Knowledge, Resistance and Labor

Sick Building Syndrome

The phenomenon of what is known as “sick building syndrome” (SBS) provides the context for Michelle Murphy‘s 2006 published biopolitical history of knowledge/power/subjectification. Through (re)materializing processes of truth-making and uncertainty advanced by feminist, labor, environmentalist, and civil rights organizing in the U.S., the history of SBS illustrates the gendering and racializing processes of producing what Murphy calls “normal science”. Additionally, by analyzing “regimes of perceptibility”, she reveals how the politics of knowledge production and the process of materialization involve obscuring awareness of certain things in order to make others more pronounced, known, and thus controllable. In the following post, I review some of the major components of Murphy’s work that, ultimately, I suggest help frame a particular mode of analysis that is especially useful for anthropological studies of biopower.

The challenge of SBS as an assemblage of uncertainty is that its very materialization in mainstream perception depends upon its continuing immateriality. That is, it has only come to exist as a known ‘syndrome’ because “normal science” (or white male dominated, corporate-controlled science, especially under neoliberalism) is unable to trace its symptoms back to a normative and measurable chemical cause. This seems particularly significant in regards to the biopolitically calculated body which, although it is claimed modern science is making medicine and biology increasingly individualized, is also increasingly diagnosed with countless new disorders according to standards of ‘normal’ body chemical measurements. SBS represents a sort of counter-example in this regard, because while pharmaceutical companies increasingly develop treatments for things that have never before been considered illnesses, SBS remains untreatable so long as its causes remain unmeasurable. Moreover, as Murphy points out, once a measurable cause for SBS symptoms can be determined, it is no longer considered “sick building syndrome”.

Race, class, and gender in this context are shown to be spatially-significant markers of difference in enacting regimes of perceptibility and making them powerful. Thus, it is through race, gender and class that new knowledges and new regimes of perception become materialized in built environments and lived experiences. From the
“universal subject” of the young white male engineer “in a box”, to the white middle-class female office worker/activist and the “alley-dwelling African American” neighbors of the EPA headquarters, bodies and spaces are co-materialized and rematerialized through shifting regimes of knowledge that are themselves raced, classed, and gendered anew.

Potentially dialogic with theories of social movements that conceptualize group-actor projects as “alternative knowledge practices” (see Casas-Cortes et al. 2008), Murphy demonstrates how the power-laden raced/classed/gendered regimes of perceptibility also create “domains of imperceptibility” that may be acted upon as an inventive space. For instance, the domination of technoscientific knowledge over Western medical ways of knowing health and the body leave unknown a number of ways to measure, experience, and act upon perceptions of health and unhealth that go unchecked and indeterminate. Individuals who experience such indeterminate forms of suffering thereby come into a domain of imperceptibility in which alternative forms of self-care and self-understanding can be experimented with and perfected as coping regimes, outside of dominant regimes of knowledge/power/subjectivity.

While in one sense this may be understood as two or more competing separate epistemologies, as Murphy  illustrates with the case of ecology-centered perspectives, competing regimes of knowledge, when contextualized temporally, are in fact fundamentally inseparable. They are equivalent to Hegemony-Counterhegemonies that dialectically shape one another. And, as seen in various ways with the ecological perspective, counterhegemonic regimes of knowledge/practice are usually captured by the dominant regime and rematerialized in new ways.

The toolkit developed by Murphy in this book, which is made up of “assemblages”, “materializations”, and “regimes of perceptibility”, I believe is very useful for constructing a more complex biopolitical analysis because it allows anthropological researchers to “study up” and study grassroots lived experience at the same time in very revealing ways. By showing the generative interactions between the three key terminological frameworks in practice, we can gain a deeper understanding of how knowledge/power/subjectivity may also be seen as interrelational dialectic processes  of hegemony/counterhegemony that are performed, contested and materialized in and on bodies, spaces, and time. Discipline, self-care, and “massified” populations under regimes of knowledge and power ultimately come together quite tidily through the messiness explored by Murphy in this book. It seems, in all its complexity, to represent an analytic method that could be applied to a range of diverse and messy study contexts with great effect for the anthropologist of biopower.



Murphy, Michelle
2006   Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham and London: Duke UP.

Casas-Cortés, Maria, Michael Osterweil, and Dana Powell
2008 Blurring Boundaries: Recognizing Knowledge-Practices in the Study of Social Movements. Anthropological Quarterly 81(1):17-58.

