[On October 10, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Life After the Nation-State: Biopolitics and Beyond” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Richard Keller (University of Wisconsin). Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall (Political Science)]
Living with Biopolitical Nightmares
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science)
Richard Keller raises an urgent question for everyone who wants to understand politics today: Is biopolitics obsolete?
When we talk about biopolitics, we’re talking not only about Michel Foucault’s ambiguous, yet remarkably fertile foray into the historical mutations of power. We’re also talking about an entire research paradigm addressing itself to the capacious and idiosyncratic set of cross-cutting political theories that both criticize and integrate questions about biology and the life sciences. Our biopolitical archives consist of diverse fields ranging from the history of eugenics and racialization to contemporary problematics in bioethics, the medical humanities, and posthumanism. For Foucault, biopolitics refers to the partial transformation of sovereign power into various modes of biopower. He describes sovereign power in terms of direct political authority over death – characterized by him as the power to let subjects live and to make subjects die – whereas biopower articulates itself through anthropometric regimes exemplifying the obverse power to make subjects live and to let subjects die.
Other theorists approach and expand upon biopolitics in a variety of ways: in terms of philosophical narratives exceeding the constraints of modernity’s advent (e.g., Giorgio Agamben, whose eight-volume Homo Sacer series maintains that an originary conceptual distinction between βίος, or bios, and ζωή, or zoe, leads to globally disastrous biopolitical consequences), as a potentially affirmative site of interaction between our largely deracinated political communities and the vital materiality of the body itself (e.g., Roberto Esposito, who describes biopolitical modernity in terms of a self-consuming immunitarian dynamic), and through a broadly postcolonial lens (e.g. Achille Mbembe, who argues that biopower generates itself by imposing conditions of material and social death upon colonial subjects).
Figure 1: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.
For Keller, however, the question about the relevance of biopolitics today takes shape in a very specific context – namely, in our context, in the conditions of brutal austerity, ecological crisis, political decay, and state failure we observe around the world today. After all, for Foucault, biopower appears as an apparatus or a function of the changing state form, and modernity heralds the transformation of the state into an increasingly biopoliticized regime. Hence, Keller’s questions raises some very interesting additional questions for us to consider. Can or do biopolitical regimes outlive the states that birthed them? Is it meaningful or useful to speak of biopolitics when “traditional” modes of biopower might appear to be eroding? How does biopower articulate itself across torched landscapes and wastelands, through populations that states have lost or failed to track? (A multitude of speculative possibilities suggest themselves here, for we can imagine such failures of mapping either as occasions for the intensification of security regimes or as opportunities for rebellion and refusal. Might we not then read Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” as a parable of liberation – and its “Tattered Ruins […] inhabited by Animals and Beggars” as a testament to the failure of biopower to tame or trap the wildness of the world?)
Keller addresses some of these questions by examining several intriguing texts, all of which highlight the role and significance of liminality for any new biopolitics after the state. Specifically, he highlights recent work by John M. Willis, Debarati Sanyal, and Peter Redfield. In various ways, all of these scholars direct our attention to novel forms of biopolitics that exceed the “normal” conditions of state biopower. Indeed, these three examinations of refugeeism, religious securitarianism, and state failure raise the question of whether or not this strange thing we call biopolitics (it is by now almost a platitude that “biopolitics” is too polysemic to be defined) was ever as European, state-centric, or Western in its diagnostic structure as it appears to be in the Foucauldian discourse.
Something to consider, however – and Keller does discuss this – is the degree to which the fetish for privatization in modern Western culture inflects the domain of biopolitics as we find it. The concern here is that state failures prove vulnerable for corporate opportunism. However, it is certainly true that Foucault himself always sutured together biopolitics and political economy into various hideous historical hybrids of domination. Indeed, even Foucault’s late lectures on the “Birth of Biopolitics” largely concern themselves with the emergence of neoliberalism as cultural form and norm. In this regard, we should wonder about the degree to which biopolitical liminality offers avenues of escape rather than more opportunities for market segmentation. (Potential examples abound: compare Google’s provision of emergency balloons intended to provide Internet access in Puerto Rico with stories of United States soldiers calling firearm customer service hotlines for technical advice during the heat of battle.)
I’m reminded of nothing so much as K. W. Jeter’s nightmarish imaginary of future human subjects so biopolitically constrained that they are not even allowed to die – those he refers to in his dystopian cyberpunk novel Noir (1998) as “the indeadted.” The near-future world Jeter depicts could easily be ours, and in many ways, it is. Consider only the afterlife of e-waste and the practices of shipbreaking>. There is no functional government, no state that has not collapsed; the de facto sovereigns of this dying Earth are massive corporations that do not “rule” so much as they sequester themselves within the high temples of profit. All products and services come at a price no one can afford. Consider the following as a snapshot of that future, a future where the wolf flow of climax capitalism binds everyone and everything together in a surveilled economy of infinite productivity from which there no longer appears to be an escape:
The entire economy of the dead – the indeadted – and of the dead territory in which they existed […] varied: there were high-functioning corpses such as McNihil’s wife, and low-level scrabblers such as the ones he had seen from the window of the train coming down here. A lot resulted from whatever shape the particular deceased was in when the reanimating transition was made. If some poor bastard had scoured out his neural pathways with various pharmaceuticals, reduced the cortex in his skull to a red sponge squeezed down to its last endorphins and catecholamines, then all the batteries and add-on sensors and motivational prods that could be retrofitted onto his chill-cased spinal column weren’t going to make him into anything more than a shambling scrap-picker. The little scattered herd of unfortunates out along the tracks used their low-grade but effective skills to pluck out recyclable metals or anything else of possible value from the rubbish heaps that the garbage-laden trains dumped off twice a day. Cheaper to let the idiot dead scavenge and collect, in their slow, hunched way, than spend the money for automated scanning machinery to do the same thing. Which proved that being in trouble was a relative thing. McNihil felt an old horror, familiar enough to be almost comfortable, deep at the floor of his gut, when he saw the pickers and scavengers going about their black-fingered rounds, like crows minus even a bird’s intelligence. But they didn’t seem to mind it. Rooting around for scraps of aluminum foil, the still-shiny tracings off busted circuit boards, probably didn’t even bring in enough to service the interest on whatever debt load they had died carrying. “Died” in that other world, the one the officially living inhabited. So most of them – short of coming across some lucky find, maybe an ancient collectible Lone Ranger and Trigger lunch-box at the bottom of some unexplored slag-pile – were actually just scrabbling themselves deeper into debt, becoming more truly indeadted with every bent-spined raking of splintered fingernails across the mulching discards of the world they were no longer part of. They could go like that for decades, McNihil knew. With no cellular regeneration, the scavengers would wear away their hands against the corrosive, sharp-edged trash, until they were poking through it with the stumps of their forearms, their backs permanently fused into perfect half-circles. And beyond: dismaying rumors circulated, of the torsos of unlucky deadtors scrubbed free of all limbs, chests dryly flayed to breastbones and spidery ribs, the exposed batteries draining down to the last feeble amperage fraction. […] Being in the territory of corpses made it difficult to put away the grim images. Of worse things yet, of poor bastards worn down to ragged skulls, trailing an umbilicus of batteries after them as they inched their way across the bleak landscape with little motions of their dirty-white jawbones. Digging out glittery bits of old gum wrappers with their eroded incisors, nudging like dung beetles their little wads of recyclable detritus to the redemption center at the zone’s border, making another meaningless nick at the tab they’d accumulated in that other, pre-death life. Like Marley’s ghost, dragging around a chain whose links were instead forged out of the enticing perishables of the cheap-’n’-nastiverse… (87-88)