Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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)


Annemarie Mol “Ontological Politics”

February 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Mol, Annemarie 1999. Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions. The Sociological Review 47(1): 74–89.

Ontological politics is a composite term. It talks of ontology – which in standard philosophical parlance defines what belongs to the real, the conditions of possibility we live with. If the term ‘ontology’ is combined with that of ‘politics’ then this suggests that the conditions of possibility are not given. That reality does not precede the mundane practices in which we interact with it, but is rather shaped within these practices. So the term politics works to underline this active mode, this process of shaping, and the fact that its character is both open and contested. (74-75)

Ontologies: note that. Now the word needs to go in the plural. For, and this is a crucial move, if reality is done, if it is historically, culturally and materially located, then it is also multiple. Realities have become multiple. (75)

Talking about reality as multiple depends on another set of metaphors. Not those of perspective and construction, but rather those of intervention and performance. These suggest a reality that is done and enacted rather than observed. Rather than being seen by a diversity of watching eyes while itself remaining untouched in the centre, reality is manipulated by means of various tools in the course of a diversity of practices. Here it is being cut into with a scalpel; there it is being bombarded with ultrasound; and somewhere else, a little further along the way it is being put on a scale in order to be weighed. But as a part of such different activities, the object in question varies from one stage to the next. Here it is a fleshy object, there one that is thick and opaque and in the next place it is heavy. In performance stories fleshiness, opacity and weight are not attributes of a single object with an essence which hides. Nor is it the role of tools to lay them bare as if they were so many aspects of a single reality. Instead of attributes or aspects, they are different versions of the object, versions that the tools help to enact. They are different and yet related objects. They are multiple forms of reality. Itself. (77)

[…] what is ‘other’ is also within. Alternative realities don’t simply co-exist side by side, but are also found inside one another. But this is a situation that does not easily fit our traditional notion of politics. (85)

The word ‘ontological politics’ suggests a link between the real, the conditions of possibility we live with, and the political. But how to conceive of this? In this text I’ve not laid out a response to this question, but rather articulated some of the problems that come with a specific interpretation of politics, one that is posed in terms of deliberation or choice. We may list these. One: if we think in such terms then we risk the ramification of options everywhere – with the consequence that they end up always  seeming to be elsewhere. Two: the interference between various political tensions is such that each time one thing seems to be at stake (say: anaemia) an unquantifiable number of other issues and realities are involve as well (say: sex difference). And three: the various performances of reality in medicine have all kinds of tensions between them, but to separate them out as if they were a plurality of options is to skip over the complex interconnections between them. And then there is a fourth problem. Who is the actor who might decide between the options? Might, or should, this be a patient-customer making choices between discrete goods available on a market; or should it be a patient-citizen trying to organize the health care system for the benefit of all? Or, again, are the crucial moments not those where ‘patients’ act as an agent, but rather those where they (we) are define, measured, observed, listened to, or otherwise enacted? (86-87)

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)

Giorgio Agamben “The Sacrament of Language”

December 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Agamben, Giorgio 2011. The Sacrament of Language. An Archaeology of the Oath (Homo Sacer II, 3). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[…] the issue here, above all, is the question, What is an oath? What is at stake in it, if it defines and calls into question man himself as a political animal? If the oath is the sacrament of political power, what is it in its structure and its history that has made it possible for it to be invested with such a function? What anthropological level – a decisive one in every sense – is implicated in it, so that all of man, in life and death, can be called to account in it and by it? (2)

Benveniste, 1948: “[The oath] is a particular modality of assertion, which supports, guarantees, and demonstrates, but does not found anything. Individual or collective, the oath exists only by virtue of that which it reinforces and renders solemn: a pact, an agreement, a declaration. It prepares for or concludes a speech act which alone possesses meaningful content, but it expresses nothing by itself. It is in truth an oral rite, often completed by a manual rite whose form is variable. Its function consists not in the affirmation that it produces, but in the relation that it institutes between the word pronounced and the potency invoked.” (B, The Expression of the Oath in Ancient Greece, 81-82, 4)

