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Didier Fassin “Another Politics of Life is Possible”

Fassin, Didier 2009. Another Politics of Life is Possible. Theory, Culture & Society 26(5): 44-60.

[…] I propose the following four statements: (1) ‘Governmentality’ corresponds to the rationalization of the ‘art of governing’ (2004a: 96) rather than the real practice of government: ‘politics’ as such is nothing more than the ‘game of these different ways of governing’ and the ‘debate they arouse’ (2004b: 317). (2) ‘Biopower’ is not so much a power over life as its opposition to the sover-eign right of death initially implied, but a power over human conduct: ‘the government of the living’ mainly refers to the normalization of individuals through political technologies (2004a). (3) ‘Biopolitics’ is not a politics of life as the etymology would suggest but a politics of population understood as a community of living beings: ‘life’ remains largely elusive while ‘popu-lation’ represents more and more clearly the true object of biopolitics (2004b). (4) As a consequence of the first three points, questions of life – and death – stay out of the picture in Michel Foucault’s theory of power and subject: life – and death – are matters too serious to be left to politics – and even to philosophy – one could say, to paraphrase Clemenceau’s famous sentence about war and generals. (45-46)

[…] his biopolitics is not a politics of life (Fassin, 2006). Neither life as bios nor life as  zoe was his main concern, but rather the way in which impersonal ‘living beings’ were turned into populations and individuals, how governmentality and subjectification shaped our modern vision of the world and of humanity. (47)

But it is only one possible exploration of the anthropology of life. Alter-native paths would refer to life as the course of events which occurs from birth to death, which can be shortened by political or structural violence, which can be prolonged by health and social policies, which gives place to cultural interpretations and moral decisions, which may be told or written – life which is lived through a body (not only through cells) and as a society (not only as species). I propose to name it ‘life as such’. Obviously it is related through many ramifications to ‘life itself’ if we use this expression to designate the biological existence of the living and its political extension as populations. (48)

I will thus propose four statements responding in some way to the four conclusions drawn earlier from his work: (1) Politics is not just a ‘game of arts of governing’ but is about ‘the issues at stake in the practices of govern-ment’ (in French: politics involves ‘enjeux’ even more than ‘jeux’): in other words, the matter of governing matters for governmentality. (2) Contemporary societies are characterized less by the emergence of biopower than by the imposition of biolegitimacy (it is the power of life as such rather than the ‘power over life’ as Foucault writes): what some have defined as ‘bio -logical citizenship’ enters this eformulation of the problematics. (3) Etymo-logically apprehended biopolitics is not merely a politics of population but is about life and more specifically about inequalities in life which we could call bio-inequalities (curiously ‘inequality’ is a word that never appears in Foucault’s writings): it is about not only normalizing people’s lives, but also deciding the sort of life people may or may not live. (4) Finally, as a result of the first three statements, to comprehend the politics of life implies a return to two concepts Foucault avoided, but which Gilles Deleuze (1962: 1) – with whom he broke at the end of his life – gave as the ultimate project of Nietzsche’s philosophy: ‘meaning and value’. This is probably the only way to be faithful to a great thinker: to enter his thought in order to criti-cize it. (48-49)

A Kenyan man who had stayed in France and Germany for many years in an illegal situation, living under the permanent threat of being expelled, finally received his documents when he was discovered to be suffering from AIDS: ‘It is the disease which kills me that has become my reason for living now’, he once told me. The concept of biological citizenship allows us to think this sort of situation in a more accurate way than would do the concept of ‘bare life’ proposed by Giorgio Agamben (1997). It links the matter of the living (biological, whether as an irradiated or infected body) and the meaning of politics (citizenship, in terms of social as well as civil rights, since the migrants not only get access to medical protection but also obtain the freedom of movement, for instance). (51)

Talking of biolegitimacy rather than biopower is thus to emphasize the construction of the meaning and values of life instead of the exercise of forces and strategies to control it. Considering politics beyond governmen-tality is similarly to insist on the issues involved in the way human beings are treated and their lives are evaluated more than on the technologies at work in these processes. To use the Foucauldian metaphor, it is moving from the ‘rules of the game’ to its stakes. (52)

What ‘to reject into death’ means is not entirely clear in Foucault’s writings. When he relates it to the ‘disqualification of death which marks the recent wane of the rituals that accompanied it’, he seems to be merely borrowing from Philippe Ariès’ thesis developed during the same period (1977). But there might be more to it. If ‘now it is over life that power establishes its domination’, one may think that ‘death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it, and becomes the most secret aspect of existence’. The implication is that there is no politics of life that does not have a politics of death for a horizon. But this horizon remains invisible, occluded. (52-53)