Humanity after biopolitics

Biopolitics, thanatopolitics, geopolitics…over the last two decades a rich literature has arisen in the humanities and social sciences around the question of how modern forms and strategies of power seize upon and shape life as a goal, threat and object, in ways that (as Michel Foucault remarked) ‘life insurance’ is bound up with ‘death command’. I have written about such processes in Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence and (in narrative essay form) in “Life in the Hall of Smashed Mirrors”. Here I revisit the themes in the service of building a critical cosmopolitanism and a distinctive ontological foundation for “humanity” – a humanity thought as a networked and dissonant system of global relations and interdependencies rather than an enclosed moral subject.

The paper appears in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 16(4) 2011, in a special issue edited by Debjani Ganguly and Fiona Jenkins, “Limits of the Human”. The issue includes a fascinating series of articles by both of the editors, and others including Joanne Faulkner, Rosalyn Diprose, David Wood, Paul Alberts, Gerda Roelvink & Magdalena Zolkos, Krzysztof Ziarek, and more. Issue 16(3) 2011 is also fascinating and complementary, on Biopolitics in early Twenty-first century Italian theory.

I include the introduction to this paper below. Please email me to request a copy if you cannot access it through your library.

Abstract Against the background of a profound critique of human rights, cosmopolitan universalism and humanistic political agency offered by writers as diverse as Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt and Jenny Edkins, this essay seeks to recover and rethink the figure of humanity. Arguing that the critique of biopolitics and sovereignty unwittingly frustrates visions of human dignity and agency that can serve as a resource against its abuses, the essay argues that a vision of interdependent, indebted, and dispersed human being – one that can never be reduced to the ego or subject or an arc of history – is both an undeniable global fact and a normative resource. Conceived as a primary value that should normatively precede and condition (bio)politics, even as it never escapes it, humanity is a system of relations with animals, ecosystems, and physical/cosmic environments which occasions profound collective responsibilities. Always intertwined with the powers and terrors of human capacity and action, such a vision is at once a source of philosophical hope and an endless task of critical political work.

… the body that experiences ever more intensely the indistinction between power and life is no longer that of the individual, nor is it that sovereign body of nations, but that body of the world that is both torn and unified. Never before as today do the conflict, wounds and fears that tear the body to pieces seem to put into play nothing less than life itself …

Roberto Esposito, Bios 11


nce power takes hold of life, what is possible?

This is the problem raised by the critique of biopolitics, that characteristically modern form of power that takes living human existence as its object, field and hope. In this essay this question is cast as a properly global one. With its wars, refugees, genocides, poverty, wealth, suffering and excess, global politics makes the question of human power over life and death an urgent and tragic one. At the same time, long historical processes of imperialism, world war, cold war and globalisation have brought about the existence of a common interdependent humanity even as differing political ontologies have bifurcated human existence and community between two apparently hostile spaces: the state and the world. What is the status and power of “life” in such a situation? Is life, as some critiques of biopolitics and sovereignty have suggested, reduced to a vast system of abjection, violence and degradation that tears it from any structure of normative value or possibility of hope? Or, even as that potential remains at large in our world, could life also form a locus of the privileged and sacred in a near universal sense? Could it form the basis for resistance to the sovereign and global powers that simultaneously seek to endanger and take hold of it?

The work of Giorgio Agamben, and some important scholarly receptions of it in the field of International Relations (IR), has raised serious doubt about this hope. For them the possibility of life and living seems ineluctably trapped within the structures of sovereign power, the exception and the ban, and humanity is little more than a chimera – a seductive advertising hoarding behind which hides a renewed project of Western domination, biopolitical claim, and imperial violence. As significant and in many ways credible as such charges are, this essay develops an argument against such pessimism. It seeks to build an image of global human existence (based upon a rethought figure of humanity) that would be adequate to the challenge of the biopolitical and a range of other global wrongs as well. It does so against the horizon of a background project to rethink the politico-philosophical basis of cosmopolitanism, which in its current forms has both inspired laudable norm- and institution-building in areas of international law and cooperation, and arguably failed to prevent, or at worst been associated with, gross abuses of sovereign power and neglect.

