Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics has become one of today’s most compelling sociocultural theories informing study of the relationship between power and life. While Foucault deployed the concept in a number of writings,1 The History of Sexuality enunciates his basic notion of biopolitics well enough. In this widely-read work, Foucault recognizes the radical political change that occurred in the modern era, one in which “the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (138). This politicization of life, he explains, mobilized “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations” (140). Foucault thus defines biopolitics as the techniques of power that the modern era deployed in inducing docility in a living body. In Foucault’s view, the practice of biopolitics is centrally involved in the production of normalized bodies, a process that inevitably creates its marginalized Other: the abnormal.
Foucault’s notion of biopolitics offers a fruitful concept for investigating how politics shape our biological lives, relating to areas of study ranging from the history of the Holocaust to the commodification of our biological organs, and from the systematic slaughtering of nonhuman animals, to our ever-growing preoccupation with bodily health. Numerous scholars have invoked Foucault’s thought and considered the relevance of his theory of biopower for understanding problems that are particular to the modern age. However, Cary Wolfe’s Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame is unique. While most contemporary scholars labor to resolve the problems that biopolitical discourses raise, Wolfe argues that the drive to seek such solutions is itself a biopolitical effect. As his title suggests, Wolfe claims that the discourse of biopolitics needs to be rethought: rather than seeking a solution to a problem it creates, biopower must be seen as the “frame” through which contemporary political injustices can be observed and examined.
Wolfe begins his study by working through one of biopolitical discourse’s fundamental concerns: the exclusionary relationship between human and nonhuman animals. Attributing this philosophical distinction to Martin Heidegger, Wolfe moves from Heideggerian Gestell (enframing), which separates human beings from the “authentic relationship to the natural world” and “to themselves” (4), to Jacques Derrida’s notion of the parergon, a figure that “separates the inside from the outside, the intrinsic and the extrinsic, and yet also serves to bridge them, making [End Page 176] them interdependent” (6). This theoretical move signals Wolfe’s methodological departure from prevalent understandings of the biopolitical. He is not so much interested in what should be inside and outside, but in the mechanism that distinguishes human and nonhuman animals. For Wolfe, this divide is the product of a legal system which functions in ways that inevitably demarcates the boundary that divides subjects of law from “others” who are not granted legal standing. Wolfe’s methodological shift recalls the crucial distinction Hannah Arendt draws between rights and the right to have rights and it is here that the meaning of his title—Before the Law – takes on significance. The formulation implies not just our condition as political subjects. Rather, it suggests a “‘before’ in the sense of that which is ontologically and/or logically antecedent to the law, which exists prior to the moment when the law […] enacts its originary violence, installs its frame for who’s in and who’s out” (8-9). Wolfe’s interest is here twofold: 1) to deconstruct the system that distinguishes between what is (and is not) human and 2) to imagine the existence of living beings before the law defines who they are.
Within this theoretical frame, Wolfe examines the current condition of the nonhuman animal as it is revealed in practices such as the systematic massacre of nonhuman animals at farms and in science laboratories, which many scholars view as systems of exclusion par excellence. In doing so, he engages the work of Giorgio Agamben, one of the contemporary world’s foremost...