Resisting Biopolitics
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Resisting Biopolitics

Philosophical, Political, and Performative Strategies

S.E. Wilmer, Audronė Žukauskaitė, S.E. Wilmer, Audronė Žukauskaitė

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eBook - ePub

Resisting Biopolitics

Philosophical, Political, and Performative Strategies

S.E. Wilmer, Audronė Žukauskaitė, S.E. Wilmer, Audronė Žukauskaitė

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About This Book

The topic of biopolitics is a timely one, and it has become increasingly important for scholars to reconsider how life is objectified, mobilized, and otherwise bound up in politics. This cutting-edge volume discusses the philosophical, social, and political notions of biopolitics, as well as the ways in which biopower affects all aspects of our lives, including the relationships between the human and nonhuman, the concept of political subjectivity, and the connection between art, science, philosophy, and politics. In addition to tracing the evolving philosophical discourse around biopolitics, this collection researches and explores certain modes of resistance against biopolitical control. Written by leading experts in the field, the book's chaptersinvestigate resistance across a wide range of areas: politics and biophilosophy, technology and vitalism, creativity and bioethics, and performance. Resisting Biopolitics is an important intervention in contemporary biopolitical theory, looking towards the future of this interdisciplinary field.

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Part I

Politics, Biopolitics, and Biophilosophy

1 From the State of Control to a Praxis of Destituent Power

Giorgio Agamben
A reflection on the destiny of democracy in Athens in 2014 is in some way disturbing, because it obliges us to think the end of democracy in the very place where it was born.1 As a matter of fact, the hypothesis I would like to suggest is not only that the prevailing governmental paradigm in Europe today is non-democratic, but that it cannot be considered as political either. I will try therefore to show that European society today is no longer a political society; it is something entirely new for which we lack a proper terminology and for which we therefore have to invent a new strategy.
Let me begin with a concept which seems, starting from September 2001, to have replaced any other political notion: security. The formula “for security reasons” functions today in any domain, from everyday life to international conflicts, as a code word, in order to impose measures that the people have no reason to accept. I will try to show that the real purpose of such security measures is not, as it is currently assumed, to prevent dangers, troubles, or even catastrophes. I will be consequently obliged to make a short genealogy of the concept of “security.”

A Permanent State of Exception

One possible way to sketch such a genealogy would be to inscribe its origin and history in the paradigm of the state of exception. In this perspective, we could trace it back to the Roman principle Salus publica suprema lex (“public safety is the highest law”) and connect it with Roman dictatorship, with the canonistic principle that necessity does not acknowledge any law, with the comités de salut publique (Committee of Public Safety) during the French Revolution, and finally with Article 48 of the Weimar Republic, which was the juridical ground for the Nazi regime. Such a genealogy is certainly correct but I do not think that it could really explain the functioning of the security apparatuses and measures which are familiar to us.
While the state of exception was originally conceived as a provisional measure, which was meant to cope with an immediate danger in order to restore the normal situation, the security reasons today constitute a permanent technology of government. When in 2003 I published a book in which I tried to show precisely how the state of exception was becoming a normal system of government in Western democracies (Agamben 2005), I could not imagine that my diagnosis would prove so accurate. The only clear precedent was the Nazi regime. When Hitler took power in February 1933, he immediately proclaimed a decree suspending the articles of the Weimar Constitution concerning personal liberties. The decree was never revoked so the entire Third Reich can be considered as a state of exception which lasted twelve years.
What is happening today is still different. A formal state of exception is not declared and we see instead that vague non-juridical notions—like the security reasons—are used to install a stable state of creeping and fictitious emergency without any clearly identifiable danger. An example of such non-juridical notions, which are used as emergency producing factors, is the concept of crisis. Besides the juridical meaning of judgment in a trial, two semantic traditions converge in the history of this term, which, as is evident, comes from the Greek verb crino, a medical and a theological one. In the medical tradition, crisis means the moment in which the doctor has to judge, to decide if the patient will die or survive. The day or the days in which this decision is taken are called crisimoi, the decisive days. In theology, crisis is the Last Judgment pronounced by Christ in the end of times.
What is essential in both traditions is the connection with a certain moment in time. In the present usage of the term, it is precisely this connection which is abolished. The crisis, the judgment, is split from its temporal index and coincides now with the chronological course of time so that—not only in economics and politics but in every aspect of social life—the crisis coincides with normality and becomes, in this way, just a tool of government. Consequently, the capability to decide once and for all disappears and the continuous decision-making process decides nothing. To state it in paradoxical terms we could say that, having to face a continuous state of exception, the government tends to take the form of a perpetual coup d’état. By the way, this paradox would be an accurate description of what happens here in Greece as well as in Italy, where to govern means to make a continuous series of small coups d’état.

