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Nikolas Rose “The Politics of Life Itself”

Rose, Nikolas 2001. The Politics of Life Itself. Theory, Culture & Society 18(6): 1-30

Of course, programmes of preventive medicine, of health promotion and health education still take, as their object, ‘the nation’s health’. Today, however, the rationale for political interest in the health of the population is no longer framed in terms of the consequences of unfitness of the population as an organic whole for the struggle between nations. Instead it is posed in economic terms – the costs of ill-health in terms of days lost from work or rising insurance contributions – or moral terms – the imperative to reduce inequalities in health. (5)

[…] within the political rationalities that I have termed ‘advanced liberal’ the contemporary relation between the biological life of the individual and the well-being of the collective is posed somewhat differently (Rose, 1996). It is no longer a question of seeking to classify, identify, and eliminate or constrain those individuals bearing a defective consti-tution, or to promote the reproduction of those whose biological character-istics are most desirable, in the name of the overall fitness of the population, nation or race. Rather, it consists in a variety of strategies that try to identify, treat, manage or administer those individuals, groups or localities where risk is seen to be high. (7)

Decision-making in the biomedical context takes place within a set of power relations that we could term ‘pastoral’. […] But this contemporary pastoral power is not organized or admin-istered by ‘the state’ […]Crucially, this pastoral power does not concern itself with the flock as a whole. […]Perhaps one might best describe this form of pastoral power as relational. It works through the relation between the affects and ethics of the guider – the genetic counsellors and allied experts of reproduction who operate as gatekeepers to tests and medical procedures – and the affects and ethics of the guided – the actual or potential parents who are making their repro-ductive decisions, and upon their networks of responsibility and obligation. (9)

These counselling encounters entail intense bi-directional affec-tive entanglements between all the parties to the encounter, and indeed generate multiple ‘virtual’ entanglements with parties not present – distant relatives, absent siblings, potential offspring. In these entanglements, the ethical relations of all the subjects to themselves and to one another are at stake – including the experts themselves. (10)

It is not surprising, then, that there is much professional optimism about the impact of recent advances in genomics, which seem to have the potential to shift the focus of regulatory strategies from group risk to indi-vidual susceptibility. Diagnoses of susceptibility attempt to move beyond the allocation of individuals to a risk group on the basis of factors and probabilities, to a precise identification of those particular individuals who are vulnerable to specific conditions or behavioural problems. (11)

Since it is now routine for doctors well as geneticists to consider that any individual’s vulnerability to any disease has a genetic component, consisting mostly of multiple genes and their interactions amongst themselves and with other environmental and biographical factors, the gaze of susceptibility is potentially unlimited. (11-12)

what is created here is what Ian Hacking (1992, 1995) might term a new and ‘interactive’ ‘human kind’: the individual biologically – increasing genetically – risky or at risk.

Thus these new practices for the identification of susceptibilities open a space of uncertainty. This is the expanding realm of the asymp-tomatically or presymptomatically ill – those individuals carrying the markers or polymorphisms of susceptibility who are neither phenomeno-logically or experientially ‘sick’ or ‘abnormal’. While the calculation of risk often seems to promise a technical way of resolving ethical questions, these new kinds of susceptibility offer no clear-cut algorithm for the decisions of doctors or their actual or potential patients. In this space, biopolitics becomes ethopolitics. (12)

The norm of indi-vidual health replaced that of the quality of the population. (13 – in liberal genetics)

Hence, the politics of the life sciences – the politics of life itself – has been shaped by those who controlled the human, technical and financial resources necessary to fund such endeavours. (15)

Biopolitics becomes bioeconomics, driven by the search for what Catherine Waldby has termed ‘biovalue’: the production of a surplus out of vitality itself (Waldby, 2000: 19).