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Human Capital and its Maximization

Film “Ermo”, 1995, with Spanish subtitles

The selections reviewed here variously consider market economy-human biology interactions and co-articulations. Each piece offers a perspective that is distinct from the others in regards to biotechnology and the capitalist formations of medical science, and particularly to how life is understood through these mechanisms today in various parts of the world. Read together, they cumulatively contribute to existing discussions in the anthropology of biopolitics about the ordering of life through biotechnologies and bioeconomies that are today historically unprecedented, and also raise new discussions of new uncertainties about life and its forms of valuation looking toward the future.

In Anganost‘s “Strange Circulations”, the commodification of blood in rural Chinese provinces and the consequent spread of HIV/AIDS is analyzed alongside 1995 film (above) about a Chinese village blood donor/seller, “Ermo”. Taking a Marxian-inspired anthropological political economy approach to the lives within the space of the Chinese countryside, Anganost shows how since the 1990s, “economic reforms have, in effect, produced the Chinese countryside as the constitutive outside of capitalist economic relations by making it bear the hidden costs in the reproduction of labour for a global labour regime” (p.510). In other words, this piece analyzes from the global periphery how the valuation of life is being materially reorganized (as biovalue) by the “vampiric” forces of global capital.

Professors of economics, Douglas Almond and Janet Currie, require a very different frame for a reading of their works by students of anthropology than that permitted by Anganost’s  anthropological views. Almond and Currie’s piece, “Killing Me Softly” can be read as a sort of primary source analysis of the construction of biovalue through the economization of biomedical research on fetal health and the future economic vitality of life that may be determined by conditions while in the womb. Ultimately, their piece raises for the biopolitical analyst questions about where the line can, should, and will be drawn between eugenic practices and more benign practices that represent the economies of hope for improved vital prosperity in the future. Additionally, for critical educational scholars and biopolitical anthropologists alike, the piece would likely raise new concerns about the scientization of lives shaped via tracking through schooling institutions, and the worsening of social and bio-inequalities thereby produced in the subjectification of individual life trajectories prior to one’s actual birth.

In the final piece, “The Biopolitics of Reproduction”, sociologists Catherine Waldby and Melinda Cooper analyze the rearticulation and marketization of women’s reproductive biology. Looking at oocyte markets in the highly-developed world and transnationally, they demonstrate the bifurcation of women’s reproductive potential as a (qualified) ‘new’ mode of alienated labor  by means of its particular form of participation in the global tissue economy at-large. Ultimately suggesting the possibility for subjects’ contestation of this field when it is viewed as labor, this piece adds to biopolitical analyses drawn from the prior two readings, in that it takes on a wider field of vision regarding the bioeconomies of human body parts and of hope under biopolitics today than does Anganost’s examination of the Chinese countryside’s participation in the blood economy; and it adds a more complex and critical look and understanding about women’s reproductive labor today, thus opening pieces like Almond and Currie’s up to further primary analysis regarding the particular moral economies that allow one to conceive and make sense of such economic research perspectives as “Killing Me Softly” might be seen as advancing.

In sum, this grouping of readings calls forth the question, how do we fit labor and the formation of new biologically-based global/transnational economic markets into a biopolitical analysis of exchange, valuation, and the alienation and exploitation of one’s physical being as a reserve for capital? What contrasts arise from this global perspective of the vital order when placed against the economies of hope emphasized by Rose? Finally, how is the gendering of bodies presented here for new and unprecedented frameworks of analysis, and does the biopolitical toolkit we’ve developed equip us to fully explain the significance of reproductive exploitation in the way that it is seen here interacting with what may or may not be new forms of flows of power?



Anagnost, Ann
2011     Strange Circulations. In Beyond Biopolitics, Clouse & Wilse, Eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Almond, D., and J. Currie
2011     Killing Me Softly: The Fetal Origins Hypothesis. Journal of Economic Perspectives 25(3):153-172.

Waldby, Catherine, and Melinda Cooper
2008     The Biopolitics of Reproduction: Post-Fordist Biotechnology and Women’s Clinical Labor.

