Posts Tagged ‘necropolitics’

“Population became a new kind of experimental concern in the work
of Raymond Pearl, the prominent and prolific American biologist who
claimed that his 1920s experiments with fruit flies in bottles captured a law

of “population” that governed “how things grow,” and that could further
be graphed as what he called “the logistic curve,” today more commonly
called the growth curve or the S-curve. Pearl claimed this curve captured
a law of life found in any aggregate of living-beings at any scale: bacteria in
a petri dish, Drosophila in a bottle, and humans too, in a city, nation, class,
or planet. The population growth curve, as a line tracing the balance of life
and death in a finite container, was abstracted as a universal tendency, repeatable
for all life, everywhere.

Pearl promoted his work redefining “population” at the inaugural World
Population Conference of 1927 held in Geneva, an event designed to propel
a new international focus on problems of population that was distinct from
eugenics. Organized behind the scenes by feminist birth control advocate
Margaret Sanger under Pearl’s supervision, the conference invited a select,
mostly male, mostly American and European cohort of biologists and social
scientists, along with a smattering of participants from Japan, China,

Siam, India, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil. The event promoted an expert,
quantitative, and experimentalist approach to questions of “population”
that critically diverged from the era’s more popular eugenic orientation.
Such eugenics work sought to redirect racialized heredity within
evolutionary logics. In the early twentieth century, eugenics had spread
across the globe in projects to govern life and death toward breeding better
racial futures—more fit, more pure, more evolved, more uplifted races—
projects variously embraced by progressives, fascists, socialists, racists and
antiracists, feminists, scientists, and political reformers. Eugenics sought
to manage evolutionary futures by virtue of encouraging or preventing the
heredity of desirable and undesirable traits in a given population. Selective
eugenic methods of directing racial futures ranged from voluntary birth
control and coerced sterilization, to incarceration and segregation, to pronatalist
policies and racial uplift projects, to euthanasia and mass murder.
Eugenics plotted bodies, races, classes, and regions of the world on an evolutionary
tree in which some bodies were more biologically progressed and
forward in time (white bodies, elite bodies, male bodies, thinking bodies,
able bodies), while other bodies were more primitive and pathological, and
thus threatened to pull future evolution backward (colored bodies, female
bodies, colonized bodies, working bodies, disabled bodies). Eugenics
rested on racist claims of differential life worth based on biological difference
and sought selective methods, often violent, to redirect racial futures. In contrast to eugenics, at stake for Pearl in how fruit flies changed over
time were not racial evolutionary futures but economic futures — how to balance
quantitative population with national production, bringing biology
and state planning together through economy.

Pearl’s work marks a historic shift in the status of “population” as a problematic.
Pearl was trained in biometrics at the Galton Laboratory at University
College London, a pivotal crossroads for both statistics and eugenics as
disciplines. His work signaled a distancing from questions of racial fitness
and Darwinian logics (and hence concerns with the hereditary quality of
life) to an embrace of questions of quantity and especially the rates of birth
and death within populations relative to economic conditions. Thus, Pearl
was innovating as a biologist within a Malthusian tradition that had long
tied population to political economy. Importantly, his work turned “population”
into an experimental object that could be tested and probed with the 

aid of fruit flies, bacteria, or chickens. Laboratory experiments could be
done to populations of organisms in controlled settings. Experiments not
only charted population dynamics but also sought to find ways of intervening
in population’s tendencies over time. Moving beyond the lab, Pearl
mobilized state-produced data from censuses, as well as then emergent
measures of agricultural and manufacturing production, into the project
of modeling human population as yet another iteration of experiment. In doing so, Pearl helped to transform “population” into a problem that
needed to be both represented and intervened in at the intersection of economics
and biology.


In Pearl’s translation from Drosophila to human, the physical limits
of the glass “bottle” stood in for the larger unseeable scale of “national
economic production,” a measure that was rapidly developing in early
twentieth-century state social science. Drawing too on racialized anthropological
visions of staged human progress, the purported economic container
for human populations was broadly delineated as their national
“stage” of economic productivity—primitive, agrarian, or mercantile, with
industrial, mass-consumption capitalism as a pinnacle. In contrast, the old
eighteenth-century Malthusian model of population had insisted on predetermined
rates of food production (the arithmetic increase of 1, 2, 3) and
population growth (the geometric increase of 2, 4, 8), such that population
growth would inevitably become overpopulation, unrelentingly leading
to war, famine, disease, and death. Unlike Malthus, Pearl’s model held
that production rates were variable and adjustable depending on levels of
civilization. Population was also adjustable as both death and birth rates
could be altered with technologies and state policies. Contrary to the inevitable
thrust toward crisis that concluded Malthus’s law of population,
Pearl’s model was rife with possibilities for management.

Pearl’s “proof” that the S-curve applied to humans relied on colonial data
collection: the so-called natural experiment of colonized Algeria, where
French colonial machinery had kept impeccable records that supposedly
recorded a full growth curve. According to Pearl, the “civilizing” of Algeria,
and the purported improvement to agricultural productivity created by
the “white man’s burden” of French colonization, sparked a new “swarm”
of babies, a rapidly growing aggregate of Algerians. Paralleling aggregate
humans with experimental insects, Pearl cited a colonial official to describe

the middle phase of rapid population growth, when “the natives positively
pullulate under our rule” and “babies swarm among them like cockchafers
under a chestnut tree in the spring.” Seeing Algeria as a natural petri dish,
Pearl argued that as the population grew it hit a new upper limit resulting
in a “process akin to natural selection [in which a] good many natives had
to be eliminated before the survivors were reasonably unanimous in their
belief that the old days were gone forever.” For Pearl, the “business of conquest”
in colonized Algeria wrought the S-curve in the births and deaths of
Algerians. Here, the effect of the economic and colonial milieu on shaping
human futures supplanted other “natural” processes.

