Home > biopoliitika, Brett Levinson, Michel Foucault, Roberto Esposito > Brett Levinson “Biopolitics in Balance: Esposito’s Response to Foucault”

Brett Levinson “Biopolitics in Balance: Esposito’s Response to Foucault”

Levinson, Brett 2010. Biopolitics in Balance: Esposito’s Response to Foucault. CR: The New Centennial Review 10(2): 239-261.

[…] if the Other is posited as virus, and the Same as a strictly biological entity, then contamination of any “individual” within the whole (an organ relative to the complete body, an individual relative to a nation, a nation relative to the league of nations, and so on) threatens apocalyptically that whole. The Other is not the menace. The Other is carrier of the menace, of a certain untyped or unidentified body that, because “unmonitorable,” terrorizes absolutely. […] In the present battle, the human subject battles against an is not, a no thing that dwells neither within nor outside the contested field. (240)

[…] for Esposito, “our” biopolitics imperils because it tends to reverse into its opposite, a “thanatopolitics” such as Nazism: “Why does a politics of life always risk being reversed into a work of death?” (8). This reversal, nonetheless, is a contingency. Biopolitics as such, Esposito insists, is not nihilism. “Our” biopolitics, the biopolitics of our period, is. (241)

[…] thanatopolitics that shrinks life to survival, mere zoe. (241)

Biopolitics, Foucault says, is fundamentally a racism (2003, 261–62). It presents all alterity—whether sexual, geographical, economic, linguistic, religious, or ethnic—as “the dirty other,” bearer of a lethal, apocalyptic stain (much like the Jew for the Nazi). Th e purpose of the gesture,
as racism, is not the salvation of the state or the particular group. Th e goal is the rescue of “life as such.” (243)

Biopolitical racism, hatred without reason, hence grants itself a reason. It situates reason on racism’s side. Nazism is the model of modern racism, then, less because it opposes sanitary to unhygienic bodies than because its telos, rather thanan unpolluted German or Germany, rather than an immortal “selfish self,” is the reproduction and preservation of the best—life—for all. Nazism is intrinsically a moral act. (243)

Biopolitics, after all, reacts not to a germ but to its endless duplication: to virus as source of mass annihilation. Immunity sterilizes in order to interrupt not the bug’s production—the vaccine itself produces the disease: it introduces a little bit of the illness to prevent wider spread—but its reproduction. Esposito’s prime example of the process is especially instructive: the Hobbesian state, an artifice installed to immunize rational human beings from a destructive, irrational nature. The installation does not erase barbarism but interrupts its spread, its contamination of all. (244)

Suspension of law, never reasonable, is constitutive of the state’s constitution. Indeed, because no tenet can conceivably ground the difference between an emergency and more or less “regular” situation, any actual declaration of a state of exception—even if, ultimately, for the good—activates and reactivates a dose of illness/unreason, always already installed at the state’s origin. (245)

One might thereby speak (the terms are my own) of a sovereign biopolitics, a disciplinary biopolitics, and a security biopolitics. We have already seen how Esposito effectively reposits Hobbes’s state, or sovereignty, in biopolitical terms. He performs a similar operation upon discipline (27–28). Biopolitical discipline does not punish but “catches” and retrains the delinquent: the delinquent as a product of the immunity devices geared to educate him properly. (245)

Discipline disciplines, in other words, not by repressing but by generating—through training—the subject of delinquency. This same subjectivization, because it posits delinquency as a force, yields new and threatening social ills. Biopolitical security enters here. The regime neither eliminates in the name of law nor disciplines according to an ideal of normalcy. It manages “things” (“manage” and “things” are the two words Foucault stresses) in the interest of keeping track, identifying, and then staving off the worst menaces. Foucault’s analysis of the biopolitical approach to the curbing of drug addiction is thereby most illustrative (2008, 256–59). (246)

Unlike disciplinary society, biopoliticalcontrol does not concern itself with the addict as subject, with the direct censure or rectification of individual conduct. In the first place, it holds that no person is disposed to crime by nature or even by culture. “The criminal is nothing other than absolutely anyone whomsoever” (253). It does no good to “fix” one individual since the number of potential delinquents is infinite. “Absolutely anyone” might commit an unlawful act if he believes that the chance for reward exceeds the risk of loss. Biopolitics or governmentality, therefore, contains crime by attending to the conditions in which crime takes place. It tackles the crime rather than the criminal by making a given unlawful act unprofitable, not worth the risk, for the large majority of the population. (246)

In this fashion, a kind of “norm” is maintained, as with discipline. Yet the biopolitical norm is not a fixed one, like the moral code of discipline. It shifts according to the gradual rise and fall of numbers, calling for the repeated check-ups and recalculations, which maintain the mutable equilibrium. (247)

The overarching model for [Foucault’s] biopolitics or governmentality, in fact, is not the live body. It is the free market. Biopolitics is an economism before it is a biologism. (247)

[…] for Foucault, the fear of terror, spurring biopolitics, actually results from the appearance of a certain truth: the unpredictability of the market. (247)

Th is is why neoliberalism, according to Foucault, cannot adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward the economy. Neoliberal measures do not match laissez-faire ones since these measures must stand ready to intercede should a monopoly by chance materialize—and it always could. And herein lies the second threat to stability: chance itself. (248)

