Necropolitics | The Anthropology of Biopolitics

The politics of death, termed ‘necropolitics’, is examined here through the work of several scholars,…

Necropolitics | The Anthropology of Biopolitics

The politics of death, termed ‘necropolitics’, is examined here through the work of several scholars, each of whom is interested in differently understanding the forms that death takes under biopower. Specifically, these works delve deeper into the question which asks, if biopolitics is about making live, then how do we explain the presence of so much death today? In the present neoliberal era of terror and insecurity, it seems that what we may be witnessing is a new, unprecedented form of biopolitical governmentality in which necropower, or the technologies of control through which life is strategically subjugated to the power of death (Mbembe 2003), operates significantly with and alongside technologies of discipline, and the power to make live, for an increasingly authoritarian politics which governs through economic, rather than social terms (Giroux 2006). In what follows, I review four pieces of scholarship that deal variously with death as a field of [bio]power, and attempt to highlight the differing conceptualizations of necropower they each focus upon. I ultimately conclude that, in reading these pieces together, we are drawn to the task of considering the powerful and generative ubiquity of “bare life” as a fundamental aspect of biopolitics in the contemporary neoliberal era of normalized insecurity and terror.

According to Achille Mbembe, “To exercise sovereignty is to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power” (2003:12). In his 2003 article, “Necropolitics”, Mbembe theorizes the enactment of sovereignty in cases where “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” is the central project of power, rather than autonomy (p.14). Significantly, he takes up the philosophical project of conceptualizing the relationship between subjectivity and death as the roots of political sovereignty, and the particular form sovereign power’s enactment has taken through the historical process of linking together notions of modernity and terror. That is, taking seriously Schmitt and Agamben’s notion of sovereignty as the state of exception, we see through Mbembe’s work how Taussig’s wedding of reason and violence becomes extended and reformulated in the colonial contexts of late-modern forms of occupation, where endless states of terror are used to justify the “concatenation of multiple powers: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necropolitical” (p.29), for which military presence and regularized warfare increasingly leads to totalizing forms of domination over human lives within a given space, and one that is endlessly shifting.

In a very different type of project, Orlando Patterson’s 1982 piece on the power relations undergirding the institution of slavery throughout history looks at the politics of death in the form of social death. Where Mbembe sees the power over life and death, and the creation of ‘bare life’ and sovereignty today through spaces of exception, Patterson’s study of historical examples argue that ‘bare life’ and the ‘state of exception’ are also produced through certain slave-to-master relationships of power, which create the slave through producing the slave’s social death. As such, an interesting parallel can be drawn here between the ability to make/let die as the basis of sovereignty over the lives of human populations, and the sovereign-like authority acquired by the slave master through ritually and institutionally reconstituting the slave’s social existence into one that represents a permanent internal enemy life form, whose relationship to power was made always reducible to one of hostility and disposability.

In what might be seen as biopolitical ‘social disposability’ rather than ‘social death’, the work of critical educational theorist Henry Giroux, in “Reading Hurricane Katrina” (2006), makes an assumption about biopower similar to Mbembe’s regarding the late-modern era of perpetual terror and insecurity. However, in focusing on the United States, he is drawn more to what he sees as the ‘politics of disposability’ as the particular form of necropower, rather than emphasizing the power of death in relation to projects of sovereignty. For Giroux, the hyper-neoliberal racial state, since Reagan, has silently governed in the interests of Corporate America at the expense of human lives, by utilizing the repressive power of color-blind ideology to implement policy reforms which increasingly silently neglect disadvantaged populations further into the margins, thereby permitting their disposability (letting them die). To demonstrate that the governmentality of the racial state has changed in form from prior eras, Giroux compares the 1955 murder of Emmett Till (which helped spark civil rights movement activity) with the deaths of over one thousand racial minorities caused (superficially, he would argue) by hurricane Katrina in 2005, to show the difference in what these cases revealed about the racial state:       “Till’s body allowed the racism that destroyed it to be made visible, to speak to the systemic character of American racial injustice. The bodies of the Katrina victims could not speak with the same directness to the state of American racist violence but they did reveal and shatter the conservative fiction of living in a color-blind society” (p.174).

Of course, I have to wonder whether Giroux would still maintain his belief expressed here, that Katrina shattered the imaginary reality of U.S. color-blindness- to which an abundance of evidence to support this ideology’s heightening continuation today continues to surface at an ongoing rate. Nevertheless, the importance of the Katrina example, for Giroux, is to highlight how the informed decision-making of the Bush administration’s actions leading up to and after Katrina hit reveal the racial state’s knowing involvement in an anti-democratic project of sustaining insecurity in a particular fashion. That is, by knowingly rendering already-marginalized groups vulnerable to natural disasters like Katrina, which were expected to hit and devastate the gulf region of the U.S., the neoliberal state proved its complicity in the biopolitical project of not only letting die, but of actively disposing what it had redlined as value-less portions of the U.S. population. In effect, by implementing a politics of disposability in the era of neoliberal insecurity, the U.S. government was reducing its populace to a politics of “bare life”.

Continuing with this important notion of ‘bare life’ in relation to necropolitics today, amidst the perpetual exceptional states of terror and insecurity, Eugene Thacker argues how it (bare life) is “constantly rendered in its precariousness, a life that is always potentially under attack and therefore always an exceptional life” (2011:158). In Thacker’s “Necrologies” (2011), classical theorizations of what was called the ‘body politic’ are used to reconsider what we now think of as ‘biopolitics’, emphasizing the conceptual death of the body-political order and its recurrent resurrections. In other words, Thacker compares the medicalization of the human body as parts in relation to a whole, to the classical liberal notion of politics in society as the body-politic, whose proper functionality is always threatened by the dysfunctionality of the multitudes, and is therefore always attempting to work against its own decomposition. Building off of this comparison and through his developed idea of bare life’s relation to necrology, Thacker ultimately posits the contemporary biopolitical notion of what he calls “whatever-life”, “in which biology and sovereignty, or medicine and politics, continually inflect and fold onto each other. Whatever-life is the pervasive potential for life to be specified as that which must be protected, that which must be protected against, and as those forms of nonhuman life that are the agents of attack” (p.159).

In other words, bare life is what the perpetually insecure terrorist state of today’s exceptionalism continually produces under the threat and force of necropower, which dialectically then re-produces the ongoing need or justification of such exceptional forms of rule over life. Moreover, it could be said that this dialectically-reproducing ubiquity of bare life through the routinization of states of exceptional rule against “terror” ultimately comes to constitute the normalization of necropower in the body politic, as the invisible shape governmentality has come to take in the present. As I have attempted to point out through the reviews in this post, the politics surrounding death- whether of individual bodies, social existences, or whole populations- have, in the present global era, grown increasingly regulated such that they become normalized as embedded in invisible relations of power. As several of these authors have suggested, this fact would seem to present as imperative our reconsideration of “bare life” as a concept possibly capable of describing all regulated life (as opposed to simply refugee life in camps, for instance) under the current regimes of exceptional insecurity.


Giroux, Henry A.
2006     Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, Class, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.
College Literature, 33(3):171-196.
Mbembe, Achille
2003     Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1):11-40.
Patterson, Orlando
1982     “Authority, Alienation, and Social Death.” In Slavery and Social Death: A
Comparative Study. Pp. 35-76. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
Thacker, Eugene
2011     “Necrologies or the Death of the Body Politic.” In Beyond Biopolitics. Eds.
Clough and Wilse. Pp. 139-162. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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