ARTicles

Home | Return to article

May 01, 2005

Nettime -- Sovereignty and Biology

By Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacke

Sovereignty and Biology I

Political thought has long used the body as a metaphor for political
organization. Plato analogizes the political order of the polis with the
biological order of the body, and in doing so medicalizes politics.
After having spent the majority of the work discussing the constitution
of a just political order, the Republic turns to the forces of
dissolution or decomposition which threaten the body politic. Primary
among these are the descent from concerns of justice, to concerns of
wealth (oligarchy) and concerns of appetites (democracy). Though
economic health and basic necessities are central to the proper
functioning of the polis, it is their excess which creates the "illness
of a city" [1]. For Plato, if oligarchy represents the excessive rule of
wealth for its own sake, then "democracy," in his terms, represents the
imbalance between desire and freedom, in which the latter is always the
legitimation for the former. The combination of the two result in the
diseased body politic: "When [oligarchy and democracy] come into being
in any regime, they cause trouble, like phlegm and bile in a body. And
it's against them that the good doctor and lawgiver of a city, no less
than a wise beekeeper, must take long-range precautions, preferably that
they not come into being, but if they do come into being, that they be
cut out as quickly as possible, cells and all" [2]. This same logic--a
kind of medical sovereignty--is played out in mechanistic terms in
Hobbes' De Corpore Politico, and in organicist terms in chapters XIII-X
of Rousseau's The Social Contract. It is tempting to suggest that our
current era of genetics and informatics has influenced in some way the
view of a globalized body politic. Thus, our question: if the
understanding of the body changes, does this is also require a change in
the understanding of the body politic?

Sovereignty and Biology II

In one of his lectures at the Coll=E8ge de France, Foucault suggests =
that contemporary analyses of power need to develop alternative models to the
tradition of juridical sovereignty: "In short, we have to abandon the
model of Leviathan, that model of an artificial man who is at once an
automaton, a fabricated man, but also a unitary man who contains all
real individuals, whose body is made up of citizens but whose soul is
sovereignty" [3]. Foucault himself acknowledges the imbrication of
sovereignty with the more bottom-up paradigm of discipline. At the same
time that disciplinary measures are developed within institutions, a
"democratization of sovereignty" takes place, in which the people hold
the right to auto-discipline, to accept and in fact demand modes of
auto-surveillance in the name of a biological security. But the
reference to Hobbes that Foucault makes is significant, for it raises a
fundamental issue of contemporary political thought: Is it possible to
conceive of a body politic, without resort to the paradigm of absolute
sovereignty? In other words, can a political collectivity exist without
having to transfer its rights over to a transcendent body politic?

One of the ways that sovereignty maintains its political power is
continually to identify a biological threat. Giorgio Agamben points to
the "state of exception" created around what he calls "bare life." Bare
life, life itself, the health of the population, the health of the
nation--these are the terms of modern biopolitics. By grounding
political sovereignty in biology, threats against the biological body
politic, in the form of threats against the health of the population,
can be leveraged as ammunition for building a stronger sovereign power.
Foucault is just as explicit. Medicine, or a medicalization of politics,
comes to mediate between the "right of death" and the "power over life":
"The development of medicine, the general medicalization of behavior,
modes of conduct, discourses, desires, and so on, is taking place on the
front where the heterogeneous layers of discipline and sovereignty meet"
[4].

Abandoning the Body Politic

There are two states of the body politic. One is the constitutive state,
where the body politic is assembled, as Hobbes notes, through
"acquisition or institution." This kind of body politic is built upon a
supposed social contract, or at the very least a legitimatized basis of
authority in order to ensure the "security of life." The other state of
the body politic is the body politic of dissolution, the source of fear
in virtually every treatise on modern political thought: Machiavelli's
plebs or Hobbes' mob rule. Even Locke and Rousseau, who authorize
revolution under special conditions when the contract is violated, still
express an ambivalence towards this dissolutive state of the body
politic. Every political treatise which expresses the first state of
body politic thus also devotes some furtive, discomforting sections to
the second state of body politic. In some cases this dissolutive body
politic is simply chaos, a return to the "state of nature." In other
cases, it is a force that is synonymous with the sovereignty of the
people, as it is in Spinoza. Whatever the case, each expression of a
constitutive and constituted body politic also posits a dissolutive body
politic as its dark side. But there is a problem: the two types of body
politic feed into each other through the mechanism of war. We can
reiterate Foucault's inversion of Clausewitz: politics is war by other
means. Whether the ideal war of the state of nature, or the actual war
that continually threatens the civil state, war seems to be the driving
force of the two body politics. "In the smallest of its cogs, peace is
waging a secret war," wrote Foucault [5]. In this light, perhaps
Jean-Luc Nancy's notion of "abandoned being" can be read as a call to
abandon the body politic. For Nancy, abandoned being is both the
leaving-behind of the being/non-being distinction, as well as an
assertion of a new fullness, the fullness of desertion: "If from now on
being is not, if it has begun to be only its own abandonment, it is
because this speaking in multiple ways is abandoned, is in abandonment,
and it is abandon (which also to say openness). It so happens that
'abandon' can evoke 'abundance'" [6]. Abandoning the body politic not
only means leaving behind--or deserting--the military foundations of
politics, but it also means a radical opening of the body politic to its
own abandon. When the body politic is in abandon, it opens onto notions
of the common, the open, the distributed. "What is left is an
irremediable scattering, a dissemination of ontological specks" [7].

Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker

+ + +

[1] Plato, Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991),
p. 222 (VIII, 544c-d).

[2] Ibid., p. 243 (VIII, 564b-c).

[3] Michel Foucault, "Society Must be Defended" (New York: Picador,
2003), p. 34.

[4] Ibid., p. 39.

[5] Ibid., p. 50.

[6] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (Stanford: Stanford Univ.,
1993), p. 36.

[7] Ibid., p. 39