Nietzshce remains the crucial reference point both for the “thanatopolitics” of Nazism, which he presents as the culmination of a certain kind of biopolitics, or politicization of “life” and death, and for the post-World War II emergence of a critical biopolitics, which Esposito sees exclusively as an attempt to rescue the forces of “life” from their subordination to the Nazi mythologies of the master race, of the centrality of childbirth, and of “the absolute normativization of life.”
Heidegger, Arendt, Foucault, Simondon, Deleuze, 20th century French neo-Spinozianism: these are all read as efforts to liberate the forces of life from racial and familial normativization, from myths of purity and the Fatherland, etc. In this way, Esposito (much like Giorgio Agamben) sees the Holocaust as the central reference point for all biopolitical thought (and indeed, for all political thought whatsoever) today; with Niezsche providing the crucial conceptual framework, since his thought is the source both of 20th century notions of racial “cleanliness” and “health”, and of any possible critique and overcoming of such notions.
Can I dare to suggest (without being denounced as a “self-hating Jew”) that such a focus on the Holocaust, on the Adornian lament about the difficulty (or impossibility) of poetry (or anything else) “after Auschwitz,” is at this point, 63 years after the end of World War II, an obscurantist evasion rather than a moral imperative? Not only is Esposito’s focus upon Nazi thanatopolitics blindly Eurocentric, but it also fails to take account of the many forms racism, nationalist chauvinism, etc. have taken around the world in the last half century and more.The politicization of “life” and the management of “life” have become all the more pervasive and ubiquitous in the last half century, precisely because of (rather than in spite of) the discrediting (for the most part) of Nazi racist/nationalist themes.
For instance, bigotry and genocide today tend to be expressed in “cultural” and religious terms, rather than in the terms the Nazis used; but these new terms are themselves related to how we have come to reconceptualize “life”. The same could be said about national and international responses to plagues (AIDS, SARS, bird flu), about population control measures (ranging all the way from the nativist encouragement of more births, and the attempts to ban all forms of birth control, to draconian attempts, like that of the Chinese government, to restrict population growth). And questions about agriculture and food production, about access to water and other vital resources, about the patenting of genetic material, about the use of biometric data to track both individuals and populations, and so on almost ad infinitum — all these are excluded from Esposito’s purview, largely because his reductively Eurocentric and Holocaust-centric view of the biologization of politics and the politicization of biology has no room for them.
More generally, the European (perhaps I should just say, Italian and French) view of biopolitics, which Esposito summarizes so well (and variants of which are upheld by Agamben, Negri, and others) ironically seems to ignore two things: biology, and political economy. It is telling that Esposito says nothing whatsoever about the ways in which biology and life have themselves been so totally reconfigured in the (more than) half-century following Watson and Crick’s determination of the structure of DNA. Biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, genetic engineering, etc etc — all of these have profoundly changed how we conceive “life”, as well as how governments and corporations seek to manage and contain it — yet Esposito writes as if none of this were relevant.
- You wouldn’t know, from reading his genealogies, that today we tend to conceive a life force more on the model of mindless viral replication, than as anything like Bergson’s elan vital.
- Nor that eugenics has been recast, in its contemporary variant, as a matter of “bad genes” rather than “bad blood” (both formulations are lying, ideological ones, but they have entirely different connotations).
- Nor that the alleged fatality of genetic makeup has become an alibi for all sorts of social discrimination and inequality.
- Nor that the goal of contemporary biotechnology has to do with the pragmatic manipulation of genetic material — and hence with a certain notion of flexibility and differential control, rather than with the old-style racial essentialism.
Although he is ostensibly concerned with how our society conceptualizes “life”, Esposito fails to consider how changes in biology have changed this conceptualization, and how things are still very much up for grabs today, as witnessed both by the continually emerging new potentials of biological research and bioltechnology, and by the ways in which, on a theoretical level, the orthodox neodarwinian synthesis is itself under considerable challenge from other biophilosophical visions (as I have written about before).