Reading Roberto Esposito’s Bios has only confirmed my doubts about the whole discourse of what is today called “biopolitics.” Esposito’s book is a good one, in that it details, and clearly explains, what is meant by this term — but the effect of this has only been to strengthen my criticisms of the concept, or my sense of its inadequacy, when it comes to consider the role that “life,” or even just discourses about life, play in contemporary society.
Esposito traces both the ways that “life” — by which is meant the view of human beings as biological organisms, or the biological processes that human beings undergo, i.e. birth, growth, and death, sickness and health — has been caught up in politics (in the sense of being a subject, or object, of political practices, of political struggles, and of state power), and the ways that political theory has considered the meaning of “life.” This is a large field, as it includes, on the one hand, everything from medical interventions in the name of public health to Nazi practices of racial extermination; and on the other hand, philosophical concepts of the “body politic” and of the vitality of individuals, races, and peoples, in thought ever since the ancient Greeks, but especially in the span of time that extends from Hobbes, through Nietzsche, and on to 20th-century vitalism. This is a large amount of material to synthesize — and Esposito does it by tracing the lines in Western thought that lead towards and away from Nietzsche and Foucault, on the one hand, and the practices of the Nazi regime, on the other.
I’m not sure if the term “biopolitics” was invented by Foucault, but of course he did the most to make the concept thinkable. Foucault traces, in his genealogical investigations of medicine, madness, prisons, sexuality, etc., the ways that a regime of sovereignty, still prevalent in Europe in the Renaissance, was gradually displaced, or supplemented, by a regime of discipline, which was less concerned with the prohibition of certain behaviors than with the surveillance, manipulation, and management of all aspects of human life. Among other things, this involves a shift from being concerned with particular acts, and with clearly-defined hierarchies and chains of command, to being concerned with the bodies and souls of the entire populace. Foucault’s well-known account traces the links between attempts to contain disease by imposing quarantines, for instance, and attempts to regiment people in schools, factories, military barracks, and prisons. Power moves from prohibiting certain actions to actively shaping and manipulating peoples’ actions overall, and from drawing lines of exclusion, lines that it is forbidden to transgress, to finding ways to include everybody and everything within a grid of carefully managed alternatives and possibilities. Foucault also describes this as a shift from the power of death (the power of the sovereign to impose death as a punishment) to a right over life (the power of the state to manage, for the sake of health, growth, productivity, etc., all aspects of peoples’ bodily habits and tendencies). It is through this shift that “life” becomes a coherent concept, and a matter or focus of concern. “Life” gets defined conceptually, by doctors and judges as well as by philosophers, insofar as it emerges pragmatically as a target and focus of power. As always, Foucault is saying, not that “discourse” is the sole reality, but rather that both discourses and concrete, physical practices, varying historically, constitute so many ways in which we manage and control a “real” that always exceeds them. Contrary to some foolish interpretations, Foucault always remains a materialist, and a realist (in the ontological sense). “Life” refers to a particular way that we have conceived the multiplicity of lives, living beings, and life processes that surround and include us — but these always exist beyond our conceptualizations and manipulations of them.
So far so good. Esposito is an excellent close reader. He helpfully focuses on the ambiguity, in Foucault’s work: between claiming, on the one hand, that the regime of discipline and the management of life has replaced the earlier regime of sovereignty; and on the other hand, that such a disciplinary form of power is overlaid upon a sovereign power that continues to exist. Foucault proposes, precisely, that different modern regimes have been characterized by different mixtures between sovereign command over, and disciplinary positive investment of, the lives of individuals and populations. Esposito then moves backwards from Foucault to Nietzsche, in whom, he argues, “life” really emerges in its modern sense as an object and focus of both power and inquiry for the first time. For Nietzsche demystifies spirituality and the soul, presenting them as effects of physiology and neurology. Thus he allows us to understand all aspects of human culture and mentality as expressions of biological “life.” Further, there is a telling ambiguity in the way that Nietzsche regards “life” so constituted. On the one hand, there is a continual effort to judge, or evaluate, this “life” in terms of sickness and health, descent and ascent, decadence and triumph. In this respect, Nietzsche’s language is akin to that of the Social Darwinism of his time, and it clearly leads into the racist and fascist formulations of the following century. At the same time, Nietzsche affirms the mutability and metamorphosing power of “life”: in this sense, “sickness” is as vital as “health,” and is necessary in order to avoid stagnation; transgression and transformation are posed against the racist, pseudo-biological obsession (which reached its most terrifying expression in Nazism, but which was already prevalent among Nietzsche’s contemporaries) with “purity” and blood lines.
Again, Esposito’s reading is subtle, insightful, and overall unexceptionable. But at the same time, I found myself muttering, over and over again, a weary “so what?”. Whatever the historical value of reading Nietzsche, it is unclear to me that his texts have the same resonance, and the same importance, today in the 21st century that they did at the time of Nazism, or even that they did in France in the 1960s. Esposito refuses to extend his thought beyond the Nietzschean matrix, which he sees as dominating all that came since. Nietzshce remains the crucial reference point both for the “thanatopolitics” of Nazism, which he presents as the culmination of a certain kind of biopolitics, or politicization of “life” and death, and for the post-World War II emergence of a critical biopolitics, which Esposito sees exclusively as an attempt to rescue the forces of “life” from their subordination to the Nazi mythologies of the master race, of the centrality of childbirth, and of “the absolute normativization of life.” Heidegger, Arendt, Foucault, Simondon, Deleuze, 20th century French neo-Spinozianism: these are all read as efforts to liberate the forces of life from racial and familial normativization, from myths of purity and the Fatherland, etc. In this way, Esposito (much like Giorgio Agamben) sees the Holocaust as the central reference point for all biopolitical thought (and indeed, for all political thought whatsoever) today; with Niezsche providing the crucial conceptual framework, since his thought is the source both of 20th century notions of racial “cleanliness” and “health”, and of any possible critique and overcoming of such notions.