This version of population crystallized in the period of the Cold War and
decolonization into what I am calling the economization of life. The economization
of life, I argue, was and is a historically specific regime of valuation hinged to the macrological figure of national “economy.” It names the
practices that differentially value and govern life in terms of their ability to
foster the macroeconomy of the nation-state, such as life’s ability to contribute
to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the nation. It is distinct
from commodifying life or biocapital, or from the broader history of using
quantification to monetize practices. It was not a mode that generated surplus
value through labor but instead designated and managed surplus aggregate
life. In this mode, value could be generated by optimizing aggregate
life chances—including the reduction of future life quantity—relative
to the horizon of the economy. The economization of life was performed
through social science practices that continued the project of racializing
life—that is, dividing life into categories of more and less worthy of living,
reproducing, and being human—and reinscribed race as the problem of
“population” hinged to the fostering of the economy. Thus, the history of
the economization of life is part of the history of racism and the technoscientific
practices of demarcating human worth and exploiting life chances.
Traced in this book through “population control,” the economization of life
was, and remains, a historically specific regime of valuation created with
technoscientific practices (rather than markets) that used quantification
and social science methods to calibrate and then exploit the differential
worth of human life for the sake of the macrological figure of “economy.”

These epistemic infrastructures were assemblages
of practices of quantification and intervention conducted by multidisciplinary
and multisited experts that became consolidated as extensive arrangements
of research and governance within state, transnational, and
nonprofit organizations. I call them infrastructural to underline the ways
knowledge-making can install material supports into the world—such as
buildings, bureaucracies, standards, forms, technologies, funding flows, affective
orientations, and power relations. By attending to epistemic infrastructures,
this book tracks how the experimental practices for quantifying
and intervening in aggregate life consolidated into the pervasive twentiethcentury
infrastructures of family planning, development projects, global
health, NGOs, and imperialism that were built in the name of monitoring
and governing “economy” and “population.” Attending to the epistemic… “population” became a problem during a historical moment when neoliberalism was unfolding and the primary purpose of states
was increasingly understood to be the fostering of “the economy,” itself a
historicizable twentieth-century problematic. Attending to the affective,
the book queries how imaginaries, feelings, futures, and phantasma are part
of the work of quantification. Population and economy became massive
material-semiotic-affective-infrastructural presences that can now be hard
to imagine the world without. They became a way for capitalism to imagine
and organize its own milieu, to conjure its own conditions of possibility. 

Harnessed to the enhancement of the national economy, this new era
of calculative practices designated both valuable and unvaluable human
lives: lives worth living, lives worth not dying, lives worthy of investment,
and lives not worth being born. The history of such designations is vital for
understanding how the continued racialized and sexed devaluation of life
inhabits ubiquitous policies, indices, calculations, and orientations that perform
new kinds of racialization even as they reject biological race as such.
Moreover, this history puts questions of reproduction at the center of how
capitalism summons its world.”

– Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life. Duke University Press, 2017. pp. 1-7.          

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“Following the 1992 LA riots, leftist commentators often opted to define the event as a rebellion rather than a riot as a way to highlight the political nature of people’s actions. This attempt to reframe the public discourse is borne of ‘good intentions’ (the desire to combat the conservative media’s portrayal of the riots as ‘pure criminality’), but it also reflects an impulse to contain, consolidate, appropriate, and accommodate events that do not fit political models grounded in white, Euro- American traditions. When the mainstream media portrays social disruptions as apolitical, criminal, and devoid of meaning, Leftists often respond by describing them as politically reasoned. Here, the confluence of political and anti-social tendencies in a riot/ rebellion are neither recognized nor embraced. Certainly some who participated in the London riots were armed with sharp analyses of structural violence and explicitly political messages – the rioters were obviously not politically or demographically homogenous. However, sympathetic radicals tend to privilege the voices of those who are educated and politically astute, rather than listening to those who know viscerally that they are fucked and act without first seeking moral approval. Some Leftists and radicals were reluctant to affirm the purely disruptive perspectives, like those expressed by a woman from Hackney, London who said, ‘We’re not all gathering together for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker.’ Or the excitement of two girls stopped by the BBC while drinking looted wine. When asked what they were doing, they spoke of the giddy ‘madness’ of it all, the ‘good fun’ they were having, and said that they were showing the police and the rich that ‘we can do what we want.’ Translating riots into morally palatable terms is another manifestation of the appeal to innocence – rioters, looters, criminals, thieves, and disrupters are not proper victims and hence, not legitimate political actors. Morally ennobled victimization has become the necessary precondition for determining which grievances we are willing to acknowledge and authorize.

