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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