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  • Biopolitics: From Surplus Value to Surplus Life
  • Miguel Vatter (bio)
Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 304 pp., ISBN 978-0816649907
Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 208 pp., ISBN 978-295-98791-0
Thomas Lemke, Biopolitik zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius Verlag, 2007), 171 pp., ISBN 978-3-88506-635-4


That power over the biological lives of individuals and peoples has become the greater part of political power, and, conversely, that control over one’s biology is becoming a central focus for political action, can no longer be seriously questioned: biopolitics has become what Foucault once termed an “order of things,” an episteme, a source of paradigms. Judging from the worldwide number of research networks that study the reality of biopolitics and biopower, the field of objects that Foucault uncovered more than 30 years ago is becoming ever more central in both the humanities and the social sciences.i Its status is similar to other fields of the social imaginary like the “free market economy” or “civil society”: one can disagree about which statements are true and which false in relation to those realities, but one can no longer question their existence.ii Although it is unclear whether Foucault himself would have wanted to understand biopolitics in this way, the fact remains that biopolitics has crossed the epistemic threshold.iii

The three books under review, which represent the state of the art in relation to current research on biopolitics, nonetheless exemplify distinct standpoints. Thomas Lemke offers a systematic overview of biopolitics as a discipline, which he defines, following Foucault, as the study of “what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life” (Foucault 1990: 143). Melinda Cooper’s is a path-breaking study of the relation between biopolitics and neoliberal form of capitalism. She carries forth the task set by Foucault to “study liberalism as the general framework of biopolitics” (“étudier le libéralisme comme cadre général de la biopolitique”) (Foucault 2004:24), by investigating the ways in which biological life, rather than labor power, becomes the source of surplus value. Roberto Esposito attempts to understand the emergence of biopolitics as an epochal turning point for philosophical reflection about politics. If politics in modernity is essentially about self-preservation through subjection to a legal order, then in our biopolitical age politics defends the biological lives of the “species,” even against the juridical immunities of the self. Political philosophy, from this perspective, must rethink the possibility of community and individual freedom from within the horizon of biological life.

Although each of the three books adopts a different theoretical perspective on biopolitics (Lemke’s is Foucaultian, Cooper’s is post-Marxist, Esposito’s is deconstructive), I argue that the authors share the premise that a condition of possibility for the emergence of biopolitics is the connection of biological life to the idea of surplus. In Foucault’s corpus the idea of a “surplus of life” surfaces occasionally, for instance when he warns, immediately after defining biopolitics as a power-knowledge, that “it is not that life has been totally integrated into techniques that govern and administer it; it constantly escapes them” (Foucault 1990, 143). Likewise, the idea of surplus life appears in his last published text, when he defines the aim of the police as “the permanently increasing production of something new, which is supposed to foster the citizens’ life and the state’s strength. The police govern not by the law, but by a specific, a permanent and a positive intervention in the behaviour of individuals” (Foucault 2000, 415). In these two passages, the idea of surplus life covers two distinct senses of surplus: a negative one (analogous to “surplus value” in Marxist discourse) and an affirmative one (where life’s excess is a source of resistance to power-knowledge). Each of these three books develops features of both senses of the idea of biopolitics as creation of surplus life.

Lemke: Biopolitics as an Order of Things

Thomas Lemke’s Biopolitik zur Einfuehrung serves...

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