Archive for November, 2016

Eugene Thacker “Necrologies”

November 28, 2016 Leave a comment

Thacker, Eugene 2011. Necrologies; or, the Death of the Body Politic. – Ticineto Clough, Patricia; Willse, Craig (eds). Beyond Biopolitics. Essays on the Governance of Life and Death. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 139–162.


While we will not simply reduce biopolitics to the body politic, we will also question the presupposition that today our political ontologies have somehow gone beyond the conceptual framework of the body politic. (139)


To call the body politic concept a metaphor doesn’t quite do justice to the way a great number of

political treatises take the concept at face value. Again and again, we find specific comparisons made between the human body and political order, as if the basis for legitimacy in the latter depended on the coherence of the understanding of the former. (140)


[…] the body politic in Plato is divided into three sections, the sovereign head (the reasoning part), auxiliaries and soldiers in the heart or chest (the impassioned part), and the peasantry and laypeople in the nether regions of the groin (the animal part). (141)


We begin with a first principle: the body politic is a response to the challenge of thinking about political order. Put another way: a minimal congruity between order as natural and artificial (political) is the a priori of the body politic concept. Thus the body politic is a way of thinking about politics as a living, vital order. It is a living, vital orderinsofar as it is defined within an ontology of the one and the many, of wholes and parts, and of the relation between the natural and the artificial. And it is a living, vital order insofar as it posits a correlation between the natural world and political order, either to say that the natural world is divinely ordered (as we find in Augustine), or to argue that political order is built upon a “natural law” (as we find in Hobbes and Spinoza). (143)


However, to simply posit politics as a certain combination of the living and the ordered is not enough, for it is the way in which this relation is formulated that is important. This takes place through a figure, one that presupposes a certain correlation between “life” and “politics.” Thus, a second principle: the foundation for the intelligibility of political order is based on an analogy between the body natural and the body politic. The former is said to preexist the latter, and often serves as its model; it is essential that the latter governs, manages, and regulates the former. Moreover, the body natural is often taken as the basic, individual, atomic unit of human life, which is then extrapolated to a metaindividual level for collective political existence. In a sense, the challenge of political thought is the correlation between the body natural and the body politic, for the two never exactly coincide. (143)


These criteria—unity, hierarchy, and centralization—are coupled to a narrative form, one that articulates the “constitution” of the body politic, both in terms of an account of the origins (and thus the legitimacy) of the body politic, and also in terms of that which guarantees the coherence of the body politic through time. The body politic is therefore conserved through a narrative of constitution. (144)


Even though the body politic concept may entail a narrative of constitution or origin, this in no way means that the concept of the body politic itself precedes an actual political regime. In fact, the opposite is often the case, which brings us to a third principle: the body politic is ontologically expressed retroactively in the terms of political theology. The body politic analogy is employed in order to justify or legitimize a de facto political order—that is, to justify a particular ontological relation between “life” and “order.” (145)


Insofar as the body politic concept serves to legitimize a given political order, this would not be far from the case. But it is also important to stress the many internal tensions, inconsistencies, and curious permutations that the body politic undergoes, especially in the context of political theology. Thus a fourth principle: the concept of the body politic entails the creation of a logically coherent monstrosity. This is not to say that the body politic—like Roberto Esposito’s description of biopolitics—is, in an “immunitary” fashion, dependent on that which negates it. In many of the early modern debates, there is little concern for boundary management and forms of immunization. Rather, it suggests that the concept of the body politic, raised as it is to address a problem of political ontology, often entails the creation of aberrant logics—that is, modes of thinking that make sense logically but that result in an image of the body politic that can only be described as teratological. (146)


Limbs multiply or are cut off, the mouth and anus become mirrors of each other, and the lowest parts partake of the divine. As such, the body politic is not a single, unified concept but one that constantly rises, falls, and is brought back to life again. It is a concept predicated on variations, permutations, and recombinations, like so many interchangeable, anatomical parts. The debates that preoccupied late medieval scholasticism were not simply debates over church and state; they were a set of attempts to resolve the tension between head and body, sometimes with rather bizarre, teratological implications. (147)


