Immunity ‘Beyond Biopolitics’

I presented work at the Immunity, Health and the Body Politic symposium. This is (broadly) what I said.

51mhxrvkh0l-_sx349_bo1204203200_In this presentation I am going to engage Francois Debrix and Alexander D. Barder’s Beyond Biopolitics (2012) to think through the relationship between biopolitics, violence and immunity. Like Debrix and Barder I think there are aspects of contemporary violence that the paradigm of ‘biopolitics’ (which, for the sake of brevity and polemics we’ll have to temporarily assume is a homogenous field, despite its permutations) is unable to account for; in particular, violence at the level of the particular existents who suffer it. However, Debrix and Barder, while wanting to move “beyond” biopolitics, never really leave its framing, and so their analysis repeats an account of violence-power-politics which is powerful in its theorising of populations, dispositifs, forms of governance etc., but routinely subsumes the particular instances of these forms of governance as nothing other than symptoms of wider formations of power or as techniques which account for the operationalisation of dispositifs. Put simply, within the paradigm of biopolitics, violated bodies and persons are first used as proof of the truth of biopolitics. I think this has both theoretical and ethical issues.

Like Debrix and Barder, what I am sketching here is not a dismissal: biopolitics has, in its various permutations, demonstrated itself as being able to make sense of various forms of contemporary violence in a powerful way. Rather, I simply want to probe the limits of the biopolitical paradigm. How does the form of its deployment emphasise some things and obscure others, or implicitly make some phenomena worthy of attention and others worthless? Again, this aesthetic dimension is not unique to biopolitics: these questions can be asked of any paradigm of thought. But in the context of discussions of immunity, a concept which biopolitics, especially in Esposito’s account, has done much useful work with, it is biopolitics which I will today be thinking about.

Continue reading

(Anti-)Arendtian Politics in Rancière, Butler and Cavarero

Today I’m presenting at the Political Studies Association Annual Conference 2016. This is what I’ll say.


In his book The Lessons of Rancière (2013) Sam Chambers argues that political theorists make a mistake if they collapse the thought of Jacques Rancière with that of Hannah Arendt. Chambers notes a growing tendency for theorists to make this move, and even in the cases where Rancière’s thought is best utilised in relation to Arendt – where his thought is read with its differences recognised in a manner which refuses to totalise it – Chambers worries that the mere proximity of a reading of Rancière alongside Arendt is already to leave us in danger of spatialising Rancière’s thought, and thus encouraging us to read Rancière as a proponent of a pure politics. In Chambers’ words, there is a

broadly Arendtian approach to politics that includes insights from Rancière – this adds to the general sense that whatever Rancière is up to in his account of politics, it appears to be largely compatible with Arendt’s theory. And because the standard account of Arendt is the territorial one, the decision to read Rancière alongside Arendt may take readers in the wrong direction, that is, towards pure politics (2013: 49).

Chambers wants to enact a “de-linking” (Ibid.) of Rancière from Arendt because of Rancière’s rejection of a pure political sphere.

Chambers is correct in his identification of the significant difference between Rancière’s thought and Arendt’s, and in his identification of the collapsing of Rancière’s thought with Arendt’s, prevalent in recent secondary literature. I want to pause, however, and ask if something is missed if Rancière’s critique of Arendt is primarily framed as identifying the danger of a spatialised, pure politics; that is, I think we miss the complex way Rancière imagines political space, in a way which I don’t think is fully captured by an insistence on politics’ impurity (which is Chambers’ corrective measure to Rancière’s Arendtian co-option). More specifically, I think a critique of Arendt which emphasises the grounding of politics in speech and action – words and deeds – not only gets to the fore of Rancière’s critique in a manner which the critique of pure politics doesn’t, but more significantly allows one to conceptualise the space of politics not simply as an impurity, but as a paradoxical, heterogeneous instantiation, which certainly isn’t pure, but is neither simply or only a complex mix of impurity. To be clear, Rancière’s politics is an impure politics: my point is simply that if we privilege this metaphor, I wonder if we at the same time limit a thinking of the space of politics. This would be a problem not so much because it would deviate from the proper reading of Rancière, but rather because I am more hopeful than Chambers in the productiveness of a dialogue between Rancière and theorists who we could call post-Arendtian. And, if I wanted to be rather unfair to Chambers, I’m less concerned about the proximity of these theorists sullying the purity of Rancière’s thought.

Continue reading

Resistance, Confinement, Visibility: Notes on Khalili’s ‘Time in the Shadows’

In July of last year Laleh Khalili visited University of Brighton for a workshop on her book Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies. I gave a short presentation, and thought I’d write up what I said (six months late…).


pid_21640How does one resist the forms of confinement that Khalili documents in her Time in the Shadows (2013)? That is, what is it to do politics in an era of counterinsurgency, where counterinsurgency is increasingly pre-emptive and thus is a particular strategy in undermining resistance and politics before it has occurred? Presumably also, the position of the subject is important here: what forms does resistance take for those who suffer confinement, and what forms does it take by activists who fight to end the violences of these forms of detention?

