Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Bare Life to Eternal Life: Response to Morejón, Ricciardi, and Fenves

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

From Bare Life to Eternal Life: Response to Morejón, Ricciardi, and Fenves

Article excerpt

Let me begin by thanking Peg Birmingham for generously offering to organize the original book discussion at DePaul University in January 2015, out of which developed this written exchange. I am very grateful to Peter Fenves, Alessia Ricciardi, and Gil Morejón for their extremely stimulating and incisive texts. With such careful readers, my task is made both easier and more gratifying: easier because they present my views in ways that clarify them even to myself; more gratifying because it allows me to move straight to the decisive points and questions raised by these texts, not in the spirit of someone who believes to have any answers, but more modestly as another participant in a series of conversations that transcend this particular occasion.

Gil Morejón:

Morejón's essay permits me to say something about how I understand the relation between an affirmative biopolitics and republicanism. But his comments also pointedly introduce the perspective of critical race theory and critical ethnic studies into the discussion of biopolitics, a perspective which my book does not as such take up. Thirdly, Morejón critically engages my claim that an affirmative biopolitics needs to take seriously the idea of "eternal life" if it is going to escape and oppose what Foucault called "thanatopolitics" and Mbembe calls "necropolitics." Both terms refer to "death-worlds" in which "vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead" (Mbembe).

Morejón is right to see in the attempt to think affirmative biopolitics together with republicanism a not so veiled critique of the antinomianism prevalent in contemporary biopolitics, since for me a basic definition of republicanism is the attempt to replace the rule of persons by the rule of law. The connection between biopolitics and republicanism is a direct one since by the term "biopolitics" I understand the study of the different ways in which law and life relate to each other. In many regimes, this relation may become thanatopolitical, but I do not think that all law is as such thanatopolitical. I think one should at least distinguish between, say, totalitarian understandings of law, neoliberal understandings of law, and republican understandings of law. Totalitarian domination, as Arendt has argued, proceeds by stripping legal personality from an individual (that is, by reinstating the belief that some life is by nature guilty, and deserves to be punished even if it has done no wrong); then by imposing a regime of forced labour that disallows any leisure to think; and lastly by setting up a perverse system of exchange that makes any solidarity with the other have a prohibitive cost, making it tantamount to suicide. Morejón, for his part, cites Mbembe's "triple loss" of "home," "rights over her or his body," and "expulsion from humanity altogether" as constitutive of the death-in-life of the slave. As far as I am concerned the points made by Arendt, Mbembe and Agamben share something in common, in that all of them analyse a separation of bios from zôê such that the life (bios) of one part of humanity is thought to require the selection, segregation, exploitation and extermination, in short the "total" domination of the life (zôê) of another part of humanity by its reduction to a kind of "living death."

There is an important literature on the differences between how the concentration camp and the slave plantation go about establishing "total" domination. But since this term was first coined by Arendt, and only subsequently employed by many others, including Mbembe, I do not really see why Morejón discards outright the possibility that Arendt's own concept of "natality," on which she bases the human right to have rights, cannot be used to counteract the "radical natal alienation" that Mbembe sees at work in slavery. More to the point, under regimes of "total domination" the final goal of law is to make human life entirely subservient to the commands of a person. …

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