What, then, is the body politic concept? The body politic is a response to the challenge of thinking about political order (as a living, vital order). It is formally based on an analogy between the body natural and the body politic (through a narrative stressing unity, hierarchy, and vitalism). This formal relation is historically expressed in terms of political theology (and the questions of sovereignty and the “two natures”). And, despite this formal coherence, it is also a concept defined through its failure (that is, its internal tensions and corporeal variations). We have begun by talking about political order and have ended by talking about corporeal permutation, monstrosity, and headless corpses. (147)


Hobbes, in whom we find a sort of culmination of the Platonic polis and the medieval corpus mysticum, carries the analogy to its logical (and bio- logical) conclusion. The body politic is not only constituted through natural law and the contract; it must also confront—and must continually confront—the immanent possibility of its dissolution. (149)


And this pathology of the body politic was in place far in advance of the modern discourse of immunology and its tropes of boundary management. Such formulations pose the possibility that the very structure of the body politic itself articulates a countermovement that is its own undoing. Thus, to our previous principles, we can add another: the body politic implicates a medical ontology that it is nevertheless always attempting to supercede. (150)


This analogy—between body natural and body politic—opens onto another, equally fundamental analogy, one between the physician and the ruler, between doctor and sovereign. (150)


Thus, while the body politic is certainly not exclusively a medical affair, this  sort  of  medical  ontology  forms  its  central  problematic.  The  medicalized view of the body politic is thus that beyond which the body politic must always move, but that without which the body politic cannot be thought as such. (151)


Every attempt to formulate the constitution of the body politic must also confront its dissolution—and this is inscribed and perhaps even prescribed within the body politic’s structure itself. The body politic is constituted on its dissolution, the shaping of a collective, living body that always exists in relation to the corpse (nekros). We might therefore call the study of such phenomena a “necrology” of the body politic. (151)


But is the thing we call the body politic actually, and not just figuratively, living? Is it not made up of the many bodies that form a single body? Is it not the actual life of the multitude of members that serves as the ground for the body politic analogy itself ? At what point does the figurative collapse into the literal? In short, what happens when the analogy of the body politic itself collapses, becomes pathological, or undergoes decomposition? (152)


If we again take up the overarching question—of what happens when the figure of the body politic itself collapses—what is at stake is not just medicalization or public health, but the tension at the heart of political theology—the question of sovereignty and the question of the “two natures.” The end of the body politic—both in terms of its aim, but also its more eschatological

end—is its ability to effortlessly move between claims that are political and claims that are, in effect, medical. (153)


In the “problem of multiplicities” presented to the body  politic  concept  by  plague,  pestilence,  and  epidemic,  multiplicity  is never separate from, and is always inculcated within, the problem of sovereignty. Perhaps we can say that multiplicity is the disease of the body politic. Or, alternately, it is multiplicity that plagues the body politic. (154)

Roberto Esposito “The Dispositif of the Person”

November 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Esposito, Roberto 2012. The Dispositif of the Person. Law, Culture and the Humanities 8(1): 17–30.


The concept of person functions as the crucial passage through which a biological material lacking in meaning becomes something intangible. Only a life that has crossed beforehand through the symbolic door of the person is believed to be sacred or is to be valued in terms of its qualities since only life is able to produce the proper credentials of a person. (18)


When we move, however, from the doubled nature of Christ to what makes man a totality composed of soul and body, the qualitative difference between the two elements becomes decisive. Rather than being equal, these elements are actualized in an ordering [disposizione] or more precisely in a dispositifthat layers or superimposes one under the other. Such an hierarchic effect, which is quite clear in Saint Augustine, extends to all Christian doctrine so that there cannot be the least doubt: although the body isn’t in itself something evil (because it too is a divine creation), nevertheless it constitutes that part of man which is animal. (20-21)


It’s here in the essential indistinction between the two figures of subject and object, of subjectivization [soggetivazione] and subjection [assoggettamento] that we find the particular role and function of the dispositifof the person. That role is precisely to divide a living being into two natures made up of different qualities – the one subjugated to the mastery of the other – and thus to create subjectivity through a process of subjection or objectivization. (21)