With that being said, my reluctance to jam Black rage into a white framework is not an assertion of the political viability of a pure politics of refusal. White anarchists, ultra-leftists, post-Marxists, and insurrectionists who adhere to and fetishize the position of being “for nothing and against everything” are equally eager to appropriate events like the 2011 London riots for their (non)agenda. They insist on an analysis focused on the crisis of capitalism, which downplays anti-Blackness and ignores forms of gratuitous violence that cannot be attributed solely to economic forces. Like liberals, post-left and anti-social interpretive frameworks generate political narratives structured by white assumptions, which delimits which questions are posed which categories are the most analytically useful. Tiqqun explore the ways in which we are enmeshed in power through our identities, but tend to focus on forms of power that operate by an investment in life (sometimes call biopolitics) rather than, as Achille Mbembe writes, “the power and the capacity to decide who may live and who must die” (sometimes called necropolitics). This framework is decidedly white, for it asserts that power is not enacted by direct relations of force or violence, and that the capitalism reproduces itself by inducing us to produces ourselves, to express our identities through consumer choices, to base our politics on the affirmation of our marginalized identities. This configuration of power as purely generative and dispersed completely eclipses the realities of policing, the militarization of the carceral system, the terrorization of people of color, the institutional violence of the Welfare State and the Penal State, and of Black and Native social death. While prisons certainly “produce” race, a generative configuration of power that minimizes direct relations of force can only be theorized from a white subject position. Among ultra-left tendencies, communization theory notably looks beyond the wage relation in its attempt to grasp the dynamics of late-capitalism. Writing about Théorie Communiste (TC), Maya Andrea Gonzalez notes that “TC focus on the reproduction of the capital-labor relation, rather than on the production of value. This change of focus allows them to bring within their purview the set of relations that actually construct capitalist social life – beyond the walls of the factory or office.” However, while this reframing may shed light on relations that constitute social life outside the workplace, it does not shed light on social death, for relations defined by social death are not reducible to the capital-labor relation.”

– Jackie Wang, “Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Safety.” LIES Volume 1-10

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A declaration of war has been issued against Indigenous peoples in Canada by the federal government. By bailing out Kinder Morgan’s investment in the Trans Mountain pipeline, Canada has announced its ongoing intention to violate Indigenous title, law and jurisdiction, as well as the constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples, and all protocols of international law protecting Indigenous peoples’ homelands and right to consent to development on their lands.

Kinder Morgan purchased the pipeline for $600 million dollars. They sold it for a return of almost 650 percent for a product that proved faulty only a few days ago. Canadians are increasingly complicit in this swindle because they are all part-owners now. But Canadians have legal, moral, and treaty obligations to respect Indigenous jurisdiction, especially in light of what is to come. So the strategy must remain the same: we must devalue the pipeline by blocking its construction by any means necessary and supporting those who do.

Indigenous peoples from affected nations along the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion have already been arrested and violently removed from the path of destruction that will expand tar sands production and multiply tanker traffic and the risk of pipeline spills through their watersheds.

While there is much talk in the federal government about respecting Indigenous rights, not only does the pipeline bisect the lands and waters where Indigenous Peoples practice their right to hunt, fish, trap, pick berries, and sustain themselves, rendering those rights vulnerable to the imminent threat of a spill, its direct contribution to climate change already cuts these rights off at the legs.

Furthermore, the law itself and the deployment of police forces must be an object of scrutiny in the protection of Indigenous rights. Canada’s use of legal and police forces to repress Indigenous peoples is widespread and goes hand-in-hand with extraction. It is done in conjunction with corporations like Kinder Morgan, where the risk of Indigenous rights to commercial profit is mitigated through state police criminalizing Indigenous land defenders.

When we write that this is a declaration of war, we mean it literally. The military will be called. But the threat is not only the criminalization of land and water defenders protecting their territory from pipeline construction, but from the harmful corollary effects of pipeline construction, such as the ‘man-camps’ that are being established in four locations along the route. As the Women’s Declaration Against Kinder Morgan Man Camps reads: “Today, wherever man camps are set up, we face exponential increases in sexual violence. As development results in the destruction of our land base and our food sovereignty, it also drives up food and housing prices. This further intensifies our economic insecurity and we are forced into even more vulnerable conditions”.

Indigenous jurisdiction is collectively held. This means the deals Kinder Morgan has made with individual bands do not replace the need for engagement with the nation as a collective, as the proper title and rights holder on a territorial basis. Canada now bears the risks from the company’s failure to obtain consent from the appropriate jurisdictional authority. They are now the ones operating illegally, not the Indigenous land defenders.

It is the national pattern to use criminalization, civil action, and other penalties to repress Indigenous resistance to these policies by bringing to bear the weight of the law and police forces against Indigenous individuals and communities. The widespread surveillance of Indigenous peoples – e.g. the “hot spot” reporting system established under Harper, or the RCMP’s Project SITKA that monitored “Aboriginal public order events’ – is also part of a pattern of intimidation and risk mitigation. The use of incarceration is a long-term strategy to contain Indigenous rights within the carceral state, rather than see them asserted on the ground.

It is the failure of Canada to find peaceful measures to resolve this fundamental conflict that must be examined. Indigenous blockades are not acts of civil disobedience, but encounters between Indigenous and settler law.

And they should be dealt with as political conflict between Nations through diplomacy, not by security forces. Together, we will shut it down.

Support the Tiny House Warrior project!

Read more: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/kanahus-manuel/kinder-morgan-indigenous-resistance_a_23349533/

Donate: here – https://www.gofundme.com/tinyhouse2

Please email reconciliationmanifesto@gmail.com to add your support and solidarity to this call to action!

A list of people who stand in solidarity with this Call to Action:

Kanahus Manuel, Secwepemc Womens Warrior Society + Tiny House Warriors

Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade

Christi Belcourt (Michif of the Belcourt & L’Hirondelle Families from Mânitow Sâkahikan)

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Lubicon Cree, David Suzuki Fellow

Jeffrey McNeil, TRU//

Audra Simpson (Kahnawake Mohawk) Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University

The Indigenous Environmental Network

Janice Makokis, Indigenous Scholar (Saddle Lake Cree Nation)

Dallas Goldtooth, Keep It In The Group Campaigner

Eriel Deranger, Executive Director Indigenous Climate Action and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

Hayden King, Beausoleil First Nation, Director, Yellowhead Institute, Ryerson University

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Distinguished Visiting Professor, Ryerson University

Nick Estes, Kul Wicasa, Co-Founder of The Red Nation, Assistant Professor of American Studies, University of New Mexico

Erica Violet Lee, Nêhiyaw nation, University of Toronto

Pamela Palmater, Chair of Indigenous Governance, Ryerson University

Tori Cress, Beausoleil First Nation, Idle No More Ontario

Clayton Thomas-Müller, Stop-it-at-the-Source Campaigner – 350.org

Avi Lewis, The Leap

Naomi Klein, Writer

David Suzuki, geneticist and broadcaster

Bill McKibben, author and environmentalist

Dr. Damien Lee (Zoongde), Band member, Fort William First Nation

Deborah Cowen, Associate Professor, Geography, University of Toronto

Sherry Pictou, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Women’s Studies: Indigenous Feminism, Mount Saint Vincent University

Audrey Huntley, No More Silence

June McCue, Ned’u’ten. Water is Life!

