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  • Introduction:Technologies of Life and Architectures of Death in Early America
  • Greta LaFleur (bio) and Kyla Schuller (bio)

Theories of biopolitics have had little to say about early America. Biopolitics as a framework has become essential for analyzing oppressive power structures in Black studies, Asian American studies, gender and sexuality studies, and queer theory, among other fields.1 However, biopolitics has not yet been well elaborated in relation to the development of slavery, capitalism, empire, and settler colonialism, arguably the structuring institutions of modernity both in the United States and in the Americas as a whole. This absence has limited the development of theories of biopolitics, on the one hand, and analyses of the history of power in early American studies, on the other. Yet we find ourselves in a moment of an exciting shift, and this special issue joins an increasingly robust conversation about biopolitics in the Americas before 1900.2 We aim to offer a historically situated and analytically precise series of reflections on what biopolitics might have meant, and how biopower might have been recognized as a resource, managed, and extracted, in early and nineteenth-century America.3

Theories of biopolitical governance have been particularly important to twentieth- and twenty-first-century American studies since the publication of Achille Mbembe's virtuosic "Necropolitics," one of the first essays in what would become a thriving critical engagement with the theories of biopolitics and biopower developed by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben.4 Mbembe effectively rewrote Foucault's influential account of the rise of this modern mode of governance into one that centered the politics of disposability that had always been at its core by relocating the site of the emergence of biopolitics from metropolitan imperial spaces to their colonial holdings.5 Mbembe argues that attending to the extraction of labor and reproduction from colonized and enslaved peoples tells a different story about what some have glossed as the "make live, let die" tactics of governance that biopolitical modes of governance espouse. He emphasizes the architecture of death at the heart of the colony and plantation that Foucault's and Agamben's notions of biopolitics, which focus on life-generating measures, miss. By focusing on what Mbembe termed [End Page 603] "necropolitics"—the way that the death of peoples deemed disposable by state power are locked into a zero-sum equation with the flourishing of populations deemed essential, making the flourishing of some contingent on the deaths of others—we are left with a vision of biopolitical governance centered not in Europe but in its colonies, and not only on the state but on markets that demanded labor, capital, and raw materials to thrive as well.

However, both Foucault and Mbembe each gesture toward a hazily early modern (for Mbembe, plantation slavery; for Foucault, a rise that occurred throughout the early modern period and into the eighteenth century) point of origin for the shift in especially Atlantic tactics of governance away from a more singular sovereign power and toward the rhizomatic and capacious biopolitics of the modern era. Neither of them offers much historical detail as to the early modern and eighteenth-century materializations of this new governmentality. This special issue is animated by these historical gaps and offers reflections that supplement or at least gesture toward some histories, practices, markets, and sciences that contributed to this shift in governance. How did biopolitics unfurl its deadly calculations of the relative value of life in the context of the early American colonies and, later, the United States? What can biopolitical frames offer early American studies, and vice versa?

This special issue of American Quarterly expands and complicates Mbembe's intervention by articulating theories of biopolitical governances from below, and from the Americas. Biopolitical frameworks have much to offer as we analyze how capitalism and its need for land, raw materials, and labor intersects with racializing, gendering, and eroticizing structures. These nuanced, historical perspectives in turn offer crucial correctives to Euorocentric, masculine-centric accounts of the architecture of biopower. At the same time, this special issue underscores the increasing relevance of biopolitics to current scholarly debates within early and nineteenth-century American studies. In nine original essays and eight shorter forum...