The ninth of a series of reports from the American Studies Association
“Vital Subjects: Biopolitics and Thanatopolitics in (Trans)national American Studies”
Moderated by José Saldivar
Kevin Floyd set out to address the convergence between vital bodies and vital consciousness with respect to Delany’s “Tale of Plagues and Carnivals.” The AIDS crisis has generated tropes of mapping, which leads in turn to the mapping of biopolitical governance. But does juxtaposing the words “vital” and “consciousness” conjure up the spectre of an intolerable contradiction? In the light of a recent New Left Review article on the inability of contemporary global capital to employ the workforce, combined with the many obstacles to workers’ organizing, a sustained consideration of neoliberalism such as “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” is timely. The novel depicts a fleeting moment before the condition to which these terms refer [AIDS, HIV, and the terms that preceded them] was stabilized by names. Multiple narratives compete with each other in attempts to comprehend an epidemic while dealing with its impact. The dearth of scholarship on this novel, given its substance and its historical import, is distressing.
The two parallel narratives that constitute the bulk of the novel — contemporary material from Delany’s journals and the stories of the plague in Nevèrÿon — are both about an immediately experienced social and economic crisis that generates mostly widespread disoriented shock: the tv news at the end, the earlier experience of dis-ease, the question Joey asks Delany, people’s fear of contact, anecdotes of the ER, rumors spread via bathroom graffiti. Everyone tries to read the signs, everyone has anecdotal evidence of something. The impossibility of mapping becomes evident. Economic anecdotes proliferate, as with the newly-unemployed in the Port Authority. The accumulation crisis is most immediately visible in people’s responses — the “Street Talk” of “Street Talk/Straight Talk”; the arrests of the homeless in response to the crisis. The epidemic that descends on Kolhari echoes the contemporary cleansing — the alarm is only sounded when the crisis is seen as affecting “the family.” Both the murders of the homeless and the spread of the plague → neoliberal lockdown. Those who are killed are represented as the killers. “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” models localized political consciousness but poses a global problem that echoes our own.
As Jean Comaroff has pointed out, seeing the AIDS “victim” as an instance of Bare Life ignores the agency of the sufferer and reflects a tendency to think in terms of life as profit: it’s the neocolonial regimes that reduce their populations to bare being, and to apply the Agambenian ideas of being in that situation just reinscribes this. AIDS activism risks strategic reductionism; the cognitive limits of South African attempts to map it reveals that such reductionism is a necessity for mapping. But we already know from the introduction to the Grundrisse that all thinking is reductive and never innocent. How does Delany present the imaginative subject? In a manner that serves as a nice counterweight to the biopolitical subject in Hardt and Negri, whose capacities are subsumed under biopolitical production and is defined ontologically, as productive being, not cognition: the problem of the multitude is to find its telos. Hardt and Negri’s trilogy performs the cognitive mapping while, like Lenin, implying no epistemic capacity on the part of the multitude. Delany and Comaroff, refreshingly, present cognitive epistemic subjectivity and not laboring ontological subjectivity. As we recapitulate conflicts over the idealized laborer, can we imagine the agential capacity of the biopolitical subject? The Delanyan subject, the subject that “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” performs, is defined by critical knowledge and by biopolitical threat. Does biopolitical consciousness still strike us as an impossibility, and if so, what does that tell us about our moment and about our tools?
Ashley Byock spoke of Union Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and his body’s circulation by train, addressing his death and the intersection of the body with national identity. After Ellsworth was killed in the course of taking down a Confederate flag from the roof of an Alexandria boarding house, and a member of his regiment killed the landlord in return, both dead men became martyrs to their respective causes. But landlord James Jackson’s fame was short-lived, whereas the circulation of Ellsworth’s body, seen by tens of thousands of viewers, kept it know. The intersection of its corporeal specificity and its imagined power is evident in narratives of his death, which involved his body being draped with the very Confederate flag he had taken down, which was in turn stained and purified by his blood.
Many questions remain. Why was Ellsworth embalmed? He was a close friend of the President; his regiment of “Fire Zouaves” had attained some fame. Did Lincoln request that he be embalmed? How was his body mobilized? It was transferred from Virginia to an embalmer in DC, then lay in state at the White House — Mary Todd Lincoln laid a wax wreath upon it [here Byock offered a detailed history of embalming and my note-taking hand got tired] . . . the rise of the sentimental culture of embalming in the U.S., when it suddenly becomes possible to preserve middle-class bodies. We see the creation of a mourning public and the fashioning of this public through a collective work of mourning. The significatory valence of a dead body is not as stable as it might seem: What do the body in question and its death signify? Whose desire? Whose control? We only know who embalmed Ellsworth, not why.
