Esposito, Ch 1, “The Enigma of Biopolitics”

In this introduction to biopolitics, Esposito first traces three deployments of biopolitical techniques upon which Foucault draws to elaborate his analysis of the centrality of biopolitical mechanisms to governmentality.

  1. “A vitalistic conception of the state”: primarily from German essays, but Esposito focuses on Swedish author Rudolph Kjellen.  Kjellen’s The State as a Form of Life (1916) conceived of the state as a living organism: “Already here in this transformation of the idea of the state, according to which the state is no longer a subject born of law from a voluntary contract but a whole that is integrated by men and which behaves as a single individual both spiritual and corporeal, we can trace the originary nucleus of biopolitical semantics” (16).  This lead to a concern with the “vital needs” of the German state, and such a concern was echoed in a British context as well (17-18).
  2. France in the 1960s: (I was much less clear on what Esposito was saying here): “The result, more than a biopolitics in the strict sense of the expression, is a sort of ‘onto-politics,’ which is given the task of circumscribing the development of the human species, limiting the tendency to see it as economic and productive” (20).  He later calls this a “neohumanistic” manifestation of biopolitics (22).
  3. Ongoing naturalistic biopolitics taking place in “the AngloSaxon world”: “While political philosophy presupposes nature as the problem to resolve (or the obstacle to overcome) through the constitution of the political order, American biopolitics sees in nature its same condition of existence: not only the genetic origin and the first material, but also the sole controlling reference.  Politics is anthing but able to dominate nature or ‘conform’ to its ends and so itself emerges ‘informed’ in such a way that it leaves no space for other constructive possibilities” (22).

Foucault’s intervention

Esposito claims that Foucault’s intervention is to break the “categorical frame” which “sees politics and law, decision and the norm as situated on opposite poles of a dialectic that has as its object the relation between subjects and the sovereign” (25).  Foucault says instead that sovereignty operates not by “regulating relations between subjects or between them and power, but rather their subjugation at the same time to a specific juridical and political order” (26).  Maybe we could talk about this?  I was confused about what Esposito is saying here.

Relationship between biopolitics and sovereignty, life and death.

As we’ve discussed in class, Foucault at times suggests that biopolitics replaces sovereignty.  At other times, he suggests that the two might coexist.  Agamben and Mbembe have developed the strain of thought in which sovereignty exists alongside—or within—biopolitics, focusing on the active pursuit of death/killing as part of a biopolitical program.  Esposito outlines this problem and proposes that Foucault wasn’t able to come to a conclusion on this point because “the two terms of life and politics are to be thought as originally distinct and only later joined in a manner that is still extraneous to them” and furthermore calls for a deeper articulation of “life” and “politics” than Foucault offered (43-44).

My response

I find Esposito’s discussion of the “knot” of sovereignty and biopolitics useful for untangling some of the divergent strands of inquiry that have been confusing me in our biopolitical readings.  The careful articulation of the relationship between fostering life and making die seems especially important in relation to the “War on Terror” (Esposito discusses the contradictions of “humanitarian war” in his intro; pg 4).  Mbembe and Agamben’s insights seem quite helpful for many contemporary biopolitical practices, and I appreciated Esposito’s deeper discussion of the ambivalence/divergences in Foucault’s work.


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