All the sources and scholars seem to agree that the oath’s primary function, in its various forms, is that of guaranteeing the truth and efficacy of language. (4)

It is possible […] not only that what was originally at issue in the oath was the guarantee of a promise or of the truthfulness of an affirmation but that the institution that we know today by that name contains the memory of a more archaic stage, in which it was concerned with the very consistency of human language and the very nature of humans as “speaking animals”. The “scourge” that it had to stem was not only the unreliability of men, incapable of staying true to their word, but a weakness pertaining to language itself, the capacity of words themselves to refer to things and the ability of men to make profession of their condition as speaking beings. (8)

The oath is, then, a verbal act that accomplishes a testimony – or a guarantee – independently by the very fact that it has taken place. The formula of Pindar cited above acquires here its full meaning: karteros horkos martys esto Zeus, “as a mighty oath, may Zeus be our witness”: Zeus is not a witness of the oath, but rather oath, witness, and god coincide in the utterance of the formula. As in Philo, the oath is a logos that is necessarily accomplished, and this is precisely the logos of God. The testimony is given by language itself and the god names a potentiality implicit in the very act of speech. The testimony that is in question in the oath must therefore be understood in a sense that has little to do with much of what we normally understand by this term. It concerns not the verification of a fact or an event but the very signifying power of language. (33)

Blasphemy presents us, then, with a phenomenon that is perfectly symmetrical to the oath, to understand which there is no need to drag in the biblical interdiction or the ambiguity of the sacred. Blasphemy is an oath, in which the name of a god is extracted from the assertorial or promissory context and is uttered in itself, in vain, independently of a semantic context. The name, which in the oath expresses and guarantees the connection between words and things and which defines the truthfulness and force of the logos, in blasphemy expresses the breakdown of this connection and the vanity of human language. The name of God, isolated and produced “in vain”, corresponds symmetrically to perjury, which separates words from things; oath and blasphemy, a bene-diction and male-diction, are co-originally implied in the very event of language. (40-41)

What the curse sanctions is the loosening of the correspondence between words and things that is in question in the oath. If the connection that unites language and the world is broken, the name of God, which expressed and guaranteed this connection based in blessing [bene-dicente], becomes the name of the curse [male-dizione], that is, of a word that has broken its truthful relation to things. (42)

If, in polytheism, the name assigned to the god named this or that event of language, this or that specific naming, this or that Sondergott, in monotheism God’s name names language itself. The potentially infinite dissemination of singular, divine events of naming gives way to the divinization of the logos as such, to the name of God as archi-event of language that takes place in names. (49)

It is a certainty, or better a “faith”, of this kind that is in question in the oath and in the name of God. The name of God names the name that is always and only true, that is, that experience of language that it is not possible to doubt. For man this experience is the oath. In this sense very name is an oath, and in every name a “faith” is in question, because the certainty of the name is not of an empirico-constative or logico-epistemic type but rather always puts in play the commitment and praxis of men. To speak is, above all, to swear, to believe in the name. (54)

It is precisely the status of the oath that we have sought so far to reconstruct that allows us, in fact, to understand in a new light the theory of performatives. They represent in language a remnant of a stage (or, rather, the co-originarity of a structure) in which the connection between words and things is not of a semantico-denotative type but performative, in the sense , as in the oath, the verbal act brings being into truth. This is not, as we have seen, a magico-religious stage but a structure antecedent to (or contemporaneous with) the distinction between sense and denotation, which is perhaps not, as we have been accustomed to believe, an original and eternal characteristic of human language but a historical product (which, as such, has not always existed and could one day cease to exist). (55)

[…] in the performative, language suspends its denotation precisely and solely to found its existential connection with things. (56)

Considered in this perspective, the ontological (or onto-theological) argument simply says that if speech exists, then God exists, and God is the expression of this metaphysical “performance”. (56)