Biopolitics situates the body in a network of forces promoting the social good: vide Esposito on the Holocaust. Biopolitics has been defined as a form of racism, immunizing against the “contaminating” aspect of the population – who’s preserved? Those individuals whose existence is most identified with the perpetuity of the state. A sense of the perpetuity of the populace — the Modern notion of the “natural” posits/ enables contiguity between the citizen’s body and the body politic. Of course, the notion of the state is problematic in 1861: we see “national mourning” in only half the nation. The perpetuity of the nation relies upon past /future fantasies of a Complete Union. Ellsworth wrote letters to his mother and his brother on the eve of crossing the Potomac, anticipating his death. What does such a condition of martyrdom mean here? It doesn’t fit current theorizations of, say, the suicide bomber. Ellsworth’s body becomes significant of a nation’s perpetuity.
Christopher Breu wanted to thank Saldivar for having read the whole sixty-page chapter from which his talk is excerpted and to acknowledge that he’d conceived the paper in dialogue with a brilliant grad student. Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, its age notwithstanding, is a book for our time. Caren Irr characterized it as the postmodern, but it’s really not easy to classify. At the time when we hear of the emergence of a global aesthetic, the novel reveals the ethnocentrism of those classifications — it effects something like a transmodernity, inside and outside the histories of modernity. It addresses the metaphorical “Global North” and the metaphorical “Global South” (although one can’t really reduce its spatial orientations). Silko’s present is the durée for which the conquest of America is a recent event — geological time in which the five hundred years of occupation are brief.
Silko is not just about American Indian contexts and American Indian life: she addresses the transnational native and subaltern world versus the metropolises of the global north. The black market in biomaterials, the hemispheric drug trade, and the globalization of torture films (and torture) are very contemporary, being productions central to the neoliberal life. Her San Diego and Tuscon are postindustrial cities inhabited by symbolic means of biopolitical production. Roberto Esposito’s work on “thanatopolitics” and the logic of immunity addresses how communities and states underwrite violence toward internal and external enemies. Hardt and Negri rearticulate biopolitics as economic (as did Foucault); Silko articulates thanatopolitics as economic. Quijano’s world-systems account of capitalism as always having been behind colonization, of wage-labor as a form of racial dispossession considers the “return” of accumulation by dispossession as an ongoing process moving from the periphery to the metropole. Esposito sees “community” as central to the pacification of the biopolitical nation-state — class is about members of the nation-state, race is about the abjected; but neoliberalism takes the dynamics formerly used on the racial outsider and brings them back home. Newly uprooted and proletarianized Northern populations now connect with third-worlders.
In this political novel, new forms recognize and rearticulate the racialized categories. To the Army of Justice and Retribution, “disappearance of things European” refers to social and economic structure. The novel refigures Marxist theory and addresses how to account for resistance from the periphery, an issue that Lenin and Mao as well as Laclau and Mouffe, and indeed Hardt and Negri, have tried to address. A view of all social actors as productive – neoliberalism as a regime of accumulation in which unprecedented social alliances are possible. Breu shares many of Floyd’s suspicions of Hardt and Negri but finds their “altermodernity” useful in looking at the demands of the collectively owned, the revolution. Silko’s views break with Hardt and Negri’s around questions of materiality: they tend to background materiality and emphasize questions of “immaterial production,” but the production of material goods looks increasingly unanachronistic: these guys are erasing the material and foregrounding the First World. Their focus on intellectual property ignores the theft of land, things, and resources. They elide consciousness that’s organized around the material. Silko, rather than disavowing the material, acknowledges what Adorno called “the preponderance of the object” and offers an alternative form of biopolitics based on the recognition of the resistances of the material — not about governmentality-human capital, but about recognizing bodies and the material object world, promoting a conception of sustainable and just life.
There followed a lively q & a, of which my account will be brief because I ran out of notebook. One questioner suggested that Chris and Kevin are converging. The revolutionary space is there. They both see what biopolitics is reproducing. But Silko offers a critique of what Chris is generally trying, contra Kevin, to redeem. Breu acknowledged some frustration with the Deleuzian turn. But what he thinks is right is that power is working less through mediated categories like citizenship and is working increasingly on bodies. That doesn’t mean we lack the space for subjectivity — how do we think about the otherness of the material? Kevin thinks Breu is after some unmediated materiality, which we know from Chapter One of Bodies that Matter is a cul-de-sac; Breu suggested that perhaps that chapter and that book are not the last word on the issue and noted that the body becomes the ground on which these politics take place in Silko and Bellamy. Floyd wants to take Foucault’s turn against Hegel seriously. Some discussion of race ensued, with Priscilla Wald mentioning that Fred Jameson does not do race — you can see him shut down when you mention it. Breu’s paper had mentioned race, but Floyd’s had not. Society Must Be Defended uses “race” to mean nation. Joyce Chaplin’s Subject Matter was recommended.