potential. Life, which contemplates in the work its (own) potential of acting or making, is rendered inoperative in all its works and lives only in use-of-itself, lives only (its) livability. We write “own” and “its” in parentheses because only through the contemplation of potential, which renders inoperative every energeia and every work, does something like the experience of and “own” and a “self” become possible. The self – whose place the modern subject will usurp – is what is opened up as a central inoperativity in every operation, as the “livability” and “usability” in every work. And if the architect and the carpenter remain such even when they are not building, that is not because they are title-holders of a potential of building, which they can also not put to work, but because they habitually live in use-of-themselves as architect or carpenter: habitual use is a contemplation and contemplation is a form of life. (63)

  1. The Animate Instrument and Technology

Technology is in fact nothing other than a human action directed at a goal. (68 – of Heidegger)

What defines the instrumental cause – for example, the axe in the hands of a carpenter who is making a bed – is the particularity of its action. On the one hand, it acts not in virtue of itself but in virtue of the principal agent (namely, the carpenter), but on the other hand, it works according to its own nature, which is that of cutting. That is to say, it serves the end of another, only to the degree that it realizes its own end. The concept of instrumental cause is thus born as a splitting of the efficient cause, which is divided into instrumental cause and principal cause, thus securing an autonomous status for instrumentality. (70)

Technology is the dimension that is opened when the operation of the instrument has been rendered autonomous and at the same time is divided into two distinct and related operations. This implies that not only the concept of instrument but also that of “art” now meet with a transformation with respect to their status in the ancient world. (74)

The connection between the instrumental cause and the figure of the slave is, however, still more essential. It is implied in the very formula “the human being whose ergon is the use of the body” and in the definition (which we have seen to have an ontological and not a juridical character) of the slave as the one who, “while being human, is by nature of another and not of himself.” The slave constitutes in this sense the first appearance of a pure instrumentality, which is to say, of a being that, while living according to its own end, is precisely for that reason and to the same extent used for another’s end. (75)

What is decisive, rather, from the perspective of our study, is to ask ourselves if between modern technology and slavery there is not a connection more essential than the common productive end. Indeed, if it is clear that the machine is presented from its first appearance as the realization of the paradigm of the animate instrument of which the slave had furnished the originary model, it is all the more true that what both intend is not so much, or not only, an increase and simplification of productive labor but also, by liberating human beings from necessity, to secure them access to their most proper dimension – for the Greeks the political life, for the moderns the possibility of mastering the nature’s forces and thus their own. (78)

It is necessary, at this point, to restore to the slave the decisive meaning that belongs to him in the process of anthropogenesis. The slave is, on the one hand, a human animal (or an animal-human) and, on the other hand and to the same extent, a living  instrument (or an instrument-human). That is to say, the slave constitutes in the history of anthropogenesis a double threshold, in which animal life crosses over to the human just as the living (the human) crosses over into the inorganic (into the instrument), and vice versa. The invention of slavery as a juridical institution allowed the capture of living beings and of the use of the body into productive systems, temporarily blocking the development of the technological instrument; its abolition in modernity freed up the possibility of technology, that is, of the living instrument. At the same time, insofar as their relationship with nature is no longer mediated by another human being but by an apparatus, human beings have estranged themselves from the animal and from the organic in order to draw near to the instrument and the inorganic to the point of almost identifying with it (the human-machine). For this reason – insofar as they have lost, together with the use of bodies, their immediate relation to their own animality – modern human beings have not truly been able to appropriate to themselves the liberation from labor that machines should have procured for them. And if the hypothesis of a constitutive connection between slavery and technology is correct, it is not surprising that the hypertrophy of technological apparatuses has ended up producing a new and unheard-of form of slavery. (78-79)

  1. The Inappropriable

And only in this context does the opposition between style and manner acquire its true sense. They are the two poles in the tension of which the gesture of the poet lives: style is disappropriating appropriation (a sublime negligence, a forgetting oneself in the proper), manner an appropriating disappropriation (a presenting oneself or remembering oneself in the improper). We can therefore call “use” the field of tension whose poles are style and manner, appropriation and expropriation. And not only in the poet but in every speaking human being with respect to their language and in every living thing with respect to its body there is always, in use, a manner that takes its distance from style and a style that is disappropriated in manner. In this sense, every use is a polar gesture: on the one hand, appropriation and habit; on the other, loss and expropriation. To use – hence the semantic breadth of the term, which indicates both use in the strict sense and habitual praxis – means to oscillate unceasingly between a homeland and an exile: to inhabit. (87)

