Wednesday, December 17, 2008

None of the currently fashionable European theorists and philosophers provide anything like it

Biopolitics Reading Roberto Esposito’s Bios
The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro

But not only is Esposito’s account of biology incomplete; his account of politics is, as well. This is due to the fact that, like far too many contemporary theorists, he considers questions of domination and authority, and political-philosophical arguments about the nature of law and sovereignty, without giving any thought to matters of political economy (more specifically, to processes of the extraction of surplus value, and the circulation and accumulation of capital). He has no account, in other words, of the ways in which conceptualizations of, and decisions about, “life”, are today at least as overdetermined by considerations of money and economy as they are by politics and political considerations. Biological research today is an expensive proposition; it must be publicly or privately funded (cf. the race between public and private bodies to sequence the human genome).

Money sets the agenda. Even as the management of “life” expands, in terms of everything from health care to biometrics in the name of “public safety,” priorities are set more by cost-benefit analyses than by strictly “political” forms of decision. “Biopolitics” today is intimately entangled with neoliberalism, alike in theory, in policy, and in practice. And this is yet another dimension that Esposito altogether ignores. It’s significant that Foucault himself, in his lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics, presciently focused his analysis mostly on the strategies and doctrines of a then (1978-1979) just emerging neoliberalism. Foucault discusses both the post-War German state-guided version of neoliberalism, and (at lesser length, but even more crucially for an understanding of the world today) the neoliberalism of the Chicago School of Milton Friedman, and especially Gary Becker.

Rather than offering any judgment on neoliberal practices, Foucault discusses them with the icy objectivity of an entomologist describing the habits of parasitic wasps. His emphasis, nonetheless, is on “the generalization of the grid of homo oeconomicus to domains that are not immediately and directly economic” (page 268). This expansion of the “economic” (as narrowly understood by neoclassical marginalism, as a form of calculative rationality) to all forms of human activity is indeed the largest “ideological” change we have experienced in the years since Foucault’s death; it has altered our very sense of the social and the political.

It is odd that, even as Foucault, at the extreme limits of his own thought, proclaimed the fundamental significance of this transformation of the modern episteme, his supposed disciples almost completely ignore it. (And I should note that the crisis we are currently undergoing does not in the least represent the “end” of neoliberalism — the state’s rescue of financial institutions, and its efforts to reboot the economy through spending and re-regulation, come out of the same economistic principles that motivated the deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s in the first place).

I don’t have any conclusion to this discussion, except to say that a biopolitics that is relevant to, let alone adequate to, the contemporary world, and that at least tries (even if not altogether successfully) to be “as radical as reality itself,” is yet to be born. Certainly none of the currently fashionable European theorists and philosophers provide anything like it — or even a starting place. time. 11:29 AM 12:04 PM 12:16 PM

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