Issue 2/2007 - Leben/Überleben

Bio-Power and Necro-Politics

Reflections on an ethics of sustainability

Rosi Braidotti

[b]The context[/b]
Contemporary debates in the fields of social theory and cultural analysis have been concentrating on the politics of life itself, with special emphasis on the shifting boundaries between life and death. Bio-power, as Foucault argued,1 refers not only to the government of the living, but also to multiple practices of dying. »The politics of life itself« designates the extent to which the notion of bio-power has emerged as an organizing principle for the proliferating discourses that make technologically mediated »life« into a contested political field.2 Living matter itself becomes the subject and not the object of enquiry and this shift towards a bio-centred perspective affects the very structure and the interaction of social relations.

One of the manifestations of this historical context is what has been called the genetic social imaginary.3 This is manifested in the market economy through a tendency to use a terminology borrowed from genetics and evolutionary theory for the purpose of commercial and political discourses. An instance of this is the emphasis on the »next generation« of gadgets, cars and consumers’ electronics. Contemporary media and culture also spreads a sort of genetic citizenship as a form of spectatorship by promoting the visualization of the life of genes in medical practices, popular culture, cinema and advertising. Another aspect to this phenomenon is the uses of genetics in political debates on race, ethnicity and immigration, as well as public debates ranging from abortion and stem-cell research to new kinship and family structures. Discourses about vitalism4 and vital politics are also circulating.

Issues of power and power relations are central to this project. The notion of »life itself« lies at the heart of bio-genetic capitalism5 as a site of financial investments and potential profit. Technological interventions neither suspend nor do they automatically improve the social relations of exclusion and inclusion that historically had been predicated along the axes of class and socio-economics, as well as along the sexualized and racialized lines of demarcation of »otherness«. Also denounced as »bio-piracy«,6 the ongoing technological revolution often intensifies patterns of traditional discrimination and exploitation. We have all become the subjects of bio-power, but we differ considerably in the degrees and modes of actualisation of that very power.

This explosion of discursive interest in the politics of life itself affects also the question of death and new ways of dying. Bio-power and necro-politics are two sides of the same coin.7

»Life« can be a threatening force, as evidenced by new epidemics and environmental catastrophes that blur the distinction between the natural and the cultural dimensions. Another obvious example of the politics of death is the new forms of industrial-scale warfare, the privatization of the army and the global reach of conflicts, specifically the case of suicide bombers in the war on terror. Equally significant are the changes that have occurred in the political practice of bearing witness to the dead as a form of activism, from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to humanitarian aid. From a post-human perspective comes the proliferation of viruses, from computers to humans, animals and back.

Relevant cultural practices that reflect this changing status of death can be traced in the success of forensic detectives in contemporary popular culture. The corpse is a daily presence in global media and journalistic news, while it is also an object of entertainment. The dislocation of gender roles in relation to death and killing is reflected in the image of women who kill, from the revival of classical figures like Medea and Hecuba to Lara Croft.

A rather complex relationship to death has emerged in the technologically mediated universe we inhabit: one in which the link between the flesh and the machine is symbiotic and therefore establishes a bond of mutual dependence. This engenders some significant paradoxes: the human body is simultaneously denied, in a fantasy of escape, and strengthened or re-enforced. Balsamo8 stresses the paradoxical concomitance of effects surrounding the new post-human bodies as enabling both a fear of dispossession and a fantasy of immortality and total control: »And yet, such beliefs about the technological future ›life‹ of the body are complemented by a palpable fear of death and annihilation from uncontrollable and spectacular body-threats: antibiotic-resistant viruses, random contamination, flesh-eating bacteria«.9 In other words, the new practices of »life« mobilize not only generative forces, but also new and subtler degrees of extinction.

These concerns have both the neo-liberal10 and the neo-Kantian thinkers11 struck by high levels of anxiety about the sheer thinkability of human future. In opposition to this, I would like to defend the politics of »life itself« and approach these phenomena in a non-normative manner. They are the social manifestations of the shifting relation between living and dying in the era of the politics of »life itself«.

