Brief Musings on Biopolitics – Again

Any historical account of the rise of modern terror needs to address slavery, which could be considered one of the first instances of biopolitical experimentation. In many respects, the very structure of the plantation system and its aftermath manifests the emblematic and paradoxical figure of the state of exception. This figure is paradoxical here for two reasons.  First, in the context of the plantation, the humanity of the slave appears as the perfect figure of a shadow. Indeed, the slave condition results from a triple loss: (1) loss of a ‘home,’ (2) loss of rights over his or her body, and (3) the loss of political status. This triple loss is identical with absolute domination, natal alienation, and social death (expulsion from humanity altogether). Undoubtedly, as a political-juridical structure, the plantation is a space where the slave belongs to a master. It is not a community if only because, by definition, a community implies the exercise of the power of speech and thought.” (160)

– Achille Mbembe – “Necropolitics”

The extreme patterns of communication defined by the institution of plantation slavery dictates that we recognize the anti-discursive and extralinguistic ramifications of power at work in shaping communicative acts. There may, after all, be no reciprocity on the plantation outside of the possibilities of rebellion and suicide, flight and silent mourning, and there is certainly no grammatical unity of speech to mediate communicative reason. In many respects, the plantation inhabitants live non-synchonously.” (57)

Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness

I read these excerpts and wondered whether the settler colony can be termed a “space of exception” wherein racism fulfilled its function within biopolitics. These functions include the partitioning of populations between those whose lives must be maintained, and those whose lives must be abandoned. It is here that we see the logic of war from which racism was borne (a dynamic relation between the lives of “us” and the death of the Other). Mbembe writes in “Necropolitics,” “War after all is as much a means of achieving sovereignty as a way of exercising the right to kill.” (152)

But let me backtrack first. What do I mean by biopolitics? Biopolitics can be defined as power exercised in the domain of life politicized and exposed. In other words, the aggregate, living bodies of human beings within a population comprise the domain of biopolitics. It is power applied to man as living being, not simply as man-as-body. Agamben and Mbembe frame biopolitics as a continuation of sovereign power, wherein “power over life” (right to kill) spills over into the management or abandonment of life. For Foucault, however, biopolitics is a power exercised in the domain of life, which complements sovereign power’s right to kill. Biopolitics is “the acquisition of power over man insofar as man is a living being, that the biological came under state control, that there was at least a certain tendency that leads to what might be termed state control of the biological.” (239-240). Foucault went on to state:

And I think that one of the greatest transformations political right underwent in the 19th century was precisely that, I wouldn’t say exactly sovereignty’s old rights to take life or let live- was replaced, but it came to be complemented by a new right which does not erase the old right, but does penetrate it, permeate it. This is the right, rather the opposite right. It is the power to make live and let die.” (241)

– Michel Foucault – 17 March 1976 lecture

Now, I keep returning to the concept of “natal alienation” and its linkages to biopolitical exercises in slave fortresses, slave ships, refugee camps, prisons, and plantations. I explored it personally in “Dear One, What Have You Lost?” and “Akátá- or how I realized that Afrocentrism was not for me.” In a more historical and theoretical exploration of natal alienation, I wrote “Thoughts on Slave Ships, Regugee Camps and Mass Graves,” addressing the mass graves in which trafficked and enslaved Africans in refugee camps on the island of St. Helena. Noting their transition from slave fortresses, to slave ships to refugee camps, I wrote, “In all of these spaces, they inhabited marginal social situations as unwanted persons, natally-alienated persons, and as refugees respectively.”

Now I must further explore biopolitics and sovereign exercises of power in the settler colony. I think I’ll stop here, and write another post when I have more inspiration and insights to share.

Works Cited:

  1. Gilroy, Paul. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 57
  2. Mbembe, Achille. (2002). “Necropolitics” in Morton, Stephen and Bygrave, Stephen (eds.). (2008) Foucault in an Age of Terror. New York: Palgrave McMillan. pp 152-183
  3. Foucault, Michel. (2003). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. 1st ed. New York: Picador. pp 239-263
  4. Patterson, Orlando. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

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