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Medicine, Citizenship, and Race

     In what follows, I attempt to pull out of Anne Pollock’s 2012 text, “Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference”, certain aspects of Pollock’s project that I believe shed critical insights into analyzing difference specifically in the U.S. today through biopolitics. Using my own research interests and analytic struggles as a guide, I identify the critical connections forged by Pollock in her focus area of African American medical/biological citizenship that carry significant implications for other types of potential research one might carry out in the U.S. today. Ultimately, I also critique the book itself as a text, by identifying certain aspects of it that I believe amount to shortcomings, but which I also find to be productive in highlighting the type of work left to be done in advancing projects like the one Pollock takes up here, ethnographically.Medicating Race To briefly summarize “Medicating Race”, this book studies the “durability of preoccupations with race in medicine” (p.1) through the racialization of hypertensive heart disease in the United States. Pollock argues that “medicating is an excellent analytical framework for the STS [science and technology studies] critique of race because medicine intervenes on the boundaries between social and biological, material and semiotic” (p.5). That is, as she demonstrates through her first several chapters, negotiations of “Americanness” and belonging today have very long histories rooted in the fields of medicine and biology, which have all always been discussed in fundamentally racial terms. She shows that the durability of race in the U.S. lies in the category’s capacity to travel between, mediate, and co-articulate social and biological truths about belonging and inclusion. The recent failure of BiDil, a heart disease medication marketed for “self-identified African Americans”, is ultimately taken up as the field of debate representative of race’s durability in negotiating biological citizenship, and the challenges it poses to individuals and doctors alike, today.

     One of the first significant texts covered in this seminar on biopolitics, for me and my research interests specifically, was Elizabeth Povinelli‘s 2011 book, “Economies of Abandonment”. This book offered a critical theoretical framework for helping understand biopolitical projects of inclusion/belonging in late liberal governmentality and its crises in cultural recognition. In many ways, I felt Pollock’s book was deeply inspired by Povinelli, though Pollock never cites or directly references her. Significantly, there seems to be a connection between Pollock’s emphasis on the durability of race and Povinelli’s work on endurance in late liberal governmentality in the biopolitics of making live, making die, and letting die. Yet there is also something qualitatively different in their uses of these terms, ‘durability’ and ‘endurance’. Pollock, unlike Povinelli, is looking at the endurance of race as a category that is inextricably tied to the shaping of projects of recognition and inclusion in late liberal governmentality. While Pollock does not reference D.T. Goldberg’s work on the Racial State, one might read her project as one that mediates between and productively merges and extends the work of Goldberg and Povinelli into the context of racialized medicine and biological citizenship today.

     Pollock identifies an “American form” of A. Petryna‘s biological citizenship concept, in which “the damaged biology of a population has become the grounds for social membership and the basis for staking citizenship claims” that are simultaneously “democratic and deeply racialized” (p.40). Similarly in my own research into racialized educational outreach programs for minority inclusion into STEM, race as a stake in both social and biological life today constitutes grounds for new types of membership claims that tie belonging and Americanness to participation in a new STEM workforce of post-racially racialized STEM citizen subjects. The ability to participate in the STEM production of knowledge has been newly opened to non-white claims for citizenship in the U.S., and is increasingly marketed as a democratizing effort in and by the sciences through categories of race, just as Pollock suggests of medicine. Indeed, as chapters one and two point out, the scientific fields of medicine- which is integrally included under the STEM umbrella today -have historically been shaped by racial discourses of modernity that determine who can access and participate in the knowledge and healthcare productions of these fields, and who are viewed as bioscience’s objects and subjects. Racializing medicine is a biopolitical strategy that emerges out of this history of science and citizenship in the U.S., in a very similar way to the strategy racializing STEM education outreach constitutes.

     “Medicating Race” is arguably my new favorite text, because of the numerous developments it produces in moving along biopolitical analyses of race in the U.S. that parallel many of the types of STS questions I hope to explore as well. However, Pollock is not trained as an anthropologist but a history and STS scholar. As such, her text is dominated by her own authoritative voice more than I believe would be suitable for a truly ethnographic account of the same social context, which I believe would have to spend substantial time on the subjective voices and experiences of African American heart disease patients and activists- something Pollock does not do at all. This possible shortcoming notwithstanding, where her project might be seen as methodologically intervening the most is in her mediations between biological/genetic determinist anti-racism arguments among medical professionals and academics, and sociocultural and environmental determinist anti-racism arguments among the same types of experts. Her concluding discussions about race as the many-headed hydra underscore her particular positionality in a most productive way. That she argues for taking as a starting point the shared interest in improving the welfare of underserved populations, for nurturing understanding between the two counter-productively oppositional views on race in medicine, marks out the space in which she is attempting to intervene as an ethically-engaged researcher committed to positive social change.