Judy Rebick, Author and Activist

Harsha Walia, Activist and Author

Anne Spice, Tlingit, CUNY Graduate Center

Maude Barlow

Stephen Lewis

Sheelah McLean Idle No More Organizer

Tony Wawatie, Interim Director General, Algonquins of Barriere Lake


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“Late-modern colonial occupation differs in many ways from early-modern
occupation, particularly in its combining of the disciplinary, the biopolitical, and
the necropolitical. The most accomplished form of necropower is the contemporary
colonial occupation of Palestine. 

Here, the colonial state derives its fundamental claim of sovereignty and legitimacy
from the authority of its own particular narrative of history and identity.
This narrative is itself underpinned by the idea that the state has a divine right to
exist; the narrative competes with another for the same sacred space. Because the
two narratives are incompatible and the two populations are inextricably intertwined,
any demarcation of the territory on the basis of pure identity is quasiimpossible.
Violence and sovereignty, in this case, claim a divine foundation:
peoplehood itself is forged by the worship of one deity, and national identity is
imagined as an identity against the Other, other deities. History, geography, cartography,
and archaeology are supposed to back these claims, thereby closely
binding identity and topography. As a consequence, colonial violence and occupation
are profoundly underwritten by the sacred terror of truth and exclusivity
(mass expulsions, resettlement of “stateless” people in refugee camps, settlement
of new colonies). Lying beneath the terror of the sacred is the constant excavation
of missing bones; the permanent remembrance of a torn body hewn in a
thousand pieces and never self-same; the limits, or better, the impossibility of
representing for oneself an “original crime,” an unspeakable death: the terror of
the Holocaust. 

To return to Fanon’s spatial reading of colonial occupation, the late-modern
colonial occupation in Gaza and the West Bank presents three major characteristics
in relation to the working of the specific terror formation I have called
necropower. First is the dynamics of territorial fragmentation, the sealing off and

expansion of settlements. The objective of this process is twofold: to render any
movement impossible and to implement separation along the model of the
apartheid state. The occupied territories are therefore divided into a web of intricate
internal borders and various isolated cells. According to Eyal Weizman, by
departing from a planar division of a territory and embracing a principle of creation
of three-dimensional boundaries across sovereign bulks, this dispersal and
segmentation clearly redefines the relationship between sovereignty and space.

For Weizman, these actions constitute “the politics of verticality.” The resultant
form of sovereignty might be called “vertical sovereignty.” Under a regime of
vertical sovereignty, colonial occupation operates through schemes of over- and
underpasses, a separation of the airspace from the ground. The ground itself is
divided between its crust and the subterrain. Colonial occupation is also dictated
by the very nature of the terrain and its topographical variations (hilltops and valleys,
mountains and bodies of water). Thus, high ground offers strategic assets
not found in the valleys (effectiveness of sight, self-protection, panoptic fortification
that generates gazes to many different ends). Says Weizman: “Settlements
could be seen as urban optical devices for surveillance and the exercise of power.”
Under conditions of late-modern colonial occupation, surveillance is both inwardand
outward-oriented, the eye acting as weapon and vice versa. Instead of the
conclusive division between two nations across a boundary line, “the organization
of the West Bank’s particular terrain has created multiple separations, provisional
boundaries, which relate to each other through surveillance and control,”
according to Weizman. Under these circumstances, colonial occupation is not
only akin to control, surveillance, and separation, it is also tantamount to seclusion.
It is a splintering occupation, along the lines of the splintering urbanism
characteristic of late modernity (suburban enclaves or gated communities).

From an infrastructural point of view, a splintering form of colonial occupation
is characterized by a network of fast bypass roads, bridges, and tunnels that
weave over and under one another in an attempt at maintaining the Fanonian
“principle of reciprocal exclusivity.” According to Weizman, “the bypass roads
attempt to separate Israeli traffic networks from Palestinian ones, preferably
without allowing them ever to cross. They therefore emphasize the overlapping
of two separate geographies that inhabit the same landscape. At points where the
networks do cross, a makeshift separation is created. Most often, small dust roads

are dug out to allow Palestinians to cross under the fast, wide highways on which
Israeli vans and military vehicles rush between settlements.” 

Under conditions of vertical sovereignty and splintering colonial occupation,
communities are separated across a y-axis. This leads to a proliferation of the
sites of violence. The battlegrounds are not located solely at the surface of the
earth. The underground as well as the airspace are transformed into conflict
zones. There is no continuity between the ground and the sky. Even the boundaries
in airspace are divided between lower and upper layers. Everywhere, the
symbolics of the top (who is on top) is reiterated. Occupation of the skies therefore
acquires a critical importance, since most of the policing is done from the air.
Various other technologies are mobilized to this effect: sensors aboard unmanned
air vehicles (UAVs), aerial reconnaissance jets, early warning Hawkeye planes,
assault helicopters, an Earth-observation satellite, techniques of “hologrammatization.”
Killing becomes precisely targeted. 

