Filed under: Mexico, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: Agamben, Biopolitics, fascism, Health, Mexico, Security, State Power
The recent eruption of swine flu that ignited in Mexico has provoked a massive global response on the part of governments. In turn, it has prompted reflection here at tirado/thrown on biopolitics. The surrepetituiously unfolding events afforded an object lesson in how biopolitics, state power, government, and everyday life intersect. The phenomenon’s global scale makes this is an interesting case to examine how the administration of biopower effects social and political life.
Governments and public health ministries the world over are mobilizing at a frenzied clip. Mexico, Spain, the United States, New Zealand, Germany, China were at the vanguard of a growing list. At least in Mexico, the epidemiological situation was (and remains to be) treated as a state of exception. There, President Felipe Calderon issued a decree giving government expanded powers defined only by a vague reference to the epidemiological emergency. Surrounded by relativlely anodyne general public health policy directives, the decree’s second article grants the government powers to:
- isolate and limit the movements and activities of infected people,
- inspect passengers who “may be viral carriers”,
- enter “all type of place or dwelling house for the fulfillment of activities directed to controlling and combatting the epidemic”,
- regulate maritime, air, and ground transport, as well as giving government free use the means of transport and exchange, including, roads, telecommunications, and the mail.
Moreover, the terms of the decree are indefinite. The decree offers no criteria for defining what resolves the crisis other than a tautological one. That is, only the government could declare the crisis resolved, without stating (or even having to state) what a return to a non-exceptional situation would entail.
Legal scholar John Ackerman of Mexico City’s Universidad Autonoma Nacional de Mexico (UNAM) has already pointed out how the government of Felipe Calderon is resorting to the state of exception as an unconstitutional means to strengthen his grip on power and to extend his capacity to declare a state of emergency without legislative consent. Ackerman writes that “[Calderon's] response to the flu epidemic only exacerbates” the “authoritarian tendencies” he has shown in Mexico’s current campaign against the narcotics cartels.**
In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (which controls immigration and customs agencies), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been at the forefront of the American response to the outbreaks, highlighting the biopolitical nexus between governmental power, national security, and public health. As of yet, no generalized state of emergency in the United States has been invoked for the government’s assumption of extraordinary powers.
…the fear is changing our lives in dramatic ways.
Mexico City prides itself on holding strongly to its social customs, despite the arrival of American-style Wal-Marts and Starbucks. But suddenly, Mass was canceled. Soccer matches were played to empty stadiums. Suddenly, the bars and clubs shut down. And suddenly, that warm customary greeting of a handshake and a kiss on the check was replaced with a friendly yet uneasy nod.
A culture built on physical contact has become a culture muted by fear, by suspicion, a distrust of others and even ourselves.
What has changed, and we will wait to find out how permanently, are the gestures which are our unmarketable political currency bearing the truth of our lives together. In their being gagged, arrested, and halted, we also notice how now (temporarily) absent gestures shaped a form of life, politics is now suspended by decree.
Just as interesting, and perhaps no less coincidental in this case, has been the general public response to the outbreak: the donning of surgical masks. While not an unusual device to use when airborne pathogens proliferate, the surgical masks’ rapid and widespread use alongside the state’s alacrity in regulating life on a mass scale for public safety gives an occasion to reflect on the ties binding a sovereign authority to the citizens it subjects to its power.
Masks render faces opaque and impenetrable. The swatches of sterile fabric covering the nose and mouth make expressions more inscrutable, more difficult to decode. They also inhibit the act of communication. Fear and distrust are further heightened by ambiguously peering eyes that show the absence of otherwise more full and radiant expressions. The masquerade seems to make our presence to each all the more obscure. In the manner of a photographic negative or an x-ray, the masks illuminate the how the faces they cover are the locus of the truth of ourselves. Giorgio Agamben notes in Means Without End,
Language…transforms nature into face… The face is at once the irreparable being-exposed of humans and the very opening in which they hide and stay hidden. The face is the only location of community, the only possible city. And that is because that which in single individuals opens up to the political is the tragicomedy of truth, in which they always already fall and out of which they have to find a way…
We may call tragicomedy of appearance the fact that the face uncovers only and precisely inasmuch as it hides, and hides to the extent to which it uncovers… Precisely because the face is solely the location of truth, it is also and immediately the location of simulation and of an irreducible impropriety. This does not mean, however, that appearance dissimulates what it uncovers by making it look lke what in reality it is not: rather, what human beings truly are is nothing other than this dissimuliation and this disquietude within the appearance…
State power today is no longer grounded on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence…rather it is founded above all on the control of appearance (of doxa).