     In “Medicating Race”, Pollock gets to some deeper issues about race and difference through a biopolitical approach that integrates the work of science and technology studies (STS), medicine, race, capital, and citizenship, in a way that I believe speaks with an as-yet unmatched degree of salience to debates that are specific in characterizing the U.S. today. For any critical scholar struggling to position themselves, ethically and analytically, within research efforts focused on analyzing biopolitical projects of racial redlining and inclusion through various market-based forms of outreach, Pollock’s book will likely be an important text. I have attempted here to draw out some of the key areas Pollock might usefully be advanced for other research areas, as well as to situate her contributions within other prominent discussions that relate to her work within the body of literature included as the anthropology of biopolitics.



Pollock, Anne
2012     Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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Biotechnology, Biomedicine, and Bioethics

Many scholars reviewed thus far have positioned their work somehow in relation to the analytical spaces left untouched or underexamined by Foucault’s work on biopolitics and governmentality. Only a few, however, have attempted to spearhead a project of reassessing Foucauldian biopolitics in their entirety for evaluating new and emergent social phenomena in the present. Nikolas Rose and Didier Fassin are two contemporary scholars that have taken up this project with a notable degree of success. Read together, as I attempt to here through Rose’s 2007 book called “The Politics of Life Itself” and Fassin’s 2010 piece “Coming Back to Life”, the pairing of the frameworks they each advance provides what I found to be one of the most satisfying theoretical developments towards the larger aforementioned project.

     Rose, in “The Politics of Life Itself”, argues that the novelty, sensed by many, of the present vital order of knowledge/power/subjectivity, stems from the biopolitical folding of bios back into zoe (p.83). This is a process, he suggests, which has allowed ontological mutations in human understanding of ourselves and in ideas about our possible future selves. It constitutes life as the central stake of politics today, resulting in what he perceives may produce new forms of life, determined by our changing conceptions about who we are, who we wish to be, and who we might conceivably become. Rose argues that these new forms of life and subjectification are emergent “at the multiple intersections between the imperatives of the market and the drive for shareholder value, the new imaginations of the body and its processes that have been brought into existence, the drive of biomedical researchers for papers, prizes, and intellectual property, and the hopes of national governments for new economic opportunities” (p.105). Also underpinning all of this has been the increasing molecularization of ‘the clinical gaze’ and the style of thought which produces biomedical knowledge, and biopolitical knowledge about life itself.

     Rose constructs his overall project by positioning himself apart from others critically analyzing the fields of biomedicine and biotechnology from an ethically-committed standpoint. He instead sees the biopolitical future of molecularized life as both hopeful and tenuous, open to more than one different possible trajectory. He says, “my aim is not so much to call for a new philosophy of life, but to rather explore the philosophy of life that is embodied in the ways of thinking and acting espoused by the participants in this politics of life itself” (p.49). In so doing, it is necessary to point out, Rose’s analyses deal much more directly with privileged lives in the developed world than with contemporary global subjectivities in all. He is aware of this emphasis in his work, and it leads him to consider emergent forms of life under biopolitics today predominantly in relation to the discovery of DNA and the development of advanced biomedical and neuroscientific technologies that have reshaped the way many individuals conceive themselves as embodied subjects. He is mildly critiqued for this emphasis by Fassin, who acknowledges the importance of this work but does not see it as complete insofar as reconceptualizing biopolitics for the emergent present requires.

     I am fully in agreement with Fassin on this point. The complexity of Rose’s reassessment of life under contemporary biopolitics, developed through the various related fields of biomedicine, is incredibly productive even beyond the nuanced and in-depth look he gives into these fields. By studying the work of biomedical and biotechnological knowledge on the biologized political lives of subject bodies in relation to the shaping of new ideas about the self and the future, Rose sets up an excellent example of how knowledge/power/subjectivity still remains a very useful analytic for identifying emergent forms of social life today- even those which had yet to appear during Foucault’s lifetime. Yet, as Fassin points out, inequality through governmentality, as an integral component in today’s biopolitical equations remains neglected, just as Foucault, and just about everyone since him, neglected it.

     Fassin’s project in his 2010 piece, “Coming Back to Life”, argues that, while Rose does take us closer to properly re-orienting Foucault’s work towards the emergent present, what is ultimately missing from the whole equation is an integration of governmentality. Such an integration into the conversation about biopower today, he says, would introduce two new and critically re-formative questions that would move us closer to discussing ‘meanings’ and ‘lived experiences’ as a part of biopolitics. These are, “What is being done to living beings through different forms of government?” and “What sort of life is implicitly taken for granted in this process?”.

