The State: Biopower and Biofallibility

“In states that are racially conceived, ordered, administered, and regulated, the racial state could be said to be everywhere. And simultaneously seen nowhere. It (invisibly) defines almost every relation, shapes all but every interaction, contours virtually all intercourse. It fashions not just the said and the sayable, the done and doable, possibilities and impermissibilities, but penetrates equally the scope and quality, content and character of social silences and presumptions. The state in its racial reach and expression is thus at once super-visible in form and force and thoroughly invisible in its osmotic infusion into the everyday (Essed 1991), its penetration into common sense, its pervasion (not to mention perversion) of the warp and weave of the social fabric.”
~Goldberg (2001:98)

Conceptualizing ‘the state’ in socio-cultural and political theory has occupied the projects of multiple different theoretical standpoints, and in the group of reading selections overviewed here (James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”; D.T. Goldberg’s “The Racial State”; and M. Taussig’s “The Nervous System”), three such approaches emerge. In what follows, I attempt to differentiate the three approaches along their apparent lines of tension, by which I mean to say, how the power relations that exist between a notion of ‘the state’ and ‘the subject’ (or, ‘a population’), are taken up to constitute different understandings of governmentality, as well as different understandings of the ability, or power, of life to operate outside of disciplinary practices and institutions. Each of them underscoring the notion of the state as a necessarily always-incomplete process, the theorizations of Scott, Goldberg, and Taussig nevertheless range from discussing the state as an unproblematic entity that is real in every sense, to arguing that the state is nothing more than an abstract fetishization of power by the marginalized. In light of these varying positions on the subject, an important question, for an anthropology of biopolitics, ultimately becomes, what does it mean to talk about life when the state is said to fail?

Political scientist, James Scott, easily provides the most palatable explanation of state powers over life under liberalism. For Scott, who claims to be writing from a substantially anarchist point of view, the state is uncritically understood as an authoritarian power structure of governance that operates above society, significantly in collaboration with capitalist elite interests, for the purpose of a legibility-making social engineering project imposed on populations, nature, knowledge, etc. He argues that the state’s aim is to create a strictly-ordered, simplified and easily-governable logic underriding all things, making previously locally-ordered and known landscapes and life ways into landscapes and social relations that are legible and controllable by the state, as a foreign and authoritative power. A secondary point he makes to this, which I would argue is perhaps the most useful point of all, is that between the official (state) ordering of things from an outside-and-above standpoint, and the localized manifestations of life forces, exists a gap, in which the on-the-ground reality of things is not captured by the state-determined knowledges produced. Within this gap, life carries on through new/adaptive forces of its own, thereby requiring a continuous revising of official ways of knowing by the state. This continual self-generated need of the state for new ways of managing is, in turn, how the state is able to continue justifying its ongoing existence under liberalism (a similar argument to this last point we have seen before, from Foucault).

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Taussig, who is hardly interested in the existence of any real, primordially substantial, autonomous entity called the state. For Taussig, the powerful existence of ‘the state’ in relation to human life lies entirely in the power ascribed to a fetishized abstraction of a fictional idea. As he says, “what the notion of State fetishism directs us to is precisely the existence and reality of the political power of this fiction, its powerful insubstantiality” (1992:113). Put simply, Taussig seems to be arguing that the State is fetishized and made powerful as an abstraction, in the same way that Marx argued commodities are fetishized, so that their value is not based in any material significance, other than what is generated by the abstracted fetishistic value imbued by and through human relational ideas. A critical force enabling this abstraction to be experienced as a material reality, he argues, emerges from the institutional bringing-together of reason and violence.

Finally, we might situate Goldberg somewhere in between Scott and Taussig, for Goldberg is neither positing the uncritical existence of the state, nor its non-existence, but rather the co-articulation of the modern state and raciality. Rather than taking a classical Marxist stance on theorizing either, Goldberg offers a theorization that, while assuming some centralization of power in terms of governmental structures and strategies of management, he places stronger emphasis on the state as a certain quality or condition enabling certain practices, wherein racial and gendered forms of exclusion constitute the seams of its “social fabric”. Drawing from Foucault, he argues that no clear-cut distinction between ‘the state’ and the individual in society exists, and therefore, by extension, no such distinction between the public and private spheres does either. He takes an intersectional approach to the state’s role in the formation of bodies, in which racism historically precedes the state’s ability to implement projects which do so. In a somewhat uncomfortable way, Goldberg takes for granted an assumption of postcoloniality to advance his argument, that race and the ability to segregate and exclude on such terms both preceded colonial projects and made them possible. That race is what serves to simultaneously divide the socio-political spheres of life in a modern state, as well as cohere them, becomes, for Goldberg, the mediating force that perpetuates the racial rule of modern states and the continuous and necessary always-incompleteness of such rule.

To summarize the above, I have argued that Scott, Taussig, and Goldberg differ in their conceptions of the state, insofar as its origins, its materiality, and its productive relations with individuals and populations are concerned. Where Scott remains uncritical and unquestioning of an entity called the state existing, and where Taussig argues that such an entity is materially experienced only insofar as it has been fetishized as a powerfully fictive abstraction, Goldberg believes that what we know to be the modern state- as a centralized entity of power- is not clearly differentiated from what we conceive as ‘society’, in large part, because it is so intertwined with the power to racialize as a form of state rule. It is worth pointing out, none of these authors conceptualize the state as something that is static, but rather as something that is always necessarily incomplete, and fraught with tension between itself as an idea and the lived social reality of individuals and populations. As such, to begin one path towards discussing life and power in spaces of state failure, it seems useful to consider the always-incoherent or fragmented logic of state governance as a critical force in perpetuating new manifestations of governmentality and its self-made justifications.

1. J. Scott. 1998. Seeing Like A State. New Haven. Yale. Selections.
2. D.T. Goldberg. 2001. “Chapter 5: Racial States.” In The Racial State. London: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
3. M. Taussig. 1992. “Maleficium: State Fetishism.” In The Nervous System. New York: Routledge.

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