Th e point, for Foucault, is that the subject of biopolitics, the subject of interest, is quite diff erent from the subject of right, the subject of the sovereign. Th e latter sacrifices some of his own interests in exchange for the good of all; for this self-sacrifice, he receives protection offered by the sovereign. Th e good of all is best for me. The subject of the market surrenders no such liberties; he must not. For the ideal, here, is controlled pluralism. The ongoing pursuit and attainment of individual liberties—for example, the freedoms of this or that gender, sexual practice, ethnic minority, political ideal, interest group, school of thought, and so forth—continually “adds” new subjects, new freedoms, into the overall population. The individual exercise of self-determination, the quest in one’s own interest, guarantees multiple selves that determine themselves, hence the pluralism that assures the competition, and the competition that benefits the market as a whole. (248)

The negative that arises within this context, however, is obvious: the loss of protection, hence insecurity. Competition and pluralism may stabilize the market. Yet they do not guarantee the stability. (248)

Insecurity materializes not because the sovereign, who protects, has been forfeited. Rather, the sovereign has been forfeited because he cannot off er this protection. (249)

For the sovereign, Foucault says, governs by wisdom, or trust in his wisdom. He is believed to know the truth, what is good for all, and makes decisions on this basis. Th is is how and why the sovereign can decide on the exception: how and why he can decide, for example, which life threatens apocalyptically the whole, hence can and must be killed off, and which does not. He knows. However, the sovereign does not know about chance happenings to which each entrepreneur and the market itself are exposed. (249)

It is because his nature includes non-nature, communication, that the human being is not solely a biological creature. Biopolitics casts human life as purely biological life by denying the force of contamination to which nonlife exposes the living, indeed, that is nonlife, to wit, finitude. Civil society, because it cannot touch the economy as such, is the site upon which governmentality or biopolitics acts. And to act upon civil society is to act upon the fact of its power, which is its “spontaneous communication.” Biopolitics says No to communication, but the “No” itself is a communication: as delimitation, interdiction on language, it opens to more of it. In other words,
humans cannot limit the power of their own institution for that institution sets their limit. (251)

Biopolitics names an effort to protect the one from its contamination by the one more, by another,
which is an artifi ce; yet the oneness is itself the artifice. Th e biopolitical adds on individual subjects, strives to protect one from the other one, from more one and more than one, in the interest of protecting all from the add-on. Its limit is its possibility and impossibility. (251)

Biopolitical nihilism, stated differently, is defined by a drive to rescue both the human and the category of the human from technology and language, on the one hand, and animals and instinct, on the other. Before it subverts human sovereignty or state sovereignty, biopolitics affirms the sovereignty, the absolute distinction and right of “the human,” of “human life.” (252)

Biopolitics is oversight in the business of the production of more “I’s” since tracking, trackability, identification (a stamp on the body, racialization) is the condition of any such “I.” Sovereignty compels the subject to obey. Discipline demands that he behave. Biopolitics insists that he beware: beware of the source of terror, which is the One or nothing, the One (form) that is nothing, the mark that is unmarked. (253)

And Esposito’s emphasis is on the fact that no two lives emerge in like fashion. Th e difference between the two can manifest itself, we must therefore say, solely as fashion itself: as style. And style, like the grain of the voice or the penmanship of the letter, is not a sign but an insignificant additive to the sign. It is the more of the sign, repeating in every sign, akin to a tic. Communicated in every “live” communicative act, every performative utterance, every real existing communication, style inserts a “meaningless” artifice into meaning—in fact, every meaningful sign (constative utterance) appears in a certain style(the performative)—and is the condition of that meaning. (255)

Human being-alive commences with a sign-making device that, although bodily—the air of the cry from the mouth—and although common (like a boundary between) to all parties, is not a property of anybody, not a human property but the division of the “me proper,” the “me life,” from the other. Th at split, moreover, is the opening of the unconscious, of an artificial intelligence and power.Esposito expresses a certain agreement with such thesis as he situates techne as the betwixt of human life, lodged between biosand zoe, political animal and mere animal, holding them together as it sets them apart: “. . . if a natural life doesn’t exist that isn’t at the same time technological as well; if the relation of biosand zoeneeds by now (or has always needed) to include a third correlated term, techne. . .” (15). Yet, the alternative life Esposito advocates overcomes this third term, which emerges for Esposito as just an “if,” something for human thought to speculate upon. (256)

The human does not appear live. Human beings do not make, much less change history. Making makes history. Humanity is the response and responsibility to its making: its institutions and forms. (257)

Esposito notes of Heidegger that he has “no concept of human nature—[human nature] autonomous from the being to whose custody man seems called” (2008, 156). Th is is true, of course; and it is just as true for Foucault, who holds that man is the body/techne, life/language interface; and thatthe interface itself, the and, the too, is being, the fact of its power. Th e copula beingis the linking and:human being is not an autonomous being because being is and, the one more or extra, the force of repetition, the form or program, that drives the human beings who incorporate or introject it. (257)

Esposito humanizes, cuts finitude and death into human proportions so that they work for the division between thanatopolitics and biopolitics, so that they work for life. If Foucault has failed to espouse a “biopolitics of life” over a “biopolitics over life,” as Esposito charges, it is because he has failed to distinguishthe first from the second, then to weigh or balance their difference. But, we add again: if Foucault has failed in this manner, it is because he presents this very distinction, this cut, as the more of balance: difference is the force of the nonlive in life, of artifice in human nature, death in the organic body. Difference-between, or the border, opens unconditionally, without measure, with too much strength, to the other, hence admits no balance between two, no justice. (259)

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