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Thomas Lemke “Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction”

 Lemke, Thomas 2011. Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. London; New York: New York University Press.

 

1. Life as the basis of politics

The organicist concept understands the state not as a legal construction whose unity and coherence is the result of individuals’ acts of free will but as an original form of life, which precedes individuals and collectives and provides the institutional foundation for their activities. The basic assumption is that all social, political, and legal bonds rest on a living whole, which embodies the genuine and the eternal, the healthy, and the valuable. The reference to “life” serves here both as a mythic startingpoint and as a normative guideline. Furthermore, it eludes every rational foundation or democratic decision-making. From this perspective, only a politics that orients itself toward biological laws and takes them as a guideline can count as legitimate and commensurate with reality. (10)

Within this heterogeneous field of research [biopolitology], it is possible to identify four areas to which most of the projects can be assigned. The first area comprises reception of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. At its center stands the historical and anthropological question of the development of human beings and the origins of state and society. A second group of works takes upethological and sociobiological concepts and findings in order to analyze political behavior. Works interested in physiological factors and their possible contribution to an understanding of political action fall into the third category. A fourth group focuses on practical political problems (“biopolicies”), which arise from interventions in human nature and changes to the environment (Somit and Peterson 1987, 108; Kamps and Watts 1998, 17–18; Blank and Hines 2001; Meyer-Emerick 2007). (16)

Common to all representatives of “biopolitics” is thus a critique of the theoretical and methodological orientation of the social sciences, which, in their view, is insufficient. They argue that the social sciences are guided by the assumption that human beings are, in

principle, free beings, a view that gives too much significance to processes of learning and socialization and thereby fails to see that human (political) behavior is in large part biologically conditioned. From this perspective, the “culturalism” of the social sciences remains “superficial” as it systematically ignores the “deeper” causes of human behavior. (17)

The thesis thatbiological factors play a role in the analysis of social and political behavior is not the problem; the question is, rather, how the interaction is understood […] (19)

 

2. Life as an object of politics

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the meaning of biopolitics assumed another form. It was not so much focused on the biological foundations of politics but rather disclosed life processes as a new object of political reflection and action. In light of the ecological crisis that was increasingly being addressed by political activists and social movements, biopolitics now came to signify policies and regulatory efforts aimed at finding solutions to the global environmental crisis. (23)

Such questions led ultimately to a second stratum of meaning in biopolitics [in the 1970s, with the development of genetics], one that is situated close to the considerations and concerns of bioethics. These relate to the collective negotiation of, and agreement on, the social acceptability of what is technologically possible. (26)

It is safe to say, then, that since the 1970s “life” has become a reference point for political thinking and political action in two respects. On the one hand, we can say that the human “environment” is threatened by the existing social and economic structures and that policymakers need to find the right answers to the ecological question and to secure the conditions of life on Earth and the survival of humanity. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know, because of bioscientific discoveries and technological innovations, what exactly the “natural foundations” of life are and how these can be distinguished from “artificial” forms of life. (27)

Central to the technocentric version of biopolitics, however, is not the adaptation of “society” to a separate “natural environment” but rather the environment’s modification and transformation through scientific and technological means. (28)

Biopolitical questions are fundamental precisely because not only are they objects of political discourse, but they also encompass the political subject him- or herself. (30)

Biopolitics cannot simply be labeled a specific political activity or a subfield of politics that deals with the regulation and governance of life processes. Rather, the meaning of biopolitics lies in its ability to make visible the always contingent, always precarious difference between politics and life, culture and nature, between the realm of the intangible and unquestioned, on the one hand, and the sphere of moral and legal action, on the other. (31)

 

3. The Government of Living Beings: Michel Foucault

First, biopolitics stands for a historical rupture in political thinking and practice that is characterized by a rearticulation of sovereign power. Second, Foucault assigns to biopolitical mechanisms a central role in the rise of modern racism. A third meaning of the concept refers to a distinctive art of government that historically emerges with liberal forms of social regulation and individual self-governance. (34)

Foucault distinguishes “two basic forms” of this power over life: the disciplining of the individual body and the regulatory control of the population (1980, 139). (36)

