NEKROS; OR, THE POETICS OF BIOPOLITICS

NEKROS; OR, THE POETICS OF BIOPOLITICS
Eugene Thacker

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Bio-politics. A question: what is the “bio” of biopolitics? Contemporary theories of biopolitics often emphasize medicine and public health, political economy and governmentality, or the philosophical and rhetorical dimensions. But if biopolitics is, in Foucault’s terms, that point at which “power takes hold of life,” the moment in which “biological existence was reflected in political existence,” then it follows that any theory of biopolitics will also have to interrogate the morphologies of the concept of “life” just as much as the mutations in power.[1]

            It is remarkable how the concept of “life itself” has remained a horizon for much biopolitical thinking.[2] There is, for instance, the naïve position, in which one presumes something called “life” that pre-exists or exists outside of politics, which is then co-opted into specific power relations (e.g. political economy, public health, statistics and demographics). The problem with this approach is that it forces one to accept a concept of life that is either excessively vague (life-as-experience) or reductive (life as a molecule, life as data). The presumption of a pre-existent life also puts one in the dubious position of arguing for a protectionism regarding life, effectively making the removal of politics from life the goal of the critique. While we may disregard this position as naïve, it is important to note how it surreptitiously haunts contemporary critiques of medicine and health care, from “big pharma” to the ongoing debates over public health security and bioterrorism.

            The opposite of this is the cynical position, in which one assumes that there is no extra-political, essential concept of “life itself” that is then co-opted by politics or recuperated in power relations. Life is always already political, not only at the literal level of medicine, but also in the way subjects are interpolated at the level of social, economic, and political life. Life is a concept that is not only constructed within scientific discourse, but equally within political discourse – even when that discourse articulates an “outside” called natural law, human rights, or bare life. A more sophisticated as a form of critique, the problem with the cynical approach is that it can end up leveraging critique on behalf of an empty concept. Since there is no pre-existent life that is co-opted by power, one is left with either dispensing with the concept altogether – a difficult task, since the concept of life remains politically operative in a variety of contexts – or one argues for a renewed concept of life that has yet to be envisioned – in effect producing a concept of pre-existent life similar to the one in the naïve position.

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The Problem With Multiplicities. Perhaps what life is, or how it is defined, is less important than the question of whether something called “life” comes under question at all in biopolitical theories – and one that is also not simply an empty yet functional shell. Michel Foucault’s Collège de France lectures offer several ways of addressing this dilemma. In Foucault’s 1978 course, biopolitics is often characterized in terms of multiplicity – but the particular multiplicity of the collective, aggregate life that is the population. Foucault mentions three examples of epidemics as correlated to particular forms of power. In the Middle Ages, leprosy is aligned with sovereignty, and its ritual dividing practices and exclusion. The example of plague during the 16th and 17th centuries is, for Foucault, aligned with disciplinary power and its practices of inclusion and ordering. Finally, Foucault mentions smallpox and vaccination as an example of a third type of power, the apparatus of security, which “pulls back” and carefully observes the outcome of an event, so as to selectively intervene. It is from this third type of epidemic that Foucault isolates a power that stitches together medicine, politics, and a concept of “population” – that is, an awareness of a novel object of power that is defined at once by its multiplicity, its temporal dynamics, and its statistical fluctuations. What emerges, Foucault argues, is a form of power that operates at the level of highly-specified perturbations, one that intervenes at the level of the flux and flow, the manifold circulations, that is the population itself. “Circulation understood in the general sense as displacement, as exchange, as contact, as form of dispersion, and as form of distribution – the problem presented is: how can things be ordered such that this circulates or does not circulate?”[3]

            Biopolitics is unique in Foucault’s analysis because it expresses power as a problem of managing circulations and flows – something like biopolitical flow. It makes use of informatic methods, including statistics, demographics, and public health records, to insert a global knowledge into the probability of local events; it identifies and reacts to potential threats based on a whole political economy of the regulation of state forces; and, instead of a dichotomy between the permitted and forbidden, it calculates averages and norms upon which discrete and targeted interventions can be carried out. In a striking turn of phrase, Foucault suggests that, in this correlation between a distributed power and a distributed life, the central issue becomes “the problem of multiplicities” (le problème des multiplicités).[4] In this sense, biopolitics “is addressed to a multiplicity of people, not to the extent that they are nothing more than their individual bodies, but to the extent that they form, on the contrary, a global mass that is affected by overall processes characteristic of birth, death, production, illness, and so on.”[5]

If we follow Foucault’s leads here, then the “bio” of biopolitics has to be understood as a concern over the governance of “life itself,” and this notion of life itself is principally characterized by what Foucault describes as the processes of circulation, flux, and flow. The problem of multiplicities is therefore also a problem concerning the government of the living, the governance, even, of “life itself.”  This is, to be sure, life understood as zoē and bíos, as biological life and the qualified life of the human being, but it must also be understood in terms of what Aristotle called psukhē – a principle of life, a vital principle, the Life of the living.[6] While human agency both individual and collective is implicated in this notion of life as psukhē, it is also an non-human, unhuman form of life – one that nevertheless courses through us and through which we live. Thus the primary challenge to biopolitical modes of power is this: how to acknowledge the fundamentally unhuman quality of life as circulation, flux, and flow, while also providing the conditions for its being governed and managed. Biopolitics in this sense becomes the governance of vital forces, and biopolitics confronts what is essentially a question of scale – how to modulate phenomena that are at once “above” and “below” the scale of the human being.