Such precision is combined with the tactics of medieval siege warfare adapted
to the networked sprawl of urban refugee camps. An orchestrated and systematic
sabotage of the enemy’s societal and urban infrastructure network complements
the appropriation of land, water, and airspace resources. Critical to these techniques
of disabling the enemy is bulldozing: demolishing houses and cities; uprooting
olive trees; riddling water tanks with bullets; bombing and jamming electronic
communications; digging up roads; destroying electricity transformers;
tearing up airport runways; disabling television and radio transmitters; smashing
computers; ransacking cultural and politico-bureaucratic symbols of the proto-Palestinian
state; looting medical equipment. In other words, infrastructural warfare. While the Apache helicopter gunship is used to police the air and to kill
from overhead, the armored bulldozer (the Caterpillar D-9) is used on the ground
as a weapon of war and intimidation. In contrast to early-modern colonial occupation,
these two weapons establish the superiority of high-tech tools of late-modern

 As the Palestinian case illustrates, late-modern colonial occupation is a concatenation
of multiple powers: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necropolitical. The

combination of the three allocates to the colonial power an absolute domination
over the inhabitants of the occupied territory. The state of siege is itself a military
institution. It allows a modality of killing that does not distinguish between the
external and the internal enemy. Entire populations are the target of the sovereign.
The besieged villages and towns are sealed off and cut off from the world.
Daily life is militarized. Freedom is given to local military commanders to use
their discretion as to when and whom to shoot. Movement between the territorial
cells requires formal permits. Local civil institutions are systematically destroyed.
The besieged population is deprived of their means of income. Invisible killing is
added to outright executions.”

–  Achille Mbembe, translated by Libby Meintjes, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 27-30.

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“Any historical account of the rise of modern terror needs to address slavery,
which could be considered one of the first instances of biopolitical experimentation.
In many respects, the very structure of the plantation system and its aftermath
manifests the emblematic and paradoxical figure of the state of exception. This figure is paradoxical here for two reasons. First, in the context of the plantation,
the humanity of the slave appears as the perfect figure of a shadow. Indeed,
the slave condition results from a triple loss: loss of a “home,” loss of rights over
his or her body, and loss of political status. This triple loss is identical with absolute
domination, natal alienation, and social death (expulsion from humanity altogether).
To be sure, as a political-juridical structure, the plantation is a space where the
slave belongs to a master. It is not a community if only because by definition, a
community implies the exercise of the power of speech and thought. As Paul
Gilroy says, “The extreme patterns of communication defined by the institution
of plantation slavery dictate that we recognize the anti-discursive and extralinguistic
ramifications of power at work in shaping communicative acts. There
may, after all, be no reciprocity on the plantation outside of the possibilities of
rebellion and suicide, flight and silent mourning, and there is certainly no grammatical
unity of speech to mediate communicative reason. In many respects, the
plantation inhabitants live non-synchronously.” As an instrument of labor, the
slave has a price. As a property, he or she has a value. His or her labor is needed
and used. The slave is therefore kept alive but in a state of injury, in a phantomlike
world of horrors and intense cruelty and profanity. The violent tenor of the
slave’s life is manifested through the overseer’s disposition to behave in a cruel
and intemperate manner and in the spectacle of pain inflicted on the slave’s

Violence, here, becomes an element in manners, like whipping or taking
of the slave’s life itself: an act of caprice and pure destruction aimed at instilling
terror. Slave life, in many ways, is a form of death-in-life. As Susan Buck
Morss has suggested, the slave condition produces a contradiction between freedom
of property and freedom of person. An unequal relationship is established
along with the inequality of the power over life. This power over the life of
another takes the form of commerce: a person’s humanity is dissolved to the point
where it becomes possible to say that the slave’s life is possessed by the master. Because the slave’s life is like a “thing,” possessed by another person, the slave
existence appears as a perfect figure of a shadow. 

In spite of the terror and the symbolic sealing off of the slave, he or she maintains
alternative perspectives toward time, work, and self. This is the second
paradoxical element of the plantation world as a manifestation of the state of
exception. Treated as if he or she no longer existed except as a mere tool and
instrument of production, the slave nevertheless is able to draw almost any object,
instrument, language, or gesture into a performance and then stylize it. Breaking
with uprootedness and the pure world of things of which he or she is but a fragment,
the slave is able to demonstrate the protean capabilities of the human bond
through music and the very body that was supposedly possessed by another. 

If the relations between life and death, the politics of cruelty, and the symbolics
of profanity are blurred in the plantation system, it is notably in the colony
and under the apartheid regime that there comes into being a peculiar terror formation
I will now turn to. The most original feature of this terror formation is
its concatenation of biopower, the state of exception, and the state of siege. Crucial
to this concatenation is, once again, race. In fact, in most instances, the selection of races, the prohibition of mixed marriages, forced sterilization, even
the extermination of vanquished peoples are to find their first testing ground in
the colonial world. Here we see the first syntheses between massacre and bureaucracy,
that incarnation of Western rationality. Arendt develops the thesis that
there is a link between national-socialism and traditional imperialism. According
to her, the colonial conquest revealed a potential for violence previously unknown.
What one witnesses in World War II is the extension to the “civilized” peoples of
Europe of the methods previously reserved for the “savages.” 

That the technologies which ended up producing Nazism should have originated
in the plantation or in the colony or that, on the contrary—Foucault’s thesis—Nazism
and Stalinism did no more than amplify a series of mechanisms that
already existed in Western European social and political formations (subjugation
of the body, health regulations, social Darwinism, eugenics, medico-legal theories
on heredity, degeneration, and race) is, in the end, irrelevant. A fact remains,
though: in modern philosophical thought and European political practice and
imaginary, the colony represents the site where sovereignty consists fundamentally
in the exercise of a power outside the law (ab legibus solutus) and where
“peace” is more likely to take on the face of a “war without end.” 

