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Narrative Care: Biopolitics and the Novel by Arne De Boever (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2014
pp. 155-156 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0038

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Arne De Boever’s new work falls within what he terms an “interdisciplinary vitalist turn” in the humanities (2; emphasis in original). Narrative Care: Biopolitics and the Novel addresses the definability and livability of life in the grip of biopolitics and thus intersects with the political project and theory of such thinkers as Judith Butler, Eric Santner, Melinda Cooper, and Giorgio Agamben. The twist, however, is that Narrative Care hinges this trend to literary theory and analyzes the lives of literary characters. Through a close reading of four contemporary Anglophone novels—J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man (2005), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2010), Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions (2002), and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005)—Narrative Care proposes a theory of the novel that closely relates it to a biopolitical regime. Tailoring Michel Foucault’s notions of biopolitics and care, De Boever evaluates the lives of the characters caught up in this regime as well as the style and effect of the authors who resist it.

De Boever argues that the novel is deeply complicit with what Foucault terms “biopolitics,” a politics that operates through norms rather than laws and that controls, regulates, and transforms life. As De Boever clearly articulates, the notion of biopower has disquieting implications: “It is within the realms where we think we are free—that is, where power refrains from positively implementing itself—that we turn out to be most controlled” (37). The novel not only arises at the same point in history as this new form of power but also attends to and governs individual lives; both the novel and biopolitics “foster” life “until the point of death” (45). This theory takes seriously the lives of characters: fictional characters not only allegorize our own biopolitical subjectivity but also have lives of their own that matter analytically, politically, and ethically. The novel is thus simultaneously a “form of life-writing” and a biopolitical regime, both “a practice of care” and “a dark apparatus of capture” (8, 21; emphasis in original). In spite of the severity of his critique—De Boever will, somewhat problematically, compare the novel to a concentration camp—the novel as a genre survives due to the pharmacological nature of narrative care. As Jacques Derrida elaborates in “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1972), pharmakon means both poison and cure: thus a pharmacological narrative care has the potential not only to control but also to liberate. Authorial self-reflexivity, for example, can call attention to and so resist the novel’s biopolitical regime.

Although De Boever acknowledges that he adapts the meaning and applicability of biopolitics (by relating it to care and applying it to postmodernism and trauma studies), his argument is most cogent when he keeps close to Foucault’s usage. His chapter on Coetzee’s Slow Man is therefore his strongest, showcasing the cooperation of philosophy and literary theory that enables his argument. Slow Man ties together many of the elements of De Boever’s theory: it deals with care thematically and formally, drawing attention to the practice of writing by interrupting the narrative to introduce its author, Elizabeth Costello, a character in another of Coetzee’s novels. De Boever accompanies his claim that Coetzee self-reflectively engages the governmentality of narrative with a clear and detailed account of Foucault’s conception and elaboration of biopolitics. It helps that Coetzee works for De Boever’s project. As De Boever points out, Coetzee himself has a prolonged interest in the relationship between characters and authors, as is evident in his reworking of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Through Coetzee, De Boever links care to narrative, reveals authorial reflection on the suffering of characters and the ethics of narrative, and highlights the constructedness of life.

When De Boever moves beyond Foucault, his conception of biopolitics and its relation to the novel lose their precision. In his reading of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Auster’s The Book of Illusions, he turns to Agamben to posit a connection between the novel and the concentration camp and between character life and bare life. In these texts and in McCarthy’s Remainder, De Boever focuses on the hollowness of character-life...

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