The classical distinction made in moral philosophy between that which is not human – ownable, tradeable, commodifiable – and that which is human – not legitimate material for such commodifica-tion – no longer seems so stable. (16)

But an event is a matter of associ-ations, linking up a number of disparate little changes such that a thresh-old is crossed. That which was previously exceptional, remarkable, becomes routinely thinkable, perhaps even expected. Now all life processes seem to consist in intelligible chains of events that can be ‘reverse engineered’ and then reconstructed in the lab, and modified so that they unfold in different ways. (16)

Life now appears to be open to shaping and reshap-ing at the molecular level: by precisely calculated interventions that prevent something happening, alter the way something happens, make something new happen in the cellular processes themselves. As the distinction between treatment and enhancement, between the natural and the prosthetic blurs, the management and maximization of life itself have become the life’s work, not only of each individual, but of their doctors, together with the scientists, entrepreneurs and corporations who make the reworking of life the object of their knowledge, inventions and products (on enhancement, see Parens et al., 1998). Natural life can no longer serve as the ground or norm against which a politics of life may be judged. Dilemmas about what we are, what we are capable of, what we may hope for, now have a molecular form. Biopolitics now addresses human existence at the molecular level: it is waged about molecules, amongst molecules, and where the molecules themselves are at stake. (16-17)

The original biopolitical thesis implied a separation between those who calculated and exercised power and those who were its subjects, whose bio-logical existence was to be shaped for the benefit of each and all. This does seem to characterize policies seeking to modify the breeding patterns of individuals in the name of the population; the bloody techniques of negative eugenics; medical experimentation on prisoners and psychiatric inmates; euthanasia of those whose lives are not worth living; even such benign strategies as medical inspection of schoolchildren. (17)

In the second half of the 20th century, a new alliance formed between political aspirations for a healthy population and personal aspirations to be well: health was to be ensured by instrumentalizing anxiety and shaping the hopes and fears of individuals and families for their own biological destiny. The very idea of health was re-figured – the will to health would not merely seek the avoid-ance of sickness or premature death, but would encode an optimization of one’s corporeality to embrace a kind of overall ‘well-being’ – beauty, success, happiness, sexuality and much more. (17)

By the start of the 21st century, hopes, fears, decisions and life-routines shaped in terms of the risks and possibilities in corporeal and biological existence had come to supplant almost all others as organizing principles of a life of prudence, responsi-bility and choice. Selfhood has become intrinsically somatic – ethical practices increas-ingly take the body as a key site for work on the self. (18 – somatic individuality)

Biopolitics, here, merges with what I have termed ‘ethopolitics’: the politics of life itself and how it should be lived (Rose, 1999). […]In ethopolitics, life itself, as it is lived in its everyday manifestations, is the object of adjudication. If discipline indi-vidualizes and normalizes, and biopower collectivizes and socializes, ethopolitics concerns itself with the self-techniques by which human beings should judge themselves and act upon themselves to make themselves better than they are. (18)

As somatic individuals engage with vital politics, a new ethics of life itself is taking shape.

Within this new ethics, the human vital order has become so thoroughly imbued with artifice that even the natural has to be produced by a labour on the self – natural food, natural childbirth and the like. Even choosing not to intervene in living processes becomes a kind of intervention. (19)

On the one hand, our very personhood is increasingly being defined by others, and by ourselves, in terms of our contemporary understandings of the possibilities and limits of our corporeality. On the other hand, our somatic individuality has become opened up to choice, prudence and responsibility, to experimentation, to contestation – and so to a ‘vital politics’. (20)

‘The philosophical status’ – indeed the very ontology – of human beings is being reshaped through the decisions of entrepreneurs as to where to invest their capital and which lines of biomedical research and development to pursue. (20)

I have argued that life, today, is not imagined as an unalterable fixed endowment, biology as destiny, where the reproduction of individuals with a defective constitution is to be administered by experts in the interests of the future of the population. No longer are judgements organized in terms of a clear binary of normality and pathology. (20-21)

For the political vocation of the life sciences today is tied to the belief that in most, maybe all cases, if not now then in the future, the biological risky or at risk individual, once identified and assessed, may be treated or transformed by medical intervention at the molecular level. In the process, the familiar dis-tinction between illness and health has become problematic and contested. (21)

Two modes of such a ‘biological ethics’ are particularly striking. On the one hand, human rights now have a biological dimension and, partly in consequence, have gained a new kind of ‘species universality’. Legal, political and social rights were first linked to the capacities and obligations of individuals who were elements of a political association. But now, it seems, each human being has such rights, simply by virtue of their exist-ence as beings of this human kind. Individuals seem to have acquired a kind of biological citizenship – a universal human right to the protection, at least, of each human person’s bare life and the dignity of their living vital body. In the geopolitics of famine, drought, war and ethnic cleansing, in the vociferous anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movements, and in the local politics of health, it is now possible for human beings to demand the pro-tection of the lives of themselves and others in no other name than that of their biological existence and the rights and claims it confers. (21)

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