Posts Tagged ‘biopolitics’

Judith Revel “Identity, Nature, Life. Three Biopolitical Deconstructions”

February 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Revel, Judith 2009. Identity, Nature, Life. Three Biopolitical Deconstructions. Theory, Culture & Society 26(6): 45–54.

[…] from the 1960s, the radical critique of identities directs us to the analysis of power that principally takes the form of analyses of knowledges; yet, there is also, inseparably as its other side, an interrogation of the modes of subjectivation that could attempt to escape the objective frame of power and allow non-selfsame (non-identitaire) subjectivities to emerge. Of course, the trace of this non-selfsame is not easily discernible in Histoire de la folie or in Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things), though it is quite explicit in the texts that Foucault devoted to ‘literary’ figures in the wake of his analysis of Raymond Roussel, as I have has argued elsewhere (Revel, 2004). The problem then becomes that of how to prevent a subjective individuation from being immediately identified, that is, objectified and subjected to the system of knowledges/powers (savoirs/pouvoirs) in which it is inscribed. (46-47)

There is for Foucault a clear distinction to be made between what the relations of power construct in the form of an identity (that is, an objectified, reified identity, reduced to a number of definite characteristics, one that becomes the object of specific practices and knowledges), and the way in which subjectivity itself constructs its relation to itself. In the first case it is a matter of a subjection that fixes identities on the basis of a number of determinations that are supposed to ‘speak the truth of the subject’, such as when sexuality is transformed into ‘symptoms’ circumscribing the individual. In the second case, the refusal of this reduction of subjectivity to identity leads Foucault to theorize another form of the relation to oneself and others, namely, in the concept of a way of life (mode de vie). (48)

Foucault: “For me, this notion of way of life is important. . . . A way of life can be shared amongst individuals of different ages, statuses, social conduct. It can give rise to intense relations that are nothing like those which are institutionalized, and it seems to me that a way of life can generate a culture and an ethics. To be gay is not about identifying oneself with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual, but to seek to define and develop a way of life.” (1994c: 165). (48)

It is clear from this statement that Foucault understands a way of life as a set of relations that does not exclude this or that difference but preserves them as such in the process of relating; it is thus the bringing into the common (mis en commun) of differences at the level of difference, and the constitution on this differential ground as foundation of something which is of the order of a commonality, or that partakes of differences. This is at the opposite end of all the theorizations of the relation to the other that essentially operate through a decentring of oneself towards the other – oneself as another. Foucault is trying to work out how it is possible to live the relation to the other in such a way that differences – the self, the other – are neither reified, objectified, reduced to the least common denominator (such as a contrived universalization, or a reduction to sameness), or what one must rely upon to have access to the other. (48)

In this view, the conduct of existence is always inclusive of a relation to others, that is, it is an apprenticeship, a mutual construction and a subjectivation. It both forbids a return to individualism (such as the idea of the individual as the free entrepreneur of him/herself) and resists every temptation towards the naturalization, substantialization or essentialization of the self. (49)

Every singularity is irreducible because its emergence and becoming occurs in a determinate context, inside a web of relations and contacts that necessarily include other subjectivities also in process of becoming. New modes of life emerge as part of that process, but relations of power and the effects of dispositifs continue to operate. Foucault rejected the idea that there could be an outside of power, since resistance can only take place from inside a complex web in which resistance and power, subjectivation and objectification, strategies of liberation and subjection, substantialization and the logic of becoming, are interwoven. It follows from this analysis that nothing can transform the motor of resistance – the process of becoming of subjectivity – into an impersonal force, a ‘third person’, or a disqualification of singularities, as indicated in some readings of Foucault in Italy; the arguments above indicate that such
readings lead to a political impasse. (49)

Because of this, I think that in some admittedly different readings of Foucault by Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito or Paolo Virno, the argument for the passage to singularity by way of a third party (which eliminates attributes), the impersonal or the pre-individual obeys nothing more than a logical necessity and rests on an error, namely the inversion of the relation between commonality and a de-subjectivized singularity. The political cost of conceptualizing the common as the reassuring residue when one removes a layer of individualization from singularity is a new post-modern metaphysics. The common is not the reassuring starting point for the production of the political but its outcome; by eliminating singularity, one eliminates what makes resistance possible. (49)