Indeed, such a view corresponds to Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty at
the beginning of the twentieth century, namely, the power to decide on the state of
exception. To properly assess the efficacy of the colony as a formation of terror,
we need to take a detour into the European imaginary itself as it relates to the critical
issue of the domestication of war and the creation of a European juridical
order (Jus publicum Europaeum). At the basis of this order were two key principles.
The first postulated the juridical equality of all states. This equality was
notably applied to the right to wage war (the taking of life). The right to war meant
two things. On the one hand, to kill or to conclude peace was recognized as one of
the preeminent functions of any state. It went hand in hand with the recognition
of the fact that no state could make claims to rule outside of its borders. But conversely,
the state could recognize no authority above it within its own borders. On
the other hand, the state, for its part, undertook to “civilize” the ways of killing
and to attribute rational objectives to the very act of killing.
The second principle related to the territorialization of the sovereign state, that
is, to the determination of its frontiers within the context of a newly imposed
global order. In this context, the Jus publicum rapidly assumed the form of a distinction
between, on the one hand, those parts of the globe available for colonial appropriation and, on the other, Europe itself (where the Jus publicum was to
hold sway). This distinction, as we will see, is crucial in terms of assessing the
efficacy of the colony as a terror formation. Under Jus publicum, a legitimate war
is, to a large extent, a war conducted by one state against another or, more precisely,
a war between “civilized” states. The centrality of the state in the calculus
of war derives from the fact that the state is the model of political unity, a principle
of rational organization, the embodiment of the idea of the universal, and a
moral sign.

In the same context, colonies are similar to the frontiers. They are inhabited by
“savages.” The colonies are not organized in a state form and have not created a
human world. Their armies do not form a distinct entity, and their wars are not
wars between regular armies. They do not imply the mobilization of sovereign
subjects (citizens) who respect each other as enemies. They do not establish a distinction
between combatants and noncombatants, or again between an “enemy”
and a “criminal.” It is thus impossible to conclude peace with them. In sum,
colonies are zones in which war and disorder, internal and external figures of the
political, stand side by side or alternate with each other. As such, the colonies are
the location par excellence where the controls and guarantees of judicial order
can be suspended—the zone where the violence of the state of exception is
deemed to operate in the service of “civilization.” 

That colonies might be ruled over in absolute lawlessness stems from the
racial denial of any common bond between the conqueror and the native. In the
eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life, a horrifying
experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension. In fact, according
to Arendt, what makes the savages different from other human beings is less
the color of their skin than the fear that they behave like a part of nature, that
they treat nature as their undisputed master. Nature thus remains, in all its majesty,
an overwhelming reality compared to which they appear to be phantoms, unreal
and ghostlike. The savages are, as it were, “natural” human beings who lack the
specifically human character, the specifically human reality, “so that when European
men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed

For all the above reasons, the sovereign right to kill is not subject to any rule
in the colonies. In the colonies, the sovereign might kill at any time or in any
manner. Colonial warfare is not subject to legal and institutional rules. It is not a
legally codified activity. Instead, colonial terror constantly intertwines with colonially
generated fantasies of wilderness and death and fictions to create the effect
of the real. Peace is not necessarily the natural outcome of a colonial war. In
fact, the distinction between war and peace does not avail. Colonial wars are conceived
of as the expression of an absolute hostility that sets the conqueror against
an absolute enemy. All manifestations of war and hostility that had been marginalized
by a European legal imaginary find a place to reemerge in the colonies.
Here, the fiction of a distinction between “the ends of war” and the “means of
war” collapses; so does the fiction that war functions as a rule-governed contest,
as opposed to pure slaughter without risk or instrumental justification. It becomes
futile, therefore, to attempt to resolve one of the intractable paradoxes of war
well captured by Alexandre Kojève in his reinterpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology
of the Spirit
: its simultaneous idealism and apparent inhumanity.”

– Achille Mbembe, translated by Libby Meintjes, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 21-25.

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“This strongly normative reading of the politics of sovereignty has been the object of numerous critiques, which I will not rehearse here. My concern is
those figures of sovereignty whose central project is not the struggle for autonomy
but the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material
destruction of human bodies and populations.
Such figures of sovereignty are far
from a piece of prodigious insanity or an expression of a rupture between the
impulses and interests of the body and those of the mind. Indeed, they, like the
death camps, are what constitute the nomos of the political space in which we
still live. Furthermore, contemporary experiences of human destruction suggest
that it is possible to develop a reading of politics, sovereignty, and the subject different
from the one we inherited from the philosophical discourse of modernity.
Instead of considering reason as the truth of the subject, we can look to other
foundational categories that are less abstract and more tactile, such as life and

Significant for such a project is Hegel’s discussion of the relation between
death and the “becoming subject.” Hegel’s account of death centers on a bipartite
concept of negativity. First, the human negates nature (a negation exteriorized in
the human’s effort to reduce nature to his or her own needs); and second, he or
she transforms the negated element through work and struggle. In transforming
nature, the human being creates a world; but in the process, he or she also is
exposed to his or her own negativity. Within the Hegelian paradigm, human
death is essentially voluntary. It is the result of risks consciously assumed by the

According to Hegel, in these risks the “animal” that constitutes the human
subject’s natural being is defeated.
In other words, the human being truly becomes a subject—that is, separated
from the animal—in the struggle and the work through which he or she confronts
death (understood as the violence of negativity). It is through this confrontation
with death that he or she is cast into the incessant movement of history.
Becoming subject therefore supposes upholding the work of death. To uphold the
work of death is precisely how Hegel defines the life of the Spirit. The life of the
Spirit, he says, is not that life which is frightened of death, and spares itself
destruction, but that life which assumes death and lives with it. Spirit attains its
truth only by finding itself in absolute dismemberment. Politics is therefore

death that lives a human life. Such, too, is the definition of absolute knowledge
and sovereignty: risking the entirety of one’s life. 

