Posts Tagged ‘biopolitics’

Ed Cohen “A Body Worth Defending”

October 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Cohen, Ed 2009. A Body Worth Defending. Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Introductory Ruminations

Despite our ready acceptance, however, immunity is not a natural choice of images for our ability to live as organisms among other organisms of various sizes and scales – nor is defense, for that matter. Instead, both terms derive from the ways that Western legal and political thinking accounts for the complex, difficult, and at times violent manner that humans live among other humans. (3)

[…] biological immunity as we know it does not exist until the late nineteenth century. Nor, for that matter, does the idea that organisms defend themselves at the cellular and molecular levels. For nearly two thousand years, immunity, a legal concept first conjured in ancient Rome, has functioned almost exclusively as a political and juridical term – and a profoundly important and historically overdetermined one at that. “Self-defense” also originates as a political concept, albeit a much newer one, emerging only 350 years ago in the course of the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes defines it as the first “natural right.” (4)

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, biomedicine fuses these two incredibly difficult, powerful, and yet very different (if not incongruous) political ideas into one, creating “immunity-as-defense.” It then transplants this new biopolitical hybrid into the living human body. (4)

[…] the modern body proffers a proper body, a proprietary body, a body whose well-bounded property grounds the legal and political rights of what C.B. Macpherson famously named “possessive individualism.” (7)

[…] until the end of the nineteenth century, the modern individual’s atomized body does not accord with prevailing scientific theories that apprehend living organisms as contiguous with, rather than fundamentally distinct from, their lifeworlds. Indeed, this book holds that only with the advent of biological immunity does a monadic modern body fully achieve its scientific and defensive apotheosis. (8)

With immunity as its avatar, modern biomedical dogma holds to the contrary that as organisms we vitally depend on a perpetual engagement against the world to maintain our integrity or indeed our selves. (8)

Immunity incarnates ideas about human being culled from modern politics, economics, law, philosophy, and science, which then belatedly achieve scientific status when immunity inoculates them into the living organism and thereby validates them as essentially “natural.” (8)

[…] we might characterize the transformations that European modernity incorporates by saying that they enable the essential metonym for the person to morph from immortal soul to mortal body. (9)

Modernity might thus appear as an ensemble of practices that literally incorporates – or incarnates – a historical paradox: modernity produces and reproduces humans as both natural and cultural, biological and social, empirical and transcendental, finite and infinite, insofar as it conjures the body as a hybrid biopolitical formation which we must have in order to be a person. (10)

[…] biopolitics names a “hybrid domain,” or a domain of hybridization. It makes visible and intelligible relations of force which, on the one hand, seek to distinguish biology and politics epistemologically and ontologically and, on the other, endeavor to mobilize “life” as a vital resource for, and target of, power. (15)

When it conceives immunity as its physiological doppelgänger in the last decads of the nineteenth century, medicine naturalizes this governmental project by proxy. According to the new bioscientific doxa, the organism’s own cells now seem to engage in the very warlike actions that the modern state itself enlists to protect its subjects’ lives as its most vital asset. […] by relegating defense to the organism’s interior, modern medicine transforms the body into the apotheosis of the modern. (22)

Today immunity informs us deeply: as organisms, as individuals, as citizens, as peoples, and as a species. In the wake of immunology, we no longer just live our politics, but our politics literally live in us. Conversely, the world in which we live has been recast according to this new “natural” order such that overtly political acts of violence and aggression can be interpreted immunologically […]. (31)

  1. Living Before and Beyond the Law, or A Reasonable Organism Defends Itself

[…] immunology’s enthusiastic investment in biochemical reductionism led it to devote itself almost single-mindedly to analyzing the biochemical events underlying specific antibody-antigen reactions throughout the first half of the twentieth century. As a consequence, it largely ignored the biological dynamics of cellular immunity from which it first emerged (i.e., Metchnikoff’s “phagocytosis”), which have become so interesting to immunology since then. Instead immunology so effectively promoted biomolecular specificity as its main object of interest that this paradigm became an overarching frame for much biomedical theorization during the period. […] the case of immunity, rather than simply applying reductionism as a bioscientific premise, instead provides one of its exemplary instances. Furthermore, by borrowing against its ancient juridico-political capital, immunity makes the “lawfulness” of such biochemical reductionism seem entirely natural. (48-49)