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Dead Tropes, Resurrected Bodies. In biopolitics, the conjunction of life and power raises the specter of the body politic, a figure of political philosophy that is at once anachronistic and yet continually resurrected. Foucault, for example, talks about both the “anatomo-politics of the human body” as well as the “biopolitics of the population.” In his Collège de France lectures, Foucault points out that biopolitics conceives of a body that  departs from the anatomical and mechanistic body politic of Hobbes’ Leviathan. While this is true, the logic of the body politic continues to inform the concept of biopolitics, especially considering the centrality of a concept of “life” for both concepts. What is needed, then, but a way of thinking biopolitics in relation to its figural dimension – not just a biopolitics, but a poetics of biopolitics.

The figure of the body politic resolves a number of conceptual problems: it not only posits a form of political organization nested in the truth of the body’s anatomy, but it also implies a further analogy between the life of the natural-biological body and the life of the collective body, be that configured in terms of the political-theological community, the organismic nation-state, or, more recently, the global informatics of the multitude. Consider the primary question that occupies every discussion of the body politic – its building-up or its construction. We know the conditions for the need of a body politic – the state of brutish nature, the war of all against all, “man is a wolf to man,” and so forth. Once this irrevocable and universal mistrust of the human is established, how exactly does the body politic come to be? Quite simply, piece by piece, part by part, limb by limb. The Leviathan gives us what is perhaps the clearest example of this building-up process, one in which “the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment…are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural…counselors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death.”[7]

            The Leviathan is, of course, picking up on a long tradition of analogizing the body politic and the body natural. Plato offers what is perhaps the earliest coherent example in the West. In the opening discussion of Republic, Socrates suggests that the question of justice in the individual should be sought by analogizing to the question of justice in the polis, the latter simply an individual “writ large.” What results is a view of the polis as an integrated, tripartite order based on a tripartite anatomy of the human body: the philosopher-king (the head, or reasoning part), the auxiliaries or soldiers (the torso, or passional part), and the peasant class (the groin or productive/reproductive part). Today, this building-up of the body politic has today become a mainstay of dystopian science fiction. In the graphic novel V for Vendetta, the government establishes its oppressive unity through a pervasive, high-technology surveillance system which is the “eyes,” the “ears,” and the “hands” of the body politic.

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Zombi 2 (dir. Lucio Fulci, 1979)


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The Gothic Body Politic. The body politic is built up, but it can also break down. The building-up also leads to a problem, however, for if the body politic can be constructed, then is it not also vulnerable to the inverse processes of destruction, dissolution, and decay? This is a major preoccupation in the literature of the gothic, which dwells on the processes of decay and degeneration, paradoxical processes that are at once generative and yet destructive. Consider the following passage:

I am filthy. Lice gnaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit. The scabs and sores of leprosy have scaled my skin, which is coated with yellowish pus. I know not river water nor the clouds’ dew. From my nape, as from a dungheap, sprouts an enormous toadstool with unbelliferous peduncles. Seated on a shapeless chunk of furniture, I have not moved a limb for four centuries. My feet have taken root in the soil forming a sort of perennial vegetation – not yet quite plant-life though no longer flesh – as far as my belly, and filled with vile parasites. My heart, however, is still beating. But how could it beat if the decay and effluvia of my carcass (I dare not say body) did not abundantly feed it? In my left armpit a family of toads has taken up residence, and whenever one of them moves it tickles me. Take care les one escape and come scratching with its mouth at the interior of your ear: it could next penetrate into your brain. In my right armpit there is a chameleon which endlessly chases the toads so as not to die of hunger: everyone has to live. But when one side completely foils the tricks of the other, they like nothing better than to make themselves at home and suck the dainty grease that covers my sides: I am used to it. A spiteful viper has devoured my prick and taken its place.

 Relentlessly perverting the classical body politic inherited from Hobbes, the text continues its anatomical litany, moving down into the nether regions of the body:

Two small hedgehogs, that grow no more, have flung to a dog – which did not decline them – the contents of my testicles; inside the scrupulously scrubbed scrotal sac they lodged. My anus has been blocked by a crab. Encouraged by my inertia, it guards the entrance with its pincers and cause me considerable pain! Two jellyfish crossed the seas, at once enticed by a hope which did not prove mistaken. They closely inspected the two plump portions which comprise the human rump and, fastening on to these convex contours, so squashed them by constant pressure that the two lumps of flesh disappeared while the two monsters which issued from the kingdom of viscosity remained, alike in colour, form, and ferocity. Speak not of my spinal column, since it is a sword.[8]

This is from Les Chants de Maldoror, the enigmatic 19th century text by Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautréamont. What we are given here is something like a gothic body politic, one that is still built-up, but that is ridden with natural decay and monstrous hyper-growth. This body politic is not simply sick, lacking some essential component or nutrient that would make it healthy again. Instead, it seems to exist in this state of growth-decay as its natural state. In the gothic body politic, the body politic has not simply died, but there is also no “getting better.” It remains a sovereign body, seated on a calcified throne – in fact, violently fixed there through the sword-backbone (perhaps the same sword depicted in the frontispiece to the Leviathan). What Lautréamont gives us is not an anatomical body politic, but a necrological one, a body whose natural state is this contradictory hyper-decay, at once generation and dissolution.