The exceptional force of Roman law, understood here in its totality, regardless of how much it changed over time, lies precisely in having founded this dialectic systematically in such unparalleled fashion. At its centre is the notion of person, pushed to its limits, so as to encompass even what is otherwise declared to be a thing (as in the case of the slave), so as to be able to subdivide the human species into an infinite series of typologies, each of which is awarded different statutes. (23)


[…] the mechanism of depersonalization is the reverse of personalization and vice-versa. It isn’t possible to personalize someone without depersonalizing or reifying others, without pushing someone over into the indefinite space that opens like a kind a trap door below the person. Silhouetted against the moving backdrop of the person looms the inert figure of the thing. (24)


We should also note that from the end of the 18th century on, men are declared equal (at least in principle) as subjects of law [diritto]. Still the formal separation of different typologies of individuals, driven out from the domain of species, is transposed, so to speak within the single individual, and which is doubled across two different and layered spheres: one capable of reason and will and therefore fully human and the other reduced to biology, practically assimilated to the animal. While the first, called person, is considered to be the center of juridical imputation, the second, coinciding with the body, constitutes on the one hand the required layer and on the other hand a piece of property akin to an internal slave. (25)


While in Descartes the earlier distinction between res cogitans and res extensa establishes an unbreakable line of separation between the subject and the  body proper, the liberal tradition, from Locke to Mill, will want to award the mastery of the body to its legitimate owner; to him that inhabits it. Inevitably they will force the body to cross over into the domain of the thing: man is not, but has, and possesses his own body and obviously he can do with it what he will. (25)


[dispositif of the person]: a remnant [resto] not subject to historical transformations that are reproduced again and again even if the context is completely different. (26)


More than anyone else Weil sets out with remarkable clarity the dehumanizing function of the mask of the person; once the mask is made safe, it doesn’t matter what happens to the face on which it rests and even less to the faces that do not own masks; to those who still aren’t persons, or who are no longer persons, or to those who were never declared to be persons. It is the absolute lucidness of this point of view, one ignored by all the personalisms of yesterday and today (precisely because it challenges a platitude), that pushes Weil towards the impersonal. (30)

Timothy Campbell “”Enough of a Self”: Esposito’s Impersonal Biopolitics”

November 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Campbell, Timothy 2012. “Enough of a Self”: Esposito’s Impersonal Biopolitics. Law, Culture and the Humanities 8(1): 31-46.


It is Weber’s reading that shares the most with Esposito’s perspective. Both see charisma as a fundamental biopolitical operator, one that separates ordinary people from extraordinary individuals. But where Weber distinguishes charisma as what marks the extraordinary “personality,” Esposito will transfer the personal difference separating “ordinary people” from “extraordinary individuals” onto the individual in question. It is this shift of grace towards the individual and the subjugation that grace performs over the other half that signals where a critique of neo-liberalism might be elaborated. Consider briefly for instance the question of where secularized forms of grace today are found in liberal democracies and the answer increasingly will be thought with the ultimate awarder of grace, namely the market. With more time it would certainly be profitable to read Foucault’s critique of neo-liberalism in this key, especially the degree to which his critique of ordo-liberalism in German and neo-liberalism in the United States after World War Two depend upon the workings of the dispositifof the person that allow individuals to see (and sell) their own bodies as possible reserves of “human capital,”

that is as persons able to mine and harvest their animal halves thanks to the grace portioned out by the market. The first layer of thanatopolitics in contemporary biopower will be found in the separation that the dispositifenacts over man and in particular in separating what properly and improperly belongs to him as a person thanks to neoliberalism’s appropriation of grace. (39)


For Esposito, thanatopolitics will not consist in the attempt to turn persons into things (or people into populations, paceFoucault and Agamben, or even into animals), but rather in the attempt to fuse the person and thing, to make them coextensive in a living being. This thing for Esposito is understood to be the body, the biological material that is both person and thing, the person as biological thing. (40)


