Between Biopower and Thanatopower

Power is everywhere.  We can trace power in a coronavirus. It has overpowered human life.  We have little or no knowledge of the virus. It is this knowledge gap that has given it the power edge over humanity.   The virus is acting over our bodies and we are all trying to save each other’s bodily life. It is certainly exercising biopower and it has produced what we can call biopolitics.  But the fact that we are somehow living between death and life, bios/life is becoming vulnerable and death / thanatos is ruling our life. This means life is administered on the basis of the power of death and not life.  Biopower  is diminished by thantopower. We have visibly come under  thanatopolitics.  The power of death is governing our life. This is why we may say that  with the coronavirus  pandemic  biopolitics is turning into thanatopolitics.  

Lets us understand thantopolitics  with the help of the thought of  Martin Heidegger.  Heidegger ha not used this term  but some scholars  trace its meaning  in him. Heidegger seems to suggest that only humans have a hand. Animals have paws/ claws and not hands.   In his 1942-1943 winter semester lecture on Parmenides, He begins by asking, ‘what distinguishes the hand that writes and hand that types?’  He points out that hand is biotechnical as it already linked with the word. But the typewriter tears writing from its proper place, the realm of the hand which is also the realm of the word.  This means handwriting produces inscriptions that  involve biopolitics and we can trace the hand in the unique calligraphy of its writing while the technology of typewriting  hides the hand  and gives us transcriptions in the moulds of samness  and is, therefore, already a thanatopolitics. 

 This is why Heidegger seems to indicate that handwriting is manifesting the proper relation of  to humans with Being while typewriting does not.  This points out that the hand that modern technology offers man is no longer ‘the properly acting hand’.  We can clearly see how Heidegger marks a proper action for the hand and distinguish it from the improper action associated with technology which flattens all humans into sameness doing away their  uniqueness.

We may be enabled to dwell into the depths of this insight offered by Heidegger if we understand what he means by proper with regards to humans.  In the context of the act of handwriting, the writing hand acts properly because writing with a hand belongs to humans as properly their own.  This is how Heidegger thinks that writing hand enjoys a proper relation with Being. This means technology alters this relation to Being and completely transform the  nature of humanity.  One can see the anxiety of the thanatopolitical in Heidegger about the encounter of Humans with technology.  

He thinks that it is the technology that creates a tear in our relations with Being. It leads us to fall away from our true/ real/ proper self. Thus to him the use of technology means to lose what is proper to humanity which he understood as one’s relations with Being.  Maybe we can also see how our proper relation with Being is disrupted by coronavirus pandemic and biopolitics has transmuted into thanatopolitics.  In fact, the lethal virus has taken away or is threatening to take away what is proper to us humans.   

This is why maybe we have suspended life under the lockdown almost in the manner Georgio Agamben  talks of the withdrawal of the bios  from Homo Sacer. Homo Sacer is a de-subjectivized person who  is  enjoying only bare life/ zoe .  Homo Sacer was a criminal who lost his privileges/ bios as a citizen of the city because of his crimes.   He then becomes vulnerable and can be killed by anyone. But his killer is not charged by law as a crime since he was already divested of his citizenship.  Georgio Agamben  thinks that the Jews under Hilter’s Nazism  and Muslims today are de-subjectivized subjects.  We can see how CAA  in India seem to de-subjectivize Muslims in our country. 

Maybe the novel virus has converted us Homo Sacer .  We have indeed become vulnerable to death just like Homo Sacer. The virus can inflect us anytime. We have been robbed of what is proper of our life and are left with bare life/ zoe.  We are haunted by the specter of the virus and have to put up with bare life as we have to choose between life and death.  It has banned our ‘life in the city’ and we have to return to the safety of the enclosures of our homes.  None of us are safe until all of us are safe. 

 The regime of thanatos / death has taken hold of the globe. No one can escape it for now.  The dividing line between life and death is drifting towards death.  We are now living a life ordered by the virus.  We are framed by the virus in the Heideggerian sense.  Indeed, the virus has acquired sovereignty over our life and death.   The life that is ordered for us by the virus is leaning towards death .  The reign of thanatos will continue till we find  a adequate medical response to the pandemic.  We have to go through this dark time. 

 This descent into the death zone has to be educative and emancipative.   We cannot like the virus embody the power of death and unleash thanatopolitics.  We cannot de-dignify or de-subjectify  people.  At the most,  this experience of the shadow of death in the wake of this pandemic should enable us to  divide our selves.   This dividing of oneself and making the other half subject to the first is taught by Italian thinker, Robert Esposito. The animal side of us needs  to be put under our mastery and control so that we enable people  to enjoy the fullness of bios/ life. 

 It is  time to de-animalize us and become humane, compassionate, and caring.  Maybe this distancing away from the cruelty within us leads us to unleash emancipative biopolitics that will save as well as empower all life.  The pandemic that took away our life proper and gave us only  a bare life can give us lessons not to repeat the same. We cannot become an apparatus or dispositif that will take away the life proper from the people particularly the vulnerable but one that fights for victims of de-subjectifications who  are condemned to bare life of different kinds. 

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao