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Roberto Esposito “Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy”

Esposito, Roberto 2008. Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Introduction

Without expanding here on its overall meaning […], the element that quickly needs to be established is the peculiar knot that immunization posits between biopolitics and modernity. I say quickly because it restores the missing link of Foucault’s argumentation. What I want to say is that only when biopolitics is linked conceptually to the immunitary dynamic of the negative protection of life does biopolitics reveal its specifically modern genesis. This is not because its roots are missing in other preceding epochs (they aren’t), but becuase only modernity makes of individual self-preservation the presupposition of all other political categories, from sovereignty to liberty. Naturally, the fact that modern biopolitics is  also embedded through the mediation of categories that are still ascribable to the idea of order (understood as the transcendental of the relation between power and subjects) means that the politicity of bios is still not affirmed absolutely. (9)

It is at this level that discourse today is to be conducted: the body that experiences ever more intensely the indistinction between power and life is no longer that of the individual, nor is it that sovereign body of nations, but that body of the world that is both torn and unified. (11)

1 – The Enigma of Biopolitics

Therefore, if we take up any perspective, we see that something that goes beyond the customary language appears to involve directly law and politics, dragging them into a dimension that is outside their conceptual apparatuses. This „something“ – this element and this substance and this upheaval – is precisely the object of biopolitics. (14)

[…] of „biopolitics“ and „biopower“. By the first is meant a politics in the name of life and by the second a life subjected to the command of politics. But here too in this mode the paradigm that seeks a conceptual linking between the terms emerges a split, as if it had been cut in two by the very same movement. Compressed (and at the same time destabilized) by competing readings and subject to continuous rotations of meaning around its own axis, the concept of biopolitics risks losing its identity and becoming an enigma. (15)

Without retracing the steps that articulate this process of the governmentalization of life in Foucauldian genealogy – from „pastoral power“ to the reason of state to the expertise of the „police“ – let’s keep our attention on the outcome: on the one side, all political practices that governments put into action (or even those practices that oppose them) turn to life, to its process, to its needs, and to its fractures. On the other side, life enters into power relations not only on the side of its critical thresholds or its pathological exceptions, but in all its extension, articulation, and duration. (28)

It is the same premise of the biopolitical regime. More than a removal of life from the pressure that is exercised upon it by law, it is presented rather as delivering their relation to a dimension that both determines and exceeds them both. (28)

What is in question is no longer the distribution of power or its subordination to the law, nor the kind of regime nor the consensus that is obtained, but something that precedes it because it pertains to its „primary material“. (29)

Biopolitics doesn’t refer only or most prevalently to the way in which politics is captured – limited, compressed, and determinded – by life, but also and above all by the way in which politics grasps, challenges, and penetrates life. (30)

Life as such doesn’t belong either to the order of nature or to that of history. It cannot be simply ontologized, nor completely historicized, but is inscrubed in the moving margin of their intersection and their tension. The meaning of biopolitics is sought „in this dual position of life that placed it at the same time outside history, in its biological environment, and inside human historicity, penetrated by the latter’s techniques of knowledge and power“ (31)

„[…] a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.“ The opposition couldn’t be any plainer: whereas in the sovereign regime life is nothing but the residue or the remainder left over, saved from the right of taking life, in biopolitics life encamps at the center of a scenario of which death constitutes the external limit or the necessary contour. (34)

2 – The Paradigm of Immunization

Where the term „immunity“ for the biomedical sphere refers to a condition of natural or induced refractoriness on the part of a living organism when faced with a given disease, immunity in political-juridical language alludes to a temporary or definitive exemption on the part of subject with regard to concrete obligations or responsibilities that under normal circumstances would bind one to others. (45)

Rather than being superimposed or juxtaposed in an external form that subjects one to the domination of the other, in the immunitary paradigm, bios and nomos, life and politics, emerge as the two constituent elements of a single, indivisible whole that assumes meaning from their interrelation. (45)

