Biopolitics and the Neoliberal Subject: an introduction

Hello all,

This is my first blog post for my English senior honors thesis: Biopolitics and the Neoliberal Subject. For my project, I explore illness narratives and the construction of the ill-body in contemporary African-American literature, and the critical conversations surrounding these narratives. More specifically, my thesis seeks to answer this critical question: In contemporary African-American literature, how does the construction of illness and the construction of the ill-body destabilize and ultimately counteract the biopolitical agenda of the neoliberal regime? Currently, this question acts as a guiding force for my research; the wording of the question may evolve as I conduct my research, but this critical question keeps me grounded in what I am seeking to discover.

To anyone unfamiliar with terms like “biopolitics” and “neoliberalism,” my project probably sounds like nonsense—indeed, I had to read quite a few scholarly articles before I could explain these terms and their implications in my research. For this post, I aim to synthesize the critical essays I’ve read thus far and lay out the basic lexicon of my project so that readers have working definitions and examples of the ideas I’m working with. After familiarizing readers with the terms and ideas of my project, I’ll explain the critical question presented above, and use examples from two novels to show readers how I see the theoretical background of my project interacts with my chosen literary texts. Ultimately, I aim to provide readers some direction to how I’ll move forward with this project.

Key terms in my project include neoliberalism, biopolitics, biovalue, biopower, ontology, and “immunitas.” I’ll start with the “bio-” cluster. Biopolitics, biovalue, and biopower are related; their definitions are similar, and in critical discourse, biopolitics and biopower are often used interchangeably—even though they have different meanings. Biopower originated in Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the College de France; according to Foucault, in the seventeenth century, the sovereign—or nation-state—began to enforce a new “power over life,” biopower, which acted in opposition to previous forms of penal power which ruled by “power over death” (Roach 154). In other words, before biopower, the power of the nation-state was predicated on the Judeo-Christian principle of “thou shalt not,” where transgression of a legal code was punishable by death. In contradistinction, biopower “encourages an art of living: thou shalt live a good life as devised by state-informed expert knowledge; thou shalt do what is best for you, which conveniently coincides with what is best for” the sovereign (Roach 156, 157). To be clear, biopower still uses death as a punishment to enforce a legal code; however, biopower shifts the nation-states interests to how its people live. The end game of biopower, then, is to “produce subjectivities and forms of life that secure a ‘vital population’” (Roach 157). In other words, a nation’s biopolitical agenda—biopolitics referring to the means or dispositives by which the nation-state achieves biopower—aims to create a community that conforms to the state’s particular mode of being (in our culture, this determined mode of being is neoliberalism), and encompasses conformists within a protective boundary, while limiting the freedoms of those who are not within the “vital population” (Esposito). Biopolitics, to reiterate, encompasses the forces by which the state attempts to conform the population to the state’s desired form.

Biovalue and “immunitas,” while separate terms, refer respectively to a person’s location within or without the vital population and the value attributed to this location, and the process by which the state determines one’s placement in/out of the vital population. To phrase it differently, one’s biovalue reflects how important the nation-state believes a person is to the state. (Is their protection necessary for the goals of the nation-state? Precisely how important?) It’s important to remember that the concept of the vital population operates on a spectrum, not a binary: the freedoms granted to those in the vital population vary based on a person’s particular biovalue—and the same goes for those not considered part of the vital population. Roberto Esposito, an Italian philosopher and prominent biopolitical theorist, uses the term “immunitas” to explain how a person is categorized as part of the vital population. In his book, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Esposito argues that to achieve biopower, the nation-state employs a paradigm of immunization by which—analagous to the way one’s immune system protects the body from threats like viruses—the state determines which people are necessary (vital, if you will) to achieve the mission of the state, and all others are deemed as infectious foreign bodies who do not deserve the freedoms and protections of the state. Immunitas, then is the first biopolitical mode through which a state achieves biopower.

I stated earlier that the endgame of biopower is to create a community that conforms to the state’s particular mode of being—a mode of being that formulates living as an act in “service of the state and productivity;” according to Gordon Hull, the contemporary nation-state has determined that the proper mode of existence is the neoliberal state (Hull 325). Neoliberalism refers to an economic system that embraces laissez-faire principles of deregulation and privatization, as well as other fiscally conservative policies. My project is much less concerned with the actual system of neoliberalism than it is with the impact of neoliberalism on the human subject; as my title suggests, I am concerned with the “neoliberal subject”—how neoliberalism affects human ontology. Hull argues that in the sovereign’s attempt to achieve “optimal productivity of the population,” via neoliberalism, the sovereign “politicizes individual bodies by imposing a theory according to which Homo Economicus is the bios [proper form of life] most appropriate” (Hull 329). Homo Economicus, Hull rightly insists, is the ontological state of the human after subjected to neoliberalism; Homo Economicus is human reformulated to be “an ‘entrepreneur of oneself,’ [to manage] risks and rewards as productively as possible, [to view] expenditures of resources as investments in expected future returns” (326, my emphasis).

