Biopolitics

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In the work of Slavoj Žižek

It is important to consider how, for Žižek, we enter the domain of politics only by acknowledging that – to use Jacques Lacan’s well-known formula – “the big Other does not exist”. Th e space of politics, in other words, is grounded in a substantial gap whose political function is to disrupt, indeed tear apart, the illusory positivity of any social order. One does not understand Žižek’s politics if one misses the dialectical paradox at its heart, whereby politics itself is conceived as split between its ontic domain, constitutive of the social, and the ontological lack that sustains it. Crucial for Žižek’s leftist engagement is to hold on to this externality of politics to itself, which he derives from both Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The structure of the Žižekian concept of politics is therefore that of a parallax: if from one angle it appears concerned with the conflicts and compromises that make up our social arena, a small perspectival shift reveals it as an abyssal gap undermining the very framework of the social. More specifically, a political event “emerges ex nihilo … it attaches itself precisely to the Void of every situation, to its inherent inconsistency and/or excess” (TS: 130). The ground suddenly opens up under our feet, and only then do we truly experience what politics is.

Ultimately, from Žižek’s Hegelo-Lacanian point of view, the space of the political is primarily the “zero-level of politics, a pre-political ‘transcendental’ condition of the possibility of politics, a gap which opens up the space for the political act to intervene in, a gap which is saturated by the political effort to impose a new order” (LN: 963). Th ere is no politics without the awareness that the political struggle takes place against the backdrop of its own self-relating negativity, which constitutes its pulsating heart. The substance of politics is a paradoxical “lack to itself”, the emptiness of the place where it erects its own meanings.

Only after grasping Žižek’s radical take on politics can we evaluate his critical understanding of biopolitics. In a sense, the task in hand involves answering a straightforward question: can biopolitics think (dialectically) the substantial void that qualifies Žižek’s notion of politics? Before tackling this question, let us say that Žižek agrees with Michel Foucault’s well-known definition of biopolitics as the modern exercise of power through the administration of human life, which marked a major historical shift from the sovereign’s absolute power over the life and death of his subordinates. Indeed, Žižek often labels biopolitics “post-politics” in order to describe the anodyne vacuity of today’s liberal-democratic consensus. What “post-political biopolitics” is responsible for is precisely the bypassing of the political. If this is Žižek’s basic stance, there are further twists in his discussion of biopolitics. Th e best way to summarize them involves making a distinction between two contemporary approaches to biopolitics. If with Foucault there remained a fundamental ambiguity with regard to its use, in contemporary philosophy we can distinguish between a negative and a positive application of the term. Negative biopolitics emphasizes the deleterious effects of biopower and is best represented by the figure of Giorgio Agamben. Positive biopolitics embraces the politically progressive potential of our biopolitical horizon and is championed by thinkers like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. These different approaches embody, no doubt, two extreme poles in the complex universe of biopolitical thought. Yet, precisely as theoretical positions, they are the most representative of the entire field, and as such are often referred to by Žižek.

Considering that, as we have seen, Žižek’s thought is sustained by the conviction that negativity, in its dialectical role, retains ontological primacy over any affirmative order of being, it follows that positive biopolitics is looked at rather unsympathetically by him, to the extent that he rejects the theoretical and political edifice on which Hardt and Negri articulate their postmodern Marxist critique of capitalism by singing the praises of immaterial or cognitive labour as, supposedly, already delivered from capitalist exploitative dynamics. Žižek discards the argument that, in today’s capitalism, the hegemonic role of immaterial over material labour produces new forms of life, a biopolitical multitude of intellectual, affective and ultimately social relations that, in principle, already constitute the basis for the exercise of an “absolute democracy” beyond capital. He argues that by celebrating the disruptive potential of global capitalism, Hardt and Negri repeat the error made by Marx (and many of his followers), who believed that the productive spiral of capitalism needed only to be corrected via the elimination of profit for free and full productivity (communism) to be unleashed (this is Žižek’s well-rehearsed theme of “communism as a capitalist fantasy”; see OWB: 19). Interestingly, to this biopolitical faith in the intrinsically liberating quality of cognitive labour (adapted from Marx’s much-celebrated “general intellect” fragment in the Grundrisse), Žižek opposes today’s figure of the unemployed as “pure proletarian”: “the substantial determination of an unemployed person remains that of a worker, but he or she is prevented from either actualizing or renouncing it, so he or she remains suspended in the potentiality of a worker who cannot work” (RG: 291).

What is striking about Žižek’s point is its unmistakable Agambenian flavour. Arguably, the biopolitical figure that is closer to Žižek’s theory is Agamben’s homo sacer – the individual stripped of their rights and reduced to “bare life” – in so far as it embodies Žižek’s central theme of “substanceless subjectivity” (or, what is the same thing, Lacan’s notion of the barred subject, emptied of all pathological content). The radicality of Agamben’s notion of homo sacer, Žižek contends, needs to be defended from “liberal gentrifications”, since one should draw the conclusion that, ultimately, we are all homines sacri (DR: 100–102). In political terms, Žižek can only agree with Agamben that the law by definition implies exclusion: bìos (political life) produces zoé (bare life). This dialectic of exclusion is wholly subscribed to by Žižek. In fact, it is embedded in his understanding of the Hegelian dialectic understood as secreting, and hinging on, a “non-digestible” (excluded) remainder, as well as in the Lacanian dichotomy between the Symbolic and the Real.

