What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics? (pt 1)



Given Agamben’s recent gaff and some of the responses to it, it seems important to ask what is the bio- in biopolitics (as I ended the last post)? The problem is not only that certain trends in contemporary biology have dominated the popular perception of it (internal and external to the discipline itself) but also that biopolitics often has tighter alliances to lebensphilosophie or 20th century vitalism than to actual biology.

It also has become apparent that biopolitics was, at least in the ill-defined west, only a thin veneer on marketization of life. Data that could be used for public health was mostly just used to sell and advertise. Full-fledged biopolitics was thus too expensive and was just window dressing on already-existing ideologies (a means to control immigration, politicization of non-normative bodies etc).

Again as I already wrote about the fact that eugenics balked at the difficulty of actually tracking the traits they wished to promote meant that they used biological rhetoric but far less modern and pseudo-scientific concepts. The fact that the nazis embraced and then abandoned Darwinism for using blood as a marker of purity is one of the most clear cases of this.

In some earlier posts I tried to sort out the various competing conceptual clusters of biological concepts:

1-Teleological (Kant, Blumenbach)

2-Functional (Cuvier, Bernard)

3-Organizational (Schelling, Herder)

4-Morphological (Goethe, Oken, St-Hilaire)

The bio-political (in the negative sense) of these could be:

1-Anthropological Racism

2-Physiologies of Health

3-National Organicism

4-Monsters and Mistakes

These are rarely discussed in isolation but jump from one cluster to the other. The anthropological concerns is one of attempting to normalize culturally the notion of race. Racist though he was Blumenbach’s work was used against those who ascribed to a polygenic theory of human evolution. How this applies to Kant is amazingly worked out in the work of Stella Sandford. Foucault’s positive project is also connected to this cluster because he agrees with Kant that natural history is about the capacity of human judgment and that there cannot be (contra the romantics and Schelling) a history of nature (this falls into the Organizational camp).

The functional cluster of Physiological Racism is of course the health of the body relative to its environment. This of course involves a parametricization of an organism or a body’s niche (what does it mean for them to function well is about where they are supposed to exist). The health of the line worker is probably the easiest image to conjure up here – being healthy to go to work. Thus the functionalism of Cuvier is inward in terms of the organs functionally properly but this has to be measured against some ideal notion of health (most famously seen in the work of Bernard especially as discussed by Canguilhem). This ideal is often read as Platonist (Ernst Mayr for instance sees Cuvier a a Platonist) but since this is read internally regarding activity it is really an Aristotlean move.

National Organicism is the health of the social or national  body and can be a Platonist accompaniment to the healthy body. The organicist nationalism is exemplified by fascism which makes the market secondary (or at least rhetorically secondary) to the unity of the people. Thus the health and capacities of the individual are absorbed by a unity of forces and/or matter that determines the actions of its subordinate members. This form of nationalized organcism is close to Lebensphilosophie since both collapse the gap between biological life and life lived or life and lifestyle or life form and form of life. The holistic closure of organicism takes the forces of vitalism but makes it a structure to be managed. Organicist life as a nationalist move becomes an internal maintenance of healthy relations.

Lastly the discourse on monsters and mistakes takes and transforms a theological hold-over namely that the continuous or harmonious view of nature (here sharing a Platonic lineage with the organicist view) means that mistakes and monsters occur because of a violation of a law. The actions of the wicked birth monsters…unnatural means not apart from nature but apart from natural law…from the intended harmony issued to nature by something outside of it (god or reason). I think that this discourse is less utilized than the others as the discourse of the monster became that of mutation (and was not amenable to eugenics as the other three clusters were).

If Darwin’s great move was to unite clusters 2 and 4 in that he makes compatible the ontogentic and the phylogenetic (the functional the morphological) it again demonstrates why the Eugenicists essentially minimize the mutational angle (as did the neo-Darwinians contra the Mendelians) and limit the discourse of physiology to a realm of observable and/or controllable traits. In essence functionalism is generalized to blood and morphology is shallowed. As Gould repeated often what people could not and still cannot accept was the contingency involved in both the morphological aspect (small changes causes large structural changes over time in all kinds of messy ways leaving vestiges and blind alleys) and the flimsiness of functionality (niches are very hard to define during or before their develop).

The constructive aspects of these clusters in a bio-political sense seems to be:

1-Life is goal oriented in a regional sense (Korsgaard)

2-Health is internal to the organism, not mapable onto an ideal form (Canguilhem)

3-Nature is self-organizational but across all layers (organic, inorganic, etc) (Schelling, Simondon, Ruyer)

4-Structure is contingent but directs contingency unexpectedly as it accumulates (Thom, Waddington)

The positive upswing of 1 is that there are different degrees of intentionality or goal orientedness in the organic world. This is important to explain why humans have a heavier burden of responsibility when it comes to other forms of life (this is maybe best outlined by Christine Korsgaard in her Fellow Creatures. It is import not to spread teleology over all of nature which is what too often happens in a lazy reading of self-organization (3). To give all of nature an intentionality is what binds ecofascism and gaia in the same trap: ‘nature wants us dead if we don’t respect her.’

Statistical reasoning and modeling is necessary for (2) in that it demonstrates how fragile any norm of health is. There are physiological norms but no normal – biological functionalism is important for internal life but has limited extrapolative power. Sickness and medicines tend to respond in certain ways but obviously involve complex inner dynamics of any given organic individual based on molecular biology and chemistry.

(4) is not only biological but emphasizes the macroevolutionary aspects of the organism (the phenotypic constrains) in terms of the accrued effects of chance which then funnels contingency in other unexpected ways. The types of  movements a life form is capable of speaks to its shape and vice versa.

To be continued…



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