[…] if biololitics puts to work a new form of regulation, namely the norm, that relies on the idea of a ‘biological’ naturality of life – which social medicine claims to preserve and protect – and if biopolitics inscribes in the norm new techniques of management of both individuals and populations, it means that relations of power in the 19th century have put in place an unprecedented reference to naturality in order to transform the latter into a new instrument of control. (50-51)

It can be seen from the above that Foucault thought it important to make clear three issues. First, life is not exclusively biological, as we saw in the discussion of ways of life as strategies of resistance in his analyses of subjectivity and ethics in the 1980s. Second, this means that powers over life or biopowers are not biological alone but include dispositifs of subjection and exploitation, of captation and regulation, of the control and ordering of existence in the wide sense. Third, this ‘biologization’ of life, now extended through biotechnologies and genetic engineering, appears to be, paradoxically, at the centre of some Italian readings of the biopolitical. (51)


Mika Ojakangas “Michel Foucault and the Enigmatic Origins of Bio-politics and Governmentality”

February 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Ojakangas, Mika 2012. Michel Foucault and the Enigmatic Origins of Bio-politics and Governmentality. History of the Human Sciences 25(1): 1–14.

But why then does he trace the origin of bio-political concern for populations back to the JudeoChristian tradition and does not say anything, for instance, about Plato’s well-known demographic and eugenic considerations in The Republic and The Laws? It is precisely in the Platonic texts, rather than in any passages of the New Testament, not to mention the writings of the Church Fathers, that we first encounter eugenic bio-politics in the western tradition. In the Republic (1997b: 459–60), Plato writes: “The best men must have sex with the best women as frequently as possible, while the opposite is true of the most inferior men and women, and, second, that if our herd [poimnion] is to be of the highest possible quality, the former’s offspring must be reared but not the latter’s. And this must all be brought about without being noticed by anyone except the rulers, so that our herd of guardians remains as free from dissension as possible.” (4)

Moreover, while he maintains that Plato’s view, especially in The Statesman, is eventually negative as regards the shepherd as the ideal type of the magistrate (ibid.: 2007: 140), he leaves the whole question of Platonic eugenics aside. He does so even though in The Laws, the shepherd is depicted as the ideal type of the magistrate, in addition to which this shepherd is supposed to ‘weed out the unhealthy and inferior stock’ (Plato, 1997a: 5.735), rather than, like the ideal Christian shepherd, taking care of ‘each and every one’. (5)

Certainly, Foucault also knew his Aristotle, who in Politics gives advice for pregnant women on how they should care for their bodies and mothers on how they should rear their children, adding that there should be a law according to which infanticide should be performed for any children born with deformities – a practice that was widespread in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans: “As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared; but on the ground of number of children, if the regular customs hinder any of those born being exposed, there must be a limit fixed to the procreation of offspring, and if any people have a child as a result of intercourse in contravention of these regulations, abortion must be practiced on it before it has developed sensation and life; for the line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive.” (Aristotle, 1994: 7.1335b) (5)

In Sparta, every newborn child was brought, according to Plutarch (Lycurgus), into the city hall to be examined by the elders of the tribes: “Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so-called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Tay ¨getus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state.” (Plutarch, 1914: 16.1–2) (5)

In the Roman world, the law of infanticide can be found in the Twelve Tables: a child conspicuously deformed was to be immediately destroyed (cito necatus insignis ad deformitatem puer esto), as Cicero reports in De legibus (III.8). In De ira (1928b: I.15), Seneca also mentions this ancient but still ongoing Roman practice, asserting that it is not an unreasonable one: ‘We drown the weakling and the monstrosity. It is not passion, but reason, to separate the useless from the fit.’ (5)