Governing the Effects

This is why I think that in order to understand the peculiar governmentality under which we live the paradigm of the state of exception is not entirely adequate. I will therefore follow Michel Foucault’s suggestion and investigate the origin of the concept of security in the beginning of modern economy, by François Quesnay and the Physiocrats, whose influence on modern governmentality could not be overestimated (Foucault 2012, 14, 16). Starting with the Westphalia Treaty, the great absolutist European states begin to introduce, in their political discourse, the idea that the sovereign has to take care of its subjects’ security. But Quesnay is the first to establish security (sûreté) as the central notion in the theory of government—and this in a very peculiar way.
One of the main problems governments had to cope with at the time was the problem of famines. Before Quesnay, the usual methodology was trying to prevent famines through the creation of public granaries and forbidding the exportation of cereals. Both these measures had negative effects on production. Quesnay’s idea was to reverse the process: instead of trying to prevent famines, he decided to let them happen and to be able to govern them once they occurred, liberalizing both internal and foreign exchanges. “To govern” retains here its etymological cybernetic meaning: a good kybernes, a good pilot, can’t avoid tempests, but if a tempest occurs he must be able to govern his boat using the force of waves and winds for navigation. This is the meaning of the famous motto laisser faire, laisser passer. It is not only the catchword of economic liberalism, it is a paradigm of government which conceives of security (sûreté in Quesnay’s words) not as the prevention of troubles, but rather as the ability to govern and guide them in the right direction once they take place.
We should not neglect the philosophical implications of this reversal. It means an epochal transformation in the very idea of government, which overturns the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects. Since governing the causes is difficult and expensive, it is safer and more useful to try to govern the effects. I would suggest that this theorem by Quesnay is the axiom of modern governmentality. The ancien régime aimed to rule the causes; modernity pretends to control the effects. This axiom applies to every domain, from economy to ecology, from foreign and military politics to the internal measures of police. We must realize that European governments today have given up any attempt to rule the causes; they only want to govern the effects. And Quesnay’s theorem also makes understandable a fact which seems otherwise inexplicable: the paradoxical convergence today of an absolutely liberal paradigm in the economy with an unprecedented and equally absolute paradigm of state and police control. If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.
One important sphere in which the axiom is operative is that of biometric security apparatuses which increasingly pervade every aspect of social life. When biometric technologies first appeared in the eighteenth century in France with Alphonse Bertillon and in England with Francis Galton, the inventor of fingerprinting, they were obviously not meant to prevent crimes but only to recognize recidivist delinquents.2 Only once a second crime has occurred, can one use the biometric data to identify the offender. Biometric technologies, which had been invented for recidivist criminals, remained for a long time their exclusive privilege. In 1943, the US Congress refused the Citizen Identification Act, which was meant to introduce an identity card with fingerprints for every citizen (Lyon 2009, 32). But according to a sort of fatality or unwritten law of modernity, the technologies which have been invented for animals, for criminals, strangers, or Jews, will finally be extended to all human beings. Therefore, in the course of the twentieth century, biometric technologies have been applied to all citizens and Bertillon’s identification photographs and Galton’s fingerprints are currently in use everywhere for ID cards.

