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Eugene Thacker “Necrologies”

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)

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