So let’s return to my critical question: In contemporary African-American literature, how does the construction of illness and the construction of the ill-body destabilize and ultimately counteract the biopolitical agenda of the neoliberal regime? My project is by no means a critique of neoliberalism—nor does it take a political stance of any kind. Rather, my project seeks to uncover ways of being that exist outside of the Homo Economicus. I’m very fond of what Percival Everett considers to be the point of literature: to make an experience available to readers that they did not previously have access to. Central to my project, is my belief that illness narratives in contemporary African-American literature give readers access to an experience that deconstructs the Homo Economicus and articulates a new understanding of human ontology. My goal for this project, then, is to interpret these experiences and uncover the new ways of being made accessible by my chosen texts. In uncovering these ontological insights, this project aims not only to create a space for these new modes of being, but to encourage the coexistence and cohabitation of multiple ontological realities.

The next logical question, then, is how does illness deconstruct the Homo Economicus, thereby destabilizing neoliberal biopolitics and establishing new ways of being? If I could answer this now, I wouldn’t have much of a project. To begin an answer, I find it helpful to return to Foucault, and his belief that sexual freedom would destabilize biopower. According to Foucault, sexuality is the primary dispositive (means of achieving a desired outcome) by which biopolitics seeks to control life. Thomas Roach explains how sexuality is the object of biopolitical control by examining the rhetoric of HIV/AIDS prevention research. Roach keenly observes that many studies surrounding AIDS categorize “heterosexual intercourse” as a safe behavior, while simultaneously suggesting that “homosexual intercourse” is categorized as a high risk, or unknown risk for obtaining AIDS. Roach points out that heterosexual and homosexual intercourse are never defined, and that the studies rely on heteronormative assumptions to define sexuality: heterosexual sex equals penile-vaginal sex, and homosexual sex equals penile-anal sex. Problematically, Roach insists, heterosexual sex can be “oral, anal, and/or vaginal penetrative sex between men and women,” and that “these behaviors carry radically different levels of risk,” and likewise, homosexual sex can be composed of many different sexual acts—acts which carry varying levels of risk (Roach 161). Pointing out the failure to use precise language, and the categorization of acts simply as hetero- or homo-sexual sex, Roach claims that these studies insinuate that “risky types of people transmit HIV,” and that this insinuation misconstrues risk bodies—the homosexual being—as ontologically contaminated. Consequently, those identified as heterosexual are considered part of the “vital population,” and receive protections and freedoms that the state provides members of its vital population, while those identified as homosexual are stigmatized and situated outside of the free community. Roach concludes that these studies fail even to “disseminate scientifically sound health information” as they fail to identify high-risk behaviors (162).

The problem that Roach critiques, namely, the belief that sexuality portends an inherent truth about a subject or group of subjects—is what Foucault sees as preventing people from resisting “the biopolitical administration of life.” Put another way, Foucault insists that “breaking the link between sex and truth” is necessary for one to freely exist outside of the biopolitical regime. While I believe Foucault in the necessity of de-linking sex and truth, I believe that this is just one way of resisting biopower. Now that I have examined resisting biopower in a real life application (AIDS research), I will spend some time with two literary texts, Fledgling by Octavia Butler, and Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead. These texts, as I have stated, articulate experiences that uncover ways of resisting biopower and existing outside of neoliberal biopolitics.

In Fledgling, a vampire named Shori finds herself the sole survivor of the mass murder of her family. She did not escape unharmed, as she wakes up in a cave with burns covering her skin, a severe head injury, and no idea who she is or where she comes from. Shori ultimately discovers that she is an Ina (Butler’s breed of vampire). Unlike popular vampire mythology, Shori does not convert humans to vampires by biting them; instead, she requires human symbionts to provide her with sustenance. When biting symbionts, Ina release an addicting chemical in their blood—but prolonged exposure to the chemical allows humans to live up to 200 healthy years.