For the former subject position, of those subjected to confinement and detention, it can be tempting to situate these people somehow beyond or outside of politics – as abjected or discarded populations, in a manner similar to Agamben’s ‘bare life’ – and certainly, as Khalili makes clear, the question of the visibility or invisibility of those in confinement is crucial. However, it is one thing to say contemporary forms of detention and confinement are also about the exclusion of people from the ‘proper’ political sphere, and quite another to say that those excluded therefore have no access to politics. What interests me is the way that the forms of exclusion and abjection that Khalili documents call into question the categories that we have to make sense of politics, and therefore also expose something of the complicity these categories have in maintaining the position of those excluded or abjected as somehow non- or a-political. So I would be very interested to hear about the types of activity (or inactivity) that people do (or don’t do) as a way of resisting or refusing their confinement and detention. I’m reminded of some of Judith Butler’s comments, where she says that simply to persist in a situation where the possibilities for persistence are being undermined is already a form of politics, one which the dominant understanding of politics we carry with us in the ‘western tradition’ is unable to account for (although perhaps this isn’t a bad thing…).

Concurrently, for activists fighting against these forms of confinement and detention, what strategies should one take? Particularly in chapter four of Time in the Shadows (‘Invisible Prisoners, Proxy-Run Prisons: From Khiyam to Rendition’), we can see what becomes crucial is the visibility of people who are detained: law is manipulated so as to leave the subject in a permanent state of flux, which makes their legal visibility difficult to pin down as institutional structures which may offer protection drop in and out of relevance. Alternatively, there is simply a brute invisibility, where huge amounts of resources are deployed in keeping people off the radar. So we can imagine one strategy for activism is fixing the legal position of these subjects, or further, demanding that these subjects are formally recognised and so can therefore be defended. As Khalili makes clear, it is the tireless work of activists, advocates, lawyers and others who force a certain visibility on these subjects. Politics becomes a struggle over visibility – and presumably not any visibility but a visibility which will allow the person to live a livable life, as Butler might argue. It is no good if the legal visibility achieved results in a subject who can be properly, legitimately violated.

Continue reading

Pain, Voice and Logos in Scarry’s ‘The Body in Pain’

Last week I presented at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association 2015 Biennial Conference Everyday Encounters with Violence: Critical Feminist Perspectives. Here’s what I said.

In this paper I want to think about the relationship between pain and voice, and I want to do this via Elaine Scarry’s classic text The Body in Pain (1985). I’m interested in Scarry’s account of torture which comprises the first chapter of her book. Here, Scarry offers a “structure” (Ibid. 27) of torture, thinking through the phenomenology of the unilateral exposure to extreme pain that is characteristic of torture. Central to the structure of torture, for Scarry, is the distinction between the body and the voice: put briefly, when one is exposed to extreme pain one’s sense of language, self and world, typified by voice, are placed in a process of destruction, while one’s sense of body becomes utterly overbearing. For Scarry, speaking and thinking, both forms of self-extension, become increasingly difficult under extreme pain. When one is in pain one cries out; language typically evades the person in extreme pain, as does, so Scarry argues, thought.

Today I want to use The Body in Pain to pose some questions about how the Western philosophical tradition has thought about concepts such as voice, speech, reason and the body. These concepts are at the centre of both our philosophical and political traditions, from the moment when, in The Politics, Aristotle defines Man (always Man…) as a zoon logon echon – “the living creature who has logos” (Cavarero 2005: 34) as Adriana Cavarero translates it. There is much that can be said about this formulation of Man: what we understand as logos, what it is to have logos, and crucially the forms of living which are effaced through this formulation. Scarry’s text does not enter into any of this discussion, and yet her phenomenology of extreme pain, I would suggest, demonstrates the limits of this formulation of Man, the moments when it loses its coherence; and it is out of this incoherence, I believe, that another way of thinking the human might be apprehended.

As such, I’ll give a quick overview of the most salient points of Scarry’s argument in the first chapter of The Body in Pain, primarily in relation to the Aristotelian conception of Man. I’ll then move on to use Adriana Cavarero and Jacques Rancière to each in their own way think through the implications of Scarry’s arguments for how the Western philosophical tradition typically conceives of the metaphysical, political subject.

Continue reading

Black Lives Matter, and the Question of Nonviolence

Yesterday I presented work at the Conflict Cluster annual symposium. Here’s what I said.