A middle Stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus, for instance, criticized the practice of infanticide and exposure, implying that it was contrary to nature (see Harris, 1994: 15; Cameron, 1932: 110), but what is more important here is that they were Christians who launched a rigorous campaign against the ancient but ongoing practice of eugenics, be it private or public. We find this critical attitude in Athenagoras’ Supplicatio (35.6), Clemens of Alexandria’s Stromata (II.18), and Origen’s Contra Celsum (VIII.55) among many others. Lactantius’ remarks in his Divine Institutes (1886: 5.15) are illustrative. First, he makes the comment about people ‘who either strangle their own children or, if they are too pious for that, expose them’. Although this reveals that Lactantius differentiates murder and exposure, he immediately asserts that people cannot be thought of as innocent if they are offering up their own children, since it is very likely that they would end up in brothels or slavery. (6)

The Theodosian code (XI.27) from AD 375 made infanticide a crime. (7)

Another widespread and usually approved practice in the pagan world which became a target of the Christian authors from the very beginning of Christianity was abortion (see Gray, 2001: 313–37). According to Aristotle, for instance, if the legal limit fixed for the procreation of offspring is exceeded, abortion must be practised, whereas the Apocalypse of Peter (1993: 8) declares that women who ‘have caused their children to be born untimely’ are buried up to their necks in a pit of excrement near a great flame in hell while the aborted children sit nearby crying to God, with flashes of lightning going out from the children and piercing their mothers’ eyes. (7)

Indeed, the majority of the early Fathers condemned abortion and the Council of Elvira finally confirmed this view in 305, calling for the excommunication of women committing abortion and declaring that they were not to be readmitted even on their deathbeds (Noonan, 1970: 14). (7)

Whereas the Jews and the Christians announced that abortion was a crime because of the absolute value of human life, since ‘man’ was created in the image of God, the Hellenistic and Roman authors maintained that abortion, if the child was healthy, was a crime against state and society: the foetus needed to be protected for economic and military reasons (see Schiff, 2002: 16). (7)

Did Foucault suggest that we cannot identify modern eugenics with the ancient eugenics because modern eugenics does not derive from the Platonic ideas of selection but from the Christian politics of universal care for individuals? If this is the case, I believe Foucault was fundamentally wrong. Yet I do not believe this is the case. We must, therefore, pose a second question: if the Christian universal pastorate is the origin of bio-power, is modern eugenics, including negative eugenics, then a perversion of the pastorate and, more precisely, does it signify a return of sovereign power in the immanence of pastoral bio-power? I believe this is closer to Foucault’s opinion, since he sees modern societies as characterized by what he calls a ‘demonic combination’ of bio-power and sovereign power (Foucault, 2000a: 311). (8)

What then, according to Foucault, is the difference between governmentality and bio-power? While bio-power is power over the life-processes of individuals and populations, governmentality relates to those political technologies by means of which power, be it bio-power or not, has been exercised in the West since the 17th century. (9)

[…] pastorate was not supposed to be a political technology of Christians, whereas when we read Plato, it is precisely the citizens of the polis that must be constantly watched over by the political shepherd: ‘Nothing, so far as possible, shall be left uncontrolled [aphroureˆtos]’, as he writes in The Laws (1997a: 6.760a). (10)

Indeed, we can find many other issues and objectives that were characteristic of the early modern governmental technologies of the police in plenty of Greek and Roman authors from Xenophon’s Oeconomicus to Cicero’s De legibus and beyond, but hardly in the writings of the Church Fathers. Censors, as Cicero writes in De legibus (III.7), should keep count of the number of citizens, their age, children, families and property; they should look after the temples, roads, aqueducts, public finance and taxation; they should control the mores of the people, and so on and so forth, thus neatly summarizing the tasks of the real censors of Rome up to the end of the Roman republic after which this office was reserved to the emperors (see Mommsen, 1887–8: 358–459; Suolahti, 1963: 25–66). (10)

If Christianity introduces something new in this configuration, it is the strict prohibition of negative eugenics – and rather than making a contribution to the classical governmental rationalities and practices, Christianity marked a point of their gradual deterioration until the reinvention of the classical culture during the Renaissance and early modern Europe. It is possible that there is a connection between the Christian theme of pastoral care (agape/caritas) and the early modern ideology of the police, whose duty was to take care of populations, but the means and the aims of the early modern police were not Christian but classical. (10)