The passage from the environment to the world is not, in reality, simply the passage from a closure to an opening. The animal in fact not only does not see the open, beings in their unveiled being, stunned in its own non-openness, its own being captured and stunned in its own disinhibitors. The skylark that soars in the air “does not see the open,” but neither is it in a position to relate to its own closure. “The animal,” writes Heidegger, “is excluded from the essential domain of the conflict between unconcealedness and concealedness.” The openness of the world begins in the human being precisely from the perception of a non-openness. (90)

The openness that is in question in the world is essentially the openness of a closure, and the one who looks into the open sees only a closing up, sees only a non-seeing. (90)

We can call “intimacy” use-of-oneself as relation with an inappropriable. (91)

[…] intimacy is a circular apparatus, by means of which, by selectively regulating access to the self, the individual constitutes himself as the pre-supposition and proprietor of his own “privacy”. (92)

The dominion of privacy therefore replaces, as a constitution of subjectivity, the use of bodies, in which subject and object were indeterminated. One can therefore understand how, in a society formed from individuals, the transformation of use-of-oneself and of the relation to the inappropriable into a jealous possession in reality has a political significance that is all the more decisive insofar as it remains stubbornly hidden. […] If the sovereign subject is first of all sovereign over his or her own body, if intimacy – which is to say, use-of-oneself as inappropriable – becomes something like the fundamental biopolitical substance, then one can understand that in Sade it can appear as the object of the first and unconfessed right of the citizen: each individual has the right to share his or her liking of the other’s inappropriable. Common above all is the use of bodies. (92-93)

Intermezzo I

The relation with oneself, that is to say, constitutively has the form of a creation of self, and there is no subject other than in this process. For this reason Foucault breaks with the conception of the subject as foundation or condition of possibility of experience. On the contrary: “experience is the rationalization of a process, itself provisional, which results in a subject, or rather in subjects” (Foucault 2, p. 706). This means that properly there is not a subject but only a process of subjectivization: “I would call subjectivization the process through which results the constitution of a subject” (ibid.). And again: “I don’t think there is actually a sovereign, founding subject, a universal form of subject that one could find everywhere. … I think on the contrary that the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more anonymous way, through practices of liberation, of freedom …” (p. 733). (101)

Ethics is, for Foucault, the relationship that one has with oneself when one acts or enters into relation with others, constituting oneself each time as a subject of one’s own acts, whether these belong to the sexual sphere, the economic, the political, the scientific, etc. (102)

The practice of the self is that operation in which the subject adequates itself to its own constitutive relation and remains immanent to it: “the subject puts itself into play in taking care of itself” (Foucault 1, p. 523). The subject, that is to say, is what is at stake in the care of the self, and this care is nothing but the process through which the subject constitutes itself. And ethics is not the experience in which a subject holds itself behind, above, or beneath its own life but that whose subject constitutes and transforms itself in indissoluble immanent relation to its life, by living its life. (104)

The ontological aporia is found in Foucault, as one could have foretold, on the level of practice, in the theory of power relations and of the governance of human beings that is actualized in it. Power relations, unlike states of domination, necessarily entail a free subject, which it is a matter of “conducting” and governing and which, as free, stubbornly resists power. And yet, precisely insofar as the subject “freely” conducts and governs itself, it will inevitably enter into power relations, which consist in conducting the conduct of others (or allowing one’s own to be conducted by others). The one who, by “conducting” his life, has been constituted as subject of his own actions, will thus be “conducted” by other subjects or will seek to conduct others: subjectivation into a certain form of life is, to the same extent, subjection to a power relation. The aporia of democracy and its governance of human beings – the identity of the governors and the governed, absolutely separated and yet to the same degree indissolubly united in an indivisible relation – is an ontological aporia, which concerns the constitution of the subject as such. As constituent power and constituted power, the relation with the self and the subject are simultaneously transcendent and immanent to one another. And yet it is precisely the immanence between self and subject in a form of life that Foucault persistently sought to think up to the end, tangling himself in ever more difficult aporias and, at the same time, forcefully pointing in the only direction in which something like an ethics could become possible for him. (106)