On the 17th July 2014 Eric Garner, a forty-three year old African American man, was killed after being put in a chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo, a New York police officer. Protest (and police violence) rose up in response, and then again on the 3rd December when a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo. On the 9th August 2014 Michael Brown, an eighteen year old African American man, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Protest (and police violence) rose up in response, and then again on 24th November when a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. On the 4th April 2015 Walter Scott, a fifty year old African American man, was shot and killed by Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer. On the 19th April 2015, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five year old African American man, died from injuries to his spinal cord and larynx. These injuries were sustained five days earlier while Gray was being transported after his arrest by officers of the Baltimore Police Department. Gray spent the five days between these events in a coma. On the 25th April a protest was held in response to Gray’s death, which resulted in thirty-four arrests. Gray’s funeral was held on 27th April, after which protest (and the police response) escalated. A state of emergency was declared, the Maryland National Guard were deployed, and habeas corpus was in effect suspended as hundreds of people were held for days without charge.

In each of these cases, the protests were not because of the exceptional nature of the events but precisely because they were unexceptional; that is, in the United States of America (as well as in many other parts of the world) it is unexceptional for police officers, particularly white police officers, to kill black men. Each protest featured violence, from the police and the national guard and from those on the street defending themselves. The predictable response to this violence from the mainstream media and politicians, as well as many people on social media, was a preoccupation with the perceived violence enacted by those protesting, and an effacement of the violence enacted by the police. The figure of Martin Luther King, Jr. was deployed as a way of moralising the protesters, arguing that King’s commitment to nonviolence should be the model that informs protest in response to the deaths of black people. ‘There may be legitimate grievances’, so these arguments go, ‘but the proper way to deal with them is not by resorting to violence’. The same moralising was conspicuous by its absence in the instance of Freddie Gray and his crushed larynx and broken spine; or Walter Scott and Michael Brown and the bullets that killed them; or Eric Garner and his death through asphyxiation while in a choke hold, repeating the words “I can’t breath” eleven times until he could not say them any more; or many, many other deaths of black people at the hands of predominantly white police.

Continue reading

Butler on the Body and Resistance

From Butler’s recent talk at Trinity College Dublin:

In a sense we already know the idea that freedom can only be exercised if there is enough support for the exercise of freedom, a material condition that enters into the act that it makes possible. Indeed, when we think about the embodied subject who exercises speech or moves through public space across borders, it’s usually presumed to be one who is already free to speak and to act. Either that subject is endowed with that freedom as an inherent power, or that subject is presumed to live in a public space where open and supportive movement is possible. The very term ‘mobilisation’ depends on an operative sense of mobility, understood as a right, one which many people cannot take for granted. For the body to move it must usually have a surface of some kind, and it must have at its disposal whatever technical supports allow for movement to take place. So the pavement and the street are already to be understood as requirements of the body as it exercises its rights of mobility. No-one moves without a supportive environment and a set of technologies. I think this is a general claim that disability studies has importantly taught us. And when those environments fall apart, or are emphatically unsupportive, we are, in a sense, left to fall in some ways, and our very capacity to exercise our most basic rights is in peril.

Abstract: The Politics of Voice in Elaine Scarry’s ‘The Body in Pain’

Paper to be presented at Everyday Encounters with Violence: Critical Feminist Perspectives, Feminist & Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) Biennial Conference 2015, 9th-11th September.

In her seminal text The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that language, self and world are destroyed in the exposure to extreme forms of pain (1985: 35). Where does this leave the political subject, so often figured as emerging through their capacity for an Aristotelian reasoned speech? In this paper I focus on Scarry’s understanding of voice, arguing that Scarry’s text depends upon a transferability of voice which calls into question both the purely private experience of pain that Scarry presents, and the extent to which extreme forms of pain leave the subject bereft and abject.

A key focus of critique of Scarry’s text has been its Cartesian dualism, drawing a strict distinction between mind and body (for example Bakare-Yusuf (1999) and Lee (2005)). While I think this dualism is problematic, I want to insist that a more productive focus of critique is the text’s unwitting dependence on the Aristotelian distinction between speech and voice: by focusing on this distinction we can retain the valuable contributions Scarry makes to a theory of embodiment, while also calling into question whether the underlying notion of the discrete political subject who possesses speech (a subject historically associated with the white, male, heterosexual) is itself complicit in the utter abjection of the body in pain. Drawing on the work of Judith Butler and Jacques Rancière, I emphasise both the sociality of pain and the need to interrogate the norms which condition one’s ability to hear the cries of the body in pain (or indeed, its silences) as either speech or not-speech.

Bakare-Yusuf, Bibi (1999), ‘The Economy of Violence: Black Bodies and the Unspeakable Terror’, Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, New York: Routledge.
Lee, Wendy Lynne (2005), ‘On the (im)materiality of violence: Subjects, bodies, and the experience of pain’, Feminist Theory, 6.
Scarry, Elaine (1985), The Body in Pain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.