            The gothic body politic therefore opens onto the inverse of the building-up process – the process of decay and dissolution. Not surprisingly, this is also a major motif of the body politic concept. But it is rarely foreground in the same way as the “heroic” building-up process. Often it is expressed in the somewhat furtive, later chapters dedicated to the “diseases” of the body politic. Here the figure of the body politic takes hold in a way that is, from Plato onwards, strikingly modern. Hobbes, for instance, is forced to acknowledge that if “concord” is analogous to “health,” then “sedition” would have to correlate to “sickness,” and “civil war” to the death of the body politic itself. The body politic is not only built-up, but it is also governed by a logic of anti-production, a breaking-down. Hobbes gives us such an image in the Leviathan: “Though nothing can be immortall, which mortals make; yet, if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their Common-wealths might be secured, at least, from perishing by internall diseases…”[9] The problem, for Hobbes, is when the body politic is dissolved, “not by externall violence, but intestine disorder” – is the cause of such disease to be located within the anatomy of the body politic itself, and if so, are such pathologies of the body politic in fact innate or internal to it? Hobbes ambivalently affirms this, noting that “[a]mongst the Infirmities therefore of a Common-wealth, I will reckon in the first place, those that arise from an Imperfect Institution, and resemble the diseases of a naturall body, which proceed from a Defectuous Procreation.”[10]

Here Hobbes is aware of a central dilemma in the figure of the body politic. Insofar as the body politic is predicated on an analogy to the human body, it is also vulnerable to the contingencies and pathologies of the natural body. Plato also demonstrates an acute awareness of this dilemma. Early on in the Republic, Socrates follows up his analogy of the body natural and the body politic with a medical qualifier: “there is an exact analogy between these states of mind [justice in the individual] and bodily health and sickness.”[11] As Socrates notes, “health is produced by establishing a natural relation of control and subordination among the constituents of the body, disease by establishing an unnatural relation.”[12] The implications of this are laid out in detail near the end of Republic: “Just as a sickly body needs only a slight push from outside to become ill, and sometimes even without any external influence becomes divided by factions within itself, so too doesn’t a city that is in the same kind of condition as that body, on a small pretext…fall sick and do battle with itself, and sometimes even without any external influence become divided by faction?”[13]

Despite their historically different points of reference (Hippocratic medicine and Greek democracy for Plato, mechanism and the English Civil War for Hobbes), the commonality between them is this way in which the construction of the analogy has brought with it a dilemma concerning the pathologies of the body politic. And, in both thinkers, this leads them to assert what is perhaps the central lesson of the figure of the body politic – that the greatest threat to the body politic comes from within. This in itself – more than the literal, anatomical analogies – ties the figure of the body politic to biopolitics. If the latter, in Foucault’s treatment, deals with the governing of “life itself” in terms of circulation, flux, and flow, then biopolitics can be understood as the management of the circulations that constitute the body politic – not an opening-up or a shutting-down of the body politic’s boundaries, but a calculated pull-back and targeted perturbation within this flux and flow, within this “problem of multiplicities.”

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Poetics and Pathos. The body politic – whether it is built up or breaking down – is always an issue of form, figure, and the figurative, always an issue of a poetics specific to a politics.

Aristotle give us what remains a basic premise of poetics – the relation between poetics and pathos, or affect. As is well known, Aristotle’s case study is tragedy, for it is in the weighty and serious matters of Greek tragedy that one finds the intimate coupling between poiesis and pathos. Tragedy delivers in dramatic form some statement about, for instance, fate and determinism, and this has the effect of a release, expunging or a purification in the audience members. This effect thus turns into an affect, something that flows and that circulates among those present at the play. This then encircles the effect of this affect as something “common,” as something collectively experienced. The combination of these three elements – circulation/flow of affect, the feeling of purification, and its collective aspect – is famously dubbed “catharsis” by Aristotle.[14]

The term catharsis has connotations that draw together a notion of healing that is inseparable from a ritual or social function. Catharsis is “purgation” or “purification,” both terms that denote a ritualistic process by which a body or bodies are made clean and free of any elements that would threaten the coherence, not only of the individuated body natural, but of the body politic as well. The pathos of catharsis is thus a process of separating out, of expunging, of rendering homogenous, of forcibly articulating an interior and an exterior. But it is also important to note that, in the Poetics, it is not only the feeling of release or purification that defines catharsis, but the fact that it circulates. Catharsis is less an emotion and more an affect – it proceeds by a sort of logic of miasmatic contagion or swarming, passing from stage to amphitheater, from actor to audience, and between one audience member and another.

If catharsis is the indissociability of poetics and pathos, then what kinds of pathos are produced? There is, for example the pathos of sympathy and empathy in moral philosophy. If, generally speaking, sympathy is “feeling-with,” then empathy is “feeling-in.” The latter is often taken as a more extreme version of the former (which is why, in science fiction, “empaths” are often used to detect what an alien creature is feeling). While Kant argues for an axiomatic approach to ethical relations based on sympathy as an innate character of human beings, Burke argues for a passage from sympathy to empathy as the basis for ethical relations. Burke’s famous example is itself rather gothic – the witnessing of a public execution, and the pathos it produces in the observers. One passes from a more distanced feeling-with (acknowledging the fear that must accompany the executed), to a more dangerous feeling-in (the hypothetical that the executed could also be me), and then – ideally – to a final pathos, a kind of feeling-together, in which I recognize my common humanity with others present at the execution. Thus pathos is not just feeling or emotion, but the circulation of such feelings or emotions. Putting pathos into circulation implies that the tonality of such feelings or emotions are experienced as a passing, as a circulation, and as a connecting.

Death governs the circulation of pathos in Burke’s example. But it is not a scene of total extinction, for something persists or resists afterwards – that is, pathos persists and becomes something like anti-pathos, or antipathy (“feeling-against”). Something still circulates and flows, some affect swarms throughout a given collective site that becomes the basis for the commonality of pathos. Burke no doubt chooses this scene for its dramatic effect – it literally has a stage, an audience, and an a tragic event. This is similarly highlighted by Artaud’s essay “The Theater and the Plague.” For Artaud, interested precisely in this theater of swarming affect, the pathos that circulates and flows is not simply a quantized emotion felt by receptacle-like individuals; rather, pathos is at once a form of life – identified with breath – and also a form of contagion. The same affective principle that is life-giving is also life-destroying, not through negation, but rather through an excess that is part and parcel of that life-principle. Breath is life, but a form of life that endlessly circulates, that in fact cannot not circulate. For Artaud, pathos is also pathological, in the sense that it is a form of life defined by its propensity for circulation and flow.

