What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics (pt 2)

25Mar20

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So last time I set up this progression:

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 (Races or Cultures are seen as more or less advanced)

2-Physiologies of Health (Disciplined body as ‘healthy’ productive body)

3-National Organicism (Healthy society is harmonious and homogeneous)

4-Monsters and Mistakes (Outsiders and mutations are an ‘error’ to be corrected)

As I wrote here, these clusters compact and rearrange themselves through the 19th century.

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)

I think we can look at the last two clusters in relation to Covid-19 in the following way. 

1-The virus is Chinese and/or a Chinese bio-weapon

2-The virus is from poor hygiene and ‘strange’ eating habits

3-The virus is nature’s revenge

4-The virus is a temporary bad flu

The first case of misplaced development narratives and cultural ranking cuts across the second case as well. The fact that the virus may have originated in China is less relevant than its early explosion in Wuhan. The point of origin of a virus is important only in tracking its spread (in appreciating its teleos as a simple spreading and infecting). This is of course denied in the paranoid fantasies of it being a bioweapon and is highlighted again in terms of alt-right groups supposedly weaponizing it after the fact.

The second case attempts to localize such paranoia at the level of the body – in terms of one’s habits and practices regarding their body. The same time of racism functions at this level but is more constrained in terms of being a curiosity or stupidity of those who don’t have the same standards as ‘us.’

Again as I wrote last time the virus as nature’s revenge is trotting out ecofascism coupled with picturesque images of dolphins and swans navigating Venice’s now less polluted canals. In part such a position inflates teleology (from the first cluster) to something ubiquitous and makes nature into a Gaia or Medea that wants to erase us.

Lastly there is the appeal to the temporary aberration or the reduction of the virus to a fluke or trivializing it in various ways.

The first two cases, in emphasizing the human role in the pandemic, seem connected to preventive measures at the human level. The third and fourth clusters make justifying inaction easier, as it is something we either deserve or can do little about. In general negative biopolitics sees all directed action about the body or health as suspicious politically whereas some nonhuman or materialist perspectives would see any attempt at control as hubristic. In a constructive or productive sense we can try and outline the following:

1-Origin of the virus is subordinate to its transmission history

2-Individuals cases are part of this history but also redirected based on the genetic, phylogenetic, and behavioral capacities of its hosts

3-The emergence and life of the virus is nested in organic and inorganic layers in terms of factory farming, environmental destruction, and so on

4-While there is a degree of contingency or luck in terms of the emergence of the virus it is structurally funneled by all the above practices. Furthermore, small changes in the virus’ structure makes it radically difficult to model

Obviously the massive problem is how governmentality is supposed to intervene in the name of public health and not death-drive capitalism (let the old die for the sake of the market). But the question of the biological and the relationship to the biophilosophical  has been consistently neglected by every recent philosophical take on the disease. From Bifo to Agamben to Malabou to Badiou old models are trudged out to describe its effects rather than to actually understand it (though Malabou at least addressed history in a somewhat relevant way).

Most biological phenomena are far too fine grained for the politics and concepts of continental philosophy to grasp in any adequate fashion. This is made even worse by biophilosophy essentially abandoning biological science for lebensphilosophie in the 19th and 20th centuries. The position of life falls somewhere between the functionalist and the teleological view (where biology is seen as a disciplinary control) or it is seen as something completely unthinkable or untheorizable in the vitalist-materialist sense.

These two views are often held together in contemporary continental thought – that discipline of bodies or goals fails because of the excessive vitalness of life. Such a divide casts biological knowledge as a failed attempt at control via the biological due to a lack of knowledge about life which of course cannot be known in any sense. This in effect collapses the distinction between constructive and destructive biopolitics and makes it internal to the science of biology. This makes any attempt to understand the positive aspects of public health impossible.

Next time I will try to talk about populations as a concept which balances on the tip of this divide.

 

 



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