Mere Life versus More Life

Stofwolk (Dust cloud)

“We all know” Aristotle’s famous definition of the human being as a political animal: “It is evident from these considerations, then, that a city-state is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman. Like the one Homer condemns, he too is ‘clanless, lawless, and homeless’.” As a political animal, the human being is thus caught up between two kinds of life: the mere life of the poor specimen, and the more life of the superhuman. As political animals, we are caught up between bare life and sovereign power.

In Giorgio Agamben’s work, bare life and sovereignty form a couple; but the particular nature of their coupling has not yet been fully understood. The closest I’ve come to it, is in a book that explicitly distances itself from Agamben: it does not focus on sovereignty but on biopolitics; it does not focus on bare life but on more life, or “life as surplus.” The book—Melinda Cooper’s Life as Surplus—argues that there is a connection in the neoliberal era between biotechnology and capitalism: at the same time that neoliberalism does nothing to prevent life-destroying disasters such as the one caused by hurricane Katrina (more precisely, by the levees breaking as a result of the hurricane), it invests unprecedented sums in the life-sciences, funding scientists to speculate on life’s continued generation beyond disaster. It is a delirious form of capitalism that is thanatopolitical and biopolitical at the same time.

Cooper argues that neither Agamben nor Roberto Esposito, who addresses the coincision of thanatopolitics and biopolitics in Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy, have understood this particular nexus between the politics of life and new forms of speculative capitalization. This may be because of the relative absence of Karl Marx in their writings. By contrast, Marx takes up a central place in Cooper’s book, which lays bare—after Marx—the ways in which the production of bare life goes hand in hand with “the capitalist promise of more abundant life.” Interestingly, both these forms of life—bare life and more abundant life—could fall under the heading of “surplus life”: the supernumerary life of the poor specimen that’s not worth living, on the one hand; the life of the superhuman, on the other. Cooper’s book thus exposes a political heritage in the neoliberal era that goes back at least as far as Aristotle’s celebrated definition.

In response, she calls for “something like a creative sabotage of the future; a pragmatics of preemptive resistance capable of actualizing the future outside of the policeable boundaries of property right. And in the face of a politics that all too often adopts a posture of resignation in the face of the biospheric catastrophe, it is imperative that we do not give in to the sense of the inevitable.” One might wonder whether this creative sabotage, which aims to take care of life in a different way, is merely another biotechnic? And whether politics, then, is merely a question of disentangling biotechnology from capitalism in the neoliberal era?

References: Aristotle. Politics. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1998; Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neo-Liberal Era. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2008. Image: Willem Weismann, Stofwolk (Dust cloud), 60 x 60 cm, oil on canvas, 2010.


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