What’s left of biopolitics?

RP 173 () / Review

Patricia Ticineto Clough and Craig Willse, eds, Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2011. 400 pp., £75.00 hb., £17.99 pb., 978 0 82235 003 3 hb., 978 0 82235 017 0 pb.

François Debrix and Alexander D. Barder, Beyond Biopolitics: Theory, Violence and Horror in World Politics, Routledge, Abingdon, 2012. 184 pp., £80.00 hb., 978 0 41578 059 9.

Stephen J. Collier, Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2011. 320 pp., £48.95 hb., £18.95 pb., 978 0 69114 830 4 hb., 978 0 69114 831 1 pb.

Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Zakiya Hanafi, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2011. 200 pp., £55.00 hb., £16.99 pb., 978 0 74564 913 9 hb., 978 0 74564 914 6 pb.

Claudia Aradau

In 2007, Worldwatch Institute published a report on ‘Our Biopolitical Future’, outlining four scenarios of radical change brought about by new genetic technologies. Another site enjoined visitors to become ‘commercial biopower agents’. Academic journals are now dedicated to biosecurity and bioterrorism, and bioethics commissions have proliferated both domestically and internationally. As biopolitics is claimed by experts on biodefence, biosecurity, bioethics and biotechnology, what critical terminology can be invented to grasp the political stakes of the present? If Foucault tentatively proposed the terminology of biopower and biopolitics to capture transformations that had not been named as such, what purchase can the concept of biopolitics have on the proliferation of biopolitical language today? Four recent books offer different answers to these dilemmas.

Two of these books both invoke and depart from the concept of biopolitics by asking what is ‘beyond biopolitics’. Is ‘beyond biopolitics’ a temporal inflection, an ‘after’ biopolitics? Or is ‘beyond biopolitics’ a contemporary reinvention of power, a heterogeneous assemblage where junctures, jointures and transformations rely upon, relay and at times short-circuit each other? In thinking about what is left of biopolitics, questions of remains and remainders are inevitably present. At the same time, biopolitics seems to acquire a renewed vitality that insidiously seeps into, permeates and informs social and political life. Biopolitics as both remainder and reinvention is at the heart of both Clough and Willse’s edited collection and Debrix and Barder’s co-authored book, each of which is entitled Beyond Biopolitics. The arguments in these books are not, however, that biopolitics is dead and that we now live in a post-biopolitical world, but rather that biopolitics is becoming-different while preserving some of its rationality. In Clough and Willse’s formulation, the common theme for the essays collected in the book is ‘the governance of life and death beyond biopolitics’. For Debrix and Barder, the stakes of the analysis emerge out of the ‘biopolitical framing of life and death’ and the need to go beyond the biopolitical frame of intelligibility to understand different manifestations of violence today. Both contributions are thus structured around the relations between biopolitics and necropolitics or thanatopolitics – or what Étienne Balibar has called positive and negative biopolitics. Balibar’s distinction assumes an uneven and differential distribution of positive and negative biopolitics across the world, and the authors in the two books trace the formations of violence, the work of exclusion and the force of death-making globally: from the destruction of bodies through the selling of blood in China to narco-violence in Mexico, from radicalized detention in the USA to targeted assassinations of Palestinians by Israeli military, and from profiling of Muslim populations in the USA to the surveillance of Turkish immigrants in Germany.

The two other books under discussion engage biopolitics either as a grid of intelligibility for past and present regimes of practice (Collier’s Post-Soviet Social) or as a concept that informs the philosophical thinking of the present (Esposito’s Immunitas). In fact, although neither is explicitly located ‘beyond biopolitics’, both Collier’s and Esposito’s interventions also work with more or less explicit inflections of both ‘beyond’ and ‘biopolitics’. In the context of neoliberalism beyond the Washington Consensus, Collier reminds us that ‘beyond’ is not equivalent to ‘after’, given the long histories that traditions of neoliberal thought have. For Collier, neoliberalism is much more elusive and contingent in its manifestations given the different ways in which the post- Soviet social is assembled: there is no ‘coherency and constancy across its articulation in diverse times and spaces’. If Collier’s work is indebted to Ian Hacking’s formulations of historical ontology and develops a method attentive to the historical conditions of intelligibility of both socialist biopolitics and post-socialist neoliberalism, Esposito’s formulations on biopolitics could be seen as ontology tout court, even as both are preoccupied with the interaction between politics, history and thought. Esposito’s conceptualization of biopolitics has already received careful exegesis in the English-speaking world, and, in fact, the third book of his Italian trilogy comprising Communitas, Immunitas and Bios was translated into English a few years ago (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Although only one chapter of Immunitas is explicitly dedicated to biopolitics, Esposito’s engagement sets out a different method and perspective on ‘beyond biopolitics’. For him, the stakes of biopolitics play out in terms of philosophico-political logics rather than struggles over power and knowledge. The extensive medicalization that links states and body politics gains meaning through the legitimation of power as life protecting. The semantics of biopolitics, of life and the body politic to be protected is understood through the ‘quasi-transcendental’ of immunity. Immunity is thus always contaminated by the risks to life it attempts to contain, in a sense always already biopolitical, continually supplemented and reinforced rather than opposed.