What Foucault does not seem to see, despite the fact that antiquity would seem to offer an example in some way, is the possibility of a relation with the self and of a form of life that never assumes the figure of a free subject – which is to say, if power relations necessarily refer to a subject, of a zone of ethics entirely subtracted from strategic relationships, of an Ungovernable that is situated beyond states of domination and power relations. (108)


  1. Life Divided

A genealogy of the concept of zoe must begin from the recognition – not initially to be taken for granted – that in Western culture “life” is not a medical-scientific notion but a philosophico-political concept. (195)

The De anima is probably the first text in which “life” (zoe) takes on a generic sense, distinct from the life of the single individual, from a life. Ivan Illich has defined the modern concept of “life” as a “spectral” concept and a fetish, and he has traced its first appearance to the Gospel passage in which Jesus says: “I am the Life.” He does not say, “I am a life”, but “I am Life”, tout court” (Illich, p. 225). “The notion of an entitative life”, he writes, “which can be professionally and legally protected has been tortuously constructed through a legal-medical-religious-scientific discourse whose roots go far back into theology” (samas, 226). Church and lay institutions are converging today in regarding this spectral notion, which can be applied in the same way to everything and nothing, as the sacred and principal object of their care, as something that can be manipulated and managed and, at the same time, defended and protected. (201)

What we can now call the ontological-biopolitical machine of the West is founded on a division of life that, by means of a series of caesurae and thresholds (zoe/bios, insufficient life/autarchic life, family/city), takes on a political character that was initially lacking. But it is precisely by means of this articulation of its zoe that the human being, uniquely among the living, becomes capable of political life. The function proper to the machine, that is to say, is an operation on the living that, by “politicizing” its life, renders it “self-sufficient”, namely, capable of taking part in the polis. What we call politics is above all a special qualification of life, carried out by means of a series of partitions that pass through the very body of zoe. But this qualification has no content other than the pure fact of the caesura as such. This means that the concept of life will not truly be thought as long as the biopolitical machine, which has always already captured it within itself by means of a series of divisions and articulations, has not been deactivated. Until then, bare life will weigh on Western politics like an obscure and impenetrable sacral residue. (203)

  1. A Life Inseparable from its Form

With the term form-of-life, by contrast, we understand a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate and keep distinct something like a bare life. (207)

It defines a life – human life – in which singular modes, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all potential. And potential, insofar as it is nothing other than the essence or nature of each being, can be suspended and contemplated but never absolutely divided from act. (207)

[…] form-of-life is a being of potential not only or not so much because it can do or not do, succeed or fail, lose itself or find itself, but above all because it  is its potential and coincides with it. For this reason the human being is the only being in whose living happiness is always at stake, whose life is irredeemably and painfully consigned to happiness. But this constitutes form-of-life immediately as political life. (208)

This means that what we call form-of-life is a life in which the event of anthropogenesis – the becoming human of the human being – is still happening. (208)

The mystery of the human being is not the metaphysical one of the conjunction between the living being and language (or reason, or the soul) but the practical and political one of their separation. (208)

Biological life, a secularized form of bare life, which has in common with the latter unspeakability and impenetrability, thus constitutes the real forms of life literally into forms of survival, remaining intact in them as the obscure threat that can be suddenly actualized in violence, in extraneousness, in sickness, in an accident. It is the invisible sovereign that watches us behind the idiotic masks of the powerful who, whether they realize it or not, govern us in its name. (210)

We call thought the connection that constitutes forms of life into an inseparable context, into form-of-life. […] Thought is, in this sense, always use of oneself, always entails the affection that one receives insofar as one is in contact with a determinate body […]. (210)

  1. Living Contemplation

For Plotinus, however, with a radical inversion that constitutes one of the most characteristic traits of the late-ancient world’s vision, it is not that thought is also living, but life itself, in all its forms (including animals and plants), is immediately contemplation (theoria). (215)

The first consequence of this “theoretical” or contemplative character of physis is a transformation of the very idea of natural life (zoe), which ceases to be a sum of heterogeneous functions (psychic life, sensible life, vegetative life) and is defined from the very start with a strong accent on the unitary character of every vital phenomenon, as “neither vegetative nor sensitive nor psychic” but rather as “living contemplation”. (215)

Thos who deny to irrational beings the capacity of living well end up, without realizing it, placing living well in something other than life (for example, in reason). (217)

  1. Toward an Ontology of Style

Form-of-life is not something like a subject, which preexists living and gives it substance and reality. On the contrary, it is generated in living; it is “produced by the very on for which it is form” and for that reason does not have any priority, either substantial or transcendental, with respect to living. (224)

