[On October 4, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Biopolitics’” as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Penelope Deutscher, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Northwestern U. Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall, Political Science.]
Foucault and the Necropolitics of Reproduction
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science)
Typically speaking, the concept of biopolitics gets invoked in the context of its largely negative usage in Foucault’s theorization of the term. For Foucault, the term refers to the manifold ways in which political power affects, and is affected by, the bodily and material conditions that inform and subtend the political, but especially insofar as politics takes the alteration, management, or production of those conditions to be its specific objective. Foucault describes a shift in the mode of political power, then, or, rather, the emergence of a new kind of political power – called biopower – that largely overtakes and transforms political power conceived as mere sovereignty. On Foucault’s analysis, politics today is largely biopolitics – sometimes called the politics of life itself . Biopolitics takes its object to be the administration or regulation of the body and the body politic alike, precisely as bodies to be disciplined and populations to be managed and securitized.
As Penelope Deutscher argues in her talk, however, it is very important to avoid disaggregating and reducing the terms and possibilities of Foucault’s analytical framework into overly periodized categories. In other words, it is far too simplistic to sketch the historical trajectory that Foucault recreates in terms of a fundamental discontinuity between an epoch in which sovereignty functions as the dominant form of political power and the epoch in which biopower dominates. To the contrary, as Deutscher notes, quoting from Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population (8): “There is not the legal age, the disciplinary age, and then the age of security. Mechanisms of security do not replace disciplinary mechanisms, which would have replaced juridico-legal mechanisms. In reality you have a series of complex edifices in which, of course, the techniques themselves change and are perfected, or anyway become more complicated, but in which what above all changes is the dominant characteristic, or more exactly, the system of correlation between juridico-legal mechanisms, disciplinary mechanisms, and mechanisms of security.”
For Deutscher, then, Foucault’s refusal to periodize overly in his work lets us see the various ways in which both biopower and sovereign power not only inform and interpenetrate each other, but also how these conflicting modes of power inflect and produce cultural formations or functional structures (i.e., dispositifs) in all their actual complexity, difficulty, and irresolution.
It is precisely here that Deutscher effects an intervention in the discourse of reproductive politics. On the one hand, she identifies the degree to which much of the post-Foucauldian theorization of biopolitics tends to foreground necropolitics, or thanatopolitics – that is, the tendency for biopolitics, ostensibly committed to the maximization of vitality in a population, to become its opposite, effecting broadly eugenicist programs intended to extirpate all life conceived as sick, undesirable, or weak. Even a cursory overview of the literature shows how prominent this emphasis is (e.g., in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer or in Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics”). On the other hand, given the many ways in which reproductive politics appear to fall well within the purview of the biopolitical, why, Deutscher asks, is there not more critical attention given to how the biopolitics of reproduction becomes imbricated with the “powers of death” Foucault so often foregrounds in his analyses?
Deutscher employs an illuminating example of precisely such a place in which necropolitics, reproductive rights, and various figurations of sovereignty become entangled together – namely, in the visual rhetorics of anti-abortion billboards and roadside displays (see Figure 1). Here we can start to see the degree to which challenged, fantasmatic, multiple, and waning sovereignties get articulated and imputed to various subjects in various ways, as well as how discourses and dispositifs of affect, animality, criminality, motherhood, racialization, responsibility, and statistical enumeration traverse the contested political site: a site that is ostensibly coextensive with the body of the mother as such.
Particularly in the context of how abortion gets racialized in many of these billboards, it seems that Deutscher has put her finger on a very important and prescient example of just how biopolitics and necropolitics intertwine so as to inform, and be informed by, parallel and related discourses. In Figures 2-4, we can see how falsely affected concern for the black subject gets performed visually by means of deploying remarkably racist and storied rhetorics of animality (“Black Children Are An Endangered Species”), aggressive challenges to the legitimacy of black motherhood as such (“The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American Is in the Womb”), and implicit appeals to violence as stereotypically imputed to predominantly black communities (“End the Violence”). It is as if the only concern for people of color is when they are not yet born, as if white supremacy vocalizes itself quite explicitly in the following dictum: We care for you as long as you are not yet born, while you can still be used as a weapon against your communities and parents. After birth, you simply become our enemy again, no longer a weapon to be used in the slow-motion genocide being visited upon communities of color, but, now, only a target for systematic police brutality and harassment, subject to degraded and discontinued social services.
Perhaps perversely, this brings to mind a nightmarish illustration by the Swiss artist H. R. Giger – “Birth Machine Babies” (Figure 5) – in which the fetal form, environed in the firing chamber of some monstrous firearm, gets represented as a bullet, simultaneously an instrument for killing and a rather strange sort of subject whose brief existence gets figured entirely in terms of its weaponization.
More generally, Deutscher also draws our attention to some methodological principles or suggestions drawn from how Foucault, in fact, articulates his analyses. First, she argues, it is possible not only to read Foucault better by means of attending more carefully and closely to the historical and theoretical contradictions he emphasizes, but also to employ the categories and terms he provides us with to more provocative ends. In other words, the Foucauldian frame functions not just to show us how our subject positions are invalidated by their implication in various states of affairs (e.g., structural injustices). Perhaps more importantly, however, it enables us to articulate and examine the complexity of the world in which we are acting and reacting.
As Deutscher emphasizes, all modes of power are always already multimodal. A hand raised to another person in care can be read not only as a gesture of care, but also as a gesture of the assumption of right, or of appropriation. Indeed, such a gesture might well be both of these things at the same time – both care and appropriation, equally and incommensurably. This is because any given mode of power traverses multiple registers, just as it is traversed by multiple temporalities. As Deutscher notes, we all-too-often expect a phenomenon we encounter to be one thing. We expect this from our objects of study, but we also expect it from our theorists (such as Foucault). To the contrary, she suggests, awareness of the multiple modes of power that transect any given site of interest makes possible modes of productive disruption that otherwise might remain inaccessible to us. This is as equally true for our objects of study as it is for the theorists we employ.