More generally, Žižek endorses Agamben’s insight into the necessity of a disjunctive gesture rather than a synthetic one (PV: 299). In fact, whenever Agamben attempts to move beyond the primacy of the negative by embracing a Benjaminian-type messianism, Žižek raises questions. When Agamben adumbrates the possibility of untying the knot of Law and violence (or Law and exclusion) Žižek comments that this utopian messianic scenario has already been co-opted by capitalist ideology, in the form of either a globalized reflexivity unable to generate change, or explosions of psychotic violence at the level of everyday reality (PV: 303). More generally, and also in relation to Hardt and Negri’s politics, Žižek is critical of biopolitics’ attempts to posit the sustainability of the modality of “subtracted subjectivity” vis-à-vis the various forms of biopower. Žižek finds this belief in the autonomy of subtraction both politically naive and theoretically unsound. What biopolitical thought tends to miss is that the subtractive contraction from the One of Law and its exceptions cannot seamlessly engender a new singularized “we”, a new disalienated communitarian identity not sustained by a master-signifier. Žižek therefore holds on to the proper paradox of Lacanian psychoanalysis, which can be summarized as follows: although the big Other does not exist, it needs to be presupposed if there is to be a minimum of social interaction, of community. The attempts to think biopolitics beyond the gesture of negative contraction tend to ignore the necessity of alienation in the big Other. This scepticism prefigures Žižek’s deeper concern with biopolitics’ inability to place capitalist exploitation at the heart of its theoretical paradigm.

Despite his endorsement of Agamben’s focus on exclusion, Žižek is adamant that biopolitics as such, including Foucault’s and Agamben’s versions, remains unsatisfactory as a critical theory of society, for it misses the crucial Marxist accent on economic exploitation. He makes this point explicitly in Less Than Nothing, when he states (quoting also from Fredric Jameson):
The theories of Foucault and Agamben are insufficient: all their detailed elaborations of the regulatory power mechanisms of domination, all the wealth of notions such as the excluded, bare life, homo sacer, etc., must be grounded in (or mediated by) the centrality of exploitation; without this reference to the economic, the fight against domination remains “an essentially moral and ethical one, which leads to punctual revolts and acts of resistance rather than to the transformation of the mode of production as such” – the positive program of such “ideologies of power” is generally one of some type of “direct” democracy. The outcome of the emphasis on domination is a democratic program, while the outcome of the emphasis on exploitation is a communist program … What this [biopolitical] notion of domination fails to register is that only in capitalism is exploitation naturalized, inscribed into the functioning of the economy. (PV: 1003–1004)
Žižek therefore laments the politically insipid and defeatist attitude of biopolitical thought, inasmuch as it is concerned with the generic notion of “sovereign power” rather than “capitalist power”.

As anticipated, Žižek agrees with the basic coordinates of the biopolitical discourse and its critique of the logic of domination. Today’s ideological constellation, for him, is definitely biopolitical. We are told that the goal of our lives must be wellbeing, with as few shocks as possible, to the extent that we treat ourselves as objects of biopolitical regulation, as the affirmation of the new narcissistic subject bent on self-realization confirms. Crucially, however, Žižek claims that “this Janus-faced biopolitical logic of domination is itself only one of the two aspects of the University discourse as the hegemonic discourse of modernity”. If, as Žižek suggests, biopolitics coincides with what Lacan named the discourse of the University, namely “the direct rule of experts legitimized by their knowledge”, which undermines the discourse of the Master, at the same time Lacan’s formula captures the rule of capital. One needs therefore to distinguish between the logic of domination exposed by biopolitics as “bureaucratic “totalitarianism”, as the rule of technology, of instrumental reason, of biopolitics, as the “administered world”, and the capitalist matrix characterized by the incessant production and re-appropriation of that excess called surplus value. These two aspects are “ultimately incompatible”, for our biopolitical horizon cannot encompass the capitalist matrix: “We should not succumb to the temptation of reducing capitalism to a mere form of appearance of the more fundamental ontological attitude of technological domination” (PV: 297–8). Th is caution is, indeed, the key to grasping Žižek’s critique of the limit of the biopolitical discourse.

From a purely political perspective, this limit can be described, Žižek tells us, as the inability to politicize the growing masses of excluded subjects as the locus of universality. Th is is a theme he often presents through the old Leninist topos of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (where “proletariat” is used as a generic name for the “out-of-joint” class, which today is actually embodied by the lumpenproletariat) as the only way to break with the hegemony of the biopolitical (LC: 413–19), in so far as the latter coincides with the political horizon tout court, whether as a critical or affirmative paradigm:
Bio-politics includes the brutal forms of regimentation that exist in our world as well as the desire to prevent human suffering. The old leftist paradigms of the communist and social democratic welfare states are lost … A more radical emancipatory leftist way of thinking and acting needs to be reinvented. And this is what one should struggle for today. (Eikmeyer 2007)
As we have seen, this stance is consistent with Žižek’s theory (derived both from Hegel and Lacan), in so far as it posits the “ontological primacy of the remainder” (substanceless subjectivity, self-relating negativity, etc.) qua empty place of the inscription of a given symbolic order of meaning.