[…] we might say […] that immunity makes the law matter for biology and consequently makes biology a matter of law. (49)

If property supposes dominium and dominium implies control, then loss of control means loss of property. To retain property as property requires a defense against its loss. In the mid-seventeenth century, when natural law construes the body as a human possession, that is, as personal property, it mandates bodily defense as a possessive imperative that politically safeguards the person as a person. Thus, at least two centuries before bioscience conjures immunity to describe how the (human) organism defends itself, self-defense already appears as a foundational principle of natural law. (54-55)

In its original juridico-political context, the doctrine of self-defense literally and naturally establishes the individual as the paramount form of personhood. It locates the person in a body constituted as its own property – that is, in a body “owned” by “the self”. (55)

Life appears only negatively as that which resists its own negation. In its natural habitat, human life possesses no positive attributes. Hobbes rhetorically emphasizes this constitutive negativity by elaborating a long list of everything it lacks: “In such a condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation; nor use of the Commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much Force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society.” (59)

This negative formulation provides the (negative) basis for Hobbes’s quintessential definition of liberty: “By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments”. Or as he reframes it later, “Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth”. (59)

Here immunity receives a new inflection under the sign of liberty. Drawn from its early modern extension to the denizens of immune domains, immunity now appears as a negative form of freedom. Immunity gestures toward a “free” space carved out from the sphere of obligation entailed by the commonwealth, an obligation incurred in exchange for the commonwealth’s protection against – or negation of – the state of nature’s life-negating effects. (59-60)

[…] when modern politics imagines itself as distinct from nature, as determining its own order (as Latour suggests), it construes itself not as a part of, but rather as apart from – or even opposed to – the natural world in which it lives. When bioscience recruits immunity at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the abilities of – and the presumed necessity for – organisms to “defend themselves” against the pathogenic microbes that live around and within them, it turns this quintessentially modern trope back into animate nature. In other words, it identifies a hybrid legal and political mechanisms, immunity-as-defense, as the natural basis for the endurance of living organisms. (61)


Thomas Lemke “Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on ‘Postmodern Biopolitcs'”

September 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Lemke, Thomas 2017. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on ‘Postmodern Biopolitics’. In: Prozorov, Sergei; Rentea, Simona (eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Biopolitics. London and New York: Routledge, 112-122.

[…] Hardt and Negri draw on Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, but they submit it to an important revision. They argue that the creation of wealth in society ‘tends ever more toward what we will call biopolitical production, the production of social life itself, in which the economic, the political, and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest one another’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, xiii). In this perspective, economic value is not linked to the production of material objects but to the production of social relations and forms of life. The authors describe biopower as ‘the real subsumption of society under capital’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 255). (114)

Following Deleuze, Hardt and Negri conceive of biopolitics as a form of ‘control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousnesses and bodies of the population – and at the same time across the entirety of social relations’ (2000, 24). It directs itself at social life as a whole, but also includes the existence of individuals in the most intimate details of their everyday lives. (114)

[…] ‘biopolitics production for Hardt and Negri also denotes a new relationship between nature and culture. It signifies a ‘civilization of nature’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 187), nature here meaning everything previously external to the production process. Life itself becomes an object of technological intervention, and nature ‘has become capital, or at least has become subject to capital’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 32). (115)

Instead of simply exploiting nature, the discussion in the era of ‘sustainable’ or ‘environmental capitalism’ is about translating the biological and genetic diversity of nature into economic growth and opening it up to the development of profitable products and forms of life. (115)

When economics and politics, nature and culture converge, then there is no longer an external standpoint of life or truth that might be opposed to Empire. Empire creates the world into which it unfolds. (115)

The paradox of biopower, according to Hardt and Negri’s reading, comes from the fact that the same tendencies and forces that secure the maintenance and preservation of the system of rule are at the same time the ones that weaken and may overthrow it. It is precisely the universality and totality of this systematic nexus that makes it fragile and vulnerable: ‘Since in the imperial realm of biopower production and life tend to coincide, class struggle has the potential to erupt across all the fields of life’ (Hardt and Negri 2000, 403). (117)

