Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Eternal Life and the Time of Death: Biopolitical Threat and Miguel Vatter's Republic of the Living

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Eternal Life and the Time of Death: Biopolitical Threat and Miguel Vatter's Republic of the Living

Article excerpt

Where survival sickness reigns, the desire to live lays hold spontaneously of the weapons of death: senseless murder and sadism flourish. For passion destroyed is reborn in the passion for destruction. If these conditions persist, no one will survive the era of survival. (Vaneigem 2001: 162)

This paper takes up a problematic raised by Miguel Vatter in his recent text The Republic of the Living: Biopolitics and the Critique of Civil Society: namely, that biopolitical governance, which following Foucault is understood as a constant and positive intervention that seeks to develop and improve the productive capacities of the (human) species, can turn over into its opposite, a thanatopolitics or necropolitics1 instituting regimes of mass death. I will begin by outlining the theoretical context and conceptual contours of this problem, arguing that this possibility is inherent rather than external to the logic of biopolitics. Vatter's text proposes a resolution to this problematic in the form of a reconceptualization of eternal life in philosophical and atheistic terms. I will reconstruct and assess this proposal, arguing that, although provocative, it is ultimately inadequate to the task and in fact reproduces the logic of thanatopolitics.


Biopolitics, according to Vatter and following Foucault, is the "entrance of biological or species life into the calculations carried out by political rationality" (Vatter 2014: 2). As late modernity gave rise to what we now call civil society, the issue of politics became less a matter of state sovereignty, and more a matter of the "government of biological life" (Vatter 2014: 2). Rather than establishing explicit laws whose transgression would occasion state intervention, this new biopolitical regime developed apparatuses of policing and normalization that amount to, as Foucault puts it, "a permanent and a positive intervention in the behavior of individuals" (Foucault 2000: 415). Foucault's analyses identify a decisive historical shift in the form of political rationality, the object of which ceases to be human beings as individual organisms, becoming instead the population as a statistical whole, whose biological well-being is the object of a governmental management undertaken in order to make life, considered now as a species, more productive. (Cf. Foucault 2003b, 2008, 2009)

In volume 1 of The History of Sexuality, Foucault underscores that this has the consequence of gradually replacing laws with norms as the primary modality of political potestas: "The law always refers to the sword. But a power whose task is to take charge of life needs continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms. It is no longer a matter of bringing death into play in the field of sovereignty, but of distributing the living in the domain of value and utility" (Foucault 1990: 144). Importantly, he also emphasizes that the regulatory apparatuses of biopower do not constitute a closed circuit of normative networks that fully determine life: "It is not that life has been totally integrated into techniques that govern and administer it; it constantly escapes them" (Foucault 1990: 143; emphasis mine). This apparent capacity of life for constant escape, its irrepressible ability to elude regulatory techniques that aim at total closure, provides the basis for an understanding of biopolitics that is affirmative: life itself resists biopolitical administration, and the very functioning of power occasions the creative potentialities of living being.2 Vatter argues that the diverse bodies of work by Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri, and Roberto Esposito all take up this thread, analyzing the possibilities and stakes of biopolitics conceived as affirmative, and he situates his own project within this trajectory.3

Vatter marks his distance from these thinkers insofar as, on his reading, they understand life and law to be mutually exclusive or antinomic.4 The antinomian logic of their analyses commits them, he contends, to the claim that "the politics and governance of a global system of universal human rights would be nothing but the ideological cover for the universal expansion of the 'state of exception' that, under neoliberalism, has become the 'normal' condition of political life" (Vatter 2014: 224). …

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