     Fassin’s efforts in this piece are genealogical in that they productively re-trace the conceptual development of biopolitics to identify the gaps and wrong turns that have led to its difficult re-conceptualization for understanding emergent phenomena in the present. It is therefore a very useful accompaniment to Rose’s work, which develops through various related cases an in-depth analysis of biopower by advancing his own complexly-nuanced framework of knowledge/power/subjectivity. It would be interesting, and potentially telling, to see how one might merge the two by developing an in-depth case analysis that is not strictly concerned with either biology or medicine, and through an inclusion of governmentality, bioinequalities and biolegitimacy as central terms of the discussion as suggested by Fassin.

     Potentially, I could see my research on ideologically post-racial STEM education outreach efforts and STEM citizen-subject formation in the U.S. as an emergent context that might facilitate the bridging of these two scholars’ innovations in biopolitics. Specifically, that is if this research could establish a relationship between post-racial ideology’s first appearances and the ‘reinvention of race’ through discoveries of DNA by biomedical technological advances; and if the philanthropically-framed recruitment of racial and gender minorities into fields of STEM knowledge production, which significantly include the fields of biomedicine and biotechnology, could be framed in the terms of governmentality, biolegitimacy, and bioinequalities. I believe the potential to draw these particular connections would be both possible and productive, as the neoliberal recruitment of minorities into fields of STEM knowledge production seems, to me, to offer a rich context for exploring the types of projects called for by both Fassin and Rose.



Rose, Nikolas
2007     The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Fassin, Didier
2010     “Coming Back to Life: An Anthropological Reassessment of Biopolitics and Governmentality.” In Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges, Eds. U. Brockling, S. Krasmann, and T. Lemke. New York: Routledge.

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The Biopolitics of Humanitarianism

The biopolitical determination of ethical meaning-making and action across unequal fields of power is a topic of interest that scholars Didier Fassin, Estelle D’Halluin, Miriam Ticktin, and Peter Redfield begin to develop out of the context of global humanitarian efforts by the organization known in the U.S. as Doctors Without Borders (MSF). An additional development they contribute to collectively through this context is bridging biopolitical analysis across all three of Foucault’s triadic components: knowledge/power/subjectification. That is, they variously link together the body, ‘life’, subjectivity, biological knowledge and medical evidence, legal knowledge of the biological body so-subjected, and power—as inequality, as spatial fields, as human rights, and as a bodily embodiment of politics itself. In what follows, I attempt to highlight some of the main interventions made by these scholars working with discussions on the biologization of political life, to ultimately identify a series of questions that arise from their work, and which I believe may be productively carried forward for further consideration in additional contemporary contexts.

I found it useful to read together Fassin & D’Halluin’s 2005 piece, “The Truth from the Body: Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum Seekers”, and Ticktin’s 2011 piece, “How Biology Travels: A Humanitarian Trip”. In a sense, they jointly demonstrate a revelatory capacity regarding contemporary biopolitical human conditions through the case of asylum seekers in Europe which, to some extent, parallel what Arendt argued was revealed by the 20th century stateless person. Asylum seekers in Europe are like Arendt’s stateless people in that they must demonstrate their un-worth as political participants in their host society to gain some form of legal recognition. That is, the stateless person may gain more rights by committing a crime and thereby gaining legal recognition from the state through actively replacing any chance they had to participate as a full citizen with the guarantee of receiving sub-par rights as a recognized criminal. Similarly, today’s asylum seekers in Europe may gain more rights to legal asylum by procuring a formal medical document that certifies their status as unable to return to their country of origin, owing to the fact that they have been diagnosed by an MSF doctor with a life-threatening illness or can prove with physical evidence (i.e. visible bodily scars) to have been persecuted and tortured in their country of origin. In this way, both obtain legal asylum and at least some rights of recognition from the host government by proving their inability to participate politically as a modern subject of the state.

This, however, raises some fundamental points of contention about the significance of humanitarianism as a mediating force of governance (and governmentality) between state institutional powers and asylum seekers. Because humanitarian agencies like MSF are directly responsible for legitimating in the eyes of the state an individual asylum seeker’s case, via biological inspection of the subject’s body and subsequent production of a medical certificate, a difficult paradox emerges. On one hand, MSF doctors feel an ethical responsibility to assist every deserving asylum seeker in their effort to gain the legal paperwork needed, against the alternative of denying such individuals necessary forms of care and dignity. On the other hand, they are actively producing humanitarian subjects who will never be recognized as “modern liberal individuals”, for such individuals “cannot appear to be enterprising, nor politically embedded”, so long as it is their biology that is taken for legibility instead of their words (Ticktin 2011:154).