Surely the Christian Church made universal ‘care’ (agape/caritas) the core of its social teaching and introduced a variety of rules and restrictions on marriage. Yet neither this care nor the marriage rules and restrictions had much to do with those considerations we find in the 18th-century treatises of Polizeiwissenschaft. The political dimension of the pastoral care found its expression in caring for the poor and the afflicted, while the rules and restrictions concerning marriage were based on particular interpretations of biblical teachings, not on the calculations of power, prosperity, happiness, or the order of the city. Instead, the rationale of the police was based precisely on these calculations: ‘The name Policey comes from the Greek word polis, a city, and should mean the good ordering of cities and of their civic institutions’, von Justi writes in the first paragraph of his Grundsa¨tze der Policeywissenschaft [Principles of Policy Science], originally published in 1756, adding in the second paragraph that Policey most generally includes all measures in the internal affairs of the country through which the general means (Vermo¨gen) of the state may be more permanently founded and increased, the energies (Kra¨fte) of the state better used, and in general the happiness of the community promoted. It is true that these are not entirely absent from the writings of the early Fathers, but there is nothing particularly Christian in these considerations. They originate in the governmental wisdom of the pre-Christian Graeco-Roman world. (11)

Giorgio Agamben “State of Exception”

January 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Agamben, Giorgio 2005. State of Exception. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

  1. The State of Exception as a Paradigm of Government

The state of exception is not a special kind of law (like the law of war); rather, insofar as it is a suspension of the juridical order itself, it defines law’s threshold or limit concept. (4)

Schmitt’s distinction between commissarial dictatorship and sovereign dictatorship reappears here as an opposition between constitutional dictatorship, which seeks to safeguard the constitutional order, and unconstitutional dictatorship, which leads to its overthrow. (8)

[Schmitt]: “No sacrifice is too great for our democracy, least of all the temporary sacrifice of democracy itself.” (9)

In truth, the state of exception is neither external nor internal to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concerns precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other. The suspension of the norm does not mean its abolition, and the zone of anomie that it establishes is not (or at least claims not to be) unrelated to the juridical order. (23)

[…] in the forms of both the state of exception and revolution, the status necessitatis appears as an ambiguous and uncertain zone in which de facto proceedings, which are in themselves extra- or antijuridical, pass over into law, and juridical norms blur with mere fact – that is, a threshold where fact and law seem to become undecidable. […] The essential point, in any case, is that a threshold of undecidability is produced at which factum and ius fade into each other. (29)

In analogy with the principle according to which the law may have lacunae, but the juridical order admits none, the state of necessity is thus interpreted as a lacuna in the public law, which the executive power is obligated to remedy. In this way, a principle that concerns the judiciary power is extended to the executive power. But in what does the lacuna in question actually consist? Is there truly something like a lacuna in the strict sense? Here, the lacuna does not concern a deficiency in the text of the legislation that must be completed by the judge; it concerns, rather, a suspension of the order that is in force in order to guarantee its existence. Far from being a response to a normative lacuna, the state of exception appears as the opening of a fictitious lacuna in the order for the purpose of safeguarding the existence of the norm and its applicability to the normal situation. The lacuna is not within the law, but concerns its relation to reality, the very possibility of its application. It is as if the juridical order contained an essential fracture between the position of the norm and its application, which, in extreme situations, can be filled only by means of the state of exception, that is, by creating a zone in which application is suspended, but the law, as such, remains in force. (31)

  1. Force-of-Law

In Dictatorship, the operator of this inscription of an outside of the law within the law is, in the case of commissarial dictatorship, the distinction between norms of law and norms of the realization of law and, in the case of sovereign dictatorship, the distinction between constituent power and constituted power. Indeed, because it “suspends the constitution in concreto in order to protect its concrete existence” (Schmitt 1921, 136), commissarial dictatorship ultimately has the function of creating a state of affairs “in which the law can be realized” (137). In commissarial dictatorship, the constitution can be suspended in its application “without thereby ceasing to remain in force, because the suspension signifies solely a concrete exception” (137). On a theoretical level, commissarial dictatorship can thus be wholly subsumed in the distinction between the norm and the techno-practical rules that govern its realization. (33)