While Shori’s amnesia does not impair her ability to hunt or to recognize her need for human blood, the amnesia disables Shori by erasing her memory of her species. As such, Shori’s ontological status hovers around the animal/human—or more appropriately, animal/Ina boundary. When she first wakes from her injuries, she kills a man out of instinct, thinking it was a deer, and eats him. When members of Shori’s distant family find her, Shori struggles to integrate herself with her species; her amnesia, according to scholar Pramod Nayar, removes her species memory, and returns her to a state of zoe—or bare life (as opposed to bios—or the state of life proper). Shori recognizes her need for human blood, but her relatives point out her ignorance as to how many symbionts she needs, how often to feed, and other cultural practices of the Ina. Accordingly, Shori’s disability not only necessitates the reformulation of the zoe/bios binary by interrogating how the life proper is achieved, but constructing Shori’s body as ill also suggests a multitudinous subjectivity. Furthermore, when she discusses how to choose symbionts with her father, her father’s foremost concern is the expected return Shori will get by investing in symbionts (aka her ability to grow and mature), not caring for the symbionts (this is not to say her father doesn’t encourage an ethics of care). Shori’s amnesia, however, reconfigures Shori’s own notions of what proper life is, and puts human affect and care at the forefront of the good life: Shori’s foremost concern is collecting symbionts that she feels connected to and responsible for. If Shori was solely concerned with becoming an entrepreneur of herself, it would make logical sense that she would bring the people she had already drawn blood from—but Shori doesn’t do this. Shori refesues to take a symbiont that she does not care for, that she does not feel an affective response to. In this way, illness does not necessarily articulate a new ontology for sentient beings, but it remolds one’s conceptions of proper life, and in this way, directs beings away from the constrictions of Homo Economicus in favor of a bios that embraces human/Ina affect and care for other subjects.

Affect is central to my exploration of Fledgling. I also think that Butler’s commentary on addiction adds intricacy to the postulation of a new bios based on care and affect: Wright—Shori’s first symbiont, is returned to a state of zoe by his addiction, and his addiction de-links affect and rationality from the intrinsic drives of his body. Wright, angered that he is literally addicted to Shori, doesn’t want Shori to bite him again. (I should note that an Ina bite is represented as a sexually satisfying experience). In the middle of the night, Wright wakes Shori, exclaiming, “Do it! Do it, Damnit! I should get some pleasure out of all this if I don’t get anything else” (85). Wright’s addiction reduces him to pure drives: his desire to be bitten is not because of a recorded affective response that he wishes to experience again, but because being bitten is an end to discomfort. In other words, emotion desire is removed from what is typically an emotionally redeeming act, and he requires the bite as a means of remaining homeostatic. I need to do some more work with these ideas, so my next post will concern how affect and addiction in Fledgling reconfigure “the life proper” to entail an ethics of mutual care.

In Apex Hides the Hurt, an unnamed nomenclature consultant visits Winthrop, a town attempting to rename itself. Different members of the town vie for the protagonist to select their name, and the protagonist must sift through the history of the town—founded and run by freed slaves until white colonizers (who manufacture barbed wire) usurped the town—and contemplate the market values of the names. Oh, and the protagonist has a limp caused by stubbing his toe over and over; the toe became infected because a product he named, Apex multicultural bandages, hid the wound from his sight and it became infected. Now short a toe, the nomenclature assistant suffers from a psychosomatic limp.

I’ve only just finished Apex Hides the Hurt, so I need to spend some more time thinking about the ideas set forth in the novel, but here’s where I plan on going with a post dedicated to the novel:

The novel does an excellent job of examining how the experiences of the neoliberal subject are subsumed by the market: the consultant remembers naming a product for its return to traditional values and social mores—yet he thinks those mores are “crap, but that wasn’t important. He knew it would strike a chord” (123). Here, the consultant recognizes the disconnect between truth and identity; the identity of an object is reflected by its market value, not by an objective standard of the object.

Additionally, Josh Lukin points out that the novel is an interrogation of how public a person can be with their pain—and observes that this question is rooted in Adam Smith’s (the founder of modern capitalism) assertion that making one’s pain public infringes on the conscious and good nature of the citizens of a state. The publicity of pain, and the place of pain and suffering in the market is currently the center for my exploration of this novel.

My commentary on Fledgling and Apex Hides the Hurt is preliminary and meant to give readers and idea of where I’m starting my search for new articulations of existence; each novel will be more closely contemplated in my next posts.

One Reply to “Biopolitics and the Neoliberal Subject: an introduction”

  1. Hi John,

    Upon reading the first sentence of your thesis statement and being, honestly, super confused by it, I was intrigued. I continued on and learned about all these concepts that I had heard discussed before, but hadn’t really gotten the meaning to like biopolitics. I also learned new ones like Homo Economicus and had some vector points that could possibly be helpful to your research.

    For starters, you’re commenting on a Morrison blog. Morrison talks a lot about slavery and the buying and selling of black bodies in her writing, which reminds me of the dialogue you’re creating by studying the physical form. It makes me think of the Middle Passage, on a macro scale, as a sort of “illness,” like you talk about above.

    I still don’t know if I understand the question you’re investigating in African-American literature. I think that this has to do with the fact that I’m not familiar with the works you included in this post. The way I broke it down is as follows: that the Homo Erectus sort of connotes a biopolitical statement that excludes black people. For some reason, I would have expected you to follow the progression of an illness, but I might just be imposing.

    All in all, I’m excited for your future posts because I’d really like to understand what triggered this and your reasons behind why the subject matters.

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