The authors draw on the notion of a pre-capitalist form of common property: ‘the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European political texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together’ (Hardt and Negri 2009, viii), but they also refer to the notion of commons to designate forms of contemporary social production and modes of interaction. By rearticulating the ancient tradition with recent transformations in the social powers of knowledge, affects, and communication that escape private ownership or public authority, the authors seek to define a new concept of the commons that transcends the ‘false alternatives’ (ix) between private–public and capitalist–socialist. For Hardt and Negri the commons represents a radical alternative to capitalism and socialism, which, beyond their apparent political differences, share a common feature as they both negate and exploit the common. (117)

While Hardt and Negri demonstrate the impossibility of an ‘external position’ in relation to Empire, their reference to life breaks with the principle of immanence. ‘Life’ in this instance is not, as it is with Foucault (1970), configured as a material-discursive assemblage or as an element of a historical knowledge; rather, it functions as an original and transhistorical force. The ontoogical conception of biopolitics proposed by Hardt and Negri is so comprehensive that it remains unclear in what way it might be circumscribed and how it relates to other forms of political and social action. The theoretical merger of the concept of biopolitical production and the idea of a control society results in ‘biopolitics’ becoming a kind of catch-all category that no longer captures the historicity and specifics of political technologies. (119)

Hardt and Negri’s ontologization of biopolitics results in yet another problem. It enables them to present a well-considered dramaturgy that consistently counterposes two principles: the vital, autonomous, and creative multitude struggles against the unproductive, parasitical, and destructive Empire. The authors’ diagnosis of the rule of Empire corresponds with a glorification of the multitude. (119)

Hardt and Negri do not limit themselves to tracing the historical emergence of the multitude as a new political figure. They tend to anchor the new revolutionary subject ontologically. Negri discusses, for example, ‘biodesire’, which is contrasted with biopower: “The desire for life, the strength and wealth of desire, are the only things that we can oppose to power, which needs to place limitations upon biodesire” (Negri 2005, 65). There is a danger that the ontological rendering of biopolitics, quite contrary to the intentions of the authors, has the effect of depoliticizing their work, when they conceive of the multitude per se as an egalitarian and progressive force that is invested with a radical-democratic goal. Instead of contributing to social mobilization, this way of thinking could create the impression that political struggles are nothing other than incarnations of abstract ontological principles that almost automatically proceed without the engagement, intention, or affect of concrete actors. (120)

Roberto Esposito “Community, Immunity, Biopolitics”

August 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Esposito, Roberto 2013. Community, Immunity, Biopolitics. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 18(3): 83-90.

In the late 1980s in France and Italy, a discourse on the concept of community took form that was radically deconstructive toward the way the concept-term had been used in twentieth-century philosophy as a whole – first by the German organicist sociology on Gemeinschaft (community), then by the various ethics of communication, and finally, by American neocommunitarianism. Despite significant differences, what linked these three conceptions was a tendency – which could be defined as metaphysical – to conceive of community in a substantialist, subjective sense. Community was understood as a substance that connected certain individuals to each other through the sharing of a common identity. Based on this understanding, community seemed to be conceptually linked to the figure of the “proper”: whether it was a matter of appropriating what is in common or communicating what is proper, the community was still defined by a mutual belonging. What its members had in common was what was proper to them – that of being proprietors of their commonality. (83)

If communitas is what binds its members in a commitment of giving from one to the other, immunitas, by contrast, is what unburdens from this burden, what exonerates from this responsibility. In the same way that community refers to something general and open, immunity – or immunization – refers to the privileged particularity of a situation that is defined by being an exception to a common condition. (84)

By overlaying the legal and medical semantic fields, one may well conclude that if community breaks down the barriers of individual identity, immunity is the way to rebuild them, in defensive and offensive forms, against any external element that threatens it. (85)

[…] the type of politics that we are speaking about in this case can only be a form of biopolitics. Since the phenomenon of immunity is inscribed precisely at the point of intersection between law and biology, between medical procedure and legal protection, it is clear that the politics that it gives rise to, in the form of action or reaction, must be in direct relationship with biological life. (85)

