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Use of Birth: Biopolitics, Biotechnics, and Natal Alienation
Professor Sara Brill (Philosophy, Fairfield University) gives a public lecture, part of the CMRS-CEGS Research Seminar for Winter 2023, “Historicity. Re-reading Michel Foucault,” taught by UCLA Professor Giulia Sissa.
In Foucault’s later engagement with Greek antiquity, the concept of bios finds revolutionary force less in its usefulness to a notion of biopolitics (in bio-) than in an art of living (tekhnē tou biou), i.e. in its value for an ethical/political project of living otherwise, and thus in an alignment with alterity, novelty, and the new. In the political theories of Plato and Aristotle, bios finds its practical force as an adherence to type, and serves as a regulative ideal, marking out an ethical-political project that involves formal legislation, conventional codes of behavior, bodily regulation, spiritual supervision, surveillance, and tropes of naturalization and denaturalization, all for the sake of realizing a cosmological ideal. To follow this understanding of bios is to observe a whole host of forms of training in thought, action, and desire, not only in how to live a life of a certain kind, but in how to think of oneself as alive, as born.
As circumscribing a form of natality, bios opens to scrutiny the processes by which one’s approach to one’s status as born may take more or less alienated form, deepening our ability to assess the political valence of life. The need for such insight has been starkly demonstrated in the dramatic erosion of protection for the exercise of reproductive autonomy in the US and the punitive theology that resides at its heart, of which the Dobbs decision is the most extreme expression thus far. The ground had been laid for these moves in a sustained effort to cultivate ignorance about the material conditions of human coming-to-be, from the performed falsehoods about women’s reproductive capacities from the mouths of elected officials; to the particular cruelty of laws that underwrite punitive impulses by deputizing them, feeding a fantasy of the vigilante for the ‘unborn;’ to the indoctrination in debasing imagery that forms abstinence curriculum in what passes for sex education in many American schools. Exacerbated by the paucity of ethical frameworks to navigate the capacities and possibilities opened by reproductive technology, which vastly outstrip any developed protocols and habits, these cultivated forms of unknowing lay the ideological groundwork for the forced birth movement; for the criminalization of miscarriage, abortion, and, increasingly, birth control; and for the push toward fetal personhood. Indeed, at the heart of these efforts, we find fetishized representations of fetal ‘life’ and the destructive power of the fiction of the ‘unborn.’ Taken together, these forces confront the exercise of reproductive agency with a crisis long in the making. There is continued and pressing need for conceptual frameworks that describe the forms of oppression at work here, track their sources, and imagine liberatory practices, concepts, and policies that would bring about their abolition.
The analytic tools provided by bios offer rich conceptual ground for better understanding the processes and effects of natal alienation and the fantasies that support it. As part of a larger project to track the use of birth as an oppressive force, I am interested in the relationship between the bios of Plato and Aristotle and Foucault’s understanding of way of life. More specifically, Foucault’s alignment of tekhnē tou biou with new modes of living draws him into the sphere of another thinker of the political valence of novelty, Hannah Arendt, whose alignment of natality with action hinges on an explicit turn away from ancient Greek thinking in order to focus on ‘second’ birth, on the association of birth with beginning anew marked in Augustin’s formulation initium ut esset homo creates est. Recent anticolonial and feminist thought suggest that neither Foucauldian bios nor Arendtian natality are able to adequately assess the forms of oppression that emerge from the spectre of the unborn; both appear to leave untouched the fantasies of birth that prove decisive in shaping how one takes up one’s status as born. Must we say of Foucault’s bios what has also been said of Arendt’s natality, namely, that it is undertheorized? Professor Brill will explore this and related questions in an effort to track the role of bios in Foucault’s later work, and its relevance for tracing the forms of natal alienation that make the oppressive use of birth possible.
Co-sponsored by the UCLA Department of Political Science.
Join on Zoom at https://ucla.zoom.us/j/95860364810?pwd=VTJJY2oyS1YyLy9KNTB5TFZXRWhKQT09