If every body is affected by its form-of-life as by a clinamen or a taste, the ethical subject is that subject that constitutes-itself in relation to this clinamen, the subject who bears witness to its tastes, takes responsibility for the mode in which it is affected by its inclinations. Modal ontology, the ontology of the how, coincides with an ethics. (231)

It is not justice or beauty that moves us but the mode that each one has of being just or beautiful, of being affected by her beauty or her justice. For this reason even abjection can be innocent, even “something slightly disgusting” can move us. (232)

A double tendency seems to be inherent to form-of-life. On the one hand, it is a life inseparable from its form, and indissoluble unity in itself, and on the other, it is separable from every thing and every context. This is evident in the classical conception of theoria, which is in itself united but separated and separable from every thing, in perpetual flight. This double tension is the risk inherent in form-of-life, which tends to separate itself ascetically into an autonomous sphere, theory. It is necessary to think form-of-life as a living of its own mode of being, as inseparable from its context, precisely because it is not in relation but in contact with it. (232)

What we call form-of-life corresponds to this ontology of style; it names the mode in which a singularity bears witness to itself in being and being expresses itself in the singular body. (233)

  1. Exile of One Alone with One Alone

Exile from politics cedes its place to a politics of exile. In this way, philosophy is presented as an attempt to construct a life at once “superpolitical and apolitical” (hypsipolis apolis): separated in the ban from the city, it nevertheless becomes intimate and inseparable from itself, in a non-relation that has the form of an “exile of one alone to one alone”. “Alone with one alone” (“alone by oneself”) can only mean: to be together beyond every relation. Form-of-life is this ban that no longer has the form of a bond or an exclusion-inclusion of bare life but that of an intimacy without relation. (236)

Western politics is, in this sense, constitutively “representative”, because it always already has to reformulate contact into the form of a relation. It will therefore be necessary to think politics as an intimacy unmediated by any articulation or representation: human beings, forms-of-life are in contact, but this is unrepresentable because it consists precisely in a representative void, that is, in the deactivation and inoperativity of every representation. To the ontology of non-relation and use there must correspond a non-representative politics. (237)

Intimacy as a political concept, which is here in question for us, is situated beyond the Heideggerian perspective. It is not a question of having an experience of difference as such by holding firm and yet negating the opposition but of deactivating the opposites and rendering them inoperative. Archeological regression must neither express nor negate, neither say nor un-say; rather, it reaches a threshold of indiscernibility, in which the dichotomy diminishes and the opposites coincide – which is to say, fall together. What then appears is not a chronologically more originary unity, nor a new and superior unity, but something like a way out. The threshold of indiscernibility is the center of the ontlogico-political machine: if one reaches it and holds oneself there in it, the machine can no longer function. (239)

  1. Work and Inoperativity

What we call form-of-life is not defined by its relation to a praxis (energeia) or a work (ergon) but by a potential (dynamis) and by an inoperativity. A living being, which seeks to define itself and give itself form through its own operation is, in fact, condemned to confused its own life with its own operation, and vice versa. By contrast, there is form-of-life only where there is contemplation of a potential. Certainly there can only be contemplation of a potential in a work. But in contemplation, the work is deactivated and rendered inoperative, an in this way, restored to possibility, opened to a new possible use. That form of life is truly poetic that, in its own work, contemplates its own potential to do and not do and finds peace in it. The truth that contemporary art never manages to bring to expression is inoperativity, which it seeks at all costs to make into a work. If artistic practice is the place where one is made to feel most forcefully the urgency and, at the same time, the difficulty of the constitution of a form-of-life, that is because in it there has been preserved the experience of a relation to something that exceeds work and operation and yet remains inseparable from it. A living being can never be defined by its work but only but its inoperativity, which is to say, by the mode in which it maintains itself in relation with a pure potential in a work and constitutes-itself as form-of-life, in which zoe and bios, life and form, private and public enter into a threshold of indifference and what is in question is no longer life or work but happiness. And the painter, the poet, the thinker – and in general, anyone who practices a poiesis and an activity – are not the sovereign subjects of a creative operation and of a work. Rather, they are anonymous living beings who, by always rendering inoperative the works of language, of vision, of bodies, seeks to have an experience of themselves and to constitute their life as form-of-life. (247)