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 Zombi 2 (dir. Lucio Fulci, 1979) 

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Pathological Life. The duplicity of pathos – donation and negation, feeling-with and feeling-against, crossing-over and dividing – is directly tied to an ontology of life that is defined in terms of pathos. Poetics is, for Aristotle, indelibly connected to life: “tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life.”[15] But at the same time, this life-affirming aspect of catharsis often functions through its inverse, and objects that would normally be repulsive, such as a corpse, become objects of understanding: “We take delight in viewing the most accurate possible images of objects which in themselves cause distress when we see them (e.g. the shapes of the lowest species of animal, and corpses).”[16]

In the De anima, Aristotle notes that any attempt to think about life must encounter the problem of pathos, or affections. Aristotle’s initial move here is to distinguish an inquiry concerning “life itself” from an inquiry concerning living beings. The real challenge, for Aristotle, is to seek “the first principle of living things” rather than any analysis living things, viewed individually or as a species. It is this principle that Aristotle refers to as psukhē, traditionally translated as “soul” but better translated as “life-principle.”[17] A basic distinction is made, then, between an essence or principle of life – psukhē – and the myriad of specific living things such as plants, animals, and people. We might, then, suggest that Aristotle here posits a difference between “Life” as an ontological foundation, and “the living,” or the various specific instantiations of Life.

Yet, at the beginning of the treatise, this search for a principle of life immediately opens onto a number of problems. For one, Aristotle notes that the distinction between a principle of life and living things raises the question of their relation. Is psukhē, the principle of life, “in” each living thing entirely, or is it distributed or shared among particular living things? What, then, is the relation between Life and the living, between psukhē-as-principle and psukhē-as-manifestation?

The crux of this apparent confusion may not lie in the inexactness of Aristotle’s prose, but rather in the way in which relation itself is conceptualized. In Book I Aristotle’s initial response is to suggest that psukhē is quasi-autonomous with respect to living things. While there can be affections peculiar to psukhē itself, there can also be other types of affections that are specific to living beings – but then this also means that those affections specific to living things are indirectly specific to psukhē in itself. And this is where the language of pathos becomes important. As Aristotle notes, the “affections of the soul also present a difficulty. It is unclear whether all these are shared also with the ensouled thing or whether some one of them is peculiar to the soul itself.”[18] One the one hand, pathos is central in that it connects psukhē in itself to the various instances of psukhēpathos connects Life to the living and vice-versa.

Aristotle’s comments on pathos are noteworthy, for the relation between psukhē as Life and as the living seems to hinge on the meanings that relation itself – pathos – has in this nexus between Life and the living. Here pathos is less like emotion and more like a relation, “what a thing undergoes.” A body – be it plant, animal, or human – undergoes or is capable of undergoing any number of affections. Thus, affection (pathos) is itself the relation between Life and the living.

But now the question is, if pathos is in some way constitutive of the very relation between Life and the living – that is, if pathos actually conditions psukhē – then why would pathos need to be purged or expunged? If pathos conditions life generally, then the purification of pathos would seem to amount to a de-conditioning of life, to a negation of life, the anti-pathos. The central political question that the example of Greek tragedy poses is “what does pathos purge?” If one of the functions of pathos in this case is to cleanse, purify, and re-articulate the body politic, then what are the criteria that define what is to be purged, expelled, and healed? The answer – posed, for example, by Aeschylus’ Oresteia – would seem to be that it is not only a person or a person’s wrongful deeds that are deserving of purgation, but it is a whole class of persons, actions, of life-forms, that constitute that which must be purged. Again, “tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life.” It is not so much persons or actions that must be purged, but a chain of events, temporalities, and bodies – forms of life that are marked as threatening to the coherence of the body politic. In such instances, pathos becomes pathological, not just by its propensity to circulate and flow, but by the way it raises the political problem of managing such circulation and flow. This class of life-that-is-marked-for-purgation is that which we can call pathological life.

If pathos designates not just emotions of suffering and pity, but circulations of affects, then what would a “pathology” be in this context? From the modern epidemiological standpoint, what is pathological is a virulent microbe, abetted by the technologies of transportation, global trade, and the passage of peoples and animals across borders. One of the central affects of epidemics, plague, and pestilence is their pervasiveness, their seeming to at once be tied to stigmatized “others” but at the same time capable of connecting the most unlikely conjunctions of bodies, economies, and territories. But these ways of thinking give us an image of pathos that is, like the pathological life of disease, at once everywhere – in the air, all around us, pervading the very space of the body itself – and yet which must “emerge” from somewhere – even if this “somewhere” lies in the nebulous grey zones of an orientalized “East” or a biopoliticized and racialized “other.”[19]

But an epidemic is not just the passing of a “thing” like a message along a channel. What circulates are also affects, affects that are also relations of bodies. In fact, epidemics illustrate, in a highly ambivalent manner, the way that bodies are affects and vice-versa. So, if pathological life is not simply the biological life of the virulent microbe, and if it is not simply the representation of the patient’s suffering, then what is the relationship between pathos-as-circulation, and the view of the body politic as constituted by circulation, flux, and flow?