Georges Bataille also offers critical insights into how death structures the idea
of sovereignty, the political, and the subject. Bataille displaces Hegel’s conception
of the linkages between death, sovereignty, and the subject in at least three
ways. First, he interprets death and sovereignty as the paroxysm of exchange and
superabundance—or, to use his own terminology: excess. For Bataille, life is
defective only when death has taken it hostage. Life itself exists only in bursts
and in exchange with death. He argues that death is the putrefaction of life, the
stench that is at once the source and the repulsive condition of life. Therefore,
although it destroys what was to be, obliterates what was supposed to continue
being, and reduces to nothing the individual who takes it, death does not come
down to the pure annihilation of being. Rather, it is essentially self-consciousness;
moreover, it is the most luxurious form of life, that is, of effusion and exuberance:
a power of proliferation. Even more radically, Bataille withdraws death
from the horizon of meaning. This is in contrast to Hegel, for whom nothing is
definitively lost in death; indeed, death is seen as holding great signification as a
means to truth. 

Second, Bataille firmly anchors death in the realm of absolute expenditure (the
other characteristic of sovereignty), whereas Hegel tries to keep death within the
economy of absolute knowledge and meaning. Life beyond utility, says Bataille,
is the domain of sovereignty. This being the case, death is therefore the point at
which destruction, suppression, and sacrifice constitute so irreversible and radical
an expenditure—an expenditure without reserve—that they can no longer be
determined as negativity. Death is therefore the very principle of excess—an
. Hence the metaphor of luxury and of the luxurious character of

Third, Bataille establishes a correlation among death, sovereignty, and sexuality.
Sexuality is inextricably linked to violence and to the dissolution of the
boundaries of the body and self by way of orgiastic and excremental impulses. As
such, sexuality concerns two major forms of polarized human impulses—excretion
and appropriation—as well as the regime of the taboos surrounding them. The truth of sex and its deadly attributes reside in the experience of loss of the
boundaries separating reality, events, and fantasized objects.

For Bataille, sovereignty therefore has many forms. But ultimately it is the
refusal to accept the limits that the fear of death would have the subject respect.
The sovereign world, Bataille argues, “is the world in which the limit of death is
done away with. Death is present in it, its presence defines that world of violence,
but while death is present it is always there only to be negated, never for anything
but that. The sovereign,” he concludes, “is he who is, as if death were not… . He
has no more regard for the limits of identity than he does for limits of death, or
rather these limits are the same; he is the transgression of all such limits.” Since
the natural domain of prohibitions includes death, among others (e.g., sexuality,
filth, excrement), sovereignty requires “the strength to violate the prohibition
against killing, although it’s true this will be under the conditions that customs
define.” And contrary to subordination that is always rooted in necessity and the
alleged need to avoid death, sovereignty definitely calls for the risk of death. 

By treating sovereignty as the violation of prohibitions, Bataille reopens the
question of the limits of the political. Politics, in this case, is not the forward
dialectical movement of reason. Politics can only be traced as a spiral transgression,
as that difference that disorients the very idea of the limit. More specifically,
politics is the difference put into play by the violation of a taboo.”



Mbembe, translated by Libby Meintjes, “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 13-16.

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“The fragile, quivering mass of Earth is not in such concentrated focus as it was when those images from space first came to us. Cosmic scenes that captivate and circulate online are high-definition, high-quality images of very, very far away, usually made available directly from NASA. On Twitter, you could follow the last moments of the great content creator Cassini, which sent back pics from its journey to the outer limits and then was thrown onto the surface of Saturn. One of my favorite accounts sends out close-up images of Martian textures, @BitsofMars. But on other accounts, in other stories, we see half the earth burning, another part drowning. When we avert our gaze to outer space, it is all color-corrected wonder, blissfully bereft of context or history.

As global disaster spreads and becomes more widely visible, missions to take humans to space become more prevalent, more appealing. Every time an exoplanet with a certain biological signature is noted, there’s a brief spike in press rekindling the idea that people might be able to start anew somewhere else. How many times a year do we see and perhaps circulate a story of some newly discovered Earth-like exoplanet?

It’s not just the drive of wonder. It’s the panic. The panic of sitting on a world on fire, yes, but also the panic to make a profit. This is speculation; there is a return. There’s always a newer world waiting.

In 1893, Frederick Turner announced the frontier of the American West closed. This suture in the flow of national expansion would be an originary wound for American democracy in its rugged rite of passage. Turner of course was wrong, as many historians have contended for decades. The frontier never closes. Not in California, not in the 19th century. If it isn’t the West, it’s the moon, then cyberspace, then Mars. The frontiers do not close but rather lap over each other like waves where people and capital crash and flow.

It seems cliché that the tech and space industries would be located primarily in the West. Silicon Valley could only ever have been in California, just as Spaceport America seemed manifestly destined for location outside the town Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. These Western territories have been continuously opened up for further privatization and expansion in world-warping acts of violence made invisible by the making of a supposedly better new world. It is not only that capitalism and colonialism need new spaces to expropriate; these processes also always require a future on which to speculate. At the precipice of one receding frontier, they find another one to ride.