The state’s issuing of masks to cover faces becomes, then, an accidental, though no less important, metaphor for the glory of state’s reign: the de-politicization of citizens and the production of bare life by quaratine and separation. Gestures and faces alike are blocked; politics and truth are potentially suppressed, in part through the control of their appearances. These are among the political dimensions of the crisis worth adverting to.
Images: Felipe Calderon speaking at hospital opening, April 25, 2009, photo by Alfredo Guerrero, Latin American Herald Tribune; Our dear Citoyen du Monde riding the first wave out in DF; David De la Paz, Xinhua.
**tirado/thrown highly recommends the near-daily coverage of the swine flu crisis over at Daniel Hernandez’s blog, Intersections for reflections and analysis.
Filed under: Anthropology, Architecture, Ideas, Philosophy | Tags: Architecture, Biopolitics, capitalism, Design, Latour, Philosophy, Politics, Sloterdijk
That was the philosophical catchphrase proclaimed by the self-described “Sloterdijkian” Bruno Latour during his portion of a public lecture with Peter Sloterdijk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design a couple of weeks ago.
Taking as its theme, “Networks and Spheres: Two Ways to Interpret Globalization”, the tandem lectures and discussion was a sweeping journey through very basic issues of space, dwelling, and modes of design required to meet the demands our current socio-spatial conditions.
Peter Sloterdijk quietly approached the lectern after being introduced by GSD Dean Moshen Mostafavi and lectured with a measure of understatement and modesty. In the form of a self-colloquy, Sloterdijk introduced listeners to the main features of his three-volume Spharen (Spheres) project, citing VonUexkull, Benjamin, LeCorbusier, and a view of psychedelic capitalism as exemplified by the structure heralding the birth of mass culture: London’s Crystal Palace. Taking seriously the notion of space as a key anthropological category, Sloterdijk develops a heuristic questioning the home or the dwelling as the primary philosophical space in a context of profoundly fragile spatial and social complexity.
In the sense that ethos designates a habitat or “accustomed space”, the home is the site western philosophy and ethical thinking. Instead, Sloterdijk proposes the flexible, structures of spheres and foams as structuring spatial relations (whether biological or interpersonal) noting that the task of architecture is to understand its place between biology (dealing with atmosphere or environment) and philosophy (whose inquiry is oriented towards the world). Sloterdijk’s lecture hinted at architecture’s biopolitical vocation in the design and construction of habitats organizing space in dynamic constellations of spheres and islands.
Sloterdijk concluded his portion by noting architecture’s contribution to scientific discovery. He cited the early biologists’ use of the architectural terminology used in the design of monasteries to inspire their study of microscopically experienced structures, saying that “the real owner of the use of the cell is the community of architects…”
An energetic Bruno Latour followed. Drawing upon Sloterdijk, he announced at the very beginning of his lecture, “I was born a Sloterdijkian!” To test out the ideas of spheres and networks in his proposed thought experiment, he took to task contemporary internet-based notions of networks against his understanding of networks as inspired by Leibniz’s monadology and Diderot. Latour equally takes to task Heidegger’s ontological enterprise, which he claims, superficially considers the atmosphere of the world at its peril. Biopolitics again reared its head, this time in the midst of a critique of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. In Latour’s words,
The Dasein is thrown into the world, but so naked that he doesn’t stand much chance to last. …the respective relations between death and superficiality are suddenly reversed. There’s not the slightest chance to understand being when it has been cut off from the vast numbers of apparently “trifle” [sic] and “superficial” “little beings” that make it exist from moment to moment…In one stroke, the philosopher’s quest for being as such, looks like an antiquated research program.
Latour’s lecture simultaneously glossed on Sloterdijk’s and challenged philosophic thought to re-think itself by diving into the material conceptions and conditions of our dwelling and recast the split between nature and culture in terms of spheres and networks. This provocation calls on us to consider justice and equality as operative in environments where space is needed, spherically structured, and mediated by circuits of networks. In a parody of Heidegger, “Tell me what is your position on space, and I’ll tell you who you are…” he proposes a dead-serious litmus test for philosophers and architects alike to consider. Towards the end of the lecture, his reverie along theological, economic, political, spatial, and historical lines illustrated the urgency of such a project.