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I Am Legion. Interestingly, the characteristics of pathological life are central to early modern demonology, which identifies a pathos unique to the politico-theological interests in the body politic. We can suggest, then, that there is a hidden genealogy to this Foucauldian biopolitics of flux, flow, and circulation. Not surprisingly, the descriptions of demonic possession during the early modern era often overlap with descriptions of epidemic disease. There are, of course, a number of precedents for this analogy in early Christianity. The most well-known of these is the scene in Mark 5 (also repeated in Luke 8-9), in which Jesus, passing through a village with his followers, performs an exorcism on an old man possessed by demons. Jesus asks the demon’s name, and a multitude of voices rings out “I am Legion, for we are many.” The demons are then cast out of the old man’s body and into a herd of swine, which are then driven off a cliff. Word of Jesus’ healing powers spreads throughout the village, and, in fear, the villagers ask Jesus to leave. The entire scene is depicted in quasi-medical terms, the exorcism as a “healing” or “curing.”

In the “I am Legion” fable we see pathos stratified in the three ways we’ve mentioned. The demons are explicitly identified – and identify themselves – as a multiplicity, not only by the multitude of voices that ring out, but by the multitude of quasi-material demonic bodies that inhabit the single body of the old man. There is also the animality of pathos in the herd of swine, which themselves swarm in a kind of “dance of death” frenzy. Here pathos is implicitly linked to the many animal instances of swarming in insects, flocking in birds or bats, or schooling in fish. Finally, pathos is also expressed in a linguistic dissemination of word-of-mouth. The exorcism incites both reverence and fear in the villagers, and word spreads to such an extent that Jesus’ reputation precedes him to the next village.

Scenes such as this provided Scholastic demonology with a set of references against which individual cases of demonic possession could be verified, judged, and incorporated into Church doctrine. The result was not only a new set of juridical procedures, but an new discourse and way of thinking about the supernatural in terms of the unhuman. This culminates in the early modern debates over the ontological status of demonic possession – works such as Jean Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des sorciers, Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonium, and Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, each shape this debate. Each text makes claims about the role that medicine plays in either dispelling demonic possession, or distinguishing it from other non-supernatural causes (e.g. epilepsy, melancholia, trickery). They draw out the boundaries of the demonic, which become formalized in the great “handbooks” on demonology, such as the Malleus Maleficarum. In this way, the attempt to control epidemic disease, like that of the attempts to control cases of demonic possession and their potential heresies, is, in modern terms, a “problem of multiplicities”; or, to be more precise, the political challenges posed by epidemics and demonic possession point to a key relationship, that between sovereignty and multiplicity.

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Spiritual Biopolitics. Though medieval thinkers from Anselm to Peter Lombard had commented on Satan and the Fall, it is Thomas Aquinas’ treatise De malo (On Evil) that serves as the blueprint for Scholastic demonology. Aquinas’ treatise places the demon within an ontological framework of Aristotelian naturalism, examining not just the Biblical Satan, but the demon itself as a kind of life form – as a perturbation within the “flow of life,” the spiritus. Aquinas considers demons to be intermediary beings like angels, lacking the absolute omnipotence of God but also lacking the limits of mortality of human beings. The theological and ontological status of spiritual creatures was, in effect, an act of boundary-management between the natural and supernatural.

It is in the final eight questions of the De malo, in which Aquinas addresses the impact of demons in the human world, where the question of spiritus is raised. While Aquinas acknowledges the existence of demons as such, his dismissal of demonic powers is strangely modern – demonic signs, possession, and necromancy are all given Aristotelian-naturalistic explanations. This is the case when Aquinas discusses the impact demons can have on life processes such as generation and decay, and in particular on the lives of human beings. Aquinas explains demonic possession as a mis-application of demonic intellect outside of its appropriate domain (this alone distinguishes demons from angels). The demonic is the aberrant intellect, that then results in the aberrant form of life that is the possessed subject.

The technique by which the demon does this is through a perturbation of spiritus, a term which Aquinas uses in its theological sense of “life-spirit,” “breath,” or “flow of life.” Borrowing from Aristotelian hylomorphism, Aquinas suggests that demonic possession operates neither in the purely supernatural realm, nor purely in the mind of the possessed, but in the intermediary flux that connects them:

Therefore, what happens in the case of those asleep regarding the apparitions of dreams from the local movement of vapors and fluids (spirituum et humorum) can happen by the like local movement achieved by devils, sometimes in those asleep, and sometimes in those awake. And in the case of those awake, devils can sometimes indeed move internal vapors and fluids (spiritus et humores) even to the point that the use of reason is completely fettered, as is evidently the case with the possessed.[20]

Spiritus is precisely that which mediates the natural and supernatural, earthly and divine – as well as managing the distinction and separation between them. The result, according to Aquinas, can be as simple as erratic behavior or as opaque as necromancy and the raising of the dead. Aquinas makes a key point here, however – the demon does not possess the power to create life, though it may have the impression of animating and re-animating. This is because, for Aquinas, the demon itself is not living; it does not have animation in the Aristotelian sense of living, natural beings. And yet it can have the effect of animating. The demon, then, seems to be that which can animate but which itself is not animated; that which perturbs and disturbs the flow of life but which is not itself living.

