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  • Eternal Life and Biopower
  • Miguel Vatter (bio)

Thanatopolitics, Biopower, and Contemplative Life

Foucault introduced the concept of biopower to explain how something like "thanatopolitics," the mobilization of entire populations "for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity," became the norm in the twentieth century (1990, 137). Agamben and Esposito have since offered two paradigms that seek to explain the seemingly inevitable transition from a biopolitics to a thanatopolitics (Agamben 1998; Esposito 2008). And yet, Foucault showed hesitation about whether thanatopolitics could really be understood exclusively from the perspective of biopower. Indeed, he had recourse to the paradigm of sovereignty (the logic of "blood") to account for the constitution of modern racism and genocidal eugenics. Agamben closed the circle by hypothesizing that biopower in reality is a power over bare life that finds its origin not in life itself, but in the sovereignty of law. 1 Esposito, for his part, has argued that the distinctive operation of Nazi thanatopolitics [End Page 217] consisted in identifying a "lifeless existence," Dasein ohne Leben, a form of life (a bios) that was entirely lacking in "spirit" and consequently was reduced to mere "biological" life (zoë) and thus could be exterminated as a "life not worthy of being lived" (2008, 134). In both Agamben and Esposito, therefore, the power over life has its source outside of life. It is as if there is something irreducibly affirmative about the concept of the power of life, of "biopower," that never lets itself be placed at the service of the power over life, which is also a power of death ("thanatopolitics"). 2

In this essay I pursue the following hypothesis: if biopolitics can be transformed into thanatopolitics, this may derive from the fact that the life here produced, namely, a zoë entirely separate from a bios, is a life destined to die, a life that has death inscribed into it from the very beginning. Stated in a positive manner, my hypothesis is that an affirmative conception of the power of life requires conceiving of life as eternal, a zoë aionios that is not destined to die, that stands over mythical fate itself. Eternal life is a theme that traverses both Western philosophical and religious traditions. In this essay, I shall focus on the philosophical tradition. I am interested in pursuing Esposito's suggestion that a conception of the power of life that escapes thanatopolitics depends on interpreting "life's relationship with politics philosophically" (2008, 150). I understand this claim in the following sense: philosophy becomes truly political when it provides a conception of life (zoë) that is immediately theoretical or contemplative. Philosophy is political, or political philosophy exists, only where biology is philosophical. Philosophy here is to be understood in the traditional sense of contemplating what is most real or actual, what never perishes, what is eternal. Thus eternal life would be a conception of a contemplative zoë.

But the notion of eternal life, even in philosophy, cannot be entirely separated from a theological subtext. The reason for this is that a life destined to die is a life that is originally guilty, indebted to its "maker." Benjamin speaks of "the guilt of mere natural life, which consigns the living, innocent and unhappy, to a retribution that 'expiates' the guilt of mere life" (1996, 250). In the essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, Benjamin defines fate as "the nexus of guilt among the living" and clarifies this idea in relation to the life of the newborn: [End Page 218]

it corresponds wholly to the order of fate that the child, who enters it as a newborn, does not expiate the ancient rift but, in inheriting its guilt, must pass away. It is a question here not of ethical guilt . . . but rather of the natural kind, which befalls human beings not by decision and action but by negligence and celebration. . . . With the disappearance of supernatural life in man, his natural life turns into guilt, even without committing an act contrary to ethics. For now it is in league with mere life, which manifests itself in man as guilt.

(1996, 308)

If life is guilty by nature, then it deserves to be punished, to expiate its...


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