tirado/thrown


Porcine Biopolitics
May 18, 2009, 10:10 pm
Filed under: Mexico, Philosophy, Politics | Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

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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.

In Mexico City, Daniel Hernandez notes how the drastic, seemingly sudden change in conditions has activated a generalized state of fear and suspicion that he describes thus:

…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.

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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.

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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.



“Dasein ist Design”

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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.

Additional Materials:

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.



Last Week’s Links: January 5-10, 2009
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What follows is the first shot at what is largely an attempt at offering frequent updates on some of the more interesting links making their way to the tirado/thrown desk.  Any suggestions for good links come to mind?  Please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Image: Screenshot of zigzagphilosophy.com, (2009).  Digital work by Angelo Plessas, found at Rhizome.




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