Violence in contemporary Mexico sits awkwardly with any administration of life and death. It is a fear unable to be rationally narrated, a violence generative of life unintelligible and a death repeated beyond zones of abandonment. Violence breaks free of enclosure to suspend affiliations and confound organization. Self-defense groups (below, autodefensas) operate lawlessly amid lawlessness, residents of Michoacán are normalized in excess of normality and government repeats a violence that undermines governing. Yet, these contradictions only exist insofar as life, death and power remain wed to administration. Instead, what if life was thought not in reference to the empirical referent of population but alongside a sociality of violence that differentially informs yet unites all bodies? What if the location of life shifted from an administered milieu of manageable circulations to various ecologies with socially productive forces in constant movement? Life, death and power would consequently move beyond a correctional politics to one concerned with the exigencies of surviving violence. It would move beyond regulatory mechanisms, adaptable variations and established equilibriums toward the body’s inherence to its violent surrounds. It would move from administration toward the lived experiences of navigating a deadly terrain, toward an appreciation of the forces of vitality and mortality contouring bodies. In short, it would move toward living death.
Recalibrating an appreciation of life, death and power in contemporary Mexico is violently necessary. Over 250,000 deaths since the 2006 declared war on drugs contradict a politics of life dedicated to preserving the population (Hernández Borbolla 2018
). Over 49,500 disappearances during the same period refute official attempts at minimizing and/or leveraging risk to ensure the security of its peoples (Croda 2018
). And, the up to 1.5 million displaced persons demonstrate a government incapable of investing in the lives of its citizens (Ángeles García 2016
). If this disrupts a reading of biopower, then so too does it any orchestrated politics of death. Death in Mexico is not a category of rule reducible to any one actor. The assassination of 132 politicians in the lead up to the 2018 elections reveals the façade of absolute power (Diaz and Campisi 2018
). The control of entire municipalities by organized crime—commonly known as narco-pueblos
—contradicts the even command of territory required to divide the unworthy from the worthy. And, the competition and collusion between organized crime and institutional power—commonly known as narco-politics
—speaks more to a state of contestation than one of exception. Whether it is readings of a ‘failed’, ‘failing’ or ‘shadow’ state unable to manage life (Lauderdale 2013
; Gledhill 2014
), or descriptions of ‘Afghanistan-ization’ or ‘Colombian-ization’ amid a proliferation of violence (Knight 2012
, p. 115), the Mexican state is equally ineffectual in administering or suppressing life.
This book is an exercise in thinking life, death and power in a country that over the past 12 years has become increasingly overrun by violence. Yet, as intimated, this politics of life and death is irreducible to a sovereign power premised on the ability to make die and let live. In contemporary Mexico there are no clear-cut hierarchies or mechanisms of rule: the police are an armed extension of the cartels, the cartels undertake administrative functions typical of government, government aligns with cartels to hunt down and disband community autodefensa groups and communities demand autonomy from government. So too is the making live and letting die of biopower misplaced, as the vitality and mortality of the population remain marginal to government. Instead, individuals scatter in fear and life escapes manageable circulations. There are no decipherable connections, no centrifugal logics of ever-expanding relationality and no statistical calculation of probability. ‘Letting things happen’ in Mexico is not an art of government, but a state of violent impunity in which life, death and power exceed administration.
The aim, however, is not to replace either sovereign power or biopower with a form of government better reflective of the Mexican condition. As will become clear, life, death and power continually break free of administration. Instead, the aim is to think with the violent disruption apparent so as to decenter administrative rationalities and to work through the discontinuities evident in its technologies of rule. This is less an exercise in charting the limits of government, than it explores the possibilities they hold for thinking life amid violence. A politics of life and death shifts from logics reducible to administration toward an account of life, death and power situated on, through and between bodies. It is violence conditioning bodies; it is violence repeated through individual conduct; and it is violence bracing one body among others into a common experience of living death. Yet, this is no state-body analogy. Forget the body politic integral to sovereign rule: there are no people whose fragility emboldens government action. Nor is it the social body inaugurated by biopolitics. Add to the nonexistent management of circulations the absence of any rational appropriation of life capable of ensuring, maintaining or developing social existence. No, this is a politics of life and death inscribed directly on bodies before it is an activity of government.