This constitutive nexus is what I have sought to identify in the paradigm of immunization. In its dual appearance in the legal and biological realms, this paradigm is the exact point of tangency between the spheres of life and politics. This is where the possibility arises of filling the gap in principle between the two extreme interpretations of biopolitics – between its deadly version and its euphoric version. Instead of two opposing, irreconcilable ways of understanding the category, they constitute two internal possibilities, in a horizon that is unified precisely by the bivalent character of the immune dispositif, which is both positive and negative, protective and destructive. (86)

Roberto Esposito “The Dispositif of the Person”

August 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Esposito, Roberto 2012. The Dispositif of the Person. Law, Culture and the Humanities 8: 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)

[…] the notion of person isn’t able to join together the epochal hiatus between life and rights, between nomos and bios, since it is the notion of person itself that produces it. (19)

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 dispositif that 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)

Here too in a formulation unsurpassed in its dogmatic clarity, the Christian idea of person is tethered to a unity that isn’t only constructed from a doubleness, but is put together in such a way that one of its elements is subordinated to another, separating it from God. Yet the distancing from God also means diminishing or degrading humanity since humanity only finds its ultimate truth in relation to the Creator. This explains how Saint Augustine can describe the necessity of meeting man’s bodily needs as an ‘‘illness’’ (De Trinitate, XI, 1,1) in the sense that this part isn’t properly human in man, or how Augustine can say that these needs make up the impersonal part of the person. (21)

Man is a person if and only if he masters the more properly animal part of his nature. He is also animal but only so as to be able to subject himself to that part which has received the charisma of person as a gift. (22)

On the one hand, person is the more general category since it encompasses the entire human species. On the other hand, it is the prism through which the human species is separated in the hierarchical division between types defined precisely by their constitutive difference. Such a characterization doesn’t have meaning outside of the ius, which is to say that the homines take on the guise of personae only de iure (and therefore are situated in distinct categories) is further proof of the performative power of law [diritto] in general and of the notion of person in particular. It is thanks to the category of person that human beings are unified in the form of their separation. (22)

Outside of this differential logic, a right would never exist as such, but instead would merely constitute a juridically irrelevant given; and indeed it wouldn’t even be spoken of as such. Consider in this regard the irresolvable antinomy of so-called natural rights, the aporia of defining an artifice as natural or a fact of nature as artificial. (23)

What is striking here, even more than the absolute clarity of the distinctions, are the zones of indistinction and transition which the first distinctions give rise to in their continual movement. If the servile res, those homines who are reduced to strumentum vocale, are in some way contained within the most generalized form of the person, this means that the category of person encompasses all the intermediate stages of the person over time; of the potential person as well as the semi-person up to and including the non-person. It also indicates that the person not only includes its own proper negative within it, but constantly reproduces the negative.8 Seen from this perspective, 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)

The person doesn’t coincide with the body in which it inheres, just as the mask is never completely one with the actor’s face. In this case as well the element that most strongly characterizes the “machine” of the person is to be traced in the subtle interval that always differentiates it from the character [personaggio] that acts, regardless of the qualities of the actor. (25)

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)

Frédéric Keck “Les usages du biopolitique”

Keck, Frédéric 2008. Les usages du biopolitique. L’Homme 3: 295-314.

Si la politique porte sur la vie, alors tout peut devenir biopolitique : chaque phénomène social trouve immédiatement sa traduction en phénomène vital. (295)

L’hypothèse du biopouvoir est alors une façon de reposer le problème de l’apparition des sciences humaines, en cherchant l’explication du côté des techniques de pouvoir, et non d’un mystérieux basculement d’épistémè. (298)

Le terme de biopouvoir apparaît donc chez Foucault à la jonction entre deux réflexions sur la notion de sujet : d’une part, celle des Mots et les Choses, sur le sujet comme pôle de connaissance constitutif des sciences humaines, d’autre part, celle de l’Histoire de la sexualité, sur le sujet comme pôle d’activité et de passivité dans le rapport entre les corps. (299)

À travers ce que Foucault appelle une « biopolitique de la population », c’est l’État qui trouve dans les sciences sociales un outil permettant de se réfléchir comme organe de savoir. (299)