Not simply the relation that joins life to power, immunity is the power to preserve life. Contrary to what is presupposed in the concept of biopolitics – understood as the result of an encounter that arises at a certain moment between the two components – in this perspective no power exists external to life, just as life is never given outside of the relations of power. From this angle, politics is nothing other than the possibility or the instrument for keeping life alive [in vita la vita]. (46)

[…] the negation doesn’t take the form of the violent subordination that power imposes on life from the outside, but rather is the intrinsically antinomic mode by which ife preserves itself through power. (46)

Just as in the medical practice of vaccinating the individual body, so the immunization of the political body functions similarly, introducing within it a fragment of the same pathogen from which it wants to protect itself, by blocking and contradicting natural development. (46)

The new element that I have proposed in this debate concerns what appears to me to be the first systematic elaboration of the immunitary paradigm held on one side by the contrastive symmetry with the concept of community – itself reread in the light of its original meaning – and on the other by its specifically modern characterization. The two questions quickly show themselves to be intertwined. Tracing it back to its etymological roots, immunitas is revealed as the negative or lacking [privativa] form of communitas. If communitas is that relation, which in binding its members to an obligation of reciprocal donation, jeopardizes individual identity, immunitas is the condition of dispensation from such an obligation and therefore the defense against the expropriating features of communitas. Dispensatio is precisely that which relieves the pensum of a weighty obligation, just as it frees the exemption [l’esonero] of that onus, which from its origin is traceable to the semantics of a reciprocal munus. Now the point of impact becomes clear between this etymological and theoretical vector and the historical or more properly genealogical one. One can say that generally immunitas, to the degree it protects the one who bears it from risky contact with those who lack it, restores its own borders that were jeopardized by the common. (50)

We have already seen how the most incisive meaning of immunitas is inscribed in the reverse logic of communitas: immune is the „nonbeing“ or the „not-having“ anything in common. Yet it is precisely such a negative implication with its contrary that indicates that the concept of immunization presupposes that which it also negates. (51)

What is immunized, in brief, is the same community in a form that both preserves and negates it, or better, preserves it through the negation of its original horizon of sense. From this point of view, one might say that more than the defensive apparatus superimposed on the community, immunization is its internal mechanism [ingranaggio]: the fold that in some way separates community from itself, sheltering it from an unbearable excess. The differential margin that prevents the community from coinciding with itself takes on the deep semantic intensity of its own concept. To survive, the community, every community, is forced to introject the negative modality of its opposite, even if the opposite remains precisely a lacking and contrastive mode of being of the community itself. (52)

So that life can be preserved and also develop, therefore, it needs to be ordered by artificial procedures that are capavle of saving it from natural risks. Here passes the double line that distinguishes modern politics; on one side, from that which precedes it, and, on the other, from the condition that follows it. (55)

Yet to link the modern subject to such a horizon of immunitary guarantees also means recognizing the aporia in which the same experience remains captured: that of looking to shelter life in the same powers [potenze] that interdict its development. (56)

Here we can begin to make out the constitutively negative character of sovereign immunization. It can be defined as an immanent transcendence situated outside the control of those that also produced it as the expression of their own will. (60)

Presented as the discovery and the implementation of the subject’s autonomy, individualism in reality functions as the immunitary ideologemme through which modern sovereignty implements the protection of life. (60-61)

Sovereignty is the not being [il non essere] in common of individuals, the political form of their desocialization. (61)

Indeed, one can say that property’s constitutive relevance to the process of modern immunization is ever more accentuated with respect to the concept of sovereignty. And this for two reasons. First, thanks to the originary antithesis that juxtaposes „common“ to „one’s own“ [proprio], which by definition signifies „not common“, „one’s own“ is as such always immune. And second, because the idea of property marks a qualitative intensification of the entire immunitary logic. (63)

Already here the immunitary logic seizes and occupies the entire Lockean argumentative framework: the potential risk of a world given in common – and for this reason exposed to an unlimited indistinction – is neutralized by an element that is presupposed by its same originary manifestation because it is expressive of the relation that precedes and determines all the others: the relation of everyone with himself or herself in the form of personal identity. This is both the kernel and the shell, the content and the wrapping, the object and the subject of the immunitary protection. (66)

In the most general terms, modern liberty is that which insures the individual against the interference of others through the voluntary subordination to a more powerful order that guarantees it. It is here that the antinomical relation with the sphere of necessity originates that ends by reversing the idea of libery into its opposites of law, obligation, and causality. […] necessity is nothing other than the modality that the modern subject assumes in the contrapuntal dialectic of its own liberty, or better, of liberty as the free appropriation of „one’s own“. (72)

3 – Biopower and Biopotentiality

[…] this is the manner in which Nietzsche thinks the political dimension of bios: not as character, law, or destination of something that lives previously, but as the power that informs life from the beginning in all its extension, constitution, and intensity. That life as well as the will to power […] doesn’t mean that life desires power nor that power captures, directs, or develops a purely biological life. On the contrary, they signify that life does not know modes of being apart from those of its continual strengthening. (81)

Still, the absolute originality of the Nitezschean text resides in the transferral of the relation between state and body from the classical level of analogy or metaphor, in which the ancient and modern tradition positions it, to that of an effectual reality: no politics exists other than that of bodies, conducted on bodies, through bodies. (84)

Before being in itself [in-sé], the body is always against, even with respect to itself. In this sense, Nietzsche can say that „every philosophy that ranks peace above war“ is „a misunderstanding of the body.“ This is because in its continual instability the body is nothing but the always provisional result of the conflict of forces that constitute it. (84)

What condemns modern political concepts to ineffectuality is exactly this split between life and conflict – the idea of preserving life through the abolition of conflict. One could say that the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy will be found in his rebuttal of such a conception, which is to say in the extreme attempt to bring again to the surface that harsh and profound relation that holds together politics and life in the unending form of struggle. (85)

Its [life’s] full realization coincides with a process of extroversion or exteriorization that is destined to carry it into contact with its own „not“; to make of it something that isn’t simply life – neither only life nor life only – but something that is both more than life and other than life: preciselt not life, if for „life“ we understand something that is stable, as what remains essentially identical to itself. […] Here one already begins to glimpse the most troubling aspects of Nietzschean discourse: entrusted to itself, freed from its restraints, life tends to destroy and to destroy itself. (88)

Against this possible semantic declension, against the vacuum of sense that opens at the heart of life that is ecstatically full of itself, the general process of immunization is triggered, which coincides in the final analysis with all of Wester civilization, but which finds in modernity its most representative space. (89)

Yet it is precisely because of this that immunity continues to speak the language of the negative, which it would like to annul: in order to avoid a potential evil, it produces a real one; it substitutes excess with a defect, a fullness with a emptiness, a plus with a minus, negating what it affirms and so doing affirming nothing other than its negation. It is what Nietzsche means by the key concept of „resentment“, which he identifies with all forms of resistance or of vengeance, and which is contrasted with the originary affirmative forces of life. (92)

And yet precisely such a negation of immunization situates Nietzsche […] within its recharging mechanism. Negating the immunitary negation, Nietzsche undoubtedly remains the prisoner of the same negative lexicon. Rather than affirming his own perspective, Niezsche limits himself to negating the opposite, remaining, so to speak, subaltern to it. (96)

It isn’t by coincidende that the more Nietzsche is determined to fight the immunitary syndrome, the more he falls into the semantics of infection and contamination. All the themes of purity, integrity, or perfection that obsessively return […] have this unmistakably reactive tonality, which is to say doubly negative toward a rampant impurity that constitutes the discourse’s true primum. (96)

The epicenter of such a contradiction can be singled out in the point of intersection between a tendence to biologize existence and another, contrary and speculative, one, which is based on the existentialization or the purification of what also refers to the dimension of life. Or better: functionlizing the former so as to fulfill the latter. (99)

We have seen how Nietzsche contests modernity’s immunitary dispositifs not through negation, but instead by moving immunizarion from the institutional level to that of actual [effetiva] life; needing to be protected from the excess or the dispersion of life, no longer in the sense of a formal political order, but in the survival of the species as a whole. (104)

Nonetheless, we have seen how this prescription constitutes nothing other than the first hyperimmunitary or thanatopolitical stratum of the Nietzschean lexicon.

A second categorical vector draws alongside and is joined with it, one that moves in a direction that diverges from the first, or perhaps better, one that allows for a different reading. […] this vector moves through a semantic deferral of the preceding categories, beginning with that of „health“ and „illness“, bursting their nominal identity and placing them in direct contact with their own contrary logic. From this perspective […] the danger is also biological; it is no longer the enemy that makes an attempt on life from the outside, but the enemy is now life’s own propulsive force. (104)

The result is a reversal that occurs by an intensification of the defensive and offensive logic that governs the eugenic strategy: if health is no longer separable from sickness; if sickness is part of health – then it will no longer be possible to separate the individual and social body according to insurmountable lines of prophylaxis and hierarchy. (104)

The greatest danger that the community faces is therefore its own preventice withdrawal from danger. (105)

From this perspective, the negative not only is in turn detained, repressed, or rejected, but it is affirmed as such: as what forms an essential part of life, even if, indeed precisely because, it continually endangers it, pushing it on to a problematic fault line [faglia] to which it is both reduced and strengthened. (106)

With regard to the „retarding elements“ of every species that is intent on constructing ever new means of preservation (who are determined to last as long as possible), the Übermensch (or however we may want to translate the expression) is characterized by an inexhaustible power of transformation. He literally is situated outside of himself, in a space that is no longer (nor was it ever) that of man as such. (107-108)

In this sense, Nietzsche, the hyperindividualist, can say that the individual, the one undivided [l’indiviso], doesn’t exist – that it is contradicted from its coming into the world by the genetic principle according to which „two are born from one and one from two“. (108)

4 – Thanatopolitics (the Cycle of Genos)

[…] Nazism does not, nor can it, carry out a philosophy because it is an actualized [realizzata] biology. (112)

In short, and although it may seem paradoxical, it was in order to perform their therapeutic mission that they [the German doctor’s] turned themselve into the executioners of those they considered either nonessential or harmful to improving public health. From this point of view, one can justifiably maintain that genocide was the result not of an absence, but of a presence, of a medical ethics perverted into its opposite. (115)

Hippocratic oath that they had taken, namely, not to harm in any way the patient [malato]. It’s only that they identified the patient as the German people as a whole, rather than as a single individual. (115-116)

[…] Nazi politics wasn’t even a proper biopolitics, but more literally a zoopolitics, one expressly directed to human animals. Consequently, the correct term for their massacre – anything but the sacred „holocaust“ – is „extermination“: exactly the term used for insects, rats, and lice. Soziale Desinfektion it was called. (117)

[…] Nazism itself never renounced the category of humanitas, on which it awarded the maximum normative importance. More than „bestializing“ man, as is commonly thought, it „anthropologized“ the animal, enlarging the definition of anthropos to the point where it also comprised animals of inferior species. (130)

The latter [sterilization] is the most radical modality of immunization because it intervenes at the root, at the originary point in which life is spread [si comunica]. It blocks life not in any moment of its development as its killer but in its own rising up – impending its genesis, prohibiting life from giving life, devitalizing life in advance. It might seem paradoxical wanting to stop degeneration (whose final relust was sterility) through sterilization, if such and antinomy, the negative doubling of the negative, wasn’t an essential part, indeed the very basis of the immunitary logic itself. (132)

If the first immunitary procedure of eugenics is sterilization, euthanasia constitutes the last (in the ultimate meaning of the expression). (132)