The Depoliticization of Citizenship

But this extreme step has been taken only recently and it is still in the process of full realization. With the development of new digital technologies with optical scanners which can easily record not only fingerprints but also the retina or the eye’s iris structure, biometric apparatuses tend to move beyond the police stations and immigration offices and spread into everyday life. In many countries, the access to students’ restaurants or even to schools is controlled by a biometric apparatus on which the student just puts his or her hand. The European industries in this field, which are quickly growing, recommend that citizens get used to this kind of control from their early youth. The phenomenon is really disturbing, because the European Commissions for the development of security (like the European Security Research Programme) include among their permanent members the representatives of the big industries in the field, which are just the old armaments producers like Thales, Finmeccanica, EADS, and BAE Systems, which have converted to the security business.
It is easy to imagine the dangers represented by a power that could have the unlimited biometric and genetic information of all its citizens at its disposal. With such a power at hand, the extermination of the Jews, which was undertaken on the basis of incomparably less efficient documentation, would have been total and incredibly swift. But I will not dwell on this important aspect of the security problem. The reflections I would like to share concern rather the transformation of political identity and of political relationships that are involved in security technologies. This transformation is so extreme that we can legitimately ask not only if the society in which we live is still a democratic one, but also if this society can still be considered political.
Christian Meier has shown how in the fifth century a transformation of the conceptualization of the political took place in Athens which was grounded on what he calls a “politicization” (politisierung) of citizenship. While until that moment the fact of belonging to the polis was defined by a number of conditions and social statuses of different kinds—for instance belonging to nobility or to a certain cultural community—to be a peasant or merchant, a member of a certain family, etc.—from now on citizenship became the main criterion of social identity:
The result was a specifically Greek conception of citizenship, in which the fact that men had to behave as citizens found an institutional form. The belonging to economic or religious communities was removed to a secondary rank. The citizens of a democracy considered themselves as members of the polis only in so far as they devoted themselves to a political life. Polis and politeia, city and citizenship, constituted and defined one another. Citizenship became in that way a form of life, by means of which the polis constituted itself in a domain clearly distinct from the oikos, the house. Politics became therefore a free public space as such opposed to the private space, which was the reign of necessity. (Meier 1979)
According to Meier, this “specifically Greek” process of politicization was transmitted to Western politics, where citizenship remained the decisive element.3
The hypothesis I would like to propose is that this fundamental political factor has entered an irrevocable process which we can only define as a process of increasing depoliticization. What was in the beginning a way of living, an essentially and irreducibly active condition, has now become a purely passive juridical status in which action and inaction, the private and the public, are progressively blurred and become indistinguishable. This process of the depoliticization of citizenship is so evident that I will not dwell on it.

Rise of the Security State

I will rather try to show how the paradigm of security and the security apparatuses have played a decisive role in this process. The growing extension of technologies which were conceived for criminals, to all citizens inevitably has consequences for the political identity of the citizen. For the first time in the history of humanity identity is no longer a function of the social personality and its recognition by others, but rather a function of biological data which cannot bear any relation to it such as the arabesques of the fingerprints or the disposition of the genes in the double helix of DNA. The most neutral and private thing becomes the decisive factor of social identity, which loses therefore its public character.
If my identity is now determined by biological facts that in no way depend on my will and over which I have no control, then the construction of something like a political and ethical identity becomes problematic. What relationship can I establish with my fingerprints or my genetic code? The new identity is an identity without the person, as it were, in which the space of politics and ethics loses its sense and must be thought again from the ground up. While the classical Greek citizen was defined through the opposition between the private and the public, the oikos, which is the place of reproductive life, and the polis, the place of political action, the modern citizen seems rather to move in a zone of indifference between the private and the public, or, to quote Hobbes’ terms, the physical and the political body (Hobbes 2008, 3).
The materialization in space of this zone of indifference is the video surveillance of the streets and the squares of our cities. Here again an apparatus that had been conceived for the prisons has been extended to public places. But it is evident that a video-recorded place is no longer an agora and becomes a hybrid of public and private, a zone of indifference between the prison and the forum. This transformation of the political space is certainly a complex phenomenon that involves a multiplicity of causes, and among them the birth of biopower holds a special place. The primacy of biological identity over political identity is certainly linked to the politicization of bare life in modern states.
But one should never forget that the leveling of social identity on body identity began with the attempt to identify recidivist criminals. We should not be astonished if today the normal relationship between the state and its citizens is defined by suspicion, police filing, and control. The unspoken principle which rules our society can be stated like this: every citizen is a potential terrorist. But what is a state ruled by such a principle? Can we still define it as a democratic state? Can we even consider it as something political? In what kind of state do we live today?
Michel Foucault, in his book Surveiller et Punir (1975) and in his courses at the Collège de France (Foucault 2004), sketched a typological classification of modern states. He shows how the state of the ancien régime, which he calls the territorial or sovereign state and whose motto was faire mourir et laisser vivre, evolves progressively into a population state and into a disciplinary state, whose motto reverses now into faire vivre et laisser mourir, as it will take care of the citizen’s life in order to produce healthy, well-ordered, and manageable bodies.
The state in which we now live is no longer a disciplinary state. Gilles Deleuze (1992, 4) suggested to call it the État de contrôle, or “societies of control”, because what it wants is n...

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Citation styles for Resisting Biopolitics
APA 6 Citation
Wilmer, SE., & Žukauskaitė, A. (2015). Resisting Biopolitics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Wilmer, SE., and Audronė Žukauskaitė. (2015) 2015. Resisting Biopolitics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Wilmer, SE. and Žukauskaitė, A. (2015) Resisting Biopolitics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Wilmer, SE., and Audronė Žukauskaitė. Resisting Biopolitics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.