This technology [of security] aims at the mass phenomena characteristic of a population and its conditions of variation in order to prevent or compensate for dangers and risks that result from the existence of a population as a biological entity. The instruments applied here are regulation and control, rather than discipline and supervision. (37)

Two series, therefore, may be discerned: “the body–organism–discipline–institution series, and the population–biological processes–regulatory mechanisms–State” (ibid., 250). (37)

[…] “individual” and “mass” are not extremes but rather two sides of a global political technologythat simultaneously aims at the control of the human as individual body and at the human as species (see Foucault 2003, 242–243). (38)

[…] biopolitics marks a movement in which the “right” is more and more displaced by the “norm.” The absolute right of the sovereign tends to be replaced by a relative logic of calculating, measuring, and comparing. (39)

[…] the power over death is freed from all existing boundaries, since it is supposed to serve the interest of life. What is at stake is no longer the juridical existence of a sovereign but rather the biological survival of a population. (39)

Racism fulfills two important functions within an economy of biopower. First, it creates fissures in the social domain that allow for the division of what is imagined in principle to be a homogeneous biological whole (for example, a population or the entire human species). […] The second function of racism goes even further. It does not limit itself to establishing a dividing line between “healthy” and “sick,” “worthy of living” and “not worthy of living.” Rather, it searches for “the establishment of a positive relation of this type: ‘The more you

kill, the more deaths you will cause’ or ‘The very fact that you let more die will allow you to live more’” (ibid., 255). Racism facilitates, therefore, a dynamic relation between the life of one person and the death of another. (41-42)

Foucault conceives of liberalism not as an economic theory or a political ideology but as a specific art of governing human beings. Liberalism introduces a rationality of government that differs both from medieval concepts of domination and from early modern state reason: the idea of a nature of society that constitutes the basis and the border of governmental practice. (45)

At the center of liberal reflection is a hitherto unknown nature, the historical result of radically transformed relations of living and production: the “second nature” of the evolving civil society (see Foucault 2007). (45)

The coordinates of governmental action are no longer legitimacy or illegitimacy but success or failure; reflection focuses not on the abuse or arrogance of power but rather on ignorance concerning its use. (46)

In this context, Foucault gives a new meaning to the concept of technologies of security, which he used in earlier works. He regards security mechanisms as counterparts to liberal freedom and as the condition for its existence. Security mechanisms are meant to secure and protect the permanently endangered naturalness of the population, as well as its own forms of free and spontaneous self-regulation. (47)

With liberalism, but not before, the question arises of how subjects are to be governed if they are both legal persons and living beings (see ibid. 2008, 317). (48)

„[A]gainst this power . . . the forces that resisted relied for support on the very thing it invested, that is, on life and man as a living being. . . . [W]hat was demanded and what served as an objective was life, understood as the basic needs, man’s concrete essence, the realization of his potential, a plenitude of the possible. Whether it was Utopia that was wanted is of little importance; what we have seen has been a very real process of struggle; life as a political struggle was in a sense taken at face value and turned back against the system that was bent on controlling it.” (50, Foucault, History of Sexuality I, 1980, 144–145)

 

6. The Disappearance and Transformation of Politics

The growing recognition and acknowledgment of the life of a human being who suffers from an illness displaces the recognition of the life of a citizen who has experienced violence, often resulting from political agitation. In place of political life that confronts a legal-administrative order to reconstruct the history of a persecution, we find biological life that documents a history of illness against the background of medical knowledge. The right to life has increasingly moved from the political arena to the humanitarian one. According to Fassin, it is now apparently more acceptable to reject an application for asylum as unfounded than to reject a medical report that recommends temporary residency for medical reasons (2006, 2001). (88)

 

7. The End and Reinvention of Nature

The body is increasingly seen not as an organic substratum but as molecular software that can be read and rewritten. (93)

Foucault’s concept of biopolitics remains bound to the notion of an integral body. His analyses of disciplinary technologies which are directed at the body, in order to form and fragment it, are based on the idea of a closed and delimited body. By contrast, biotechnology and biomedicine allow for the body’s dismantling and recombination to an extent that Foucault did not anticipate. (94)