While Aquinas grants little in the way of real effectiveness to demons, this question of animation and vitalization remain an important part of Scholastic demonology. As Maaike van der Lugt notes in a recent study, the question of demonic generation is not just a question of whether angels or demons have bodies, but whether they partake in the vital processes that having bodies afford. This includes generation and decay, but also digestion, putrefaction, respiration, even communication. In her readings of Scholastic thinkers, van der Lugt focuses on the idea of “demonic generation,” or the capacity of the demon to take on human or animal life qualities:

In the theological discourse, the concept of the possessed body presupposes and is opposed to the notion of life and the human person. The Scholastics had refined and made more precise this distinction between the possessed body and the living body in a series of questions concerning the activities of angels and demons at the moment of their appearance…Were they capable of feeling, of moving, of speaking, or eating, or, finally, of generating life? Could they, according to the expression of Saint Thomas, exercise the opera vitae?[21]

There was, first, this taking on of vital properties are the “vital works” or “vital signs” of the demon, what Aquinas and other Scholastics referred to as opera vitae. But the opera vitae presumed a more basic action, which was the occupying of the body, and by extension, the occupation of vital or life forces, resulting in the possessed or “assumed” body, the corpora assumpta. The corpora assumpta, or the endowing of (human) life to the non-living (demon), produced a strange disunity within the body, manifested in the vital signs or opera vitae of the demon.

            Not only was Scholastic demonology – and the Church laws that elicited it – concerned with the identification and verification of the demonic, and not only was it important to be able to distinguish divine possessions from demonic ones, but there was also a concern with the “spiritual biopolitics” of life-forces or principles of animation, a biopolitics of spiritus. As Alain Bourreau notes, “[d]ivine rapture was the mirror image of diabolical possession, which itself was held in the obscurity of extracted confessions, denials, or medical loopholes. The analogous nature of possessions, either divine or diabolical, was the result of a similarity in the modes of action of the spiritus, of the divine spirit, either angelic or demonic.”[22]

There is a further twist to this biopolitics of the demon. In Scholastic demonology, demonic possession involves not just the life of the demon itself as a supernatural creature, but the vitalization of the demon by the body of the possessed. In this sense, demonic possession is not an appropriation of body or life, but rather the taking-on of life-processes. It is the “ensouling,” in Aristotelian terms (empsukhē) of that which is not living, the vitalization of the non-living. This is an important distinction. Demons often possess non-living things as well as living bodies. This is what Boureau refers to as the “epidemiological” demon, the demon that enters the host unawares, either through food, via objects, or even as borne on the wind. The demon – that which is not animated but which animates – is also that which animates the inanimate – objects, mists, clouds, even the bodies of the dead. Demons can thus often take on an “elemental” quality. In such cases, the demonic becomes almost purely abstract, becomes nearly identical to multiplicity itself.

~ * ~

Zombi 2 (dir. Lucio Fulci, 1979) 

~ * ~

Medical Demonology, Theology of Plague. At stake in the development of Scholastic demonology is the extent to which a form of power is produced that at once establishes and governs a supernatural – or, we might say, unhuman – field of circulations and flows. At stake, in other words, is the governance of the unhuman itself, the biopolitics of life-beyond-life – perhaps, even, a supernatural biopolitics.

            In cases such as these, medicine and theology are brought together in ambivalent ways. There is, first, what we might call “medical demonology,” or the ways in which medicine and medical knowledge came into relation with religious doctrine on, for instance, necromancy or the existence of demons. As early modern scholars have noted, medicine does not simply debunk or secularize demonology, quite the opposite. If anything, medicine comes to complete demonology, or at least serve as an arbitrator in disputed cases of demonic possession. The debate between Bodin, Weyer, and Scot is instructive. Bodin, an important early theorizer of sovereignty, argues for the reality of demonic possession – a threat to the religious order is also a threat to the secular order, and sovereignty undermined in the divine is also an undermining of sovereignty in the earthly. Bodin writes his treatise as an explicit retort to Weyer, who, as a physician, tentatively argues for a more medicalized and secular view of demonic possession. But even Weyer’s text is filled with uncertainties; medicine’s role is not simply to debunk all cases of demonic possession, but to distinguish authentic cases from inauthentic ones (which may be symptoms of melancholy, epilepsy, or hysteria). If Weyer allows for the real existence of demons, then Scot goes the distance and argues for a general dismissal of the reality of demonic possession – again, medicine serves as the fulcrum of his argument, explaining the supernatural by recourse to the natural.

            While that explanation varies, from the theological to the medical, and while the response varies, from persecution to diagnosis, what remains constant in medical demonology is the concern over the governance of the circulation and flow of pathos. If medical demonology pits medicine against a theological event, then we can also think about the inverse – the case in which theology is pitted against a natural-medical event. We can call this the “theology of plague,” and it involves, quite simply, religious explanations of epidemic disease. Not surprisingly, the “angry God” motif is a recurrent one, both in the classical context – Thucydides reports it as a popular explanation of the plague of Athens – as well as in the Christian context – for instance, in the many accounts of the Black Death. But more than the angry God or references to Revelations, these narratives of epidemic disease often contain a number of insights into the politics of plague and pestilence. Chroniclers of the Black Death often note how epidemic disease brings with it a disruption of social hierarchy and political order, often necessitating forms of intervention, from enforced quarantines, to the shutting up of houses, to the mass graves and legal interdiction on public gatherings, festivals, plays, and funerals.[23]

            All of these cases take place in an early modern or even pre-modern context. At the same time, they overlap significantly with contemporary concerns over global pandemics and biodefense. What if biopolitics is not simply immunological, but also demonological? Demonology, in this case, would have to be understood less as the all-too-human drama of temptation and sin, but more in terms of the governance of circulation, flux, and flow. It would also revolve around a phenomenon that is radically unhuman (the anti-pathos), or that serves as that which does not fit within the human framework. And it would also involve a form of life or vitalism that is often expressed as a contradiction (generative decay, the bestial and divine, communicable communication). In short, if biopolitics is demonological and not just immunological, this is because it raises the problem of the management of ambivalently vitalistic flux and flow – that is, the politics of unhuman life.

