Biopolitics is our epoch’s commonplace. It is the lens through which we view the world and assume we possess the best explanation for it. It is the critical apparatus that motivates us to think about catastrophe devoid of epistemic risk. Paradoxically, biopolitics is a sophisticated theoretical form with profound empirical implications, which does not allow an outside of surrounding worlds. The virus is unthought by biopolitics. Viruses terrify us. They terrify us, amongst many reasons, because they dissolve the borders between home and territory. Thus, there is no greater epistemic comfort than explaining the pandemic as a biopolitical effect of modernity. There is no greater anthropological compensation than supposing that viruses can die, flee or change; when, instead, they are capable of mutating.
Biopolitics rules, but does not govern. Even if some thinkers have insisted on describing its explicative limits or have tried to grasp the implications of accepting its truth, biopolitics is still the main tone that characterizes contemporary public opinion. What is so fascinating or productive about explaining pandemics in biopolitical terms? Why is there a drive to make life the ultimate object of politics? Can the academic Left avoid reproducing the biopolitical vocabulary? Answering said questions skeptically may open up an obscure yet indispensable claim: we must abandon biopolitics. Let us abandon biopolitics as an explicative model. Let us abandon biopolitics as a way to regulate our bodies and psychic structure. Let us abandon, finally, biopolitics as a politics of the living, as if the core issues were the control of populations, the biologization of the political or the denial of viruses as living beings.
Perhaps due to its successful discursive dissemination, there are few thinkers –the less judicious or the most reactionary ones– who have questioned Michel Foucault’s late ideas. These disputes about the “truth” of biopolitics culminate in such paroxysm that critique has become a continuous theological diatribe. Everyone is engaged in an amendment or a commentary on the grand biopolitical text: Paul B. Preciado disputes Roberto Esposito; Esposito corrects Jean-Luc Nancy; Nancy revises Giorgio Agamben; Agamben adjusts Foucualt, and so on, until any of us –any average reader– finds oneself accepting that the virus is a product of biopower. However, if we pause the time of the event, if we take a step back from the totalizing demand of biopolitics, we may envisage that the biopolitical vocabulary disables any outside and all exits. As a good compensatory theory, biopolitics is an anthropological diagnosis. As a good theology, biopolitics substantiates life and kidnaps its own subject matter: life, whether it is one’s own, the life of others, or life in its constitutive fragility.
I am probably exaggerating and not all biopolitics amounts to confinement. The demand for confinement is probably compatible with ungovernable life. Indeed, maybe the intensification of absolute control over life is just beginning to constitute a new world order. Every crisis has its own doubts, exaggerations, and prophecies. But crises are also measures of time, indicators, and thresholds. The pandemic is undoubtedly a threshold. A threshold that doesn’t open up a future because the future is the mode of time currently in jeopardy, so we have no options or decisions to make about it. Therefore, the problem is that if biopolitics is defined as the sovereign administration of life, it is precisely because, ultimately, life cannot be administered. The sovereignty of the body is a liberal illusion. Life is always ungovernable. As Ariadne’s thread, biopolitics weaves its sovereign arguments to construct the garment of confinement.
Due to the latter, biopolitics sets up subjectivity in a permanent state of war: a subjectivity articulated as a phármakon that is capable of carrying within it both evil and salvation. A gnostic subjectivity. A subjectivity that cures and poisons. A subjectivity with friends and enemies. A subjectivity which is at war with itself and with the world because its isolation “saves lives” and, even if “contaminated,” has no other choice but survival. That the possibility of a virus lives within each of us implies that everyone bears the accelerated death of others and oneself. Biopolitics transforms us into Poe’s red masque or into Melville’s Bartleby: forms of anguish that cover the death drive. Biopolitics is always necropolitics.
Biopolitics occludes the right to death. Biopolitics ensures that life –just as death– is a political act, that burying our dead is a political activity and, in such a total capture of existence, we find one of the greatest obstacles to live again. Not even the dead are safe from the exercises of sovereignty. The dead deserve to be outside statistical expropriation. This is why Giambattista Vico, the philosopher of the Italian plague of 1656, was not wrong when he claimed that, no matter how barbaric or civilized, every human form of life possesses religion, marriage and burial. The loss of the burial rite is the victory of biopolitics. The number trumps the name. The right to bury our dead is the first and last locus of resistance against biopolitical closure. The tomb is the last testimony of life, of our life. Therefore, biopolitics cannot be used to exit biopolitics. We must avoid the biopolitical temptation of Antigone’s oblivion because, as María Zambrano reminds us, “Antigone’s tomb is our own obscured consciousness.”
Biopolitics forecloses the possibility of learning to live amongst specters, amongst the “non-living,” amongst the “dead” or the “nor living nor dead,” because its aim of governing all life penetrates the fantasy that life is more important than death: the death of anyone, the death of our beloved, the death of the unknown. Biopolitics is not interested in tombs but in morgues, it does not imagine cemeteries but death pits, it does not project lives but counts deaths. Finally, as a psychic structure, biopolitics is not capable of governing life nor generating a sense for survival. As a theory, biopolitics does not explain how the life of the dead is possible, nor does it consider the importance of burial for life itself. Maybe it can only envision the politics of death as a statistical extension of populations. Biopolitics does not conceive of an outside where not all life is political and not all death is a political issue. Biopolitics is, ultimately, academia’s mode of confinement. For this reason, slightly fragile and untimely, biopolitics is the compensation of the academic Left in order to avoid contemplating its own tomb and realizing that, for a long time, it has carried the virus of sad passions within itself.
Ángel Octavio Álvarez Solís is Professor of Philosophy at Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.
Translator: Gonzalo Bustamante Moya earned a MA in Philosophy from The New School for Social Research in 2020.