In the case of liberalism, the separation that the dispositifof the person institutes between person and what belongs improperly to the body is what allows an individual to incorporate the body as living object in order to donate organs for instance, or to oversee and manage the body as human capital; all in the name of an expansion of individual liberty premised on the possibility of administering forms of thingness on the living being that prosthetically connects to a proper, personal identity. (41)


For Esposito contemporary liberalism’s dispositifof the person represents a powerful mode by which an individual harvests his or her own biopower through a process of potentializing his or her second nature; to use the body as a biological material (or living thing) in a reverse zero sum game; through a split between natures brought on by the dispositifitself that is itself productive. That is exactly the sense with which Esposito speaks of a “liberatory function,” here though in the service of an expansion of individual biopower. (41)


This latter possibility of sleepwalking through a precarious future suggests that personhood today is often made or unmade in an instant, creating regimes of persons, semi-persons, and non-persons. Here medicine obviously plays a crucial role for the ability to medicalize larger populations will depend upon the ability of governments and businesses to have created conditions in which it becomes easier for the individual to be personalized. Medicalization in turn will lay out in front of each individual the possibilities for future personhood in ways that give the lie to the truth of the market. The dissemination of antidepressants for instance creates and requires a massive personalization of individuals as a number of recent essays have shown. Increasingly, it is thanks to personalization that one’s own individual biopower can be tapped under contemporary neo-liberal regimes. (42)


The question is how (and where) can institutions so embedded in contemporary thanatopolitics locate an accomplice if the person is not where he or she was assumed to be. Where the person is not available, a supporting structure, perhaps the supporting structure for thanatopolitics, will be less available as well. An accompanying effect would be a weakening of the various thresholds of personhood premised on the division between human and animal, organic and inorganic and hence a weakening of biopower. (44)


The personal self appears as a much intense form of such a self (or ego in Freud’s formulation) to the degree that self-preservation is experienced more intensely and more broadly than in previous iterations of the self given precisely neo-liberalism’s appropriation of the self under cover of the person. The impersonal isn’t simply the negation of the personal, but rather an affirmation of the possibility of hybridity and copresence to the degree it favors and enables copresence. In other words, the impersonal short-circuits self-defenses by bringing the outside in. (46)

Maria Muhle “A Genealogy of Biopolitics”

November 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Muhle, Maria 2014. A Geneaology of Biopolitics: The Notion of Life in Canguilhem and Foucault. – Lemm, Vanessa; Vatter, Miguel (eds). The Government of Life. Foucault, Biopolitics and Neoliberalism. New York: Fordham University Press, 77-97.


[…] either the analysis of biopower is structurally linked to an analysis of the regime of politics as a permanent state of exception, or it is subtended with a “positive” politics of life that thwarts the negative” power over life. Roberto Esposito calls this polarity of the notion of biopolitics an “insurmountable oscillation” between a positive and productive reading of the relation between politics and life and another negative and tragic reading implied by Foucault’s writing itself. While the latter interpretation awards life with an intrinsic power that resists biopower, such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt propose, the former, proposed by Giorgio Agamben, radicalizes the thanato- political aspect in the notion of “bare life.” (78)


Foucault operates with a notion of life that he does not determine: life is a correlate of the techniques and strategies of power and knowledge. It lacks any ontological status and is itself “produced” by the power–knowledge constellation, or, to use the famous formula of The Order of Things, life emergesin the passage between natural history and biology, that is, in the epistemic break which occurs around 1800. This episteme emerges because of an archeological dislocation

that introduces the notion of “or ga niza tion” as fundamental to the study of the living and replaces the “tableau” of natural history by the constitutive opposition between the organic (the living) and the inorganic. This archeological dislocation permits to think of life as fundamentally dynamic: life is the polarity or tension between the two poles of the organic and the inorganic. It is here, Foucault explains, that a definition of life through death, that is, as “re sis tance to death”— such as the French anatomist and physiologist Xavier Bichat has proposed— becomes thinkable. Life— one could say paraphrasing and transposing Canguilhem’s definition of the normal— is a dynamic and thus a polemical notion, since it is formed in the tension between these different poles; it is a polar movement between tendencies of self- preservation and tendencies of self- transgression. (80)