~ * ~

Poetics of Biopolitics. The classical term nekros encapsulates many of dichotomies of the biopolitics concept. In its traditional sense, nekros names the corpse, the body that is no longer living. When, for example, Odysseus holds funeral rites for his deceased companions, it is the nekros that is cremated. But when Odysseus makes his way to the underworld, what he encounters is not simply the dead body or the corpse, but “the ghosts of the dead” (nekuōn kataethnēōtōn).[24] Here nekros names “the dead” as a form of life, one that resists any reliable distinction between the living being and the corpse. And this second type of nekros is also a collective, politicized form of life (ethnea nekrōn, the “nations of the dead”).

Nowhere is this more effectively demonstrated than in Dante’s Inferno, where we see stratifications of the living dead that are at once the product of divine punishment and, as such, are meticulously managed as massing or aggregate bodies. In the sixth circle, where Dante and his guide Virgil come up to the giant, fortress-like gates of the infernal City of Dis. Guarded by hordes of demons, Virgil must enlist divine intervention in order to pass through the gates. Once Dante and Virgil enter, what they see is a city in ruins, an uneven landscape of burning, open graves:

And then we started moving toward the city (terra)
  in the safety of the holy words pronounced.
We entered there, and with no opposition.
  And I, so anxious to investigate
  the state of souls locked up in such a fortress (fortezza),
once in the place, allowed my eyes to wander,
  and saw, in all directions spreading out,
  a countryside (campagna) of pain and ugly anguish.[25]

In this landscape, at once terra, fortezza, and campagna, Dante and Virgil come to across another type of terrain – that of a landscape of open graves:

the sepulchers make all the land uneven,
  so they did here, strewn in all directions,
  except the graves here served a crueler purpose:
for scattered everywhere among the tombs
  were flames that kept them glowing far more hot
  than any iron an artisan might use.
Each tomb had its lid loose, pushed to one side,
  and from within came forth such fierce laments
  that I was sure inside were tortured souls.[26]

This harrowing vision of a field of burning graves blurs the boundary between corpse, grave, and the terrain itself. The scene prompts Dante to ask Virgil, “Master, what kind of shades are these lying down here, buried in the graves of stone, speaking their presence in such dolorous sighs?” His response: “There lie arch-heretics of every sect, with all of their disciples; more than you think are packed within these tombs.”[27]

In Dante’s version of the dead walking the earth, the living dead are explicitly ordered within the City of Dis; indeed, the living dead are the “citizens” of this city. Furthermore, as Virgil notes, the living dead are politicized: they are the heretics, those who have spoken against the theologico-political order, and, importantly, who have do so from within that order. In this way Dante links the heretics to the other circles of lower Hell, including the “sowers of discord” (who are meticulously, anatomically dismembered) and the “falsifiers” (who are ridden with plague and leprosy).

Nowhere else in the Inferno are we presented with such explicit analogies to the classical body politic. The City of Dis is, of course, very far from the idealized polis in Plato’s Republic, or the civitas Dei described by Augustine. The City of Dis is not even a living, human city. Instead, what we have is a necropolis, a dead city populated by living graves, by the dead walking the earth. The City of Dis is, in this guise, an inverted polis, an inverted body politic.

Again we have the ambiguous vitalism of the “shades,” as well as their massing and aggregate forms. But here the living dead are not simply an instance of judgment or divine retribution; in fact, they are the opposite, that which is produced through sovereign power. This sovereign power not only punishes (in the famous contrapasso), but, more importantly, it orders the multiplicity of bodies according to their transgressions or threats. In the Inferno, the living dead are not only a threat to political order, but the living dead are also organized and regulated by sovereign power. Sovereign power determines the living dead through an intervention into the natural workings of things, thereby managing the boundary between the natural and the supernatural. It does this not only to preserve the existing theological-political order, but also to identify a threat that originates from within the body politic.

Within this mortified body politic we witness two forms of power – a sovereign power that judges and punishes, but also a regulatory power that manages the flows and circulations of multiple bodies, their body parts and bodily fluids. In this way, Dante’s underworld is utterly contemporary, for it suggests to us that the body politic concept is always confronted with this twofold challenge – the necessity of establishing a sovereign power in conjunction with the necessity of regulating and managing multiplicities.

~ * ~

  L’Inferno (Gustave Doré, 1857)

~ * ~

Living, Dead. This is a remarkably persistent motif, and one finds in the contemporary low-brow example of the living dead. The peculiar sub-genre of the zombie film has, for many years, provided us with different cultural expressions of Dante’s living dead. The American and Italian traditions are the most prominent examples in this regard. While early Hollywood thrillers such as White Zombie or Revolt of the Zombies placed Western doctors and heroes within the context of voodoo and colonialism, American zombie films after George Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead (1968) place the living dead within a decidedly post-industrial, American context, self-reflexively stressing the “silent majority” and the uses of political satire.