In suspending the norm, the state of exception “reveals, in absolute purity, a specifically juridical formal element: the decision” (Schmitt 1922, 13). The two elements, norm and decision, thus show their autonomy. “Just as in the normal situation the autonomous moment of decision is reduced to a minimum, so in the exceptional situation the norm is annulled. And yet even the exceptional situation remains accessible to juridical knowledge, because both elements, the norm as well as the decision, remain within the framework of the juridical” (13/12-13). (34)

Being-outside, and yet belonging: this is the topological structure of the state of exception. (35)

Take now the opposition between norm and decision. Schmitt shows that they are irreducible, in the sense that the decision can never be derived from the content of a norm without a remainder (Schmitt 1922, 9/6). In the decision on the state of exception, the norm is suspended or even annulled; but what is at issue in this suspension is, once again, the creation of a situation that makes the application of the norm possible (“a situation in which juridical norms can be valid must be brought about”). That is, the state of exception separates the norm from its application in order to make its application possible. It introduces a zone of anomie into the law in order to make the effective regulation of the real possible. We can, then, define the state of exception in Schmitt’s theory as the place where the opposition between the norm and its realization reaches its greatest intensity. (36)

[…] the concept of “force of law”, as a technical legal term, defines a separation of the norm’s vis obligandi, or applicability, from its formal essence, whereby decrees, provisions, and measures that are not formally laws nevertheless acquire their “force”. (38)

[…] from a technical standpoint the specific contribution of the state of exception is less the confusion of powers, which has been all too strongly insisted upon, than it is the separation of “force of law” from the law. It defines a “state of the law” in which, on the one hand, the norm is in force but is not applied (it has no “force”) and, on the other, acts that do not have the value of law acquire its “force”. (38)

[…] in the case of law, the application of a norm is in no way contained within the norm and cannot be derived from it; otherwise, there would have been no need to create the grand edifice of trial law. Just as between language and world, so between the norm and its application there is no internal nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other. (40)

[…] in order to apply a norm it is ultimately necessary to suspend its application, to produce an exception. (40)

  1. Gigantomachy Concerning a Void

What the law can never tolerate – what it feels as a threat with which it is impossible to come to terms – is the existence of violence outside the law; and this is not because the ends of such a violence are incompatible with law, but because of “its mere existence outside the law” (Benjamin 1921, 183/239). (53)

The theory of sovereignty that Schmitt develops in his Political Theology can be read as a precise response to Benjamin’s essay. While the strategy of “Critique of Violence” was aimed at ensuring the existence of a pure and anomic violence, Schmitt instead seeks to lead such a violence back to a juridical context. (54)

The sovereign violence in Political Theology responds to the pure violence of Benjamin’s essay with the figure of a power that neither makes nor preserves law, but suspends it. Similarly, it is in response to Benjamin’s idea of an ultimate undecidability of all legal problems that Schmitt affirms sovereignty as the place of the extreme decision. (54)

While for Schmitt the decision is the nexus that unites sovereignty and the state of exception, Benjamin ironically divides sovereign power from its exercise and shows that the baroque sovereign is constitutively incapable of deciding. (55)

While in Schmitt “the sovereign is identified with God and occupies a position in the state exactly analogous to that attributed in the world to the God of the Cartesian system” (Schmitt 1922, 43/46), in Benjamin the sovereign is “confined to the world of creation; he is the lord of creatures, but he remains a creature” (Benjamin 1928, 264/85). This drastic redefinition of the sovereign function implies a different situation of the state of exception. It no longer appears as the threshold that guarantees the articulation between an inside and an outside, or between anomie and the juridical context, by virtue of a law that is in force in its suspension: it is, rather, a zone of absolute indeterminacy between anomie and law, in which the sphere of creatures and the juridical order are caught up in a single catastrophe. (57)