The biopo liti cal body produced by the sovereign power is identified with this bare life, zoe, that according to Aristotle is distinguished from qualifi ed life, bios. Bare life, in Agamben’s understanding, would then be the transcendental origin of modern politics and there would not be any structural difference (even though there are historical differences) between the functioning of sovereign power and the biopo liti cal techniques. Bare life is the negation of any qualification, and therefore it is a transhistorical notion, an ontological category. Instead of tracing the discontinuities in the succession of the forms of power and knowledge, Agamben pretends to reveal the hidden or invisible elements that determine everyform of power latently. (83)


The articulation of power that governs the living thus supposes a knowledge of the living. In the epistemic conjuncture in which biopolitics emerges, this knowledge is articulated by medicine and biology at the beginning of the nineteenth century, both of which are related to a specific vitalist thought. Life is defined through its fundamental variability, through its possibility of deviation and error. And it is in this deviation or erring that life appears as fundamentally living, as bearing a vital dynamics. What is at play here is thus a dynamicnotion of life that nevertheless is not subsumable under a mere teleology of the organic as Kant suggests in the modus of the “as if,” nor a specific vitalist conception of the dynamics of life as an unitarian principle. At stake is the understanding of life as fundamentally dynamic anderratic, life as polarized between different dynamics of the living— the self- preservation of the organic and the self- creation of the vital that goes beyond the mere preservation of an organic equilibrium. The movement of self- creation is not to be disconnected from the self- preservative movement: life, as it becomes thematized around 1800, is neither pure transgression nor pure self- preservation, but defines itself in the tension between these two. (84)


For Canguilhem, Bichat’s major merit consists in having acknowledged the productivity of the irregularities, of the fallibilities of life, in short, of the “negative dimension”— the negative vital values such as anomaly, illness, death—for the living. (85)


Canguilhem thus adopts at once from Bichat the epistemological thesis that the knowledge of life is based on the analysis of the morbid phenomena— life is only acknowledgeable through its errors, which refer every living being to its constitutive imperfection and incompleteness, and the determination of life as a dynamic that tends to a “natural type,” to a norm. (85)


The value of life, that is, life as value, life in its inner normativity, is thus founded on its own uncertainty or precariousness (précarité). The normative dynamics of life unfold between the two poles: the preservation of the internal organic equilibrium (of the milieu intérieur in Claude Bernard’s words), and the permanent challenge to this very equilibrium. (85)


Against this background, the main hypothesis of this article is that in order to govern life, the forms of biopower imitateor mimetizethe proper dynamics of life, that is, its polarity between life and death, or between auto-transgression and auto- conservation, between the normal (one should read normative) and the pathological. Life has thus to be understood in a double sense, as the objectof post- sovereign techniques of power, and, in its dynamical dimension, as their operational model. (86)


Hence the biopolitical– governmental techniques adopt the internal logic of life as the model of their proper dynamics and establish a relation of internal exterioritywith the vital phenomena. The norms of biopower operate as ifthey were vital, that is, they adopt the vital functioning of the pro cesses of life as their model and exteriorize them in the social norms. This hypothesis can be accounted for through two main notions that Foucault introduces in his biopo liti cal analysis: the “population” and the “milieu” that both have a specific constitution since they both operate at the intersection between the natural and the artificial, the organic (living) and the inorganic (physical), the vital and the social elements. It is in the production of a population and of a milieu as natural–artificial phenomena that life becomes governable. (87)


In this sense, even the formulation “power over life” that Foucault introduces in The History of Sexuality: Volume Imay appear ambiguous since it supposes an exteriority between the processes of life and power. It is not until the lectures on governmentality that this ambiguity will be completely resolved in what I have been calling the amplified notion of biopolitics; that is, in a form of power that is always internally linked to life both as its object and its functional model: a government of life. (87)


