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  • Biopolitics in Balance:Esposito's Response to Foucault
  • Brett Levinson (bio)

Roberto Esposito defines biopolitics in Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy as a regime that has "no other object than the maintenance and expansion of life." Like Foucault, from whom he departs, Esposito views this modern political form ("only modernity makes of individual self-preservation the presupposition of all other political categories" [9]), and its epistemological accompaniment, "humanism," as nihilism. This is why he emphasizes that, within the biopolitical regime, the protection of the biological wellness of the subject (even and especially if collective) hinges on the sanctioned extermination of the Other: the Other posited as a source of pandemics, hence annihilation, not of a particular body but of "human being," of the species. Biopolitics plants the destruction of humankind into the global or national political scene to justify, without grounds, the most brutal and/or absurd countermeasures.

Bíos hence opens by recounting recent historical events that capture the menace of biopolitics. These include: the post-9/11 bombing of Afghanistan, [End Page 239] in which war is waged in the name of the defense of humanity rather than of a state, nation, ethnicity, or religious group; the Russian police force's use of lethal gas to overcome Chechen kidnappers in a Moscow theater, an episode that resulted in 128 fatalities (of hostages and insurgents); the 2003 drawing of blood (for pay) from Chinese peasants: the plasma is separated from the red globules and sold to the affluent as a vaccine, and the globules are reinserted into the donors, resulting in the production of large seropositive populations; and a complex 2000 (non)abortion case in France, in which a genetically abnormal child sues to assert his right not to have been born. Esposito could not highlight more clearly the horrors of a politics that has "no other object than the maintenance and expansion of life."

Bíos, nonetheless, expresses considerable trepidation about this, its own core thesis: that a politics of life and one of nihilism are tightly bound. Death and nihilism, extermination and nihilism, yes; but, as to life and nihilism, Esposito pulls back as Bíos progresses. The text, in fact, strives to rescue life not only from but also for biopolitics, albeit in a revamped form. Indeed, for Esposito, the "maintenance and expansion of life" is not the actual problem. The "maintenance and expansion of life" reduced to biological life is. For, if the Other is posited as virus, and the Same as a strictly biological entity, then contamination of any "individual" within the whole (an organ relative to the complete body, an individual relative to a nation, a nation relative to the league of nations, and so on) threatens apocalyptically that whole. The Other is not the menace. The Other is carrier of the menace, of a certain untyped or unidentified body that, because "unmonitorable," terrorizes absolutely. Exposure, therefore, must be averted by every individual, as agent of the state and in the name of the community, through violent self-protective measures, each sanctioned by the perilous situation. In biopolitics the "war of all against no thing" replaces the "war of all against all." In the present battle, the human subject battles against an is not, a no thing that dwells neither within nor outside the contested field.

The calamity of biopolitics, then, lies for Esposito not in the development of a "politics of life" but in the contemporary manifestation of this politics, one in which the endangered subject obliterates alleged sources of danger through the very signature of modernity: technology. The coma victim, his [End Page 240] life reduced to a biological condition (heartbeat read on an apparatus), his functions sustained by machines whose deployment is perhaps governmentally mandated, and his person prevented from participating in communal or political life (in life beyond mere biological life; or, to use the Greek terms that are deployed by Esposito and others, in bios beyond zoe), thus serves as the par excellence figure of the biopolitical subject. The Nazis, according to Esposito, constructed a version of this personage. They conserved in camps, through disciplined techniques, "comatose" but breathing/eating/ defecating bodies, thoroughly exposed to their own extermination...


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pp. 239-261
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