By Paul B. Preciado
IF MICHEL FOUCAULT had survived AIDS in 1984 and had stayed alive until the invention of effective antiretroviral therapy, he would be ninety-three years old today. Would he have agreed to confine himself in his apartment on rue de Vaugirard in Paris? The first philosopher of history to die from complications resulting from the acquired immunodeficiency virus left us with some of the most effective tools for considering the political management of the epidemic—ideas that, in this atmosphere of rampant and contagious disinformation, are like cognitive protective equipment.
The most important thing we learned from Foucault is that the living (therefore mortal) body is the central object of all politics. There are no politics that are not body politics. But for Foucault, the body is not first a given biological organism on which power then acts. The very task of political action is to fabricate a body, to put it to work, to define its modes of production and reproduction, to foreshadow the modes of discourse by which that body is fictionalized to itself until it is able to say “I.” Foucault’s entire oeuvre can be understood as a historical analysis of different techniques by which power manages the life and death of populations. Between 1975 and 1976, the years when he published Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish) and the first volume of Histoire de la sexualité (The History of Sexuality), Foucault used the notion of “biopolitics” to speak of the relationship that power establishes with the social body in modernity. He describes the transition from what he calls a sovereign society, in which sovereignty is defined in terms of commanding the ritualization of death, to a “disciplinary society,” which oversees and maximizes the life of populations as a function of national interest. For Foucault, the techniques of biopolitical government spread as a network of power that goes beyond the juridical spheres to become a horizontal, tentacular force, traversing the entire territory of lived experience and penetrating each individual body.
During and after the AIDS crisis, many writers expanded on and radicalized Foucault’s hypotheses by exploring the relationship of immunity and biopolitics. The Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito analyzed the links between the political notion of community and the biomedical and epidemiological notion of immunity. The two terms share a common root, the Latin munus, the duty (tax, tribute, gift) someone must pay to be part of the community. The community is cum (with) munus: a human group connected by common law and reciprocal obligation. The noun immunitas is a privative word that stems from the negation of munus. In Roman law, immunity was a privilege that released someone from the obligations shared by all. He who had been exempted was immunized. He who had been de-munized, conversely, had been stripped of all community privileges after having been deemed a threat to the community.
Esposito emphasizes that all biopolitics is immunological: Biopolitics implies a hierarchy with the immunized at the top and the de-munized, who will be excluded from any act of immunological protection, at the bottom. That is the paradox of biopolitics: All protective acts include an immunitary definition of community in which the collective grants itself the power to decide to sacrifice a part of the population in order to maintain its own sovereignty. The “state of exception” is the normalization of this intolerable paradox.
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