Un deuxième usage attribue au contraire la réflexivité aux individus en tant qu’ils sont des corps vivants – ce que Foucault appelle une « anatomo-politique du corps humain ». Dans le sillage des études de Foucault sur la discipline, il ne s’agit plus seulement de montrer en quoi les corps sont soumis à l’emprise d’un pouvoir qui les contrôle en les mesurant et en les redressant (Vigarello 2004), mais aussi de voir en quoi la réflexivité des sujets est nécessaire à l’établissement de ce contrôle. (299)

Un troisième type d’usage réflexif consiste à articuler l’hypothèse du biopouvoir avec l’analyse des sociétés libérales. Foucault rattache en effet la naissance de la biopolitique à la formation de la pensée libérale autour de la question : comment ne pas trop gouverner ? Si les individus d’un État sont des corps vivants dont il faut maximiser la production, le pouvoir doit leur laisser la plus grande liberté compatible avec la production en commun. Foucault appelle « gouvernementalité » cet art de ne pas trop gouverner, qui vise à suivre les mouvements des individus pour les laisser opérer. (300)

Ces trois types d’usage restent tributaires d’une hypothèse lourde de la pensée de Foucault : celle d’un basculement du pouvoir souverain au biopouvoir avec l’apparition des sciences de la vie et des sciences de l’homme. Poussé par une logique des conceptions du monde qui était déjà à l’œuvre dans Les Mots et les Choses, Foucault tend en effet à considérer la biopolitique comme une époque du pouvoir venant en remplacer une autre. C’est pourquoi on peut dire que ces usages sont davantage réflexifs que critiques : ils font retour sur les opérations des sciences humaines, découvrant ainsi de nouveaux objets et de nouvelles subjectivités, mais ils ne donnent pas de nouveaux appuis à la critique. Pour faire une critique de la biopolitique, il faut en effet partir d’une position d’extériorité par rapport à ce régime de pouvoir, rendue intenable par l’hypothèse généalogique. (300)

[…] Negri et Hardt modifient la conception foucaldienne du biopouvoir : ce que Foucault avait décrit comme discipline des corps individuels dans Surveiller et punir serait en fait de l’ordre du pouvoir souverain, alors que le biopouvoir serait seulement ce que Foucault appelait biopolitique des populations. Autrement dit, Foucault aurait conceptualisé le biopouvoir au moment où celui-ci était en train d’apparaître, raison pour laquelle il ne pouvait pas véritablement décrire la nouveauté de son mode de fonctionnement, et restait pris dans une grille de lecture structuraliste encore appliquée dans l’analyse du Panoptique de Surveiller et punir. C’est pourquoi Negri et Hardt se réfèrent finalement aux analyses de Deleuze sur les « sociétés de contrôle », gouvernées par les multiplicités organisées en rhizome dans des séries divergentes de flux temporels (Deleuze 1990). (301)

Le travail immatériel, c’est donc l’ensemble des rapports sociaux qui produisent de la substance vitale par le simple fait de communiquer et d’échanger des informations. (302)

[…] alors que le peuple est un ensemble d’individus unis dans le cadre d’un territoire sous un pouvoir souverain, et que la masse est une population animée par des désirs entièrement irrationnels et imprévisibles, la multitude est un ensemble d’individus dépourvus de frontières délimitées et pourtant unis par des affects et des concepts communs. (302)

On voit que l’analyse d’Agamben est radicalement inverse de celle de Negri : car au lieu de chercher une histoire générale du pouvoir dans la façon dont sont pensées des populations ou des multitudes, il en cherche la structure logique intemporelle dans le rapport entre le souverain et l’individu. Selon Agamben, en effet, la structure paradoxale de l’Homo Sacer illustre la logique du pouvoir souverain qui, comme l’a montré Schmitt, repose entièrement sur l’exclusion et l’exception : la règle énoncée par le pouvoir ne peut fonctionner que si elle pose à l’extérieur de son champ d’application une exception, ce geste d’exclusion constituant originairement le pouvoir dans une sphère délimitée. (304)