In opposition to the nostalgic trend that is so dominant in contemporary politics and also to a tendency to melancholia on the part of the progressive Left ,12 I want to argue that the emphasis on life itself can engender affirmative politics. For one thing it produces a more adequate cartography of our real-life conditions: it focuses with greater accuracy on the complexities of contemporary technologically mediated bodies and on social practices of human embodiment. Furthermore, this type of vitality, unconcerned by clear-cut distinctions between living and dying, composes the notion of »zoe« as a non-human yet affirmative life-force. This vitalist materialism, inspired by Deleuze’s philosophy, has nothing in common with the postmodern emphasis on the inorganic and the aesthetics of fake, pastiche and camp simulation. It also moves beyond »high« cyber studies13 into post-cyber materialism.14 More on this in my conclusion.

[b]The theoretical debates[/b]
The theoretical context for these debates rotates round the legacy of Foucault’s unfinished project on contemporary governamentality in an era that marks the official end of postmodernist deconstructions. The unfinished nature of Foucault’s project has been complicated by two elements in the reception of his work: the first is the split that has occurred between the so-called »second« Foucault – who through the history of sexuality defined as technologies of self-styling, posits a new model of ethical inter-relation – and the earlier Foucault, who concentrated on the analysis of power formations and patterns of exclusion.

This split reception institutionalises a new division of labour between power analyses on the one hand and ethical discourses on the other. This allows for a residual type of Kantianism to emerge on Foucault’s back, to so speak. It is therefore urgent to assess the state of the theoretical debates on bio-power after Foucault, especially in terms of its legal, political and ethical implications. Some thinkers, for instance, stress the role of moral accountability as a form of bio-political citizenship, thus inserting into the ethical debates the notion of »bio power« as an instance of governmentality that is as empowering as it is confining.15 This school of thought locates the political moment in the relational and self-regulating accountability of a bio-ethical subject that takes full responsibility for his/her genetic existence. The advantage of this position is that it calls for a higher degree of lucidity about one’s bio-organic existence – which means that the naturalist paradigm is definitely abandoned. The disadvantage of this position, however, in a political context of dismantling the welfare state and increasing privatisation, is that it allows a neo-liberal perversion of this notion. Bio-ethical citizenship indexes access to and the cost of basic social services like health care to an individual’s manifest ability to act responsibly by reducing the risks and exertions linked to the wrong lifestyle. In other words, here bio-ethical agency means taking adequate care of one’s own genetic capital. The recent campaigns against smoking, excessive drinking and overweight constitute evidence of this neo-liberal normative trend that supports hyper-individualism. Other social examples of neo-liberal bio-citizenship are the social drive towards eternal youth, which is linked to the suspension of time in globally mediated societies16 and can be juxtaposed to euthanasia and other social practices of assisted death.

The second problematic element in the reception of Foucault’s bio-power is the fast rate of progress and change undergone by contemporary bio-technologies and the challenges they throw to the human and social sciences. Here Foucault’s work has been criticized, notably by Donna Haraway,17 for relying on an outdated vision of how technology functions. It is argued that Foucault’s bio-power provides a cartography of a world that no longer exists. Haraway suggests that we have now entered instead the age of the informatics of domination. In feminist theory – a very relevant area of scholarship that I find missing from far too much of the
scholarship on bio-politics, globalization and technology studies – this point has been taken very seriously.18 Feminist, environmentalist and race theorists have addressed the shifting status of »difference« in advanced capitalism in a manner that respects the complexity of social relations and critiques liberalism, while highlighting the specificity of a gender and race approach.19

The central piece of the discrepancy between Foucault’s bio-power and the contemporary structure of scientific thought concerns the issue of anthropocentrism. Contemporary technologies are not man-centred but have shifted away, towards a new emphasis on the mutual interdependence of material, bio-cultural and symbolic forces in the making of social and political practices. The focus on life itself may encourage a sort of bio-centred egalitarianism,20 forcing a reconsideration of the concept of subjectivity in terms of »life-force«. It dislocates but also redefines the relationship between self and other by shifting the traditional axes of difference - genderization, racialization and naturalization - away from a binary opposition into a more complex and less oppositional mode of interaction.

