Etienne Balibar: "'Biopolitics': The New Behemoth?"
Guest Writer: Denys Van Renen

Thursday, October 15, 2009

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

From top: Etienne Balibar lectures on Biopolitics, and Marcus Keller introduces Balibar

A large crowd at the Levis faculty center welcomed Etienne Balibar to the University of Illinois last night (Oct. 13) for his first visit to the Urbana-Champaign campus. After a warm introduction given by Marcus Keller, Assistant Professor of French & Comparative Literature and a former student of his, Balibar began his talk, “Biopolitics: The New Behemoth?” (a reference to the Book of Job and the “twin allegories” of the Leviathan and the Behemoth) by foregrounding the “impolitical side of the world order.” In the first half of his lecture, he discussed Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), focusing on their formulation of a “global civil war” (a war of all against all that has taken the place of the Cold War, which pitted nation-states against one another). While admiring their trilogy, he alighted on their discussion of the enemy as “evil,” an abstract conception that necessitates perpetual war in the name of “security,” as well as the creation of a specific type, having “foreign” traits (retaining traces of Carl Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction) Instead, he developed the concept of the “stranger.”

Put forward by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (“There are friends and enemies. There are also strangers.”) the idea of the stranger provokes questions such as “Who are they?”; “For whom are they strange?”; and “Where do they come from?” because while some strangers can be assimilated within a nation-state, others do not enjoy the rights of citizenship in their adopted country. They also introduce intranational borders and change static perceptions of national borders. Balibar builds on Bauman to ask for whom the border is symbolic (those who can pass and repass) and for whom it is dissimilar (those who cannot be readmitted).

Another central concept Balibar discussed was “translation.” He stressed the need to go beyond traditional practices of translation, which tend to reinforce the cultural practices of the dominant group. In other words, those who translate tend to fit the other group’s words into their culturally-specific idiom or context. In Balibar’s view, we should do more to understand each other’s habitus and idioms, creating a transnational public space. This new form of translation would protect strangeness and diversity. As I understood his formulation, borders, which drive productive exchanges between peoples of different cultures, can work constructively. In this way, individuals might have more control over borders as they promote cross-cultural communication on a personal and local level. By contrast, totally dissolving them (as when NGOs, among other entities, imagine a world without borders) allows policing institutions to make abstract a pervasive enemy, perhaps advancing repressive practices in the name of security.


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Michael Rothberg said...

A small footnote to this post: Zygmunt Bauman is actually a Polish sociologiest, not a German one (albeit someone who has lived and worked in Leeds in the UK for a long time).

Bauman, by the way, has an important discussion of what he calls "proteophobia" that might supplement in interesting ways what Balibar was getting at in his discussion of the stranger. Proteophobia is "the apprehension and vexation related not to something or someone disquieting through otherness and unfamiliarity, but to something or someone that does not fit the structure of the orderly world, does not fall easily into any of the established categories, emits therefore contradictory signals as to the proper conduct--and in the result blurs borderlines that ought to be kept watertight" (in Modernity, Culture, and "the Jew," p. 144). Bauman's first example here is the figure of "the Jew" but this particular kind of ambivalence is of more general significance...

Unit for Criticism said...

A brief word to say that the post has been edited to reflect Bauman's correct nationality.

Anonymous said...

It is not surprising that a French intellectual defends borders: there is a long tradition of French hospitality to political refugees and a long standing Kantian hostility for a world government. As Kant wrote, "hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another," and Balibar seems to be in perfect agreement with this statement.
It is also not surprising that an Italian intellectual like Negri does not feel any nostalgia for the Nation State. Italian intellectuals, from Dante to Machiavelli to Negri, have been, sooner or later, exiled. Thus, even when grateful for the hospitality given, the issue of crossing borders, or being unable to do so, always took precedence.
What is surprising to me is the idea that borders need leftist protectors. In the United States, this is the business of the like of Palin, Lou Dobbs and Ron Paul. "World Government," "international tribunals" "International Jurisprudence" are the battle cries of the right, from John Bolton to the Republicans who questioned Sonia Sotomayor.
My feeling is that democratized borders would be no borders at all. Perhaps it's because I am Italian, but my hypothesis would be that the Multitude, if given the opportunity, would choose to move freely, enjoying the same mobility that Capital, wealthy people and Imperial officials enjoy.
It is to fight against this desire that we have the scarecrow of international terrorism, international contagion, international corruption accompanying the right's defense of borders. "Yes, officer, I understand that it's to protect me and my family that you are questioning me. Keep up the good work!" "It was about time that you started to stop people miles from the borders to check that they are not terrorists!"
Do we really need our learned biblical and philosophical references to support what seems to be well in place?
Personally, these are my heroes (link opens youtube video)...

Emanuel Rota

Zsuzsa said...

While I agree with Manuel, I would put Balibar in a different context: that of the European white left. For me what was refreshing about this need for borders was the acknowledgment that a public sphere in which identities are deterritorialized (by force) and only non- or post-national differences are allowed (as in Habermas, Beck and a bunch of others hailing a global civil society) has oppressive tendencies. In a way the European Union is the realization of Habermas' deliberative democracy: a public sphere in which if one wants to participate one has to agree to certain deliberative procedures and norms crafted by a certain Western European model of democracy. Such norms, by the way, may also have biopolitical aspects/effects. If you are interested in a similar critique of Habermas, read Craig Calhoun's “Imagining Solidarity: Cosmopolitanism, Constitutional Patriotism, and the Public Sphere”, Public Culture, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 147-171. On Oct 23 we will also have a case study of global civil society diffusion discussed in the transnational seminar:

matthew hart said...

The nation-state, for all its inherent flaws, remains the primary instrument for the distribution of social welfare and defence of basic rights. As Manuel implies, the theoretical defence of the border can be motivated by a desire to resist the deprivations of transnational capital. This is where the AFL-CIO is a better point of reference than a racist demagogue like Lou Dobbs--i.e., it's possible that, in the interests of social justice, neither capital nor labour should move freely across global space. Balibar's position is also, as he has long argued, one that strives to recognizes the constitutive intersection of race, nation, and class--and, I would add, of the relative autonomy of culture and the political vis-a-vis capital.