- Last week’s coverage of the event from The Harvard Gazette can be found here.
- The GSD has video of the lecture here.
- A special issue of Environment and Planning dedicated to Sloterdijk has a pair of essays by Sloterdijk and a number of commentaries.
Image: From left, Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, and Moshen Mostafavi at the “Networks and Spheres” discussion at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, February 17, 2009. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard University News Office.
Filed under: Aesthetics, Books, Chicano, Ideas, Latinos, Literature, Mexico, Philosophy, Politics, Publications, Uncategorized | Tags: Agamben, Aura Estrada, Badiou, Benjamin, Bernard Steigler, Biopolitics, Books, Foucault, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Journal of Theives, Literature, Mexico City, New Blogs, Photography, Pochismo, Science
- From Mexico City, Intersections returns from its hiatus with an update on recent events honoring writer Aura Estrada as part of an effort to create a literary prize in her memory. The prize will offer promising Mexican women writers an opportunity to hone their literary chops.
- Intersections follows up with a post on recent programming at Mexico City’s Center for Contemporary Culture. Maras y la Cultura de la Violencia focuses on La Mara Salvatrucha, among the most widely-publicized and feared street gangs in the US and El Salvador. The show raises a host of questions, especially about the way in which museums and cultural institutes address highly charged contemporary issues. Is the show an instance of the ongoing ‘museumification of the world’? Is it an attempt to deal with a matter usually placed under the sign of public safety/police/crime journalism with the resources of humanistic reflection? Or is it just a foolish, useless, and unsympathetic expedition glorifying a way of life marked, or perhaps defined, by cruelty, aggression, and ruthlessness?
- The MIT Press is holding its Winter White Sale until January 31, which is the press’s coolest discount book buying opportunity next to their loading dock sale. If any dear readers wish to donate books to the tirado/thrown staff (ahem…), please feel free to ask how you can send Ruben Gallo’s Mexican Modernity and/or Adam Sharr’s Heidegger’s Hut. Generosity will be compensated with a treatment of received book on this blog and recognition from a grateful beneficiary.
- Perverse Egalitarianism reflects on Bernard Steigler’s Acting Out. The call to philosophy and the discipline required in its practice, which, at the risk of oversimplifying, is part in parcel with getting on in this existence of ours.
- Why has No Useless Leniency not been in my reader? Why were three outstanding posts missed here at tirado/thrown? In the interest of making amends, first some notes on Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy, highlighting some useful precepts. Second, a post reflecting on the ontology of the interval, with some hints for further reflection regarding the conquest and creation of the New World. Third and last, some notes on Walter Benjamin’s essay Capitalism as Religion, an essay that Agamben riffs heavily on in “In Praise of Profanation.”
- This Recording’s recent “Science Corner” entry, aside from being colorful, is an example downright cool science blogging for the barely initiated. And now we are a little more familiar with the mating habits of the banana slug.
- I Cite shares with readers some notes on Foucault’s 1978-79 lectures on the genesis of modern biopolitics. Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
- Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who has helped bring pochismo into the cultural vernacular, is The Mexorcist. Yes, xenophobia is a spiritual disorder. An interview with the Tuscon Citizen elaborates. (Note: Gómez-Peña will be giving a talk at USC on January 28. For more context, his article in The Journal of Visual Culture from 2006 titled El Mexorcist lays out the basic idea.)
- Rhizome calls our attention to the brick being thrown at us. Buffalo Head: Media Practice, Media Study, Media Pioneeers 1973-1990 is the 800-plus page , 10 pound book documenting the work of SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Media Studies.
- tirado/thrown receives a greeting from Journal of Thieves. Not at all safe for work, or for those who are easily offended. We were definitely charmed by the assault on sensibility that makes easily reproduced spectacle and images of extreme ambiguity render pornography inoperative. tirado/thrown thanks JoT for making us think. We welcome you to the blogroll, with open, er, you get the point.
- Please, click through the link at the end of the bullet . You’ll find your computer to be interesting and fun again. http://www.zigzagphilosophy.com/
Image: Screenshot of zigzagphilosophy.com, (2009). Digital work by Angelo Plessas, found at Rhizome.