Central to this political epistemology of life is no longer control of external nature but rather the transformation of inner nature. As a consequence, biology is conceived of no longer as a science of discovery that registers and documents life processes but rather as a science of transformation that creates life and actively changes living organisms (Haraway 1991; Rheinberger 2000; Clarke et al. 2003). (94-95)

To start with, “human material” transcends the living person. The person who dies today is not really dead. He or she lives on, at least potentially. […] Death can be part of a productive circuit and used to improve and extend life. The death of one person may guarantee the life and survival of another. (95)

Today, it is not so much state sovereignty as medical-administrative authorities who decide on matters of life and death. They define what human life is and when it begins and ends. (95)

 

8. Vital Politics and Bioeconomy

The concept of vital politics, which Nikolas Rose employs in his discussion of the molecularization and informatization of life, was already in use much earlier in a completely different context. The term played a prominent role in the work of Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow, two significant representatives of postwar German liberalism and architects of the social market economy (soziale Marktwirtschaft). In the 1950s and ’60s, they used the term “vital politics” to refer to a new form of the political that was grounded in anthropological needs and that has an ethical orientation. The negative point of reference here is a mass society that erodes social integration and cohesion. “Massification” (Vermassung) is the antonym of vital politics, representing the “worst social malady of our time” (Rüstow 1957, 215). Whereas massification emerged from the dissolution of original social bonds and forms of life, vital politics aims to promote and reactivate them. Contrary to social policy, which focuses on material interests, vital politics takes intoaccount “all factors upon which happiness, well-being, and satisfaction in reality depend” (Rüstow 1955, 70). (105)

Vital politics fulfills two important functions in ordoliberal thinking. First, it serves as a critical principle against which political activity can be measured and which relates the economy back to a comprehensive order that is external to it and ethically grounded. Second, the vital-political dimension of the social market economy asserts its superiority over the “inhumane conditions” existing in the Soviet Union, where fundamental human needs were ignored (ibid, 238). (107)

Whereas for the ordoliberals vital politics points to the conflictual relationship between economic principles and an ethically superior and anthropologically grounded order,there are two 20th-century theories which, by identifying the human being as homo economicus, defuse possible conflicts between politics, ethics, and economy. These two theories, the concept of Menschenökonomie(human economy) and human capital theory, have less to do with accommodating the economy to life processes than with improving, enhancing, and optimizing those processes. In both cases, human life does not serve as a measure of the economy but is itself subordinated to the economic imperative of valorization. (107)

Through the lens of human capital theory, a human being is a rational actor who is constantly allocating scarce resources in the pursuit of competing goals. All activity is presented as a choice between attractive and less attractive alternatives. The basis of this theory is a methodological individualism, whereby a person maximizes benefits and weighs options in a marketplace in which offers and demands coexist in perpetual interplay. (110)

Becker and Schultz understand human capital to mean the abilities, skills, and health, as well as such qualities as the outer appearance and social prestige, of a person. It consists of two components: an inborn corporeal and genetic endowment, and the entirety of the abilities that are the result of “investments” in appropriate stimuli—nutrition, upbringing, and education, as well as love and care. (110)

 

9. Prospect: An Analytics of Biopolitics

If politics in the classical sense refers to a state beyond existential necessities, biopolitics introduces a reflexive dimension. That is to say, it places at the innermost core of politics that which usually lies at its limits, namely, the body and life. Seen this way, biopolitics again includes the excluded other of politics. Indeed, neither politics nor life is what it was before the advent of biopolitics. Life has ceased to be the assumed but seldom explicitly identified counterpart of politics. It is no longer confined to the singularity of concrete existence but has become an abstraction, an object of scientific knowledge, administrative concern, and technical improvement. (117)

And politics? Politics has also changed in the light of biopolitical rationalities and technologies. It has made itself dependent on life processes that it cannot regulate and whose capacities for self-regulation it must respect. However, it is precisely this limitation that has provided politics with many options for different forms of intervention and organization. (117)

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