The differences in the interpretations of ‘biopolitics’ and its ‘beyond’ that the four books propose emerge out of the different problematizations that each text attends to. For many of the authors in Clough and Willse’s book, and for Debrix and Barder, the problem is that of excessive and ordinary violence, death and destruction. It is the ‘negative’ rather than the ‘positive’ biopolitics that dominates here. Therefore biopolitics is supplemented by either necropolitics or thanatopolitics to expose the co-constitution of life- and death-impulses in biopolitical governance. What characterizes these biopolitical spaces in which life is administered, monitored and surveyed is the drawing of boundaries, the hierarchization of life, the proliferation and intensification of violence. Under the guise of risk management, ethical limits and protection, the contributions to Clough and Willse’s Beyond Biopolitics reveal forms of exclusion, ordinary exceptions, killing, and life destruction as value creation. Violence is also problematized in Debrix and Barder, who are particularly concerned with the transformation of enmity. On the one hand, war as global police action appears to invoke an understanding of enmity based on deviancy, abnormality, criminality and counterconduct. On the other, enmity is simultaneously projected beyond definitions of normality and abnormality that presuppose the framework of political order and meaning. Thus, their argument goes, biopolitical perspectives cannot capture enmity understood as ‘a modality of gruesome maiming of humanity itself’. The distinction between normal and absolute enemy, taken from Susan Buck-Morss and a recent piece by Carlo Galli, does not negate biopolitical practices of normalization and regulation, but effects an implosion of biopolitics. Debrix and Barder draw on Adriana Cavarero’s concept of ‘horrorism’ to analyse violence that is paralysing and repugnant rather than compelling and activating. Agonal violence and horror appear ‘in excess of biopolitics’. The other problematization that traverses these two books, and is entwined with that of violence, is the problematization of racism within biopolitical governance. Sora Y. Han, for instance, suggests that ‘biopower does not fully explain the history of race and the force of sexuality as they are implicated in the Japanese American internment camp’. However, Randy Martin points out, following Foucault, that ‘[r]acism is the governmental protocol for sorting population in response to the series of threats posed by the proliferation of forms of life’. Debrix and Barder also see race as the differentiated principle that introduces death at the heart of biopolitics.

Different problematizations inform Collier’s and Esposito’s books. Collier asks how the health and welfare of populations were constituted as objects of knowledge in Soviet urban planning, and later on through neoliberal reform. In tracing the changing contours of governmental interventions, his aim is to locate what one could call a ‘minor biopolitics’ of mundane regulations. Rather than exceptions, violence or pathology, Collier focuses on the infrastructures, regulations and ideas that are deployed to govern populations, thus tracing ‘possible futures’ within biopolitics rather than beyond it. Although at first sight he seems to offer a reading of ‘positive’ biopolitics – interestingly, violence, exception and death are not even indexed – in fact the distinction positive/negative biopolitics would be an unproductive lens through which to approach the book, in so far as Collier challenges this very distinction through his careful historical analysis. Esposito similarly problematizes the entwinement of life and death in the body politic and the biopolitics/necropolitics distinction, this time through a political-philosophical reading. Specifically, he is concerned with the generalized medicalization of political life and imaginary of disease and infection that traverses political philosophy, and explores the organic metaphor of the body, of flesh and life at the heart of political modernity. His problematization thus entails semantic and etymological readings of biopolitics.

