The latest issue of Materiali Foucaultiani is out here which includes an article I wrote entitled ‘Barred Subjects: Framing the Criminal Body with Foucault and Butler.’
An extract here:
From Terri Schiavo to Chelsea Manning
As Foucault demonstrates in The Archaeology of Knowledge, the carving up of history is an arbitrary process. With this in mind, I want to bookend a recent and ongoing history with reference to two figures, Terri Schiavo and Chelsea Manning. These are individuals that, it might be argued, play significant symbolic roles in defining the shifting stakes of Western biopolitics in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. The intention here is to set the scene for rethinking the anatomo-political in relation to the biopolitical.
Terri Schiavo spent 15 years in a coma following cardiac arrest as a result of a long term eating disorder. Her family fought to have her feeding tube removed but faced high level opposition from senior U.S. politicians including the then president George W. Bush. They finally won their case to terminate life support in 2005. As Slavoj Žižek suggested at the time, the affirmation of an ethico-legal duty to maintain a life at all costs, even when this life had arguably been reduced to the living death of irreversible coma, came at a time when other ‘living deaths’ secured the detention of those the bombs missed in Guantanamo. What the case of Terri Schiavo demonstrated was the persistence of a rhetoric which identified life as sacred, a rhetoric which should have rung hollow in light of the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, the juxtaposition of such events – the domestic versus the international - highlighted not only the complexities of contemporary biopolitics understood as the positioning of life, human life, as the ultimate value to protect and enhance but also highlighted the multiple ways in which such a positioning might flip over into what Giorgio Agamben refers to as a thanatopolitics which exposes the sovereign core of the biopolitical. This is clearly more complex than simply pitting one life or set of lives against another, which constitutes the justification for the reemergence of a sovereign ‘right to kill’ within biopolitics in the form of racism, which Foucault identifies at the end of Society Must Be Defended. Following Butler’s notion of grievable life, what is at stake is the ‘values’ associated with a certain set of lives as well as the reduction of the lives of ‘others’ to perceived values at odds with our own.
In July 2013, Chelsea Manning, born Bradley Edward Manning was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act for leaking documents whilst in the U.S. army. Having been tried as Bradley, Manning issued a statement on sentencing that she wished to live as a woman. Although, the issue of Manning’s gender had been introduced in court as testimony, what does the very specific wish to serve out a military prison sentence as a woman, or pre-op transsexual, rather than a man tell us about the conditions within this carceral space and, moreover, the way such a space is structured and organized according to certain gender norms? At the same time, why did Private Bradley Manning only fully identify his/herself as ‘Chelsea’ at sentencing? What does this tell us about the performance of gender within the military and, moreover, during a high profile court case? The transgressive act of whistleblowing and perceived betrayal of the security of his country bound up with this act can be mapped far too easily onto the ‘transgressive’ body of Chelsea Manning. To some degree, Manning has become symbolic in various senses of the complexities and hypocrisies of Western democracy along with notions of truth and freedom such democracy claims to promote and protect. The focus of this paper, however, has less to do with Manning as symbol of such paradoxes but, rather, the specific material conditions of her incarceration and, I want to suggest, any and all incarceration. Manning is facing a maximum of 35 years in military prison and a minimum of 8 years.
This paper is an attempt to think beyond notions of the exceptional, the supra-legal, beyond the bare life, the precarious life, the indefinitely suspended life which have dominated discussions on incarceration and detention since 911. In particular, I want to consider how Butler has developed a critical stance which, in focusing on the exceptional, risks disregarding the everyday. At stake, therefore, is Manning in her cell not Schiavo on her drip.
In the aftermath of 911, much of the intellectual left in the U.S. and Europe was forced to re-evaluate its position together with its role in both speaking out against and usefully conceptualizing the parameters and implications of the so-called ‘war on terror’ as well as the discourses and representations which underpinned and framed it. Looking here at Butler’s particular, and arguably highly personal, response in Precarious Life and subsequently, in Frames of War, a series of tensions emerge which are as important for thinking through the role of the public intellectual as they are for articulating the current socio-political terms defining society in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West. Where Butler draws extensively on Foucault’s work on governmentality in her explorations of the extra-legal activities of the U.S. government and military, how might we shift the focus from abstracted discussions of the law and detention, to the real, everyday, material conditions of life in incarceration? Moreover, without denying the importance of ongoing critical debates about the treatment of terror suspects, the outsourcing of torture and the perpetual state of exception endorsing a permanent war industry, how might we return our attention to the status quo maintained by such exceptions – the institutional spaces which continue to affirm a disciplinary mode of power?
Full article here
 Slavoj Žižek, ‘Biopolitics: Between Terri Schiavo and Guantanamo’, ArtForum (December 2005).