This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.
Bringing the voices of Chiara Bottici and Paul B. Preciado together, my aim is to show there is a way in which their respective reflections on the nature of the biopolitical turn could be seen as complementary. I begin by highlighting some aspects of Bottici’s insights. With those reflections in mind, I move on to discuss Preciado’s contributions to the conversation.
In her article “Rethinking the Biopolitical Turn: From the Thanatopolitical to the Geneapolitical Paradigm,” Bottici claims that “[n]ew words come in when meaning fails” (175). Thus, she argues, in engaging with new syllogisms in a philosophical manner, it is always important to think of them as responses that emerge in light of certain existential ruptures in which words fail to capture the complexity of material experiences. When this happens, there is a clear demand for a new term to come to life. And this, Bottici tells us, is how we should think about the proliferation of the recently born series of words featuring the prefix “bio,” of which biopolitical — the main focus of Bottici’s reflections — is just one example. In other words, Bottici is asking us to think of “biopolitics” as an attempt to expand our semantic repertoire in a way that does justice to our material experiential context. However, in paying attention to the specifics of how “biopolitics” was conceived, Bottici underscores an important limitation that she believes has characterized the way in which we have been thinking of the biopolitical (what she claims can be called a “necropolitical interpretation”) (183).
Given her genealogical account of the conditions that have given rise to the term, Bottici states, “biopolitics has mainly been conceived within a thanatopolitical paradigm — that is, one where death is consistently privileged as the defining feature of our existential horizon” (175). However, Bottici finds this problematic, insofar as the prioritization of the idea that human beings are predominantly beings-toward-death is detrimental to an exploration of the possibilities that may arise from placing emphasis on the meaning of birth in the constitution of human beings. With this in mind, Bottici asks, “what if birth had both an ontological and a political priority over death?” The ontological priority is explained in terms of the precedence that birth takes over death (to die, one has to have been born first). By contrast, the political priority alludes to the fact that, whereas death is something that we will necessarily face alone, birth is always experienced with others (clearly, at least a mother has to be present for a birth to occur). Of particular interest for the connection I am trying to establish between Bottici and Preciado is the emphasis that Bottici places on the fact that “birth, as Arendt puts it, is the political movement par excellence” (185).
In his book Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornography Era, Preciado approaches the discussion of biopolitics from a different angle. His strategy is to show that it is possible “to sketch out a new cartography of the transformations in industrial production during the previous century, using as an axis the political and technical management of the body, sex, and identity” (24). In his analysis, biopolitics is a central component of the establishment of what he deems as a new type of “government of the living” (25). Preciado is thus drawing from Foucault — to the extent that he acknowledges that the consolidation of new forms of capitalism has brought about the transformation of “gender,” “sex,” “sexual identity,” and “pleasure” into objects subjectable to political management. Preciado adds, the instances of social control that Foucault so aptly described and anticipated are being executed through new dynamics of what he calls “technocapitalism” (25). Preciado’s goal is to show that “a new kind of hot, psychotropic, punk capitalism” has been on the rise, while calling attention to the artificial mechanisms such capitalism has brought with it to facilitate a more “perfect” approach to the control of our sexual subjectivities. Preciado coins the term “pharmacopornographic” to qualify the processes of “a biomolecular (pharmaco) and semiotic-technical (pornographic) government of sexual subjectivity” (34). Elaborating the specificities characterizing this new form of control, Preciado further asserts that our “hypermodernity” is based on the idea that the “hidden truth of nature” is irrelevant for our modern life; what really matters is acquiring meticulous power and knowledge concerning the cultural, political, and technological processes that constitute the “nature” of the artifact that has become the human body (35).
Although there is much more to say about Preciado’s approach and observations, I stop here to highlight the aspect of Preciado’s work that I want to connect to Bottici’s. If we pay attention to Preciado’s word choices as well as the general ideas that his work spotlights, we notice he is thinking of biopolitics as an approach meant to monitor and condition life as it happens. After all, his point is — at least in part — to highlight the ways in which technocapitalism, as well as global media, and biotechnologies are meant to produce “added value” to life as conceived in contemporary society (24-25). Thus, life, not death, seems to be at the center of the exercise of biopolitics. But how does this connect with Bottici’s observations on birth and the importance of thinking about biopolitics in conjunction with the idea that human beings are always beings-after-birth?
My contention is that Bottici and Preciado complement each other insofar as Preciado explains the way in which the changes in capitalism that we have observed in past decades are an attempt to improve the monitoring of all possible births. Here I am drawing from Bottici’s insight in a semi-metaphorical way to propose that, though she is right in pointing out that we are inherently beings-after-birth, the “postindustrial, global, and mediatic regime” that governs us has devised ways to profit from such an ontological condition. In this way, I propose that we think of all the “advances” that Preciado describes in his analysis of the pharmacopornographic as mechanisms that have been manufactured for the purpose of selling new opportunities of “continuing to be born.” In other words, under modern-day capitalism, a subject can always become something else — (s)he can always be born again — insofar as it is always possible to adopt a different personality, culture, appearance, etc. (so long as we acquire the corresponding products designated for the aim we desire to accomplish).
Here, Preciado succeeds in showing us how there is something obscene about the attempt to commodify the options a person has to “live outside the box.” Yet, if we agree with Bottici’s observations, we cannot help realizing that being-born is what defines us; therefore, it is not difficult to understand the allure that comes with the possibility of being-born again and again. The question hence becomes how to honor this human impulse without embracing capitalism and its vices in the process.