Bio-politics thus opens up an eco-philosophical dimension of reflection21 and inaugurates alternative ecologies of belonging both in kinship systems and in forms of social and political participation. I would like to suggest that these »hybrid« social identities and the new modes of multiple belonging they enact may constitute the starting point for mutual and respective accountability, and pave the way for an ethical re-grounding of social participation and community building.

[b]Bio-power revisited[/b]
This has consequences for the status of social and political theory itself. Thinkers that take their lead from Heidegger and are best exemplified by Agamben22 define »bios« as the result of the intervention of sovereign power, as that which is capable of reducing the subject to »bare life«, that is to say »zoe«. The being-alive-ness of the subject (zoe) is identified with its perishability, its propensity and vulnerability to death and extinction. Bio-power here means Thanatos-politics and results, among others, in the indictment of the project of modernity.

My understanding of »life« as bios-zoe ethics of sustainable transformations differs considerably from what Giorgio Agamben calls »bare life« or »the rest« after the humanized »bio-logical« wrapping is taken over.23 »Bare lif«’ is that in you which sovereign power can kill: it is the body as disposable matter in the hands of the despotic force of power (potestas). Included as necessarily excluded, »bare life« inscribes fluid vitality at the heart of the mechanisms of capture of the state system. Agamben stresses that this vitality, or »aliveness«, however, is all the more mortal for it. This is linked to Heidegger’s theory of Being as deriving its force from the annihilation of animal life.

The position of zoe in Agamben’s system is analogous to the role and the location of language in psychoanalytic theory: it is the site of constitution or »capture« of the subject. This »capture« functions by positing – as an a posteriori construction, a pre-linguistic dimension of subjectivity which is apprehended as »always already« lost and out of reach. Zoe – like the pre-discursive in Lacan, the chora of Kristeva and the maternal feminine of Irigaray – becomes for Agamben the ever-receding horizon of an alterity which has to be included as necessarily excluded in order to sustain the framing of the subject in the first place. This introduces finitude as a constitutive element within the framework of subjectivity, which also fuels an affective political economy of loss and melancholia at the heart of the subject.24

In his important work on the totalitarian edge of regimes of »bio-power« Agamben perpetuates the philosophical habit, which consists in taking mortality, or finitude, as the trans-historical horizon for discussions of »life«. This fixation on Thanatos – which Nietzsche criticized over a century ago – is still very present in critical debates today. It often produces a gloomy and pessimistic vision not only of power, but also of the technological developments that propel the regimes of bio-power. I beg to differ from the habit that favours the deployment of the problem of bios-zoe on the horizon of death, or the liminal state of not-life.
I find this over-emphasis on the horizons of mortality and perishability inadequate to the vital politics of our era. I therefore turn to another significant community of scholars that works within a Spinozist framework, and includes Deleuze and Guattari, Glissant, Balibar, and Hardt and Negri.25 The emphasis falls on the politics of life itself as a relentlessly generative force. This requires an interrogation of the shifting inter-relations between human and non-human forces. The latter are defined both as in-human and as post-human.

Speaking from the position of an embodied and embedded female subject I find the metaphysics of finitude to be a myopic way of putting the question of the limits of what we call »life«. It is not because Thanatos always wins out in the end that it should enjoy such conceptual high status. Death is overrated. The ultimate subtraction is after all only another phase in a generative process. Too bad that the relentless generative powers of death require the suppression of that which is the nearest and dearest to me, namely myself, my own vital being-there. For the narcissistic human subject, as psychoanalysis teaches us, it is unthinkable that Life should go on without my being there. The process of confronting the thinkability of a Life that may not have »me« or any »human« at the centre is actually a sobering and instructive process. I see this post-anthropocentric shift as the start for an ethics of sustainability that aims at shifting the focus towards the positivity of zoe.