Can I dare to suggest (without being denounced as a “self-hating Jew”) that such a focus on the Holocaust, on the Adornian lament about the difficulty (or impossibility) of poetry (or anything else) “after Auschwitz,” is at this point, 63 years after the end of World War II, an obscurantist evasion rather than a moral imperative? Not only is Esposito’s focus upon Nazi thanatopolitics blindly Eurocentric, but it also fails to take account of the many forms racism, nationalist chauvinism, etc. have taken around the world in the last half century and more.The politicization of “life” and the management of “life” have become all the more pervasive and ubiquitous in the last half century, precisely because of (rather than in spite of) the discrediting (for the most part) of Nazi racist/nationalist themes. For instance, bigotry and genocide today tend to be expressed in “cultural” and religious terms, rather than in the terms the Nazis used; but these new terms are themselves related to how we have come to reconceptualize “life”. The same could be said about national and international responses to plagues (AIDS, SARS, bird flu), about population control measures (ranging all the way from the nativist encouragement of more births, and the attempts to ban all forms of birth control, to draconian attempts, like that of the Chinese government, to restrict population growth). And questions about agriculture and food production, about access to water and other vital resources, about the patenting of genetic material, about the use of biometric data to track both individuals and populations, and so on almost ad infinitum — all these are excluded from Esposito’s purview, largely because his reductively Eurocentric and Holocaust-centric view of the biologization of politics and the politicization of biology has no room for them.
More generally, the European (perhaps I should just say, Italian and French) view of biopolitics, which Esposito summarizes so well (and variants of which are upheld by Agamben, Negri, and others) ironically seems to ignore two things: biology, and political economy. It is telling that Esposito says nothing whatsoever about the ways in which biology and life have themselves been so totally reconfigured in the (more than) half-century following Watson and Crick’s determination of the structure of DNA. Biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, genetic engineering, etc etc — all of these have profoundly changed how we conceive “life”, as well as how governments and corporations seek to manage and contain it — yet Esposito writes as if none of this were relevant. You wouldn’t know, from reading his genealogies, that today we tend to conceive a life force more on the model of mindless viral replication, than as anything like Bergson’s elan vital. Nor that eugenics has been recast, in its contemporary variant, as a matter of “bad genes” rather than “bad blood” (both formulations are lying, ideological ones, but they have entirely different connotations). Nor that the alleged fatality of genetic makeup has become an alibi for all sorts of social discrimination and inequality. Nor that the goal of contemporary biotechnology has to do with the pragmatic manipulation of genetic material — and hence with a certain notion of flexibility and differential control, rather than with the old-style racial essentialism. Although he is ostensibly concerned with how our society conceptualizes “life”, Esposito fails to consider how changes in biology have changed this conceptualization, and how things are still very much up for grabs today, as witnessed both by the continually emerging new potentials of biological research and bioltechnology, and by the ways in which, on a theoretical level, the orthodox neodarwinian synthesis is itself under considerable challenge from other biophilosophical visions (as I have written about before).
But not only is Esposito’s account of biology incomplete; his account of politics is, as well. This is due to the fact that, like far too many contemporary theorists, he considers questions of domination and authority, and political-philosophical arguments about the nature of law and sovereignty, without giving any thought to matters of political economy (more specifically, to processes of the extraction of surplus value, and the circulation and accumulation of capital). He has no account, in other words, of the ways in which conceptualizations of, and decisions about, “life”, are today at least as overdetermined by considerations of money and economy as they are by politics and political considerations. Biological research today is an expensive proposition; it must be publicly or privately funded (cf. the race between public and private bodies to sequence the human genome). Money sets the agenda. Even as the management of “life” expands, in terms of everything from health care to biometrics in the name of “public safety,” priorities are set more by cost-benefit analyses than by strictly “political” forms of decision. “Biopolitics” today is intimately entangled with neoliberalism, alike in theory, in policy, and in practice. And this is yet another dimension that Esposito altogether ignores. It’s significant that Foucault himself, in his lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics, presciently focused his analysis mostly on the strategies and doctrines of a then (1978-1979) just emerging neoliberalism. Foucault discusses both the post-War German state-guided version of neoliberalism, and (at lesser length, but even more crucially for an understanding of the world today) the neoliberalism of the Chicago School of Milton Friedman, and especially Gary Becker. Rather than offering any judgment on neoliberal practices, Foucault discusses them with the icy objectivity of an entomologist describing the habits of parasitic wasps. His emphasis, nonetheless, is on “the generalization of the grid of homo oeconomicus to domains that are not immediately and directly economic” (page 268). This expansion of the “economic” (as narrowly understood by neoclassical marginalism, as a form of calculative rationality) to all forms of human activity is indeed the largest “ideological” change we have experienced in the years since Foucault’s death; it has altered our very sense of the social and the political. It is odd that, even as Foucault, at the extreme limits of his own thought, proclaimed the fundamental significance of this transformation of the modern episteme, his supposed disciples almost completely ignore it. (And I should note that the crisis we are currently undergoing does not in the least represent the “end” of neoliberalism — the state’s rescue of financial institutions, and its efforts to reboot the economy through spending and re-regulation, come out of the same economistic principles that motivated the deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s in the first place).
I don’t have any conclusion to this discussion, except to say that a biopolitics that is relevant to, let alone adequate to, the contemporary world, and that at least tries (even if not altogether successfully) to be “as radical as reality itself,” is yet to be born. Certainly none of the currently fashionable European theorists and philosophers provide anything like it — or even a starting place.