[…] metaphysics, the science of pure being, is itself historical and coincides with the experience of the event of language to which man devotes himself in the oath. If the oath is declining, if the name of God is withdrawing from language – and this is what has happened beginning from the event that has been called the “death o f God” or, as one should put it more exactly, “of the name of God” – then metaphysics also reaches completion. (56)

Assertion and veridiction define, that is to say, the two co-originary aspects of the logos. While assertion has an essentially denotative value, meaning that its truth, in the moment of its formulation, is independent of the subject and is measured with logical and objective parameters (conditions of truth, noncontradiction, adequation between words and things), in veridiction the subject constitutes itself and puts itself in play as such by linking itself performatively to the truth of its own affirmation. (57)

Religion and law do not pre-exist the performative experience of language that is in question in the oath, but rather they were invented to guarantee the truth and trustworthiness of the logos through a series of apparatuses, among which the tecnicalization of the oath into a specific “sacrament” – the “sacrament of power” – occupies a central place. (59)

The interpretation of sacretas as an originary performance of power through the production of a killable and unsacrificeable bare life must be completed in the sense that, even before being a sacrament of power, the oath is a consecration of the living human being through the word to the word. The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language. This original sacratio that takes place in the oath takes the technical form of the curse, of the politike ara that accompanies the proclamation of the law. Law is, in this sense, constitutively inked to the curse, and only a politics that has broken this original connection with the curse will be able one day to make possible another use of speech and of the law. (66)

With a tenacious prejudice perhaps connected to their profession, scientists have always considered anthropogenesis to be a problem of an exclusively cognitive order, as if the becoming human of man were solely a question of intelligence and brain size and not also one of ethos, as if intelligence and language did not also and above all pose problems of an ethical and political order, as if Homo sapiens was not also, and of course precisely for that reason, a Homo iustus. (68)

[…] uniquely among living things, man is not limited to acquiring language as one capacity among others that he is given but has made of it his specific potentiality; he has, that is to say, put his very nature at stake in language. (68)

Just as, in the words of Foucault, man “is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”, so also is he the living being whose language places his life in question. These two definitions are, in fact, inseparable and constitutively dependent on each other. The oath is situated at their intersection, understood as the anthropogenic operator by means of which the living being, who has discovered itself speaking, has decided to be responsible for his words and, devoting himself to the logos, to constitute himself as the “living being who has language”. In order for something like an oath to be able to take place, it is necessary, in fact, to be able above all to distinguish, and to articulate together in some way, life and language, actions and words – and this is precisely what the animal, for which language is still an integral part of its vital practice, cannot do. The first promise, the first – and, so to speak, transcendental – sacratio is produced by means of this division, in which man, opposing his language to his actions, can put himself at stake in language, can promise himself to the logos. (69)

On the one hand, there is the living being, more and more reduced to a purely biological reality and to bare life. On the other hand, there is the speaking being, artificially divided from the former, through a multiplicity of technico-mediatic apparatuses, in an experience of the word that grows ever more vain, for which it is impossible to be responsible and in which anything like a political experience becomes more and more precarious. When the ethical – and not simply cognitive – connection that unites words, things, and human actions is broken, this in fact promotes a spectacular and unprecedented proliferation of vain words on the one hand and, on the other, of legislative apparatuses that seek obstinately to legislate on every aspect of that life on which they seem no longer to have any hold. The age of the eclipse of the oath is also the age of blasphemy, in which the name of God breaks away from its living connection with language and can only be uttered “in vain”. (70-71)

The decisive element that confers on human language its peculiar virtue is not in the tool itself but in the place it leaves to the speaker, in the fact that it prepares within itself a hollowed-out form that the speaker must always assume in order to speak – that is to say, in the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language. The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say “I”, must “take the word”, assume it and make it his own. (71)

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)

John Locke “Second Treatise On Government”

Locke, John 1980. Second Treatise On Government. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing.