What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity – that is, another use of the law. This is precisely what the force-of-law (which keeps the law working beyond its formal suspension) seeks to prevent. Kafka’s characters – and this is why they interest us – have to do with this spectral figure of the law in the state of exception; they seek, each one following his or her own strategy, to “study” and deactivate it, to “play” with it. (64)

  1. Auctoritas and Potestas

In the sphere of private law, auctoritas is the property of the auctor, that is, the person sui iuris (the pater familias) who intervenes – pronouncing the technical formula auctor fio [I am made auctor] – in order to confer legal validity on the act of a subject who cannot independently bring a legally valid act into being. Thus, the auctoritas of the tutor makes valid the act of one who lacks this capacity, and the auctoritas of the father “authorizes” – that is, makes valid – the marriage of the son in potestate. Analogously, the seller (in a mancipatio) is bound to assist the buyer in confirming his title of ownership in the course of a claim proceeding involving a third opposing party. (76)

[…] we need only reflect on the formula auctor fio (and not simply auctor sum) to realize that it seems to imply not so much the voluntary exercise of a right as the actualization of an impersonal power [potenza] in the very person of the auctor. (77)

As we have seen, in public law auctoritas designates the most proper prerogative of the Senate. The active subjects of this prerogative are therefore the patres: auctoritas patrum and patres auctores fiunt [the fathers are made auctors] are common formulas for expressing the constitutional function of the Senate. (77)

Under extreme conditions (that is to say, under the conditions that best define it, if it is true that a legal institution’s truest character is always defined by the exception and the extreme situation) auctoritas seems to act as a force that suspends potestas where it took place and reactivates it where it was no longer in force. It is a power that suspends or reactivates law, but is not formally in force as law. (79)

The norm can be applied to the normal situation and can be suspended without totally annulling the juridical order because in the form of auctoritas, or sovereign decision, it refers immediately to life, it springs from life. (85)

The juridical system of the West appears as a double structure, formed by two heterogeneous yet coordinated elements: one that is normative and juridical in the strict sense (which we can for convenience inscribe under the rubric potestas) and one that is anomic and metajuridical (which we can call by the name auctoritas). The normative element needs the anomic element in order to be applied, but, on the other hand, auctoritas can assert itself only in the validation or suspension of potestas. (86)

The aim of this investigation – in the urgency of the state of exception “in which we live” – was to bring to light the fiction that governs the arcanum imperii par excellence of our time. What the “ark” of power contains at its center is the state of exception – but this is essentially an empty space, in which a human action with no relation to law stands before a norm with no relation to life. (86)

The normative aspect of law can thus be obliterated and contradicted with impunity by a governmental violence that – while ignoring international law externally and producing a permanent state of exception internally – nevertheless still claims to be applying the law. (87)

But if it is possible to attempt to halt the machine, to show its central fiction, this is because between violence and law, between life and norm, there is no substantial articulation. (87)

There are not first life as a natural biological given and anomie as the state of nature, and then their implication in law through the state of exception. On the contrary, the very possibility of distinguishing life and law, anomie and nomos, coincides with their articulation in the biopolitical machine. Bare life is a product of the machine and not something that preexists it, just as law has no court in nature or in the divine mind. Life and law, anomie and nomos, auctoritas and potestas, result from the fracture of something to which we have no other access than through the fiction of their articulation and the patient work that, by unmasking this fiction, separates what it had claimed to unite. (88)

To show law in its nonrelation to life and life in its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of “politics”. […] The only truly political action, however, is that which severs the nexus between violence and law. And only beginning from the space thus opened will it be possible to pose the question of a possible use of law after the deactivation of the device that, in the state of exception, tied it to life. We will then have before us a “pure” law, in the sense in which Benjamin speaks of a “pure” language and a “pure” violence. To a word that does not bind, that neither commands nor prohibits anything, abut says only itself, would correspond an action as pure means, which shows only itself, without any relation to an end. And, between the two, not a lost original state, but only the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture in the state of exception. (88)

Donna Haraway “The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies”

January 16, 2018 Leave a comment

Haraway, Donna 1991. The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Determinations of Self in Immune System Discourse. In: Harawa, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 203–230.

