Yesterday I was having an epistolary exchange with my friend, Philippe Theophanidis about a few notions that are examined in his forthcoming text for the Funambulist Papers series. In his text, Philippe remarks that biopolitical systems are not only organizing and acting on the life of its subjects, it also involves what he calls “a work of death.” By this, he does not mean the same thing that what Michel Foucault designates as being the pre-modern paradigm (before the 18th century), in which a sovereign has the absolute power of life and death of his (her) subjects. Death in a biopolitical regime should be understood, not as an event, but rather as a continuous process. We can take Xavier Bichat‘s definition of life that I gave several times in my articles, “life is the set of functions that resists to death,” and conclude its implicit corollary: death is the continuous process that life needs to function against. In other words, death is an always active entropic operation on the totality of the bodies that composes the world.
Starting from this definition, we can understand that the speed of the process of death of our own body as an assemblage of multiple entities (see past article) can be influenced by external agents. It cannot be stop, and therefore there is no immortality possible as a definitive status; however, it can be decelerated as the work of Arakawa and Madeline Gins (see the fifteen articles already dedicated to their work) attempt to do through architecture. That is how I interpret how they call the action that they try to have each body accomplishing continuously: “not dying” i.e. resisting to death i.e. living. The state that we call “healthy” is not constituted by the absence of action of death, but rather by the active sync of our body’s biology with the one of its environment. As Georges Canguilhem says in the conclusion of The Normal and the Pathological (1966), “Man is healthy insofar as he is normative relative to the fluctuations of his milieu.”
The inverse is also true: it is possible to accelerate the death process — let’s symply call it death once and for all — and we can call the totality of elements that can participate to it, toxicity. We should understand toxic or poison in a Spinozist manner here (see past article): a disharmonious relation between our body and an external entity to keep it simply. In that case, there is no such thing as an essential toxicity. One thing is always toxic in relation to another; — that is something that should be clearly stated in ecological theory — however, we can understand that there are some things that are toxic to the totality of humans and, for this reason, a political organization of the means of acceleration of death can be implemented.
Whether we call it bio(life)political or thanato(death)political organization, we do not necessarily have to understand it through its extreme, like in the tragic case that is currently unfolding in Syria with the use of chemical weapons on civilians, or with the example of the tear gas that Philippe has chosen to focus on in his own text. The problematic choice of the production of energy for an entire civilization — a biopolitical choice par excellence since the way we live is almost entirely dependent on it — can be illustrative of it too. Carbon power plants are known to be toxic for humans; however nuclear accidents like the ones in Chernobyl or Fukushima have the potentiality to (transparently) modify the molecular composition of an extremely large (atmospheric, telluric and aquatic) milieu into a highly toxic milieu for humans and other forms of life — although not all of them, hence the relativity of what can be considered toxic. As Canguilhem points out, the disease that results from this toxic milieu that accelerate death in a body is not death at work itself, but rather the body’s defense mechanisms operating to resist to it:
Disease is not simply disequilibrium or discordance; it is, and perhaps most important, an effort on the part of nature to effect a new equilibrium in a man. Disease is a generalized reaction designed to bring about a cure; the organism develops a disease in order to get well. (Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, trans Carolyn R. Fawcett, New York: Zone Books, 1991. 40), also quoted in another past article.
Thanatopolitics are also operating in the calculus of food production. The debate the question of transgenicity is illustrative of it, but so are the other means of massive agriculture: machines, fertilizers, cattle’s life conditions etc. Each decision made for this matter has an impact on the acceleration or deceleration of death for this given system’s subjects. Of course, here as well, it is not as simple as simply reducing the agricultural production pace, and the recent shift from fields dedicated to food production to ecological fuel production is known to have heavy consequences on the world’s famine.
A last realm in which thanatopolitics are actively operating is the one of sexuality and reproduction. As described several times here, someone like Beatriz Preciado defines the biopolitical regime as a pharmacopornographic one (see past article): one in which sexuality as a social process of normalization is organized through a performative regime associated to the production of drugs. The contraceptive pill is, for her/him, the paradigmatic designed object of such a regime: voluntarily ingested — it therefore requires a culture that comes with it — it regulates a variety of hormones of the female body — the extents of its effects, and therefore its toxicity is still not clear yet — while insuring a political strategy of demographic control by preventing the species’s reproduction. Here again, this example is problematic as the contraceptive pill has also allowed female sexuality to be dissociated from the social constraining role of reproductive operation.
In conclusion, thanatopolitics should not be considered as morally reprehensible since death is, as expressed above, a continuous and inevitable entropic process: for this reason there cannot be biopolitics and biopower without thanatopolitics and thanatopower. However, the various deliberate influence on the speed of death, whether they constitute a deceleration or an acceleration, are to be debated and responsibilized by those on who such process is applied. This debate is the core of an operative democracy of bodies.