[…] no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. (18-19)

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hat mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. (19)

We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that, does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. (19)

But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common. (21)

[…] the condition of human life, which requires labour and materials to work on, necessarily introduces private possessions. (22)

[…] though the things of nature are given in common, yet man, by being master of himself, and properietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it, had still in himself the great foundation of property; and that, which made up the great part of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being, when invention and arts had improved the conveniences of life, was perfectly his own, and did not belong in common to others. (27)

[…] but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?) but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own. (32)

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto, punish the offences of all those of that society; there, and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. (46)

Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner; which is, as I have before shewed it, the perfect state of nature. (47)

And thus the common-wealth comes by a power to set down what punishment shall belong to the several transgressions which they think worthy of it, committed amongst the members of that society, (which is the power of making laws) as well as it has the power to punish any injury done unto any of its members, by any one that is not of it, (which is the power of war and peace;) and all this for the preservation of the property of all the members of that society, as far as is possible. (47)

If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? why will he give up his empire, and subject himself to the dominion and controul of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. (65-66)

[…] The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that, by entering into society, which was the end for which they entered into it; too gross an absurdity for any man to own. (73)

Reinhart Koselleck “Crisis”

Koselleck, Reinhart 2006. Crisis. Journal of the History of Ideas 67(2): 357-400.

[…] “crisis” also meant “decision” in the sense of reaching a verdict or judgment, what today is meant by criticism (Kritik). Thus in classical Greek the subsequent separation into two domains of meaning – that of a “subjective critique” and an “objective critique” – were still covered by the same term. (359)

Above all, it was in the sense of “judgment”, “trial”, “legal decision”, and ultimately “court” that crisis achieved a high constitutional status, through which the individual citizen and the community were bound together. (359)

From this specific legal meaning, the term begins to acquire political significance. It is extended to electoral decisions, government resolutions, decisions of war and peace, death sentences and exile, the acceptance of official reports, and, above all, to government decisions as such. Consequently, krisis is most necessary for the community, representing what is at once just and salutary. For this reason, only one who participated as judge could be a citizen. For the Greeks, therefore, “crisis” was a central concept by which justice and the political order could be harmonized through appropriate legal decisions. (359)

[…] medical theory of crisis, which originated in the Corpus Hippocraticum and which Galen (129-99) firmly entrenched for about fifteen hundred years. In the case of illness, crisis refers both to the observable condition and to the judgment (judicium) about the course of illness. At such a time, it will be determined whether the patient will live or die. This required properly identifying the beginning of an illness in order to predict how regular its development will be. Depending on whether or not the crisis led to a fill restoration of health, the distinction was made between a perfect crisis and an imperfect crisis. The latter left open the possibility of a relapse. A further distinction, between acute and chronic crises, has led – since Galen – to a temporal differentiation in the progression of illnesses. (360)

With its adoption into Latin, the concept subsequently underwent a metaphorical expansion into the domain of social and political language. There it is used as a transitional or temporal concept (Verlaufsbegriff), which, as in a legal trial, leads towards a decision. It indicates that point in time which a decision is due but has not yet been rendered. (361)

At all times [whether legal, theological or medical use] the concept is applied to life-deciding alternatives meant to answer questions about what is just or unjust, what contributes to salvation or damnation, what furthers health or brings death. (361)

Although the metaphor of the body or organism has been applied to the community since antiquity, it was not until the seventeenth century that the medical concept of crisis was applied to the “body politic” or to its constituent parts. Thus in 1627, Rudyerd used this term during the battle between parliament and the absolutist crown: “This is the Chrysis of Parliaments; we shall know by this if Parliaments life or die.” A little later, at the time of the civil war, the word became anglicized, lost its exclusively medical meaning, and perhaps began to refer more to its theological roots. In 1643, for example, Baillie wrote: “this seems to be a new period and crise of the most great affairs.” This expression became generally established, while increasingly acquiring religious connotations. (362)