By contrast, the Italian tradition of zombie films displays parts of both the early and later American traditions. Though many well-known directors have dabbled in the genre, it is Lucio Fulci who has explored (some would say exploited) the motif of the living dead in the most detail. Fulci’s zombie films not only pick up on the idea of the colonial encounter as a medical encounter, but medical power is always linked to the supernatural – perhaps we can even say, sovereign – power to raise the dead. Critics of Fulci dismiss his work, noting that Fulci basically made one film, over and over. Admittedly, it is hard to deny such dismissals, for Fulci’s films, such as the cult classic Zombie (1979; released in Italy as Zombi 2), The Beyond (1981), or the strangely uneventful City of the Living Dead (1980), repeatedly present an archetypal scene, one that visually encapsulates each of the films – that of the dead walking the earth.[28]

There is, to be sure, a political romanticism to these modern variants of the living dead; eventually, the multitude prevails through sheer persistence, and all symbols of hierarchy eventually fall. But more than this, what is instructive is the way such films demonstrate the problem of biopolitics as the governance of circulation, flux, and flow. These scenes of the dead walking the earth often signify moments of retribution, the living dead – themselves the product of a medical-sovereign power – taking vengeance upon their creators. Similar scenes are found in Romero’s zombie films: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and, more recently, Land of the Dead (2005), all contain key, climactic scenes of the living dead as a massing, contagious movement through the fences, barricades, and bunkers that human groups construct to manage them. The spaces through which the living dead move – houses, suburbs, malls, city streets, military bases, and corporate towers – all become porous spaces to the miasmatic logic of the living dead. They not only occupy the borderland between the living and the dead, but between the One and the Many, sovereignty and multiplicity. Their massing and their aggregation is not only a matter of number, but also of circulation and movement (albeit a maddeningly slow, persistent movement…). The movement of such massing and aggregate forms is that of contagion and circulation, a passing-through, a passing-between, even, in an eschatological sense, a passing-beyond.

In these archetypal scenes of the dead walking the earth, the living dead are driven by an ambiguous vitalism. Occupying the grey zone between the living and the dead, the zombie is “animated” in an Aristotelian sense; put another way, the living dead are living precisely because they are a construed threat. But, at the same time, they are the not-living because they are excluded from the body politic and the fortifications of security and political order – especially when they always reside within such spaces.

From this perspective, what begins to become apparent is that biopolitics always implicates an ontology of life that is nevertheless is always attempting to supersede. That ontology is at once medical and theological, medical demonology and the theology of plague. Something that decomposes and that is living; perhaps this conjunction between psukhē and pathos, between life and circulation/flux/flow, is the central dilemma for biopolitics today – the intelligibility of the “bio” of biopolitics.

 ~ * ~ 

Coda: The Incorruptibles. Theologians often talk about the incorruptibility of the corpses of saints, corpses touched by divine intervention and miraculously impervious to the temporal processes of decay. The corpses of mystics such as John of the Cross and Teresea of Avila are counted among the Incorruptibles of the Catholic Church. By contrast, I would like to be absolutely corruptible – nothing of my body would remain, not even the clothes I’m wearing or the notebook in which I’m writing. Finally all words and memories would evaporate, leaving not even an echo or resonance. It’s a political fantasy – but no less fantastical than the Incorruptibles.

~ * ~


[1]           Note: This text is derived from a talk given at Amherst College in 2009. Some of this material is found in modified form in my book In The Dust Of This Planet –  Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 (Zero Books, 2011).

                  [1] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. I (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 142.

[2]           An important exception is the work of Roberto Esposito, whose trilogy Bíos, Immunitas, and Communitas examines the philosophical underpinnings of biopolitics as a concept.

[3]           Foucault, Sécurité, Territoire, Population – Cours Au Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2004), p. 16.

[4]           Ibid., p. 12.

[5]           Foucault, Il Faut Défendre la Société – Cours Au Collège de France, 1976 (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1997), p. 216.

[6]           This idea is further explored in my book After Life (University of Chicago Press, 2010), pp. 1-24.

[7]           Hobbes, Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994 [1651), “Introduction.”

[8]           Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, trans. Alexis Lykiard (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1994), pp. 142-43.

[9]           Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, Chapter XXIX (“Of those things that Weaken, or tend to the Dissolution of a Common-wealth”).

[10]         Ibid.

[11]         Plato, Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (New York: Penguin, 2003), 444c, p. 153.

[12]         Ibid., IV, 444d, p. 154.

[13]         The Republic of Plato, trans. Alan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), VIII, 556e, p. 235.

[14]         Aristotle, Poetics, trans, Malcolm Heath (New York: Penguin, 1996), 1449a24-28. Aristotle’s famous definition is as follows: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete, and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification (katharsis) of such emotions.”

[15]         Ibid., 1450a15.

[16]         Ibid., 1448b10-14.

[17]         Aristotle, On the Soul / Parva Naturalia / On Breath (Loeb Classical Library), trans. W.S. Hett (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000 [1936]). Aristotle reiterates several times: “Let us then, taking up the starting point of our inquiry, say that the ensouled is distinguished from the unsouled by its being alive” (II.1.413a).

[18]         Ibid., I.1.403a.

[19]         See, for example, Sheldon Watts, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[20]         Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Richard Regan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), q.III, art.iv,

[21]         Maaike van der Lugt, Le Ver, le demon, et la vierge: les théories médiévales génération extraordinaire (Paris: Belles Lettres, 2004), p. 238.

[22]         Alain Bourreau, Satan the Heretic: The Birth of Demonology in the Medieval West, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 174.

[23]         Literary accounts, from Boccaccio, to Defoe, to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark, all take up these basic motifs – the disruptive event, the lack of adequate explanation, the political shutting-down, and the ensuing threat of social chaos.

[24]         The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin), XI.39.

[25]         Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 2002), Canto IX, lines 104-111. Italian consulted at the Digital Dante Project, dante.ilt.columbia.edu.

[26]         Ibid., 115-123.

[27]         Ibid., 124-129.

[28]         The final scene in Zombi 2 depicts the living dead slowly descending on New York City (they are crossing Brooklyn Bridge – apparently zombies come from Brooklyn…).

One thought on “NEKROS; OR, THE POETICS OF BIOPOLITICS

  1. Pingback: Nekros – The Poetics of Biopolitics « Faculty Blog

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