This project aims to elaborate sets of criteria for a new social and political theory that steers a course between humanistic nostalgia and neo-liberal euphoria about bio-capitalism. Social and political practices that take life itself as the point of reference need not aim at the restoration of unitary norms, or the celebration of the master-narrative of global profit, but rather at social cohesion, the respect for diversity and sustainable growth. At the heart of my research project lies an ethics that respects vulnerability while actively constructing social horizons of hope.



1 See Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité I. La volontée de savoir. Paris; Gallimard 1976. English translation: The History of Sexuality. Vol. I, New York; Pantheon. Translation by Robert Hurley 1978; Michel Foucault Histoire de la sexualité II: L’usage des plaisirs. Paris; Gallimard 1984. English translation: History of Sexuality, vol. II: The Use of Pleasure. New York; Pantheon Books 1985. Translation by Robert Hurley; Michel Foucault Histoire de la sexualité III: Le souci de soi. Paris; Gallimard 1984. English translation: History of Sexuality, vol. III: The Care of the Self. New York: Pantheon Books 1986. Translation by Robert Hurley.
2 See Nicholas Rose, »The politics of life itself«, Theory, Culture & Society. Vol. 18, no 6, 2001, pp 1-30.
3 See Sarah Franklin, Celia Lury, Jackie Stacey, Global Nature, Global Culture. London; Sage 2000.
4 See Mariam Fraser, Sarah Kember, Celia Lury, »Inventive Life. Approaches to the New Vitalism« in: Theory, Culture & Society Vol 22, no 1, 2005, pp 1-14.
5 See Luciana Parisi, Abstract Sex. London: Continuum 2004.
6 Vandana Shiva. Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. South Press 1997.
7 Achille Mbembe, »Necropolitics« in: Public Culture. Vol 15, no 1, 2003, pp 11-40. Translation by Libby Meintjes.
8 Anne Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body Durhman: Duke University Press, 1996.
9 Ibid., p. 1-2
10 See Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future. Consequences of the BioTechnological Revolution. London; Profile Books 2002.
11 See Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, 1995, in Judith and Ira Livingston (eds) Posthuman Bodies. Bloomington; Indiana University Press, 2001.
12 See Judith Butler, Precarious Life. London; Verso, 2004.
13 See Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman. Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago; The University of Chicago Press 1999.
14 See Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto. Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Chicago; Prickly Paradigm Press 2003.
15 See Nicholas Rose »The politics of life itself« (see 2 above), Paul Rabinow Anthropos Today. Princeton; Princeton University Press 2003; Roberto Esposito: Bios. Politica e Filosofia. Torino, Einaudi 2004.
16 Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society Oxford: Blackwell 1996.
17 Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_ Oncomouse™, London and New York; Routledge 1997.
18 Karen Barad, »Posthumanist Performativity. Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter« in: Signs.Vol 28, no 3, 2003, pp 801-831.
19 Paul Gilroy, Against Race. Imaging Political Culture Beyond the Colour Line, Cambridge, Mass. 2000; Butler, Gefährdetes Leben (see 12) above; Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses. Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming, Cambridge/Malden 2002; Elisabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time, Durham 2004.
20 See Paul Gilroy, Against Race. Imaging Political Culture Beyond the Colour Line, Cambridge, Mass. 2000; Butler, Gefährdetes Leben (siehe Anm. 12); Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses. Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming, Cambridge/Malden 2002; Elisabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time, Durham 2004.
21 See Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions. On Nomadic Ethics, Cambridge 2006.
22 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford; University Press 1998.
23 See ibid.
24 See Braidotti, Metamorphoses (see 19 above)
25 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1972) L’anti-Oedipe. Capitalisme et schizophrénie I., Paris 1972; Minuit. English translation: Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York; Viking Press 1997/ Richard Seaver; translation by R. Hurley, M. Seem and H.R. Lane; Etienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene. London 2002; Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire, Frankfurt am Main 2002.