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.

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Death and the Idea of Mexico finally out in Paperback

While this post was originally meant to be published a week or so ago, it’s still worth noting that Zone Books has finally released anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz’s masterful text Death and the Idea of Mexico in paperback, almost two and a half years after its aptly-timed November 2005 hardcover release (which made my Dia de los Muertos that year…). In Death and the Idea of Mexico, Lomnitz draws on a multitude of sources to trace the history of death as Mexico’s constituting and guiding idea. And he does this in a manner that issues an assertive response to Marc Auge’s work An Anthropology for Contenporaeous Worlds, where Auge seeks to traverse the division between history and anthropology to give anthropology renewed contemporary relevance. Lomnitz infuses his anthropological thinking with a powerful sense for how temporal movements require ample space to make their effects felt and ultimately shift form and meaning. Beginning with the originary trauma of conquest and colonialism as establishing the coordinates along which death moves along and circulates, he tracks the ways in which religious doctrine and authority, political and state power, political-economic exigencies, class, and cultural production collude in forming the deathscapes that define Mexico in an utterly singular fashion.

With Death and the Idea of Mexico Lomnitz also proposes a thesis that should make any careful reader of Agamben pay attention, namely that Death was put into play as a way of shaping politics, i.e., a form of life. In short, he is initiating a study of Mexico’s thanatopolitical history. Lomnitz’s analysis bears the possibility of standing as an example of studying how death works in political and cultural settings outside of Mexico, most especially in those that seemingly espouse life as a dominant political sign.

As erudite as his work is, his writing is engaging, thoughtful, and bears a stunning public relevance. The last chapter of the book bears this out, where he discusses the intersections and differences between Mexican, Chicano, and North American uses of death as cultural signifiers in light of emigration. Lomnitz currently teaches Anthropology and Latina/o Studies at Columbia University, where he is also the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He also edits the journal Public Culture. He also happened to pen what was probably the clearest and most slept on analysis of the controversy surrounding the Mexican government’s intention to issue postage stamps in Mexico bearing the image of Memín Pinguín.

No dabbling, let alone serious, consideration of how we think about and relate to death can fail to engage Death and the Idea of Mexico with interest. Even if you remotely enjoy anything Mexicano resembling el Dia de los Muertos, this text is essential reading, because it offers a broad and profound sense of the forces in operation (or not) when long-standing symbols are put into play. It gives the contrary impression to that of one offered by a piece that I ran across in the recent issue of Cabinet Magazine, where Michael Sappol and Eva Ahren lament that “….by sequestering death in the realm of art, pop culture, and kitsch, maybe we hope to attenuate the certain prospect of our impending mortality: Death becomes just another disposable consumer object, or conversely just another collectible. Thus accessorized, we no longer get good representational service out of the skeleton as an inner self…”

In light of Lomnitz’s work, I’d like to offer an alternate possibility as a rejoinder. Could it be that death (with its skullen, masked and synthesized representatives, as the boys in Plastilina Mosh seem to propose in the video below) is the human disco ball nonpareil? And could it be so in a manner similar to the one Heidegger proposes, where Dasein is being-towards-death, in which all of our encounters in the world possess some animating glimmer as we exist beside our own death? Decide for yourself.