the living from the dead
Michel Foucault defines “biopolitics” in the following terms: “the endeavor, begun in the eighteenth century, to rationalize the problems presented to governmental practice by the phenomena characteristic of a group of living human beings constituted as a population: health, sanitation, birthrate, longevity, race…” (2003a). Here, Foucault claims that in modernity the “life” of the population increasingly comes to inform the ways that individuals are governed — as collectivities or populations whose very lives and vital well-being are increasingly subject to governmental control, surveillance, regulation, segregation, health and welfare, pro-life policies, and improvement programmes, through forecasts, education, and statistical measures, among others. Gradually, he claims, individuals are replaced by “biological processes” and individual lives are displaced by “species-life.” This ideology of “life” becomes a public morality that is soon internalised and perpetuated at the micro-level; as a form of “biopower,” this ideology is invisibly taken up in the ways that individuals come to govern themselves.
In recent years, research in the social sciences and humanities has extended Foucualt’s insight and has turned toward the “bios.” Biopolitics, biocapital, biovalue, biosociality, biological citizenship, biomedicine, and biosciences all valuably build on Foucault’s theorising of biopolitics. We can read critical analyses of healthcare (Murray 2007 and forthcoming; Petersen & Bunton; N. Rose), the pharmaceutical industry (Petryna), studies of the insurance industries, and countless others. These discussions often contest the meaning of “bios” or life, whether life is conceived as a natural category, a social production, or whether its “naturalness” is not itself socially and discursively constituted and occluded. These multiple “biodiscourses” nevertheless agree that what is at stake is similar or parallel to what is at stake in regulation and governance: life itself (Agamben 1998). And while these studies are essential, by focusing almost exclusively on “life” as such, they tend to neglect important dimensions of critique that deal with the question of death. It is thus all the more urgent to address this cultural denial, to take death seriously.
Foucault (1976, 2003) famously charts the historical shift that has resulted in the current biopolitics of Western culture. This shift has led to “the famous gradual disqualification of death” (Foucault 2003). In antiquity, political power was conceived under Roman law as “patria potestas” — the power of the family father who enjoyed the right to “dispose” of the lives of his children and slaves. This power is summed up in the formula: “to take life or let live.” Here it was the sovereign’s power, the sovereign’s prerogative, to revoke the life of his subjects or to let them live. In modernity, however, there has been a reversal of sorts, and political power has come to conceive of itself as protecting life, preserving it, controlling it, prolonging it, and maximising its productivity and its very vitality. The slogan for modern power becomes: “to make live and let die.” The shift from ancient power to modern power must be stressed: from “taking life” to “making live,” and from “letting live” to “letting die.” Modern political power is imbued with the power to bestow life — to make live; the consequence, of course, is that others will be “allowed to die.” Thus a whole class of people is born, people whose lives do not count as life: “bare life” (Agamben), the convicted criminal on death row, the refugee (Arendt), the Jew in the concentration camp (Foucault, Agamben), and countless other lives lost as “collateral damage,” through modern wars, through the onward march of globalising capital, and so on.
In an earlier work (Murray 2006), I asked what it might mean to “let die” in this context, how to comprehend a death the hidden but necessary pretext of which is to “make live.” Thus, I began with the problem of these innumerable, invisible deaths, and I asked how they might be represented if our Western biopolitical regimes control the social, political, and ethical terms required for representation — terms that presume the value of “life” above, and eclipsing, all else. How, for example, could the “enemy combatant” or suicide bomber’s death be represented as valuable, or even as a politically and ethically meaningful death, as it is in many cultures that are struggling to resist the biopolitical hegemony of the West. If the death of the suicide bomber is illegible to us in the West — outside our cultural idiom, I wanted to know how his or her death might not merely negate but forcibly challenge the dominant political ideologies that inform Western — and increasingly, global — values. In my essay, I proposed what I call a “thanatopolitics” — a “politics of death.” I argued that we might understand some deaths in a productive sense, as a profound resistance to or a refusal of a Western “political theology” (Schmitt) conceived as an “ethics of life.” I suggested that death might be seen not merely as the negation or destruction of an always-prior “life,” but that death could be seen as socially, politically, and ethically “productive” in itself, in the ways that it binds together communities, galvanises political commitments, and so on. And indeed, I claimed, if we fail to understand this conception of death, we will fail to grasp the transformative potential — the very meaning — of current geopolitics.
The industrialised West fundamentally relies on a politics based in the rhetoric that life carries an innate value: pricelessness. To be sure, while this value is under constant negotiation, it is from the perspective of “making live” that value is calculated. Those who are “made to live” better and longer lives frequently do so only at the cost of those who are “allowed to die” — and they are not killed, not directly, even though their deaths bear some consequential relation to the lives death enables. For instance, we witness how the populations of affluent nations increasingly demand the sacrifices of people of poorer nations who allow their bodies to be harvested for organs (Cohen) or used for drug testing (Petryna). While much good use has been made of studies of social suffering (Kleinman, Das, & Lock) and violence to understand how suffering is internationally distributed, these discourses could be developed in crucial ways through a thorough reconception of death.
How can we understand the inherent limitations of biopolitics, its often violent and exclusionary dimensions? Can a sustained reflection on death serve both to interrupt biopolitical discourses while setting out the terms by which those who resist Western ideologies of “life” might be understood? My aim in this project is not to examine how death is explained or made meaningful (Franklin & Lock), but rather to examine the qualitative differences that emerge by taking death, rather than life, as a central analytic category of social, political, and ethical analysis.
Image reproduced with the kind permission of the illustrator, Lewis Peake
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