My thesis is that the immune system is an elaborate icon for principal systems of symbolic and material ‘difference’ in late capitalism. Pre-eminently a twentieth-century object, the immune system is a map drawn to guide recognition and misrecognition of self and other in the dialectics of western biopolitics. That is, the immune system is a plan for meaningful action to construct and maintain the boundaries for what may count as self and other in the crucial realm of the normal and the pathological. (204)

Bodies, then, are not born; they are made. Bodies have been as thoroughly denaturalized as sign, context, and time. Late twentieth-century bodies do not grow from internal harmonic principles theorized within Romanticism. Neither are they discovered in the domains of realism and modernism. One is not born a woman, Simone de Beauvoir correctly insisted. It took the political-epistemological terrain of postmodernism to be able to insist on a co-text to de Beauvoir’s: one is not born an organism. Organisms are made; they are constructs of a world-changing kind. The constructions of an organism’s boundaries, the job of the discourses of immunology, are particularly potent mediators of the experiences of sickness and death for industrial and post-industrial people. (207)

[…] bodies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic generative nodes. Their boundaries materialize in social interaction; ‘objects’ like bodies do not pre-exist as such. (208)

From the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the great historical constructions of gender, race, and class were embedded in the organically marked bodies of woman, the colonized or enslaved, and the worker. Those inhabiting these marked bodies have been symbolically other to the fictive rational self of universal, and so unmarked, species man, a coherent subject. (210)

Any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly; no ‘natural’ architectures constrain system design. Design is none the less highly constrained. What counts as a ‘unit’, a one, is highly problematic, not a permanent given. Individuality is a strategic defense problem. (212)

Bodies have become cyborgs – cybernetic organisms – compounds of hybrid techno-organic embodiment and textuality. (212)

The genetics of the immune system cells, with their high rates of somatic mutation and gene product splicings and rearrangings to make finished surface receptors and antibodies, makes a mockery of the notion of a constant genome even within ‘one’ body. The hierarchicaly body of old has given way to a network-body of truly amazing complexity and specificity. The immune system is everywhere and nowhere. Its specificities are indefinite if not infinite, and they arise randomly; yet these extraordinary variations are the critical means of maintaining individual bodily coherence. (218)

The concatenation of internal recognitions and responses would go on indefinitely, in a series of interior mirrorings of sites on immunoglobulin molecules, such that the immune system would always be in a state of dynamic internal responding. It would never be passive, ‘at rest’, awaiting an activating stimulus from a hostile outside. In a sense, there could be no exterior antigenic structure, no ‘invader’, that the immune system had not already ‘seen’ and mirrored internally. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ lose their rationalistic oppositional quality and become subtle plays of partially mirrored readings and responses. The notion of the internal image is the key to the theory, and it entails the premise that every member of the immune system is capable of interacting with every other member. (218)

‘Organism’ and ‘individual’ have not disappeared; rather, they have been fully denaturalized. That is, they are ontologically contingent constructs from the point of view of the biologist, not just in the loose ravings of a cultural critic or feminist historian of science. (220)

It is photography that convinces the viewer of the fraternal relation of inner and outer space. But curiously, in outer space, we see spacemen fitted into explorer craft or floating about individuated cosmic foetuses, while in the supposed earthy space of our own interiors, we see non-humanoid strangers who are supposed to be the means by which our bodies sustain our integrity and individuality, indeed our humanity in the face of a world of others. We seem invaded not just by the threatening ‘non-selves’ that the immune system guards against, but more fundamentally by our own strange parts. No wonder auto-immune disease carries such awful significance, marked from the first suspicion of its existence in 1901 by Morgenroth and Ehrich’s term, horror autotoxicus. (222-223)

Harmony of the organism, that favourite theme of biologists, is explained in terms of the aggressive defence of individuality […]. (223)

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)