Displacing life, death and power from administration is also a heuristic device. Take
Michel Foucault’s (1978
) biopolitical works on disciplining subjects and controlling populations. Rather than disciplinary spaces already demarcated (the asylum, the prison, the school, the factory), to displace is to recognize how bodies are always immersed in a violent death that infects all fields of knowledge beyond external constraints. This is the ‘death world’
Achille Mbembe (2001
) as spaces wherein the status of the living dead is conferred on individuals. It is the dismembered corpse left at strategic points throughout the city by warring cartels to confront residents with the ever-present possibility of death. It is the narco-message strewn across a bridge that threatens residents with future violence. And, it is the corpse engraved with the insignia of the cartel to instill fear and establish zones of control. This death conferred on life both exceeds administration and reveals discontinuities in disciplinary technologies. More than inhabiting disciplinary spaces, bodies are inhabitations of discipline (Preciado 2013
). The death world
enters the body to form part of it, dissolving in the body. Immersed in violence, the body becomes an emergent re/construction wherein the thought-felt (the recognized relationality of encountering a mutilated corpse, combined with the affective force of witnessing death) is not simply imposed on the body, but composes what it is capable of doing. There is a continual revision of bodily habits and territorial rhythms no longer tied to government, but to the multiple cartographies of violence. The body has become a ‘micro-prosthetics’ of death, ‘inseparable and indistinguishable’ from the death world
, pp. 78–9).
To think life, death and power through the body is not the latest succession in models of governing life and death (sovereign, disciplinary, biopower). The politics of life and death explored below does not supplant that which came before it. Rather, it is an opportunity to think a politics that operates transversally, cutting across administrative classifications and revealing the mutually inclusive nature of life, death and power. This is necropolitics. If it has to be pinned down, then necropolitics is less concerned with a power over life and death than with a power of life and death. This seemingly minor shift has significant consequences, as it moves the terrain on which life, death and power interact. More than a simple reorientation of surveillance techniques to better classify populations and more than a revision of technologies to better work through violent contingency, life and death come into expression before they are objects of institutional power. Forget an ontopolitics of populations unable to be deciphered and subjects unable to be corrected. Instead, attention centers on the ontological primacy of life continually extended through the singularity of death. Necropolitics studies this intersection between living death and the death world. It is a study of life’s inherence to death, the sensations informing how to navigate a violent terrain and the spontaneous order that emerges as bodies move through the shifting multiplicities of which they are composed. Necropolitics is a power of life not in spite of death, but through it. It is a politics of how the body is molecularly equipped to remain complicit with death worlds, and yet, is also a body of increased capacity that ensures a going on living.
Yet, to question administration is not to dismiss the state. Institutional power continues in its attempts to take command of life amid death or, more accurately, to take command of life through death. However, this official politics of death (thanatopolitics
) is no biopolitical underside. This is as much a question of practicality, as thanatopolitics
operates in spite of the limitations already mentioned. It is not a state of exception reliant on institutional authority and territorial control: Mexican thanatopolitics is detached from philosophico-juridical discourses of sovereignty and the law. Nor does it depend on technologies of surveillance that enable targeted debilitations by working through matrices of normal/abnormal or curves of normality: Mexican thanatopolitics
lacks the capacity to disallow life to the point of death or make certain subjects killable. Again, forget categories of analysis that manage populations: birthrates, longevity, toxicity and disease; and disregard liminal conceptions of being: namely race, but also class, gender and sexuality. Thanatopolitics
makes all bodies killable. This is not to dismiss a biopolitics
of discrimination. Rather, it is to argue that these bodies are not only contoured with a race or a sex but also splayed by violent death (Puar 2015
, pp. 63–4). Making killable is a collective branding of life, a violence wielded by the state and felt directly on the body.
is not a trans-historical approach removed from political experience, but a state-mediated violence that directly mutilates life. This is what renders it more insidious than any sovereign right to kill. It marks all life to constitute a ‘war on life support’ (Mbembe 2003
, p. 31), it
induces precarity as a mode of existence (Butler 2010
; Lorey 2015
) and it inaugurates a relation to institutional power in which all are ‘potentially homines sacri
’ (Agamben 1998
, p. 84). Translated
to contemporary Mexico, and following Ivonne del Valle and Estelle Tarica (2015
doubles violence. The Mexican state not only kills and disappears, but by refusing to investigate these crimes so too does it strengthen the economies of death that further depreciate life. To focus on these economies is to locate thanatopolitics
as neither proximate in time nor di...