Academic journal article New Formations

Introduction: Death and the Contemporary

Academic journal article New Formations

Introduction: Death and the Contemporary

Article excerpt

This double issue of New Formations addresses death in contemporary culture from a number of interdisciplinary and international perspectives. Since Michel Foucault aligned the 'power of sovereignty' with the disqualification of death in his 1975 essay 'Society Must be Defended', death has been at the forefront of biopolitical and geopolitical debates.1 Through a contemporary lens Achille Mbembe, writing in 2003, stated that the expression of sovereignty ultimately resides 'in the capacity to dictate who may live and who may die'.2 Yet Mbembe's necropolitics also questions the sufficiency of biopolitics to account for the question of death and sovereignty in the twenty-first century. This themed issue extends Mbembe's challenge by taking up the complex, often contentious subject of death in present-day culture as it is thought, and as it operates, within and beyond biopolitics. In bringing together articles from scholars across the fields of politics, law, philosophy, and literature, the issue interrogates the conceptual status of death in biopolitical discourse by considering emerging post-biopolitical and post-human contexts.

Foucault understood the status of death in 1975 as 'something to be hidden away' (Society, p68). With twenty-first century global conditions, death as a subject has become more visible, imbricated with, and paramount to ideas of the postcolonial, necroeconomics, the necropolitical, and ethical and legal debates surrounding the right-to-die. At the same time, new technologies of warfare in the 'War on Terror' have meant that death has acquired new forms, through modes of violence that often annihilate the body. Such forms of death challenge traditional ritualisations of death and render death increasingly invisible. The issue intervenes at the intersection of biopolitical and postbiopolitical fields of knowledge, entering current debates on critical social and political issues such as euthanasia, the death penalty, and contemporary geopolitics. A number of the essays collected in the volume examine new forms of geopolitical violence, reveal unacknowledged states of exception, and engage with liminal states of death created by medical advances. These articles are brought into a transdisciplinary dialogue with studies that explore the way in which contemporary visual art and literature offer new ways of representing death and emerging bio-medical phenomena. The issue places bioethical questions in relation to critical cultural developments and sociohistorical events: the Syrian Civil War; the deaths of detainees in Guantánamo Bay; the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign; Hurricane Katrina; the use of drones in contemporary warfare; and the Anthropocene. The essays in the collection also situate contemporary issues surrounding death within the context of the history of the twentieth-century: the European colonies and post-colonies; the Holocaust; the Soviet forced

labour camps, and the executions carried out by Nazi forces in Stalinist Russia. In doing so, the scholarship of this issue offers theoretical means to navigate contemporary conceptions of death at the juncture of biopolitical and post-biopolitical discourses.

The starting point of the issue is Warren Montag's discussion of necessity and the law. The essay explores the maxim derived from Roman theorising about law: Nécessitas non habet legem, or 'necessity has no law', in relation to the problem of the necropolitical order. Montag compares two books: Franz Fanon's Les Damnés de la terre (1961) (The Wretched of the Earth), and Gilles Couvreur's little known text Les Pauvres ont-ils des droits? Recherches sur le vol en cas d'extrême nécessité depuis la Concordia de Gratien (1140) jusqu'à Guillaume d'Auxerre (1231) [Do the poor have rights? An inquiry into theft in the case of extreme necessity from Gratian's Concordia (1140) to William of Auxerre (1231)]. The contemporary world, in which whole countries are left to starvation and 'zones of exception' proliferate, spaces abandoned to violence and destitution in the name of the necessity of killing and letting die, is addressed through the prism of Roman law. …

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