- Narrative Care: Biopolitics and the Novel by Arne De Boever
“It is clear that we cannot go on as before” (142), Arne De Boever states in his paradigm-shifting volume, Narrative Care: Biopolitics and the Novel. The twenty-first century novel must come into an awareness of how its modern predecessors were crafted as “models of biopolitical perfection” and discover ways to resist the [End Page 380] increasingly clear levels of complicity between biopolitics and life-writing (142). Referencing Ian Watt’s classic treatise on the development of the novel as a genre dedicated to everyday life, De Boever argues that the rise of the modern novel coincided with developments in governmentality and social control explained in the political philosophies of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. De Boever’s study carries on a tradition of Foucauldian literary criticism earlier exemplified by D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police, but it achieves a significant shift in analytical focus: from surveillance to biopolitical control, from the individual body to the body politic, and from narrative discipline to narrative care.
De Boever explains the necessity of such a shift in chapter one, which considers Foucault’s unfinished work on biopolitics (1977–1979) alongside Agamben’s return to questions of political sovereignty after 9/11. After an accessible discussion of these theories, the following chapters yield several intriguing claims and new theories of the novel, including an “Agambenian theory of the novel” (72), a “pharmacological theory of the novel” (141), and a “biopolitical theory of the novel as a camp” (151). The narrator of J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man initially furnishes De Boever with the term “biologico-literary experiment,” which he then uses to characterize all four of the novels under discussion. From relations between the narrator and his caregiver in Slow Man, De Boever turns to the invocation of the concentration camp in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and to embedded Holocaust references in Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions. He then considers the ethical implications of simulating life and death in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and in Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. In addition to situating each work in its novelist’s larger oeuvre, De Boever explores a broad selection of contexts and intertexts, including biopolitical forerunners such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as Catherine Malabou’s current research on neuroplasticity in What Should We Do With Our Brain?
Life and death—along with health and reproduction, sanity and madness, sexuality and love—circumscribe the range of concerns that De Boever identifies as biopolitical in these novels. His greater interest, however, lies in how each novel constitutes a “meta-fictional allegory on the author’s relation to her or his characters” (144). Through a skillful adaptation of Agamben’s concept of bare life, the state in which life becomes indistinguishable from the law, De Boever argues that the author wields a sovereign power over character-life and depicts such life as “becoming appropriated by art” (144). The novel’s exploration of character-life therefore permits readers to “recognize in their governed lives our own biopolitical condition” (47). By inventively approaching several dimensions of care in these narratives, De Boever emphasizes the role that the political imagination plays in getting us to care about characters—and about ourselves. At times, this argument about the interpenetration of life and art can feel a bit too capacious: one wonders whether any practice of self-conscious narration might lead readers to an awareness of governmentality, or whether any degree of attention to the constructedness of a text could constitute a resistance to biopower. Indeed, De Boever has chosen a set of novelists who are usually called “postmodern” writers (an appellation which he implies is depoliticizing in effect), and while his thesis explicitly raises the stakes of studying the rise of the novelistic genre in the eighteenth century, his own discussion of this period is contained to a web of literary allusions to Defoe and Shelley. He admits, however, that his...