Samantha Frost: Responding to
"Biopoliticized Maternity and the Trope of Immunization"
3/2 Colloquium with Penelope Deutscher

Thursday, March 5, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Samantha Frost (Political Science)

In responding to Penelope Deutscher’s Monday presentation, “Biopoliticized Maternity and the Trope of Immunization,” I want to briefly outline the questions and insights that animate her main argument and then offer some questions and observations that, hopefully, may provide the basis for our broader discussion.

Deutscher considers how we might understand the operations of biopower in feminisms in which claims to women’s reproductive rights are articulated in a language or rhetoric that participates in state racism: women must have control over their reproductive lives in order to ensure the vitality of the volk, the people, the racialized nation. Deutscher is interested in tracing how such feminisms participate in the unfolding of biopower. And of course, she finds that Foucault is not much of a direct help in his writings.

Foucault, it turns out, has a blind spot. When he analyzes sexuality, sex, and the biopolitical management of populations, he develops his insightful account of how biopower constitutes subjects, of how biopower’s elaboration forms the basis for resistance that is incorporated into the elaboration of biopower itself. In other words, there is no outside to power; instead we must speak of subjects’ redeployment or redirection of power, a redirection that doesn’t undermine or detract from power but rather enables subjects to use it to their relative advantage even as they become more enmeshed in its tentacles and operations. Now, what Deutscher points out is that when Foucault is confronted with questions about feminism, particularly as feminists have made claims about reproductive rights, he chokes, theoretically. In other words, whereas he talks of resistance to imperatives about sexuality in terms of the complex operations of biopower, he seems unable to draw on that analysis of power in talking of women’s resistance to imperatives vis a vis reproduction. Instead, he reverts to the language of defiance and counter-attack--a language that positions feminists as outside of and countering biopower and not as participating in it.

Deutscher marks this as a curious blindspot in Foucault’s thinking: for all his attention to sex, sexuality, and the biopolitical management of the life of the population, he does not seem to recognize that these turn on women’s reproductive capacities and that therefore the control and management of women’s reproductive lives is necessarily at the center of the operations of biopower.

For intellectual succor, Deutscher turns to Roberto Esposito’s effort to expand the political insights available through Foucault’s account of biopower. Esposito notes that biopolitics--the management and enhancement of life--is inextricably bound up with thanatopolitics--the dispensing and management of death. Indeed, he claims that each is the obverse of the other. However, Foucault and his commentators often disregard the obverse relationship between biopolitics and thanatopolitics, instead favoring analyses that point to either the productive or the destructive elements of biopower. Esposito suggests that the notion of immunity might be helpful to highlight the points of contact between the destructive and maximizing elements of biopower. With the immunity model of power, biopower divides itself, fights against itself, in order to preserve itself.

Deutscher argues that it might be helpful to analyze feminist politics of women’s reproductive rights through the model or trope of immunity. Within this model, as women’s reproductive capacities are harnessed for the purposes of enhancing the vitality of the race/nation, feminists deploy a language of rights and autonomy that is framed in terms of the vitality of the race and nation. Accordingly, feminists’ rights rhetoric participates both in their subjection to biopolitical imperatives as well as in the thanatopolitical designation of the unwanted racial others. It is not clear to me, in Deutscher’s analysis, whether the racialized feminisms are the relevant instance of biopower’s immunitary self-negation (feminism qua protest movement takes a form that serves or protects the biopolitical imperatives of the nation), or whether the racialization of the feminisms is the relevant instance of biopower’s immunitary self-negation (racialization is feminism’s effort to preserve itself in the face of biopolitical imperatives). In other words, insofar as it serves the biopolitical imperatives of the nation, feminists may make demands for women’s reproductive autonomy. Here, the racial other is sacrificed for the sake of the survival of feminism. Or perhaps both these immunitary moments are in play. So a question I have, then, is about where Deutscher locates this immune response.

A second question concerns the close relationship Foucault and Deutscher sketch between women’s reproduction and the racial interests of the state. If women are constituted as political subjects through biopolitical interest in and management of their reproductive capacities, are political claims about reproduction necessarily steeped in forms of racism? Given the analysis Deutscher wants to develop, is it possible to articulate non-racist feminist claims about women’s reproductive rights, or will they always be a reformulation of the racialized terms through which women’s reproductive capacities vehiculate racialized biopolitical imperatives?

A final question I have--it is perhaps more an observation than a question--concerns Esposito’s intention to use the immunitary model of power to develop what he calls an affirmative biopolitics. I have to say I am not yet clear what this might be. Part of me wants to say that it might be seen in those movements in which racialized others--those who are the subjects of thanatopolitics--redeploy the rhetoric of race to make claims for the right to have families--the right to give birth, to reproduce. I am thinking here of Latinas, Native Americans, or African-American women who have been caught up in the longstanding eugenics policies of the US. And of course, since such redeployments are made precisely through the language of race, they are also a retrenchment of biopolitics: are such feminist movements instances in which an immunitary logic of biopower is at play? Would this constitute an affirmative biopolitics (it enhances life as it undermines thanatopoltics)? Or is an affirmative biopolitics, as Esposito also seems to suggest, one in which discourses of reproduction would no longer be enclosed within specific racial bodies, detached from the nation? Might one substitute the vitality of the planet for the vitality of the nation? And if we did so, what difference would that make to women’s efforts to be roughly self-determining with respect to their reproductive life cycle?


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