Agamben appelle « vie nue » cette forme d’être que le pouvoir souverain pose à l’extérieur de son ordre comme insacrifiable et pourtant tuable. Cette expression désigne un être qui n’a pas d’autre vie que biologique, parce qu’il ne fait pas partie de l’espace politique : c’est au sens propre un survivant, en état de vie végétative, que la mort guette à chaque instant parce qu’aucune instance politique ne le protège, donc un être sans droits, pas même celui de vivre. (305)

Tout se passe alors comme si Negri et Agamben exploraient deux axes inversés de la combinatoire construite par Foucault pour analyser le biopouvoir : Negri retient l’axe qui fait passer du pouvoir souverain à la biopolitique de la population par un ensemble de savoirs, selon un schéma horizontal de progrès situé sur le plan d’immanence, laissant ainsi dans l’ombre le mécanisme par lequel le pouvoir souverain se porte sur l’individu (ce que Foucault avait appelé la discipline, et que Negri rejette du côté d’un structuralisme obsolète) ; alors qu’Agamben explore précisément ces mécanismes structurels du pouvoir politique et juridique, selon l’axe vertical du sacrifice, insertion de la transcendance dans l’immanence, laissant alors de côté l’axe par lequel le pouvoir porte sur les populations en produisant un ensemble de savoirs, ce que Negri appelait travail immatériel. (306)

Agamben et Negri ont bien posé la question critique : celle du passage du pouvoir souverain à la biopolitique, par lequel le pouvoir acquiert une prise sur la vie. Mais ils ont échoué à répondre à cette question parce qu’ils visent une ontologie de la vie. Il leur manquait un champ d’expérience dans lequel les reconfigurations du biopouvoir puissent être analysées. (307)

À la suite de Paul Rabinow, on peut formuler l’hypothèse selon laquelle la biopolitique produit des sujets critiques parce qu’elle fait apparaître de nouveaux événements rendant inadéquates les formes de problématisation antérieures. L’articulation entre pouvoir souverain et biopouvoir se rejoue à chaque fois que des technologies introduisent dans le social de nouveaux êtres dont l’ambivalence pose problème. (309)

Laura Bazzicalupo “The Ambivalences of Biopolitics”

Bazzicalupo, Laura 2006. The Ambivalences of Biopolitics. Diacritics 36(2): 109-116.


[…] biopolitics undoubtedly is a polemical concept that only becomes comprehensible when seen in action. It is also to watch with suspicion. Still, could the concept function heuristically by bringing to light, even without clarifying, some of the transformations that have occurred in our political existence? (110)


To my mind biopolitics effects two significant changes related to how we conceive politics, two essential though admittedly ambiguous features that provoke a reciprocal tension:

1) The “displacement” of the site where power seizes life. When political strategies wager on the qualities of the human species, they do so at the level of genetic manipulation and at the level of the survival of the species. Indeed the latter can become the principal reason for armed intervention by the great powers. Another reason for this displacement will be found when we recognize that disease threatens the human species, which in turn wages and unprecedented fight against it. […]

2) The shift and the transformation of the modality or, rather, the stigma of power. Power, always less juridical in the sense of general and abstract law, now tends to dissolve into the norm, that is, into the shared, immanent rule of effective praxis or active participation. It is not about demystifying the rhetoric of the law. Today political power easily adopts the language of normalization, management, and control; not the dyad of exclusion/repression, but rather a margin of tolerance that can be seen in emergency management and risk-oriented government. (110)


In Greece, zoe, or biological life, was excluded from the political. Producing and consuming the means of sustenance as well as the reproduction of the species – hence work and family – are subject to necessity; they engender relationships of dependence, inequality, and nonfreedom. It is exactly this biological life that takes center stage in the new modern space, a life whose needs are common to the entire species. It is a site in which work, production, and family are bound by the constraints of nonchoice and of the struggle to survive when resources are scarce. (111)


The neomaterialist vitalism seeks out those who resist in the folds of the subject/object of power, which is akin to desiring [a] life that resists and evades power. We should be concerned, however, that this resistance, no matter how seductive it may be, is indebted to Romanticism, as well as being characterized by infrapolitical features. Furthermore, we need to recognize fully the contradiction of affirming life which arises against biopolitical life. We need to ask how effective immanent resistance can be against a power that seems continually to reject the glories of transcendence more every day. That is, how plausible is resistance if we have not entirely rethought the ubiquitous and immanent site of power? (114)