The word pioneer, usually attached to innovation, is never too far from people like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or Peter Thiel. These men’s careers in tech startups, their origins in the digital commerce boom, and their pioneer identities were forged on the electronic frontier. Like pioneers of industry in the colonial expansion of the Americas, these men operate on the knife’s edge of sovereignty as it cuts a path for both state and capital to consolidate power. In space, these men see a chance to loosen further the bonds that still restrain the endless capital they’ve been chasing in their imagined rocket ships. Investors, architects of the financial and material future, have taken to using the term “NewSpace” to refer to the almost accessible ventures of asteroid mining, space shipping, spaceship travel, and other forms of space commerce.

Still, there are minor contractual obstacles. Even at the void’s edge, there is a treaty. A couple of treaties actually. Out there the governments still rely on these dusty remnants of the dying beast of nation-state sovereignty and the apparatuses of international relations first created to aid and abet the global distribution of white men’s control. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which has a more precise formal name — Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — may seem surprisingly benevolent. It is sometimes summarized as saying that nobody can own space. But while it outlaws national appropriation, it allows incorporation without the state.

In a demotion from the sensual feel of its phrasing, “celestial bodies” become the body politic, managed sites of bans and requirements. While the U.S. did sign the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, it did not sign the 1979 Moon Treaty,more formally known as the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. The Moon Treaty, among other directives, bans any state from claiming sovereignty over any territory of celestial bodies; bans any ownership of any extraterrestrial property by any organization or person, unless that organization is international and governmental; and requires an international regime be set up to ensure safe and orderly development and management of the resources and sharing of the benefits from them. It also bans military activity such as weapons testing or the founding of extraterrestrial military bases (though it’s hard to see U.S. presence anywhere in the stars or on Earth as anything other than militaristic).

Evoking the common heritage of “mankind,” the Moon Treaty could appear a pie-in-the-sky attempt at more equitable relations to land than have been established on Earth since the advent of private property and national borders. But it is of course expressed only in the stop-gap measure of treaties that assign power to states, governments, and resource-management regimes. The power of the treaty is in its possible revoking. In making the decision to sign the treaty or not sign the treaty, the collectives state their unquestioned right to make decisions in space at all.

Space is a place where old and new sovereignties, like asteroids desired for mining, are colliding or sometimes colluding. There is a line connecting the Dutch East India Company, the Hudson Bay Company, and SpaceX. These companies begin as corporate endeavors, but then as now the nation-state is sticky: It finds a way to adhere. Take the case of Luxembourg, a polity that lives on tax loopholes (allowing large corporations to move money in and out of the nation with utmost secrecy and minimal charges) where, as Atossa Araxia Abrahamian reports for the Guardian, private space companies are finding their funding allies for financed trips to the moon, Mars, and the interstellar spots for satellites. The mixing of business and research mixes the money and power hungering of technocrats who don’t just want to own businesses but want people to see their businesses as the shareholders of humanity’s future.

In middle school we didn’t have model U.N., but we did have model Earth. For field trips we’d be taken away to Biosphere 2, a site for space-colonization experiments built by Space Biosphere Ventures but owned by Columbia University by the time I visited. In these field trips to the desert outside a town auspiciously named Oracle, we walked around the display vivarium, always being reminded to call it biosphere two — biosphere one was the earth outside, the one we had momentarily left behind and one day might leave behind for good. That old planet was a past prototype. But the new prototype was itself already a defunct research facility. The closed-system experiment with human subjects had failed twice in the ’90s, and it now rests as one of the many dreams littering the desert of a new world.

When a world is new, it creates alongside a space held for the older worlds. This is the drama between what can be brought from before and what will be made anew. It is why Aeneas carried his dying father Anchises on his shoulders out of Troy on his way to found Rome. The traveler always brings baggage. Jeff Bezos would like to be the one who carries that baggage to space or controls the robots and poorly paid temporary laborers who accomplish the carrying. In this supposedly new space, the regimes of inequality will be quite familiar. The space-goers insist it is something called humanity, with the ingrained hierarchical legacies of this category, that will be going.

Leaders in industry who have always wanted to be world leaders are now positioning themselves as leaders of outer worlds. Elon Musk makes union busting seem like a cosmic necessity for the continuation of human life. The material and subsequent cultural valorization of certain kinds of work in the tech industry, wherein the “great minds” make all the money and those who maintain the machinery of day-to-day existence are treated like the shit they’re supposed to take, does not end at the stratosphere.

Even the more lofty moral considerations of outer-space ethics (e.g., is terraforming ever morally acceptable?) often ignore their fundamental basis in deathly processes still very much situated on Earth. Any outer-space endeavor today or in the near future will be an extension of the life-destroying capacities of capitalists and their colonial countries. On the Deep Space Industries page for asteroid mining, the exploitation and extraction of minerals is heralded as “an unlimited future for all mankind.” The endless extension of capitalist accumulation comes with an extension of this delusion of “all mankind.” As if all such projects, the project of humanity itself, has not always been an exclusionary one.

SETI may appear to inhabit a different realm of speculation than that of the grandstanding services-and-commodities pioneers. But its project also follows a willful ignorance about human history and the exclusions that make humanity as a class possible. SETI proponents, much like Musk and his ilk, view themselves at the forefront of a new breakthrough not necessarily of capital but of knowledge. Their sites of expansion are not centered so much on the territories capital requires in order to enclose, privatize, and extract until depletion (though they can be intimately connected, as in the development of the university and research centers as global actors of dispossession), but on sites of encounter. Outer-space commerce and funded extraterrestrial contact-seekers operate on and reinforce damaging notions of land, life, and the future that actually hinder the survival of most Earth dwellers rather than provide anything like meaningful hope.”

– Lou Cornum, “Event Horizon.” Real Life, March 12, 2018.

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