Further complicating the paradox is the fact that, because the 1951 Geneva Convention outlawed practices of torture on war criminals, torture has developed new practices that do not leave behind physical evidence on its victim’s body. Thus, as increasingly medical certificates rather than subjects’ own words are viewed as the sole legitimating criteria for asylum, the physical evidence of torture needed to obtain a medical certificate increasingly makes itself less-present. This leads to what both Fassin & D’Halluin and Ticktin variously suggest represents the increasing over-individualized corporeality of political life today.

This paradox also raises, for Fassin (2009) and Redfield (2005) in particular, questions regarding the relevance of ethics, values, and meaning-making in biopolitics. Fassin takes a starting point, in “Another Politics of Life is Possible”, which argues that, contrary to Agamben’s belief that Foucault’s early death prevented him from extending the concept of biopolitics to a notion of life as bios or zoe, Foucault chose not to make this extension because it was not what interested him about life in biopolitics. As such, Fassin stakes his project out as returning to Foucault’s work on life and biopower prior to his turn towards technologies of governance, and offers two new terms to work with: biolegitimacy and bio-inequalities. Once we can see how humanitarianism has become a generalized mode of governing (p.50), he argues, we can further see how such a thing as biolegitimacy operates today as the power of life, as opposed to the biopolitical power over life.

Fassin states, “talking of biolegitimacy rather than biopower is thus to emphasize the construction of the meaning and values of life instead of the exercise of forces and strategies to control it” (2009:52). In other words, biolegitimacy reframes the central tenets of biopower such that “to make live” becomes a matter of choice “over who shall live and what sort of life and for how long” (p.53). Seeing life under biopower in this value-laden way then further allows us to begin conceptualizing inequality within biopolitics, as Foucault never did.

Finally, Redfield offers something of a middle ground by reading Foucault and Agamben together, as opposed to Fassin who is reading them apart. Doing so draws Redfield to think about life in terms of value as humanitarianism  seeks to act upon it. That is, Redfield is more interested in conceptualizing life at different thresholds and the tension between survival and human dignity as humanitarian action operates on their maintenance somewhere between the two. Ultimately, his orientation is more praxis-based, straddling the ethical refusals of engagement by both humanitarianism and anthropology as operating in a biopolitical field of crisis and what is conceptually produced as ‘normality’, or non-exceptional states.

These readings allowed to surface a number of questions that I hope to continue thinking further about throughout the remainder of this course, as I believe they may in some cases be extended to non-medicalized issues of political life that operate similarly under biopolitics. These are: What is the biopolitical project of ethically-conceived actions, like humanitarianism (perhaps extendable to philanthropy more generally, as well), in today’s world? How has the biologization of ethics and truth-making (legibility) become interfaced with new modes of policing bodies and populations in the present? What becomes of the biopolitical tenets of making live and letting die under a framework such as biolegitimacy and bio-inequalities? What gaps are revealed regarding our understandings of life, the rule of exception and exceptional rule, or the underexplored relationships between meaning-making, inequality, governmentality, belonging and crisis?

This will require some further thought on my part in regards to developing my own research, but a situation that arises in my mind which may be productively analyzed through some of the tools presented by the authors reviewed above, is that of the H1B visa for immigration reform in the U.S. This visa represents an interesting official document that aids immigrants towards the path to U.S. citizenship by means of incorporating the visa holder into the U.S. national STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce. Promoted as an improvement to immigration policy all-around, it realistically benefits very few Latinos, and almost entirely benefits Asian and European immigrants, with the latter two of these representing a much smaller percentage of the immigrant population. As a selective official document-based criteria for membership in the U.S. that has clear racial implications, I would preemptively posit that a reading of this through the terms of biolegitimacy and bioinequality might be illustrative.



Fassin, Didier, and Estelle D’Halluin
2005      The Truth from the Body: Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum
Seekers. American Anthropologist 107(4):597-608.
Fassin, Didier
2009     Another Politics of Life is Possible. Theory, Culture & Society 26(5):44-60.
Ticktin, Miriam
2011     How Biology Travels: A Humanitarian Trip. Body & Society 17(2&3):139-158.
Redfield, Peter
2005     Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis. Cultural Anthropology 20(3):328-361.