When taking seriously the central hypothesis of the present text— that a reformulated and amplified notion of biopolitics is one whose techniques refer to life in two ways, taking it not only as its object, but also as its functional model — we can state that the biopo liti cal norms not only applyto the phenomena of life but moreover that they mimetizeits dynamics, that is, its normativity such as Canguilhem presents it. (88)


The modus operandiof the “new,” post- sovereign techniques of power is to frame the hazardous play, the vital dynamics, the aleatory of life in the general population. They do so without repression or negation of the phenomena themselves, by allowing for an apparent freedom, that nevertheless needs to remain within specific limits that even though they can be very wide, are not to be exceeded: the post- sovereign techniques of power pathologizelife’s vital normativity in the way Canguilhem has defined it, by reducing it to normality. (91)


Life is no longer perceived as fundamentally negative, insufficient, and needy, but as a positive dynamic that power mechanisms can adopt in order to govern the living more efficiently. It is not life itself that becomes the object of biopower, but the biological link of the living (the population) to the materiality within which it exists, that is, its hybrid constitution that oscillates between the biological, natural, living dimension and the permeability to an artificial, social, and material manipulation within the milieu, a manipulation through power that appears as ifit was natural. (92-93)


To conclude, it is thus possible to affirm, from an epistemic perspective, that the techniques of biopolitics participate in the very movement of redefinition of the notion of life. They do not “confront” themselves to a life that exists beyond its historical constellations of power–knowledge, but they “invade” a life that is saturated with these very techniques and constellations, a correlative life, that consequently lacks an ontological status, a life that is undetermined and open to determinations and normalizations from the outside: a hybrid, natural– artificial life. Consequently it is not only the conditions of possibility of a biologythat appear around 1800, but also the conditions of possibility of a biopolitics. (93)

Bruce Braun “Biopolitics and the Molecularization of Life”

November 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Braun, Bruce 2007. Biopolitics and the Molecularization of Life. Cultural Geographies 14(1): 6–28.


On the one hand, I will argue that Rose relies on a singular and somewhat simplistic account of what has transpired with the rise of molecular biology and genetics; namely, that the body has come to be figured in terms of a genetic cod that belongs to the individual alone – its own ‘proper’, so to speak, which is both its own property, and that which forms the basis for its life. For Rose, the individual self and the genetic body coincide; the body is conceived as a bounded entity whose molecular existence is internal to it […] (7)


It is here, at the intersection of the molecularization of life with the individualization of risk, that Rose locates ethopolitics as the dominant biopolitical regime of the present. […] Risk becomes ‘individualized’; the individual becomes ‘intrinsically somatic’; and ethical practices ‘increasingly take the body as a key site for work on the self’. (11)


Is the body really the bounded and autonomous entity that Rose makes it out to be, constituted only in terms of an internal genetic essence that is its own ‘proper’, and that contains its future within it? […] at the same time that molecular biology and genetics have given us a body known at the molecular scale, and thus made the physical mechanisms of ‘life’ available to political and economic calculation in new ways, they have also, in conjunction with the science of immunology and virology, given us another way to conceive of our biological existence, no longer in terms of a self-contained body whose genetic inheritance is to be managed and improved, but in terms of a body embedded in a chaotic and unpredictable molecular world, a body understood in terms of a general economy of exchange and circulation, haunted by the spectre of newly emerging or still unspecifiable risks. […] This conjunction of biopolitics and geopolitics, of the molecularized body and the question of biosecurity, finds no place in Rose’s ethopolitics […] (14)


For Massumi the ‘virtual’ has a precise meaning, taken from Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze. It refers not to a nonexistent or immaterial entity, as in popular usage, but to a potentiality that is immanent in every object and in every situation. Unlike the ‘possible’, which is opposed to the real, the virtual is real, which is to say that it exists as concretely in the present. It is immaterial yet real, abstract yet concrete, a ‘future to come’ that is already with us, but which remains ungraspable. (17)


[biosecurity]: a set of political technologies that seek to govern biological disorder in the name of a particular community, through acts that are extraterritorial. Or, to say this differently, biosecurity under the auspices of the CDC and HHS retains the ideal of territoriality while simultaneously seizing on deterritorialization as the solution. (22)

Jörg Niewöhner “Epigenetics: Embedded bodies and the molecularisation of biography and milieu”

November 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Niewöhner, Jörg 2011. Epigenetics: Embedded bodies and the molecularisation of biography and milieu. BioSocieties 6(3): 279–298.