Whatever its flaws and dangers, the core contemporary problematic of cosmopolitanism – how to create an ever more just and stable global order in an era of great economic inequality and instability, accelerating environmental change and destruction, terrible conflict and genocides, transnational terrorism, and nuclear peril – remains urgent and compelling. When one considers how the problems of biopolitics and life have asserted themselves globally in recent years – in processes of insecurity, (auto)immunisation, otherness, violence, incarceration, humanitarianism, insurgency, terrorism, deterrence, and war – they obviously touch on the core obsession of international society: collective security, an internationalised concern with security that gestures towards, but falls short of, a cosmopolitan framework. Yet even as collective security – an idea which was the central driver for the establishment of the United Nations – remains an apparently widespread desire, its meaning is deeply contested and largely uninterrogated. At the heart of it is great division and normative dispute, between statists and cosmopolitans, between North and South, and between those who would privilege the security and interests of the nation-state and those who wish to define security in terms of the emancipation and dignity of human beings. As a high-level panel of statespersons commissioned by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004 to study the problem concluded, “many people believe that what passes for collective security today is simply a system for protecting the rich and powerful.” They urged the world to find “a new consensus between alliances that are frayed, between wealthy nations and poor, and among peoples mired in mistrust across an apparently widening cultural abyss. The essence of that consensus is simple: we all share responsibility for each other’s security” (United Nations 312).

As laudable as such a call is, it awkwardly attempts to reconcile strongly contradictory security agendas and its morally weighted pronouns raise significant philosophical questions. What is it to speak of “peoples” mired in mistrust, or responsibilities “we” all share? What kind of subject, structure, or community is this, and what are its ontological and political claims? What kind of life is being imagined and politicised here? Indeed, the report’s definition of threats to international security as “any event or process that leads to large-scale death or lessening of life chances and undermines States as the basic unit of the international system” seeks to maintain the same awkward balancing act between the state and the human. “Life” is at the signifying core of the discourse, but the question of life as such is left unexplored.

Against this background, this essay focuses its concern around those questions of security politics and fundamental ontology that powerfully implicate the figures of life and the human. If knowledge forms part of the architecture of global power and conflict, and fundamental ontologies enable and limit global life in both its terror and possibility, what structures of reason, life and being will best enable global justice and enable a politics that might ward off international modernity’s worst powers and dangers? How, in what Jean L. Cohen calls a “dualistic world order” (3) of self-interested states and (incompletely cosmopolitan) international institutions, can we conceptualise, limit, and enact a set of fundamental principles for that order?

This task is an obviously vast one, and this essay’s concerns are consequently more limited. It specifically addresses itself to the concern that in the wake of various forms of liberal war, and the critique of biopolitics, the idea of humanity – a figure that animates Kant’s vision of perpetual peace, and the universal claims of the UN charter and its key human rights covenants – may well have lost its political value and moral power. This concern takes two general forms. One, implicit in Agamben’s thought, argues that life and the human can be neither a spiritual nor political challenge to sovereignty because they are implicated in sovereignty from birth. Given sovereignty’s threefold power as a fundamental anchoring concept in world politics – state sovereignty as the core subject of international law, as a principle for the formation of effective national community, and a principle for the division of ontopolitical space, security and moral community – this is a very serious issue. Compounding this concern, in some IR scholarship a focus on the powers and abuses of sovereignty has become combined with, or even displaced by, a concern with the function and power of humanity as a signifier, politics and regulative ideal. In the wake of both the critique of biopolitics and the war on terror, there are diverse (and not always reconcilable) concerns that cosmopolitanism – rather than being a brake on the powers of national sovereignty – is forming a structure of legitimation for imperial aggrandisement and violence, and exposing life even more intensely to the transnational grasp and abuse of sovereign power. Can the idea of humanity, then, be salvaged from this wreckage? I argue that it can, and must be.

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