While the first [individual] preserves the right/obligation to receive death, only the second [state] possesses the right to give it. Where the health of the political body as a whole is at stake, a life that doesn’t conform to those interests must be available for termination. (133)

[…] the life unworthy of life is existence deprived of life – a life reduced to bare [nuda] existence. (134)

Dispositifs of Nazism:

1)      Absolute normativization of life constitutes the first. In it we can say that the two semantic vectors of immunity, the biological and the juridical, for the first time are completely superimposed according to the double register of the biologization of the nomos and simultaneously that of the juridicalization of bios. (138)

2)      Nazism’s second immunitary dispositif is the double enclosure of the vody, that is, the enclosing of its own enclosure. It is what Emmanuel Leivinas defined as the absolute identity between our body and ourselves. With respect to the Christian conception (but also differently from Cartesian tradition), all dualism between ego [io] and body collapses. They coincide in a form that doesn’t allow for any distinction: the body is no longer only the place but the essence of the ego. (141) In this sense, more than a reduction of bios to zoe or to „bare life“ […] we need to speak of the spiritualization of zoe and the biologization of the spirit. (142)

3)      The third Nazi immunitary dispositif is represented by the anticipatory suppression of birth, which is to say not only of life but of its genesis. It is in this extreme sense that one ought to understand the declaration according to which „sterilization was the medical fulcrum of the Nazi biocracy.“ (143) in the biopolitical regime, sovereign law isn’t so much the capacity to put to death as it is to nullify life in advance. (145)

5 – The Philosophy of Bios

That the obsessive search for security in relation to the threat of terrorism has become the pivot around which all the current governmental strategies turn gives an idea of the transformation currently taking place. From the politicizarion of the biological, which began in late modernity, we now have a similarly intense biologization of the political that makes the preservation of life through reproduction the only project that enjoys universal legitimacy. (147)

What opens the possibility of thinking bios and politics within the same conceptual piece is that [first] at no point does authentic being [poter-essere] exceed the effective possibility of being there [dell’esserei], and second that the self-decision of this being is absolutely immanent to itself. It is from this side, precisely because it is entirely impolitical, which is to say irreducible to any form of political philosophy, that Heidegger’s thought emerges in the first half of the twentieth century as the only one able to support the philosophical confrontation with biopolitics. (152)

[…] Heidegger reverses the prevalent situation instituted by the latter: it isn’t existence that emerges as deficient or lacking in relation to a life that has been exalted in its biological fullness, but life that appears defective with respect to an existence understood as the only modality of being in the openness of the world. (154)

While in Nazi thanatopolitics death represents the presupposition of life even before its destiny, a life emptied of its biological potentiality [potenza] (and therefore reduced to bare existence), for Heidegger death is the authentic [proprio] mode of being of an existence distinct from bare life. (154)

The attempt we want to make is that of assuming the same categories of „life“, „body“, and „birth“, and then of converting their immunitary (which is to say their self-negating) declension in a direction that is open to a more originary and intense sense of communitas. Only in this way – at the point of intersection and tension among contemporary reflections that have moved in such a direction – will it be possible to trace the initial features of a biopolitics that is finally affirmative. No longer over life nut of life, one that doesn’t superimpose already constituted (and by now destitute) categories of modern politics on life, but rather inscribes the innovative power of life rethought in all its complexity and articulation in the same politics. From this point of view, the expression „form-of-life“ […] is to be understood more in the sense of a vitalization of politics, even if in the end, the two movements tend to superimpose themselves over one another in a single semantic grouping. (157)

[…] each time the body is thought in political terms, or politics in terms of the body, an immunitary short-circuit is always produced, one destined to close „the political body“ on itself and within itself in opposition to its own outside. (158)

Existence without life is flesh that does not coincide with the body; it is that part or zone of the body, the body’s membrane, that isn’t one with the body, that exceeds its boundaries or is subtracted from the body’s enclosing. (159)