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Current Debates: Haiti’s President says “Stop Sending Money”


(Photo source access here)

3 Years after the devastating earthquake, Haiti’s President Michael Martelly has publicly asked donor countries and agencies to “stop sending money”, and instead start trying to fix the international relief system, which has essentially funded the creation of a permanent nation-wide emergency camp in Haiti, instead of rebuilding homes. Moreover, the small percentage of relief funds and efforts to actually successfully reach Haitian land have ultimately undermined the ability of the Haitian government to rebuild itself as an effective agency capable of addressing the needs of its own citizens. NPR released a brief and informative overview of the surrounding discussions this morning. Click HERE to both read the article and listen to the audio clip of their morning show’s coverage of the Haitian president’s request.

This is a complex case par excellence of the sort of biopolitical and necropolitical forces that have taken shape under late liberal forms of global governance that the readings covered in the preceding posts have been incrementally pointing us towards, more and more. The use of international aid to transformatively “rebuild” Haiti into what is now a perpetual state of exception, where “bare life” is very much the dominant mode of existence within Haiti’s borders, represents what I see as being an unusual and unprecedented culmination of the sort of disaster capitalism, politics of disposability, and neoliberal failure under apparently new forms of biopower surfacing via global networks today. What Haiti now constitutes, as a biopolitical space and place in the international matrices of biopower, seems deserving of some new and further anthropological theorizing.

Worth checking out is journalist Jonathan Katz. He has been a major contributor to the U.S. media’s coverage of the failures of relief in Haiti since the earthquake, and has published several books about how relief efforts themselves created the real disaster in Haiti. One blogger’s excellent interview with him can be found by following this link.

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The politics of death, termed ‘necropolitics’, is examined here through the work of several scholars, each of whom is interested in differently understanding the forms that death takes under biopower. Specifically, these works delve deeper into the question which asks, if biopolitics is about making live, then how do we explain the presence of so much death today? In the present neoliberal era of terror and insecurity, it seems that what we may be witnessing is a new, unprecedented form of biopolitical governmentality in which necropower, or the technologies of control through which life is strategically subjugated to the power of death (Mbembe 2003), operates significantly with and alongside technologies of discipline, and the power to make live, for an increasingly authoritarian politics which governs through economic, rather than social terms (Giroux 2006). In what follows, I review four pieces of scholarship that deal variously with death as a field of [bio]power, and attempt to highlight the differing conceptualizations of necropower they each focus upon. I ultimately conclude that, in reading these pieces together, we are drawn to the task of considering the powerful and generative ubiquity of “bare life” as a fundamental aspect of biopolitics in the contemporary neoliberal era of normalized insecurity and terror.

According to Achille Mbembe, “To exercise sovereignty is to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power” (2003:12). In his 2003 article, “Necropolitics”, Mbembe theorizes the enactment of sovereignty in cases where “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” is the central project of power, rather than autonomy (p.14). Significantly, he takes up the philosophical project of conceptualizing the relationship between subjectivity and death as the roots of political sovereignty, and the particular form sovereign power’s enactment has taken through the historical process of linking together notions of modernity and terror. That is, taking seriously Schmitt and Agamben’s notion of sovereignty as the state of exception, we see through Mbembe’s work how Taussig’s wedding of reason and violence becomes extended and reformulated in the colonial contexts of late-modern forms of occupation, where endless states of terror are used to justify the “concatenation of multiple powers: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necropolitical” (p.29), for which military presence and regularized warfare increasingly leads to totalizing forms of domination over human lives within a given space, and one that is endlessly shifting.

In a very different type of project, Orlando Patterson’s 1982 piece on the power relations undergirding the institution of slavery throughout history looks at the politics of death in the form of social death. Where Mbembe sees the power over life and death, and the creation of ‘bare life’ and sovereignty today through spaces of exception, Patterson’s study of historical examples argue that ‘bare life’ and the ‘state of exception’ are also produced through certain slave-to-master relationships of power, which create the slave through producing the slave’s social death. As such, an interesting parallel can be drawn here between the ability to make/let die as the basis of sovereignty over the lives of human populations, and the sovereign-like authority acquired by the slave master through ritually and institutionally reconstituting the slave’s social existence into one that represents a permanent internal enemy life form, whose relationship to power was made always reducible to one of hostility and disposability.

