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sábado, janeiro 24

Life ItSelf

Bio-Power and Necro-Politics

Reflections on an ethics of sustainability

Rosi Braidotti

The context

Contemporary debates in the fields of social theory and cultural analysis have been concentrating on the politics of life itself, with special emphasis on the shifting boundaries between life and death. Bio-power, as Foucault argued,[1] refers not only to the government of the living, but also to multiple practices of dying. »The politics of life itself« designates the extent to which the notion of bio-power has emerged as an organizing principle for the proliferating discourses that make technologically mediated »life« into a contested political field.[2] Living matter itself becomes the subject and not the object of enquiry and this shift towards a bio-centred perspective affects the very structure and the interaction of social relations.

One of the manifestations of this historical context is what has been called the genetic social imaginary.[3] This is manifested in the market economy through a tendency to use a terminology borrowed from genetics and evolutionary theory for the purpose of commercial and political discourses. An instance of this is the emphasis on the »next generation« of gadgets, cars and consumers’ electronics. Contemporary media and culture also spreads a sort of genetic citizenship as a form of spectatorship by promoting the visualization of the life of genes in medical practices, popular culture, cinema and advertising. Another aspect to this phenomenon is the uses of genetics in political debates on race, ethnicity and immigration, as well as public debates ranging from abortion and stem-cell research to new kinship and family structures. Discourses about vitalism[4] and vital politics are also circulating.

Issues of power and power relations are central to this project. The notion of »life itself« lies at the heart of bio-genetic capitalism[5] as a site of financial investments and potential profit. Technological interventions neither suspend nor do they automatically improve the social relations of exclusion and inclusion that historically had been predicated along the axes of class and socio-economics, as well as along the sexualized and racialized lines of demarcation of »otherness«. Also denounced as »bio-piracy«,[6] the ongoing technological revolution often intensifies patterns of traditional discrimination and exploitation. We have all become the subjects of bio-power, but we differ considerably in the degrees and modes of actualisation of that very power.

This explosion of discursive interest in the politics of life itself affects also the question of death and new ways of dying. Bio-power and necro-politics are two sides of the same coin.[7]

»Life« can be a threatening force, as evidenced by new epidemics and environmental catastrophes that blur the distinction between the natural and the cultural dimensions. Another obvious example of the politics of death is the new forms of industrial-scale warfare, the privatization of the army and the global reach of conflicts, specifically the case of suicide bombers in the war on terror. Equally significant are the changes that have occurred in the political practice of bearing witness to the dead as a form of activism, from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to humanitarian aid. From a post-human perspective comes the proliferation of viruses, from computers to humans, animals and back.

Relevant cultural practices that reflect this changing status of death can be traced in the success of forensic detectives in contemporary popular culture. The corpse is a daily presence in global media and journalistic news, while it is also an object of entertainment. The dislocation of gender roles in relation to death and killing is reflected in the image of women who kill, from the revival of classical figures like Medea and Hecuba to Lara Croft.

A rather complex relationship to death has emerged in the technologically mediated universe we inhabit: one in which the link between the flesh and the machine is symbiotic and therefore establishes a bond of mutual dependence. This engenders some significant paradoxes: the human body is simultaneously denied, in a fantasy of escape, and strengthened or re-enforced. Balsamo[8] stresses the paradoxical concomitance of effects surrounding the new post-human bodies as enabling both a fear of dispossession and a fantasy of immortality and total control: »And yet, such beliefs about the technological future ›life‹ of the body are complemented by a palpable fear of death and annihilation from uncontrollable and spectacular body-threats: antibiotic-resistant viruses, random contamination, flesh-eating bacteria«.[9] In other words, the new practices of »life« mobilize not only generative forces, but also new and subtler degrees of extinction.

These concerns have both the neo-liberal[10] and the neo-Kantian thinkers[11] struck by high levels of anxiety about the sheer thinkability of human future. In opposition to this, I would like to defend the politics of »life itself« and approach these phenomena in a non-normative manner. They are the social manifestations of the shifting relation between living and dying in the era of the politics of »life itself«.

In opposition to the nostalgic trend that is so dominant in contemporary politics and also to a tendency to melancholia on the part of the progressive Left ,[12] I want to argue that the emphasis on life itself can engender affirmative politics. For one thing it produces a more adequate cartography of our real-life conditions: it focuses with greater accuracy on the complexities of contemporary technologically mediated bodies and on social practices of human embodiment. Furthermore, this type of vitality, unconcerned by clear-cut distinctions between living and dying, composes the notion of »zoe« as a non-human yet affirmative life-force. This vitalist materialism, inspired by Deleuze’s philosophy, has nothing in common with the postmodern emphasis on the inorganic and the aesthetics of fake, pastiche and camp simulation. It also moves beyond »high« cyber studies[13] into post-cyber materialism.[14] More on this in my conclusion.

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