[…] the question of flesh is inscribed in a threshold in which thought is freed from every self-referential modality in favor of directly gazing on contemporaneity, understood as the sole subject and object of philosophical interrogation. (159-160)

For us as well as for Merleau-Ponty, the flesh of the world represents the end and the reversal of that doubling [enclosing the body upon itself]. It is the doubling up [sdoppiamento] of the body of all and of each one according to leaves that are irreducible to the identity of a unitary figure. (161)

There is nothing more than that body (in the individual and collective sense) that restitutes and favors the dynamic of reciprocal implication between politics and life, and this for a number of reasons. First, because of the somatic representation of legitimate citizenship prior to the growing role that demographic, hygienic, and sanitary questions began to assume for public administration. And second, because it is precisely the idea of an organic body that implicates, as necessary complement, the presence of a transparent principle that is capable of unifying the members according to a determined functional design: a body always has a soul, or at least a head, without which it would be reduced to a simple agglomerate of flesh. (165)

What recedes, however (either because of explosion or implosion), is instead the body as the dispositif of political identification. […] If everything is the body, nothing will rigidly define it, which is to say no precise immunitary borders will mark and circumscribe it. (166)

To „rise again“, today, cannot be the body inhabited by the spirit, but the fles as such: a being that is both singular and communal, generic and specific, and undifferentiated and different, not only devoid of spirit, but a fles that doesn’t even have a body. (167)

[…] while incorporation tends to unify a plurality, or at least a duality, incarnation, on the contrary, separates and multiplies in two what was originally one. In the first case, we are dealing with a doubling that doesn’t keep aggregated elements distinct; in the second, a splitting that modifies and subdivides an initial identity. (167)

Just as the body constitutes the site of the presupposed unification of the anomalous multiplicity of flesh, so the nation defines the domain in which all births are connected to each other in a sort of parental identity that extends to the boundaries of the state. (171)

If the state is really the body of its inhabitants, who are in turn reunified in that of the head, politics is nothing other than the modality through which birth is affirmed as the only living force of history. (171)

The norm is no longer what assigns rights and obligations from the outside to the subject, as in modern transcendentalism – permitting it to do that which is allowed and prohibiting that which is not – but rather the intrinsic modality that life assumes in the expression of its own unrestrainable power to exist. (185-186) – of Spinoza

It is for this reason that, when seen in a general perspective, every form of existence, be it deviant or defective from a more limited point of view, has equal legitimacy for living according to its own possibilities as a whole in the relations in which it is inserted. (186)

It cannot be said that Spinoza’s intuitions found expression and development in later juridical philosophy. The reasons for such a theoretical block are multiple. But in relation to our problem, it’s worth paying attention to the resistance of the philosophy of natural right [diritto] as a whole to think the norm together with life: not over life nor beginning from life, but in life, which is to say in the biological constitution of the living organism. (186)

[…] we can say that for Spinoza nothing other than individuals exist. These individuals are infiniye modes of a substance that does not subtend or transcend them, but is that expressed precisely in their irreducible multiplicity; only that such individuals for Spinoza are not stable and homogenous entities, but elements that originate from and continually reproduce a process of successive individuations. (187)

In short, the process of normativization is the never-defined result of the comparison and conflict between individual norms that are measured according to the different power that keeps them alive, without ever losing the measure of their reciprocal relation. (187)

Completely normal isn’t the person who corresponds to a prefixed prototype, but the individual who preserves intact his or her own normative power, which is to say the capacity to create continually new norms: „Normal man is normative man, the being capable of establishing new, even organic forms.“ (191)

I would say that his [Deleuze’s] „theoretical“ (though we could say biophilosophical) resides in the connecting and diverging point between the life and precisely a life. Here the move from the determinate article to that of the indeterminate has the function of marking the break with the metaphysical feature that connects the dimension of life to that of individual consciousness. There is a modality of bios that cannot be inscribed within the borders of the conscious subject, and therefore is not attributable to the form of the individual or of the person. (192)

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