[…] the body is elusive. On the one hand, it is anonymous; it is the fungible site of the species; it is generic and as such is the chosen object of biopolitical power. On the other hand, it is the most singular singularity we have; it is an extreme singularity that cannot be exchanged for another. It is difference itself, and therefore it is corporeality that the demands of a power for self-managing the body take hold; a power for the management of happiness and for satisfying needs, as well as the capacity and the possibility of finding one’s expressive spontaneity against discipline, docility, and repression. (114)


With biopolitical discourse, power ideologically establishes a reductive paradigm that entails survival and necessity. It limits the space for discourse on forms of life and therefore on politics. Is life then absent, if it cannot speak itself? Bare life “in itself” is revealed as a formidable limit-concept that is nonpolitical: it is the life of fungible, anonymous bodies, common to all sentient bodies that experience pain, hunger, loss, and deprivation. It is this limit-concept which is truly general, common, and universal. It is far more universal than those transcriptions of rights that have little to do with us, and that seem far removed from phenomenological diversity: universal rights that ought to allow the convergence of different cultures and to be the guide of moving ethics toward politics, were it not for its disregard for people as what they are. These “lofty rights” that float high above the corporeal exhibit a dangerous tendency to authorize the suffering of bodies in order to better glorify the spirit. (115)

Michael Dillon “Specters of Biopolitics”

April 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Dillon, Michael 2011. Specters of Biopolitics: Finitude, Eschaton, and Katechon. The South Atlantic Quarterly 110(3): 780-792.

The eschaton remains a source of civil as well as religious strife today, always a theologico-political field of sacralizing formation, though one that functions differently now because the modern finitudinal immanentization of the eschaton, as an open horizon of possibility rather than the threshold to everlasting life, transforms the nature of the eschaton and the mode of (political) being instituted by it. Modern time, in short, is no less eschatological than Christian time. But it is different, and the difference accounts for the aporetic mode of being of the modern factically finitudinal order of things, and its sacralizing quality, not least that of the cultic security politics of the limit of modern political orders and the war that such politics wages in the holy name of the life of the modern finitudinal eschaton. (783)

For biopolitics of security is also a regime speaking truth about the nature of times through the truth of the end of times, and the mode of being required to live in, live out, and live up to the eschatological security imperative to resist, at whatever self sacrificial cost, the end of the temporal order of things. (783)

One curious thing about the political orders of modern finitude is their recognition that they, too, must be finite since there is no modern time but the finitudinal time within which all fnite forms, including those of politically finite regimes, are fated to come and go. (786)

Persistence in and through the facticity of fnitudinal time is the challenge. But the only guarantee offered by the facticity of finitudinal time is that finite forms—however emergent, adaptive, and resilient, according to modern liberal security jargon—are fated ultimately to go. What is especially curious is how much the security politics of modern times are midwife to such comings and goings; it is especially curious and paradoxical, so it seems, although the paradox is so pervasive it has to be counted as a primary characteristic of modern security politics. They do not merely threaten—they positively bring about the end to the temporal orders they claim to secure. There has been no modern state, and there remains no modern political order of any kind, whose security politics have not, in every quotidian way, transformed that state or political order out of all recognition, when, through war, they have not actually brought about its cataclysmic end in the name of restraining that end. (786)

Biopolitics also emerged as a response to the problematic of rule posed in and by the properties of finitudinal time and the demand thereby to give concrete political form to modern finitude. The regime of security and war that now interests me most is therefore that also of biopolitics of security and war. (787)

Biopolitics, too, must positively specify what the life to be secured consists in, from whence the threats to that life arise, and ultimately what calculus of necessary killing must prevail to preserve life in its vital intensive relations of procreative force against the agents and forces, themselves always in fact arising also within life. This is what makes life the enemy of life in biopolitics, that threatens life in its positive procreativity. (788)

We must therefore always ask biopolitically: what happens when the end of the temporal order of things is enframed in terms of and for the now pervasive figure of life, rather than those other modes of political being formulated in response to the requirement to give concrete political form to finitude—commonwealth or people, but also man, state, and war? (790)