[…] epigenetics refers to long-term functional change in gene expression through methylation or histone modification and not involving the DNA nucleotide sequence itself […] (279)


[…] the emphasis in environmental epigenetics lies primarily in the integration of different levels of context into experimental designs. Environmental epigenetics adds to the longt-standing interest in cellular context a focus on organismic and environmental contexts. (283)


Although note that all transgenerational studies so far show that epigenetic modifications persist only to the generation that has been exposed directly to the stimulus – or be it as effecting germline cells in the foetus. Attempts to show effects in the first generation not directly exposed have produced negative results (Waterland et al. 2007). (284)


Initial and yet as unpublished findings indicate that methylation status at a number of sites changes more within subjects that have experienced a change in their socio-economic status from birth to their 40th birthday compared to subjects that retain the same status – even if that is a low status. Thus, epigenetic modification may be more sensitive to relative change than to a low socio-economic status in absolute terms. (285)


The epistemic object early-life adversity anchors ongoing environmental epigenetics research by providing important links to behavioural psychology and the work with standardized animal behavioural models (for example, Tolman, 1948; Denenberg and Rosenberg, 1967) to the concept of critical windows of increased plasticity, that is, the idea that the body goes through phases of increased sensitivity towards internal and external change, which finds strong support in the conceptual work and research practice of cellular and developmental biology, epidemiology, psychology an lately neurosciences; and, through the notion of adversity, to the extensive research from the late 1920s onwards on the effects of chronic stressors in allostatic load. (289)


Eearly-life adversity is stabilized as an epistemic object in daily research practice through standardized animal behavioural models that act as ‘reified theory’, for example, that reduce the messiness of environmental context in a way suitable for lab work (Latour and Woolgar, 1986) […] (289)


[…] ‘embedded body’, that is, a body that is heavily impregnated by its own past and by the social and material environment within which it dwells. It is a body that is imprinted by evolutionary and transgenerational time, by ‘early-life’ and a body that is highly susceptible to changes in its social and material environment (Niewöhner, 20008, 2011). This notion of the body differs significantly from the individual body with its notion of skin-bound self and autonomy (Bentley, 1941). (290)


Hence, the environment is being molecularised, that is, comes to be known in its molecular effect on human metabolism. In the case of nutrigenomics, the concern lies with the material environment. Environmental epigenetics extends this kind of molecularisation in space and time to include socio-material environments and people’s lifespans: a molecularisation of biography and milieu. Key to this development are changes in molecular biological research practice and experimental design. The emergence of methylation and histone modification as a plausible mode of action and a measurable molecular endpoint means that some molecular biologists begin to extend their gaze from the molecular level and the lab towards suitable objects of study out in the real world. They are trying to figure out instances of rapid change in the social environment that have occurred during an organism’s early-life. (291)


[…] the attempt to operationalise instances of social change according to criteria taken from the practice of molecular biological research. This is the process that I refer to as the molecularisation of biography and milieu. (291)


Environmental epigenetics captures life itself not only in its presentist and individualist shape but also in different socio-historical contexts. Beyond this new reach of biopower, the molecularisation of biography and milieu may also provide the conceptual grounds for a different kind of sociality. (292)

Rosi Braidotti “The Politics of “Life Itself” and New Ways of Dying”

November 15, 2016 Leave a comment

Braidotti, Rosi 2010. The Politics of “Life Itself” and New Ways of Dying. – Coole, Diana; Frost, Samantha (eds). New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 201–218.