In what might be seen as biopolitical ‘social disposability’ rather than ‘social death’, the work of critical educational theorist Henry Giroux, in “Reading Hurricane Katrina” (2006), makes an assumption about biopower similar to Mbembe’s regarding the late-modern era of perpetual terror and insecurity. However, in focusing on the United States, he is drawn more to what he sees as the ‘politics of disposability’ as the particular form of necropower, rather than emphasizing the power of death in relation to projects of sovereignty. For Giroux, the hyper-neoliberal racial state, since Reagan, has silently governed in the interests of Corporate America at the expense of human lives, by utilizing the repressive power of color-blind ideology to implement policy reforms which increasingly silently neglect disadvantaged populations further into the margins, thereby permitting their disposability (letting them die). To demonstrate that the governmentality of the racial state has changed in form from prior eras, Giroux compares the 1955 murder of Emmett Till (which helped spark civil rights movement activity) with the deaths of over one thousand racial minorities caused (superficially, he would argue) by hurricane Katrina in 2005, to show the difference in what these cases revealed about the racial state:       “Till’s body allowed the racism that destroyed it to be made visible, to speak to the systemic character of American racial injustice. The bodies of the Katrina victims could not speak with the same directness to the state of American racist violence but they did reveal and shatter the conservative fiction of living in a color-blind society” (p.174).

Of course, I have to wonder whether Giroux would still maintain his belief expressed here, that Katrina shattered the imaginary reality of U.S. color-blindness- to which an abundance of evidence to support this ideology’s heightening continuation today continues to surface at an ongoing rate. Nevertheless, the importance of the Katrina example, for Giroux, is to highlight how the informed decision-making of the Bush administration’s actions leading up to and after Katrina hit reveal the racial state’s knowing involvement in an anti-democratic project of sustaining insecurity in a particular fashion. That is, by knowingly rendering already-marginalized groups vulnerable to natural disasters like Katrina, which were expected to hit and devastate the gulf region of the U.S., the neoliberal state proved its complicity in the biopolitical project of not only letting die, but of actively disposing what it had redlined as value-less portions of the U.S. population. In effect, by implementing a politics of disposability in the era of neoliberal insecurity, the U.S. government was reducing its populace to a politics of “bare life”.

Continuing with this important notion of ‘bare life’ in relation to necropolitics today, amidst the perpetual exceptional states of terror and insecurity, Eugene Thacker argues how it (bare life) is “constantly rendered in its precariousness, a life that is always potentially under attack and therefore always an exceptional life” (2011:158). In Thacker’s “Necrologies” (2011), classical theorizations of what was called the ‘body politic’ are used to reconsider what we now think of as ‘biopolitics’, emphasizing the conceptual death of the body-political order and its recurrent resurrections. In other words, Thacker compares the medicalization of the human body as parts in relation to a whole, to the classical liberal notion of politics in society as the body-politic, whose proper functionality is always threatened by the dysfunctionality of the multitudes, and is therefore always attempting to work against its own decomposition. Building off of this comparison and through his developed idea of bare life’s relation to necrology, Thacker ultimately posits the contemporary biopolitical notion of what he calls “whatever-life”, “in which biology and sovereignty, or medicine and politics, continually inflect and fold onto each other. Whatever-life is the pervasive potential for life to be specified as that which must be protected, that which must be protected against, and as those forms of nonhuman life that are the agents of attack” (p.159).

In other words, bare life is what the perpetually insecure terrorist state of today’s exceptionalism continually produces under the threat and force of necropower, which dialectically then re-produces the ongoing need or justification of such exceptional forms of rule over life. Moreover, it could be said that this dialectically-reproducing ubiquity of bare life through the routinization of states of exceptional rule against “terror” ultimately comes to constitute the normalization of necropower in the body politic, as the invisible shape governmentality has come to take in the present. As I have attempted to point out through the reviews in this post, the politics surrounding death- whether of individual bodies, social existences, or whole populations- have, in the present global era, grown increasingly regulated such that they become normalized as embedded in invisible relations of power. As several of these authors have suggested, this fact would seem to present as imperative our reconsideration of “bare life” as a concept possibly capable of describing all regulated life (as opposed to simply refugee life in camps, for instance) under the current regimes of exceptional insecurity.


Giroux, Henry A.
2006     Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, Class, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.
College Literature, 33(3):171-196.
Mbembe, Achille
2003     Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1):11-40.
Patterson, Orlando
1982     “Authority, Alienation, and Social Death.” In Slavery and Social Death: A
Comparative Study. Pp. 35-76. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
Thacker, Eugene
2011     “Necrologies or the Death of the Body Politic.” In Beyond Biopolitics. Eds.
Clough and Wilse. Pp. 139-162. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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