Thursday, October 15, 2009
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.