Although we can presuppose that many scholars were familiar with those [juridical and theological] meanings, it appears that the primary point of departure for the expansion of the term into political and economic sphere was the medical usage. (365)

[…] the metaphorical extension of crisis into the German vernacular entered first through political rather than economic language. Thus Pierer in 1845 points to the political but not yet economic application of the term. At the same time, however, French lexicography already provides a comprehensive article on “crise commerciale” and gives it parity with “crise (médicine)” and “crise politique“. (366)

In Germany, however, such an economic application was not made until 1850 with Roscher’s article in the Brockhaus’s Gegenwart (The Present), in which he writes of “production crises considered with special reference to the most recent decades.” (367)

“Crisis” was used appropriately to describe concrete civil war situations that divided the loyalty of citizens. Pleading along this line, Count Reinhart, in a petition to the King of Westphalia, used the term to prevent him from carrying out summary executions. On the other hand, he could apply the same term in 1819 – “political crisis” – to a mere change of cabinet in Paris. (369)

The spectrum of political applications thus ranged broadly. “Crisis” marked external or military situations that were reaching a decisive point; it pointed to fundamental changes in constitutions in which the alternatives were the survival or demise of a political entity and its constitutional order; but it could also describe a simple change of government. The common use of the word had neither been validated nor sufficiently enriched to be elevated into a basic concept. (369)

From the second half of the eighteenth century on, a religious connotation enters into the way the term is used. It does so, however, in a post-theological mode, namely as a philosophy of history. At the same time, the metaphor of illness as well as the associational power of the “Last Judgment” and the “Apocalypse” remain pervasive in the way the term is used, leaving no doubt as to the theological origins of the new way in which the concept is constructed. (370)

[…] the concept of crisis can generalize the modern experience to such an extent that “crisis” becomes a permanent concept of “history”. This appears for the first time with Schiller’s dictum: “Die Weltgeschicte ist das Weltgericht” (“World History is the Last Judgment”), the impact of which cannot be overestimated. Without actually taking over the term “Last Judgment”, Schiller nonetheless interprets all of human history as a single crisis that is constantly and permanently taking place. The final judgment will not be pronounced from without, either by God or by historians in ex post facto pronouncements about history. Rather, it will be executed through all the actions and omissions of mankind. What was left undone in one minute, eternity will not retrieve. The concept of crisis has become the fundamental mode of interpreting historical time. (371)

Another variant lies in the repeated application of a crisis concept that represents at the same time – like the ascending line of progress – a historically unique transition phase. It then coagulates into an epochal concept in that it indicates a critical transition period after which – if not everything, then much – will be different. (371)

As it pertains to historical time, then, the semantics of the crisis concept contains four interpretative possibilities. 1) Following the medical-political-military use, “crisis” can mean that chain of events leading to a culminating, decisive point at which action is required. 2) In line with the theological promise of a future Last Day, “crisis” may be defined as a unique and final point, after which the quality of history will be changed forever. 3) Somewhat more removed from the earlier medical or theological semantic spheres, are two new historical (or temporal) coinages. The first uses “crisis” as a permanent or conditional category pointing to a critical situation which may constantly recur or else to situations in which decisions have momentous consequences. 4)The second new coinage uses “crisis” to indicate a historically immanent transitional phase. When this transition will occur and whether it leads to a worse or better condition depends on the specific diagnosis offered. (371-372)

All of these possibilities reveal attempts to develop a single concept limited to the present with which to capture a new era that may have various temporal beginnings and whose unknown future seems to give free scope to all sorts of wishes and anxieties, fears and hope. “Crisis” becomes a structural signature of modernity. (372)

Chateaubriand similarly uses the term as a key concept essential to all political parties: “In this moment of crisis no one can say “I will do something tomorrow” without having foreseen what tomorrow will bring.” Everyone is equally in the dark. All therefore must seek to discover the origins of this crisis, one’s own situation in it and the path to the future. This was to be his task. He compared all earlier revolutions with the ongoing French Revolution. For him, “crisis” is the point at which the present situation intersects with universal historical conditions that must first be understood before a prognosis could be offered. (376)