Generally speaking, “the politics of life itself” refers to the extent to which the notion of biopower has emerged as an organizing principle for the proliferating discourses and practices that make technologically mediated “life” into a self-constituting entity. Living matter itself becomes the subject and not the object of inquiry, and this shift toward a biocentered perspective affects the very fiber and structure of social subjects. (201)


The matter of the body and the specific materiality of bodies have come to the fore with more prominence, for example, in stem-cell research and in everyday media-driven dissemination of “gene-centric” images and representations. Contemporary social and cultural examples of this shift are practices linked to genetic citizenship as a form of spectatorship, for instance, the visualizations of the life of genes in medical practices, popular culture, cinema, and advertising. […] Yet another example is the rhetoric of “life” or living matter in public debates from abortion and stem-cell research to new kinship and family structures. (201-202)


These social discourses about “life” are often taken as indicating the return of “real bodies” and real materiality: an ontology of presence after so much postmodernist deconstruction. I refer to this return of a neorealist practice of bodily materialism as matter-ialism, or radical neomaterialism. This trend has caused both the neoliberal and the neo-Kantian thinkers to be struck by high levels of anxiety about the sheer thinkability of the human future. Technology is central to this matter-ialistic debate. (202)


The corporeal site of subjectivity is simultaneously denied, in a fantasy of escape, and strengthened or reinforced. Anne Balsamo stresses the paradoxical concomitance of effects surrounding the new posthuman bodies as enabling a fantastic dream of immortality and control over life and death. “And yet, such beliefs about the technological future “life” of the body are complemented by a palpable fear of death and annihilation from uncontrollable and spectacular body-threats: antibiotic-resistant viruses, random contamination, flesh-eating bacteria.” (203)


Given that this concept of “the human” [self-reflexively in control of its life] was colonized by phallogocentrism, it has come to be identified with male, white, heterosexual, Christian, property-owning, standard-language-speaking citizens. Zoe marks the outside of this vision of the subject, in spite of the efforts of evolutionary theory to strike a new relationship to the nonhuman. Contemporary scientific practices have forced us to touch the bottom of some inhumanity that connects the human precisely in the immanence of its bodily materialism. With the genetic revolution, we can speak of a generalized “becoming infrahuman” of bios. The category of “bios” has cracked under the strain and has splintered into a web of interconnected “bits-of-life” effects. (208)


Life is experienced as inhuman because it is all too human, obscene because it lives on mindlessly. Are we not baffled by this scandal, this wonder, this zoe, that is to say, by an idea of life that exuberantly exceeds bios and supremely ignores logos? Are we not in awe of this piece of flesh called our “body”, of this aching meat called our “self” expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life? (208)


The position of zoe in Agamben’s system is analogous to the role and the location of language in psychoanalytic theory: it is the site of constitution or “capture” of the subject. This “capture” functions by positing – as an a posteriori construction – a prelinguistic dimension of subjectivity which is apprehended as “always already” lost and out of reach. Zoe – like the prediscursive in Lcan, the chora in Kristeva, and the maternal feminine of Irigaray – becomes for Agamben the ever-receding horizon of an alterity which has to be included as necessarily excluded in order to sustain the framing of the subject in the first place. This introduces a finitude as a constitutive element within the framework of subjectivity, which also fuels an affective political economy of loss and melancholia at the heart of the subject. (211)


Speaking from the position of an embodied and embedded female subject, I find the metaphysics of finitude to be a myopic way of putting the question of the limits of what we call “life”. It is not because Thanatos always wins out in the end that it should enjoy such conceptual high status. Death is overrated. The ultimate substraction is after all only another phase in a generative process. Too bad that the relentless generative powers of death require the suppression of that which is the nearest and dearest to me, namely myself, my own vital being-there. For the narcissistic human subject, as psychoanalysis teaches us, it is unthinkable that Life should go on without my being there. The process of confronting the thinkability of a Life that may not have “me” or any “human” at the center is actually a sobering and instructive process. I see this postanthropocentric shift as the start for an ethics of sustainability that aims at shifting the focus toward the positivity of zoe. As Hardt and Negri suggest, Agamben fails to identify the materialist and productive dimension of this concept, making it in fact indifferent. (212)