Last week, we wrapped up by suggesting that the control revolution of biotechnology in the modern era of biopolitics issues a demand for escape; viz., escape from the power relations that immediately take up my body and transform it into something otherwise than my own. The control revolution set forth over both the biopolitical body and the body politic has been established as a decisive problem for modernity. In this week’s post, the final of this series, I want to take some preliminary steps towards framing the question of escape as a flight from modernity, into postmodern thought.
Last week we took up the theme of escape as it appears in Levinas, through and against the philosophy of one of his most important intellectual forebears, Heidegger. We must recall that, for Heidegger, the essence of technology is nothing technological; rather, its essence is Enframing [Gestell]. Enframing is best understood as a gathering together of objects, as within the frame of a painting, that orders and reveals its objects in a particular way. Technology orders its objects in the mode of standing-reserve, in which objects become cease to become objects in their gathering together as such, and rather fall into a mechanical ordering, as in the ‘rods, pistons, and chassis’ of an engine. Technology, in this sense, transcends mere instrumentality; “man stands within the essential realm of Enframing. He can never take up a relationship to it only subsequently. Thus the question as to how we are to arrive at a relationship to the essence of technology… always comes too late.” The modern crisis is such that the human subject no longer finds itself in the human being, but as an already biotechnological body whose pure exchange-value is the reproduction of biopower. It is this Levinasian bondage of the subject to the facticity of its biological being, in which it finds itself always already in the order of standing-reserve; that is, as already transformed into pure exchange-value. Enframing, as a kind of revealing, is always what reveals the being of the subject to itself. This Enframing, in which the question of the relationship of the human being to the essence of technology ‘always comes too late’, thus destines [‘destining’, Geschick] the subject upon a history [Geschichte] not essentially different from its way of revealing. Here we have another view of Heidegger as a thinker against modernity, in the form of an identifiable ‘end of history’ which being immediately confronts, and in relation to which being is forced to reorient itself as a subject. The view of the essence of technology as pure instrumentality challenges humanity’s freedom in relation to it, precisely because the failure to acknowledge its real essence, which is Enframing, sets being upon a destining in which it is always already revealed to itself as if through the frame, which in an important sense predetermines the history of being (if not in the strong sense of predetermination, perhaps we can say that Enframing sets boundary conditions on the possibility of the history of being). For Heidegger, “[f]reedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way [my emphasis].” The ‘at any given time’ condition is important; man cannot simply step out of the frame and find his being there once he has set himself upon the course of a destining as Enframing.
The supreme danger of a “destining [that] reigns in the mode of Enframing,” is exactly the problem of the modern constitution of biopolitics and the biotechnological transformation of the body. “This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.” That is, man comes to the point of encountering himself only in the commodity form, as instrument of biopower. “Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth.” Here we find the modern constitution of the sovereign body as the biopolitical body, which excludes ‘bare life’ [zoē] from the body politic precisely by including it in the sovereign sphere as standing-reserve, on the threshold of inclusion into the political body [bios] only on the condition of its transformation to a commodity form under biocapitalism, whose labour-power is biopower. This returns us to Agamben’s claim that “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power,” coupled with a logic of the sovereign structure of the law in which the self-constitution of the sovereign is always as an exception from the juridical order, putting the sovereign body on the threshold of what is included and what is excluded from the sphere of law. The sovereign body as biopolitical body includes in the form of the incorporation of ‘bare life’ into the political body, and excludes in the form of a rejection of ‘bare life’ outside of the threshold of the sphere of law, the political body which the sovereign immediately is.
The modern era of biopolitics leaps forth dramatically from history in the form of the Third Reich – so much so, that Agamben eventually equates the sovereign body with the body of the Führer: “[t]he Führer’s body is… situated at the point of coincidence between zoē and bios, biological body and political body. In his person, zoē and bios incessantly pass over into each other.” The Führer’s word is immediately law [nomos] setting forth into the sphere of law, which sets forth immediately from his self-constitution as bios including zoē only as an exclusion from self. In The New Biopolitics, “Body is knowledge, and knowledge is power”; in the body of the Führer, knowledge can also be read nomos in this sense.…