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Gordon Hull “Biopolitics Is Not (Primarily) About Life”

January 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Hull, Gordon 2013. Biopolitics Is Not (Primarily) About Life: On Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and Families. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 27(3): 322-335.

In what follows, I argue, first, that modern biopolitics is marked less by the entry of biological life into the polisthan by a new consideration of the form of life proper to humans. This is because Foucault’s interest is less in life itself as an object than it is in the techniques—the dispositives—through which “life” becomes an object of political knowledge/power. These techniques are essentially those of risk management, where contingent, aleatory, and stochastic events are treated in statistical terms. Second, in this regard, economics—and neoliberalism specifically—can be read as an attempt to provide an answer to what form of life is proper to humans. (322-323)

“Security mechanisms have to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings so as to optimize a state of life” (SMD 246); the goal is that these processes are “not disciplined, but regularized” (SMD 247). In a word, the point of biopolitics is the transformation of the aleatory into the stochastic, the statistically and governmentally tractable: “The phenomena addressed by biopolitics are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a population that exists over a period of time” (SMD 246). (325)

Agamben’s conclusion is backward: zoe is doubly subordinated to bios. On the one hand, the act of living is in the service of strengthening the state and productivity, but the existence of „population” is entirely dependent on the techniques used to visualize it; there is nothing “bare”
about this life. On the other hand, the polis comes to govern the oikos, which is to say that the family becomes an object of political concern. (325)

If biopolitics in the eighteenth century politicized the household, neoliberalism appears to politicize individual bodies by imposing a theory according to which Homo economicus is the bios most appropriate to people. One result is that “biological life” and “health” are increasingly informatic, managed not in terms of disease but as problems of self-entrepreneurship and risk assessment. From this vantage point, the putative separation of biopolitics and economics appears to depend on a dubious assumption that biological processes can be understood independently of their constitution as objects of knowledge. As Judith Butler argued in the case of sex and gender, this sort of separation is highly problematic. In the case of biopolitics, what this means is that we need to focus on biopolitics as a form of knowledge/power, not on its object. As knowledge/power, biopolitics is about the management of uncertainty through statistical risk. (329)

At the same time, the oikos as the supposedly depoliticized site of biology continues its dispersal. Not only has government become economic management, but the statistical techniques of population management are now to be applied to the household. Foucault proposes that emerging discourses about race and sexuality show the emergence of biopower; I would propose here that the possibility of IVF followed by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for BRCAcarriers shows its mutation under neoliberalism: for those whose existence becomes overdetermined by risk management, even the act of reproduction becomes something inseparable from and unintelligible outside of the biopolitical context in which it finds itself. (329)