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Jeffrey T. Nealon “The Archaeology of Biopower”

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Nealon, Jeffrey T. 2016. The Archaeology of Biopower: From Plant to Animal Life in The Order of Things. – Cisney, Vernon W.; Morar, Nicolae (eds). Biopower: Foucault and Beyond. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 138-155.

If discipline forged an enabling link between subjective aptitude and docility, biopower forges an analogous link between the individual’s life and the life of the socius: the only thing that we as biopolitical subjects have in common, one might say, is that we are all individuals, charged with the task of creating and maintaining our lives. (139)

At the dawn of the nineteenth century […] Foucault traces a mutation of the dominant epistemic procedures – from a representational discourse that maps external similitude and resemblance, to the emergence of a speculative discourse that takes as its object hidden internal processes. In short, we see emerge a discourse that „opposed historical knowledge of the visible to philosophical knowledge of the invisible“ (OT 138): knowledge’s privileged practices abandon the surface of objects to plumb their hidden depths instead. And first and foremost among those transcendental „invisibles“ was a little thing we like to call „life“: „The naturalist is the man concerned with the structure of the visible world and its denomination according to characters. Not with life“ (OT 161), Foucault insists, because life is not representable. Life is in fact a kind of unplumbable depth, animating the organism from a hidden origin somewhere within. This birth of biology – which is to say, the emergence of „life“ itself as a bearing area for discursive power and a depth to be explored – constitutes the first birth of biopower, this one in Foucault’s work of the mid-1960s. (143-144)

In short, Foucault argues that with the emergence of the human sciences at the birth of biopower, the animal is not excluded or forgotten, but quite the opposite: animality comprises the dominant apparatus for investigation both what life is and what life does. The living is no longer primarily vegetable (sessile and awaiting mere categorization), but understood as evolving, appetite-drive, secret, discontinuous, mendacious, inscrutable, always on the prowl, looking for an opening to break free. As Foucault puts it, „Transferring its most secret essence from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, life has left the tabulated spac of order and became wild once more“ (OT 277). (145)

Foucault, of course, parts ethical company from Derrida […] around the binary pathos of „totalization or non-totalization“, which constitutes nearly the whole field of ethics in a deconstructive context: if totalization or the violent desire for completion can be disrupted, if an originary différance of undecidability can be mobilized and demonstrated, then some positive deconstructive work has been accomplished. However, such a supposedly ethical gesture toward the unfathomable or untotalizable other, as Foucault will insist throughout his work, poses no essential question (ethical or otherwise) to the human sciences because those contemporary sciences do not require or even desire totalization. As Foucault demonstrates in his work on the emergence of life in Europe, the Western human sciences need constantly to refashion an unfathomable depth, and inexhaustible other, so they can continue to do their work. The insistence on the primacy of some nontotalizable „other“ does not cripple the human sciences, but rather constitutes an essential component of their work: as Foucault concisely puts it, „an unveiling of the non-conscious is constitutive of all the sciences of man“ (OT 364). (149-150)

(Economics, for example, does not know what value is any more than theology knows what God is or biology knows what life is – that is why you have a robust discourse to study it.) So the trading-places game of ethical alterity – the nonhuman other is best figured as the unconscious, the animal, the plant, the earth, the robot, and so forth – tends primarily to extend and deepen the constitutive work of the human sciences (the production of undecidability, which in turn produces more commentary), rather than to disrupt that work in some essential way. (150)

This, then, is Agamben’s „correction“ of Foucault: Agamben rejects the idea that power has become more subtle and effective, suffused through our everyday lives (even in our sexuality and our everyday consumer existence); he argues instead that power remains sovereign, brutal, literally animalizing its others so they can be eradicated. We in the first-world West live not in a panopticon or in an endless marketplace, but in a concentration camp. (151)

[…] when Foucault insists that there is an „animalization of man“ involved in biopower’s birth and functioning, he mean quite literally: we have incorporated the beast into the contemporary biopolitical definition of „man“ as endless, unthematizable animal desire, with the practices of sexuality and neoliberal capitalism its two most intense markings in the present. […] For Agamben, on the other hand, bestialization constitutes less a contemporary set of practices or a historical phenomenon and remains primarily a transhistorical metaphor or simile for the human condition, as are (despite Agamben’s protests to the contrary) his emphasis on the concentration camp or sovereign power. For Agamben, twenty-first-century Western society is like a concentration camp or like an absolute monarchy; we are treated like animals when we have to surrender our DNA or fingerprints. (152)

[…] sovereign power, while notoriously difficult (if not impossible) to resist, tends to be relatively easy to spot, diagnose, and denounce: in short, someone else is always wielding „sovereign power“. On the other hand, the biopolitics of „making live and letting die“ is a regime in which all of us are implicated: who gets health care and who doesn’t? (153)