These different readings also emerge from within particular understandings of what counts as knowledge, whether the knowledge of politicians, of experts, of the military, of ethicists and lawyers, of economists and urban planners, or ultimately of the philosopher-king, is constitutive of regimes of practice. For several contributors to Clough and Willse’s Beyond Biopolitics, a concept of pre-emption appears as a needed replacement for that of biopower. Rendered infamous by the Bush doctrine, pre-emption is thought to capture a new modality of governance. As Brian Massumi argues in the book’s first chapter, the temporality of biopolitics emerges in relation to an ‘indiscriminate threat’ understood as generic. For Parisi and Goodman, biopower needs to be understood through ‘the intricate speculative operations of preemptive power’. If, for Massumi, pre-emptive power needs to supplement biopower, for Parisi and Goodman pre-emption appears to define biopower or, rather, to ‘insert a temporal dimension into power’. Pre-emptive power is thus deployed in relation to a changing knowledge of threat as being capable of irrupting at any point in time and everywhere in space, with catastrophic consequences. It mobilizes intelligence, computer science, legal expertise and political strategy to act upon anticipatory futurity. While several contributions engage with modes of knowledge, Eyal Weizman’s chapter stands out in locating the conditions of possibility of targeted assassinations within networks of military specialists, security experts, legal committees and their knowledges. The extension of targeted assassinations as a pre-emptive and ordinary mode of Israeli attack in Gaza needs to be understood through the juncture of modes of technical knowledge and politico-military strategy. For instance, systems analysis changes the understanding of the enemy to an ‘operational network of interacting elements’, where targeted attacks can have wider implications for the network, while presumably reducing the risks of casualties. It is in relation to these forms of knowledge that the question of biopolitics is reformulated. If particular regimes of statistical, biological and economic knowledge had been constitutive of populations as an object of truth and power, the very techniques of risk, of statistical calculation and classification are supplemented and transformed by other modes of knowledge. One could inquire what happens to biopolitics when imaginaries of danger explode towards what François Ewald called the infinitely large and infinitely smallscale risks, when, on the one hand, risks to populations are environmental, thus taking away the very normality and regularity of the milieu upon which biopolitics was deployed, and, on the other, appear at the infinitely small-scale, in biological, genetic or food-related risks. Massumi, for example, tackles this explosion of life towards the infinitely large: life as a ‘complex, systemic threat environment, composed of subsystems that are not only complex in their own right but are complexly interconnected’. When complexity theory and systems analysis are increasingly brought within the remit of statistical, biological and economic knowledge, can immunity capture this recalibration of knowledge? It suffices to think of the ways in which protection has been increasingly supplemented by demands for preparedness and resilience where the infinitely large scale and small scale are concerned. In the understanding that life can no longer be protected, subjects are enjoined to become resilient, to bounce back in the face of unpreventable, unexpected and potentially catastrophic dangers and risks. However, not all knowledge is necessarily reframed through complexity theory or algorithmic processes, as Collier reminds us through a fascinating exploration of the role of economic knowledge in Russia’s post-Communist ‘transition’. Neoliberal knowledge about budgeting and fiscal systems is simultaneously present and absent; some elements of Russia’s fiscal policy derived from neoliberal ideas while others were unrecognizable in a neoliberal thought-collective.

Together, these four books can be seen to canvass an undecidability about what biopolitics is. The interactions between biopolitics and sovereignty, present and future, positive and negative, life and death, normality and excess, terror and horror can support arguments about the transformation of biopolitics, its transgression or continued relevance. For Foucault, the distinction between sovereignty and biopower is not simply that the former works through repression and ‘taking life’, while the latter through productivity and ‘making live’. As Collier reminds us, it is population rather than an undefined life that is ‘a new site of veridiction’. Rather than individualizing, biopolitics is massifying, taking as its object a population through a period of time. Biopolitics captured the transformation of power from sovereign and disciplinary techniques to a technique which acts upon populations as collectives. Yet, Foucault himself had often placed populations in the continuum of human species, life and publics. Thus, Esposito can gloss on the object of biopolitics: ‘he [Foucault] is referring to the only element that groups all individuals into the same species: the fact that each has a body’. Biopolitics is then pushed towards the pole of anatomopolitics, the disciplinary politics of making docile bodies. Readings of biopolitics reconfigure it not only through different problematizations and modes of knowledge, but also through the specification of its object: from populations to species life, from life to bodies, from bodies to affects, from affect to identity, identity to data, and so forth. Rather than disempowering, this undecidability is the springboard for thinking the critical purchase of biopolitics.

The use of biopolitics has been suggestive of critical unease with the administration of life, the pursuance of protection, the transformations of capitalism, the development of biotechnology, the emergence of new modes of regulations of risk, and the making of neoliberal subjects. For Esposito, ‘When politics takes life as an object of direct intervention, it ends up reducing it to a state of absolute immediacy.’ For Debrix and Barder, biopolitics entails the proliferation of violence, not just as terror and war, but also as ‘horror’. A similar unease is formulated by Eugene Thacker: with biopolitics, biological or political life has been replaced by a ‘whatever-life in which biology and sovereignty, or medicine and politics, continually inflect and fold onto each other’. For other contributors to Clough and Willse’s Beyond Biopolitics, biopolitics is invested in the production and circulation of death. So what is left of critique, if we understand it in Foucault’s terms as how not to be governed thus? Can critique embrace indeterminacy, when indeterminacy is now embedded in the modes of knowledge and regimes of practice? Can we reinvent immunity or other forms of life such as ‘common life’ or the ‘good life’ which are excluded through the ‘irresistible tendency of political philosophy (and political practice) to incorporate social plurality’ (Esposito)? Or can critique find its force in the actuality of practice, in asking ‘how these values are elaborated in practical terms, and how they are at stake in particular reforms, institutions and forms of reasoning about the problems of distribution, substantive provisioning, and calculative rationality that have persistently preoccupied governmental reflection in modern states’ (Collier)? Disciplinary affiliations may not be indifferent to the problematizations and critical operations that each text performs. Stephen Collier is an anthropologist, Esposito a philosopher, Debrix and Barder international relations theorists. Clough and Willse, both with disciplinary homes in sociology, introduce Beyond Biopolitics as a ‘transdisciplinary effort to critically engage the multiple tendencies and trajectories that have both informed neoliberal governance and found expression in its reformulation today’. While disciplinary affiliations appear to carry particular orientations towards problematization and critique, all four books also carry a transdisciplinary impulse that takes analysis beyond and at times against disciplinary boundaries. It can be the beginning of a dialogue that takes not only biopolitics as a transdisciplinary concept, but critique itself.