[…] Herder employs the decisive concept of crisis: “since for a variety of reasons we are living in the midst of such a strange crisis of the human spirit (indeed why not also of the human heart?), it is up to us to discover and assess all the inner forces of history rather than continue paying homage to a naive idea of progress.” (377)

“Crisis” plays only a peripheral role in the German Idealist philosophy of history in which the spirit (Geist) that drives reality naturally triumphs over any acute crisis. But the concept of crisis assumed a central place among its heirs, the Young Hegelians (Junghegelianer). This praxis- and action-oriented philosophy seeks to achieve that freedom, the absence of which is the object of its critique. At odds with reality, that critique is pushing for a decision, which, historically understood as “crisis”, is already pre-programmed and prepared. (384)

Because it is able to see the direction of history, this critique is propelling the crisis. In Bruno Bauer’s words: “History … will elevate to power the freedom which theory has given us and thereby create the world in a new form. … History will take of the crisis and its outcome.” Judging history correctly will determine whether the problems of state, church, and society demanding a decision can be solved in practice. The concept of crisis thus remains within a philosophy of history calling for the execution of tendencies revealed through critique. (385)

[Lorenz von Stein, Geschichte der sozialen Bewegung in Frankreich von 1789 bis auf unsere Tage, 1850]: “Throughout Europe there is a sense that the present condition cannot last much longer. Powerful and terrible movements are coming to the fore; no one dares to predict where they will lead. Hence no one has the right to offer a magic formula for the future.” […] The 1848 Revolution, which announces “the sovereignty of industrial society”, is merely one “act of that mighty crisis.” As with Saint-Simon, von Stein’s concept of crisis is drawn from an all-encompassing view of history which sees the revolutions of the nineteenth century as steps in the transition toward industrial society. At the same time, Stein prognosticates only two alternatives: a just social order or collapse. Thus his theory of the three epochs contains a decidedly eschatological component. (385-386)

[of Burckhardt]: The wars of the nineteenth century were only a part of this larger crisis, into which the forces of democracy and material ambitions, lust for power, and intellectual utopias all merged. But the “principal crisis” will come only with the convergence of technology, wars, and social revolutions. “At that point, the main decision must come from the nature of humanity itself” (thus transforming once and for all the metaphor of the Last Judgment into and anthropological and historical category). (388)

Surely our concept would never have become a central concept had it not acquired an additional interpretive content that reflected and experience increasingly common in daily life: economic crises. In Germany these were initially due to the costs of the wars against the French, to agrarian surpluses, as in 1825, or to failed harvests, as in 1847. But from 1857 on, economic crises were increasingly viewed as global occurrences caused by the capitalist system itself. (389)

From the 1840s on, the economically-based concept of crisis permeates the growing literature of social criticisms – coming from all political and social camps – that had begun to flood the market. “Crisis” was well suited to conceptualize both the emergencies resulting from contemporary constitutional or class specific upheavals, as well as the distress caused by industry, technology, and the capitalist market economy. These could be treated as symptoms of a serious disease or as a disturbance of the economy’s equilibrium. This undoubtedly prompted Roscher, in 1854, to coin the general formula: these are crises “the changing substance of which may take changing forms. Such crises are called ‘reforms’ if they are resolved peacefully under the auspices of the established legal system, but ‘revolutions’ if they produce changes violating the law.” Thus, in the economic sphere as well, “crisis” had been elevated into a historical “super concept” (Oberbegriff) with which to analyze the challenges of the century. (391-392)

“Crisis” remains a catchword, used rigorously in only a few scholarly or scientific contexts. Schumpeter denies its utility even for political economy, which is why, in his analysis of business cycles, he gives “no technical meaning to the term crisis, but only to the concepts of prosperity and depression.” (397)

The concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh and non-negotiable alternatives, has been transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favored at a given moment. (399)