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Miguel Vatter “Eternal Life and Biopower”

Vatter, Miguel 2010. Eternal Life and Biopower. CR: The New Centennial Review 10(3): 217-249.

In this essay I pursue the following hypothesis: if biopolitics can be transformed into thanatopolitics, this may derive from the fact that the life here produced, namely, a zoë entirely separate from a bios,is a life destined to die, a life that has death inscribed into it from the very beginning. Stated in a positive manner, my hypothesis is that an affi rmative conception of the power of life requires conceiving of life as eternal, a zoë aionios that is not destined to die, that stands over mythical fate itself. (218)

Both Spinoza and Aristotle see in the idea of eternal life an aporia. Eternal life corresponds to the life of the mind or the contemplative life, but the human being is both capable of this form of life, because, like God, it is endowed with reason, but at the same time it is incapable of sustaining this form of life, because, unlike God, it is also endowed with a body, or, better, with a zoë.Any attempt to think about eternal life must come to terms with this aporia. In this essay I suggest that, to traverse this aporia, philosophy as a form of life must give up the “ascetic ideal,” which understands the body and zoëas its “tomb,” and, to the contrary, must begin to understand how it is that the body and zoë also philosophize. (220)

For Heidegger, to exist is to care about how one is going to live, and such a care makes no sense other than within the horizon of one’s imminent death. Th  us it appears as if Heidegger’s thesis is that a “true life” is only a life that affi rms its beingtowards-death, a life that is not lived carelessly but resolutely. Existing, in this sense, is caring about one’s life, not in the sense of preserving this life in its desire to persevere in existence, but by giving it a horizon of sense that this life cannot develop on its own. For that reason animal life is said by Heidegger to be “poor in world,” where world refers to the horizon of sense disclosed by Dasein. (221)

Th is force is later designated as “life” (vita), and the thesis is that the life of each thing is the immanent cause of each thing; that is, life is that whereby each thing remains withinGod, and likewise, nothing that God causes stands apart from God. (This is how Spinoza explains how God is both cause of itself and cause of other without contradiction: what takes away the contradiction is life itself as conatus.) (222)

I shall therefore call Spinoza’s account of life “providential” insofar as the struggle to keep alive that characterizes the duration of every being rests on something other than itself, namely, on the eternal life that perseveres in it and through which it receives what it struggles to preserve. Spinoza distinguishes in this context between a general and a particular providence: the former is “that through which all things are produced and sustained insofar as they are parts of the whole of Nature”; the latter “is the striving of each thing separately to preserve its existence” (ch. 5). Thus each thing can be conceived according to either general or particular providence. (224)

God’s particular providence is to favor the virtuous (as opposed to the weak); that is, God favors those beings that cultivate their power or capacity. Here “virtue” defines the form of life, the bios, of a life (zoë) that is divine and eternal. (224)

What a being must do is to live; what it can do is only what it must, namely, find a way to keep on living. Th e “must” here is to live or to act; the “can” corresponds to the power to act: no being can avoid expressing all its power in every one of its actions. (225)

Death is not the possibility that what exists, Dasein, ceases to exist at some point in time. Death is not an impossibility for Dasein as if it were the simple negation of possibility-for-being (Sein können). Rather, death is an affi rmative power of existence: dying is a being-able, but what it is able to do in dying is nothing, nothing actual, no action. Thus dying is not the power not to have power ( for this is merely contradictory), but it is the power or ability to be nothing (“being-able-not-to-be-there”). This means that, considered as a possibility, dying gives “nothing” to Dasein’s capacityto-be: dying gives Dasein nothing to be. (231)

But the phrase “it is impossible to be nothing” should be understood affi rmatively. As such, and in a first sense, it can mean that Daseinhas only its Self to be; it does not have other selves or other things for it to be. In a second sense, death discloses that for such a Self “nothing is impossible.” In both senses, death as the possibility of an impossibility is the ultimate “enabler” of existence. (231)

[…] Agamben seems intent on giving a description of Aristotle’s ontology that is as close as possible to Heidegger’s doctrine of being-towards-death, understood as revealing not only Dasein’s most proper possibility but also the true structure of being as such (qua temporality). Not surprisingly, Agamben gives his account of potentiality the status of an “existential”: “other living beings are capable only of their specific potentiality; they can only do this or that. But human beings are the animals who are capable of their own impotentiality” (182). This replicates Heidegger’s claim that only human beings can die, whereas all other animals merely perish. (235)

Agamben rejects the common sense interpretation of this passage, namely, that if it is not impossible for someone to do X, then it is within their potential to do X. Instead he claims that the potentiality which will not remain impotential when the potentiality passes into action refers to the potential of not-acting (the adynamia) that shadows every potential of acting. Th  us, on his reading, every potential of doing something not only entails having the potential of not-doing something but, additionally, of “acting” out this potential of not-doing in the action itself. (236)

Th e important question in this context is why Agamben, following Deleuze, identifies the point where biological life touches and fuses into contemplative life in the phenomenonof metabolism, of nutrition, rather than in the phenomenon of perception (correspondingto animal life). My hypothesis is that metabolism and contemplation, which are apparently entirely opposed capacities, in reality coincide one with the other because both reflect the dependence of mortal life on God’s life, on the basis of which an eternal life is conceivable. Th  inking about life from the perspective of metabolism as the fundamental phenomenon of life is the essential feature of what I have been calling the “providential conception of life.” (238)

Th e point is here that in walking, it is not only I that am taking a walk, but—“at the same time” yet without any duration, and so virtually and sub species aeternitatis—it is the walking that has always already taken me along with it. Applied to the problem of immanence, this grammar suggests that, while God’s life is producing the essences with conatus,“at the same time” yet without duration and sub species aeternitatis or virtually, this life is also being taken along by its effects: they are in God to the extent that God is “immanentized” in them. (244)

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