Admittedly, “death informing life” will seem counter-intuitive or even insane to us because, as Foucault has claimed, in the last two centuries we no longer properly speak of death. Discourses on death are as forgotten and disavowed as the nameless and innumerable deaths themselves. In the last two centuries, Foucault argues, political and sovereign discourses have focused instead on life. Life has eclipsed death.
—Stuart Murray, “Thanatopolitics”
A politics of care engages much more than a moral stance; it involves affective, ethical, and hands-on agencies of practical and material consequence.
—María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care
Life-making remains the dominant political paradigm in contemporary U.S. biocultures today, even as it is increasingly inflected and conditioned by neoliberal rationalities. Life is maximized, optimized, and prolonged via a range of strategies and technologies that affirm life. Within this paradigm, life is framed as that which must be constantly tended and relentlessly avowed: death must be disavowed. Such harnessing of life is promoted as a universal good, a “virtual cosmology for us, its subjects.”1
Our central claim throughout this analysis, however, has been that life-making in U.S. biocultures operates as a regulatory politics of affirmation that intimately governs the daily existence and possible futures of individuals and communities. More than this, life-making can be—and is often—deadly. The underside of the “make live” imperative of biopolitics—where subjects must be made to live—entails contemporaneous operations of abandonment, negligence, and oversight: this is the “let die” function of biopolitics. We see this operating even with the affirmation to green, where life is affirmed as afterlife, at the same time as the lives/deaths of many are disclaimed, renounced, and made invisible. Death, then, does not disappear in this politics focused on life. Rather, it loses the spectacular ritual character (of “make die”) that it had under sovereign premodern power and is instead hidden away—often in plain sight, everywhere. Structural and ideological workings of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other geopolitical specificities condition the operations of biopolitics. As Didier Fassin has noted, then, “biopolitics has consequences in terms of inequalities [and] governmentality conveys the disparities in the quantity and quality of life.”2 Not all lives and forms of life are fostered equally, and death’s disavowal clearly does not extend to all. Some deaths don’t even register as deaths. As we have explored, the very operations of “making live” can obscure ongoing deaths, can create deadly conditions, and can produce death and/or death effects. This is deadly life-making.
If death is folded into life-making, it seems essential that we cultivate a politics that is attentive to death—that can speak in the name of death and the innumerable lives imperiled or lost in biopolitical (and then often disciplinary) life-making operations. Such a politics would insist that death and forms of death-in-life are recognized as products of life-making practices and rhetoric. It would also act as a possible platform from which to affirm a different ethics or way of living (and dying). Throughout the preceding chapters, we have explored a range of strategies, tactics, techniques, and practices that enact such a politics. Collectively, they highlight that another kind of life is possible: “life is not only a question of politics from the outside in but should also be [and is] seized from the inside, in the flesh of the everyday experiences of social agents.”3
In one incantation, this seizing of politics from the inside—in the flesh—can be viewed as endurance, understood as the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear: it is the fact of enduring a difficult process without giving away. To endure is to remain in existence and, in the context of our analysis here, to find ways to live on despite the ongoing imperiling of life’s continuance.4 In another incantation, we might understand such a politics as being predicated on the notion of survival. Following the framing offered by Jacques Derrida, survival (which he also referred to as “living on,” in a 1981 essay of the same name) is that which disrupts the distinction between biological life and life as an existential phenomenon: “survival is a complication of the opposition death-life.”5 In Derrida’s formulation, survival complicates this dualism because it is at once the “unconditional affirmation” of life (continuing to live—understood here quite differently from triumphant biopolitical affirmation) and the “hope of ‘surviving’ through the traces left for the living.”6 Stemming from this line of thought, we could conceive the political enactments addressed in preceding chapters as tactics that simultaneously affirm other ways to live now—in ways that counteract dominant affirmations of life and their deadly effects—and insist on leaving enduring traces of their efforts that would alter the future social terrain. Through such tactics, people and collectives “transform their physical life into a political instrument or a moral resource or an affective expression” that demands change in relation to our biofutures.7
To expand, such demands for change might be seen to rest on three interrelated factors, which we have examined throughout Deadly Biocultures and that point out potential ways forward. First, it seems necessary not to turn away from death but, rather, to sit with sorrow and mourn the forestalling of life that occurs all around us. “It is, perhaps, a time to mourn together, to keep a vigil, and to invent new symbols that will come to occupy the spaces of indescribable loss, the spaces of everyday life, to make this loss and this life somehow livable.”8 Mourning, here, is a way to refuse death’s disavowal and instead insist on the recognition of death’s presence in life. Such mourning must not be viewed as simply passive. Instead, it can engender an elegiac politics—which enables representation for what are often lives lived in elegy. As S. Lochlain Jain has noted, “elegiac politics yearns to account for loss, grief, betrayal, and the connections between economic profits, disease, and death in a culture that is affronted by mortality.”9
Second, this mourning must be matched with insistent critique. Speaking specifically in relation to racial inequities (though we can extend this idea to the various forms of death and deathly effects we have analyzed here), Katherine McKittrick has noted that critique requires that we “dwell on the particularities of injustice anew” to “attend to violence and sadness and the struggle for life.”10 She warns, however, that the very process of naming “let die” operations in academic criticism risks routinizing and re-producing practices that continue to mark the same people for death. Instead, we require examinations of and support for practices that actively contest the status quo and reinvent creative strategies of “living on”—those in existence already as well as more speculative projects.11 Another way to think of critique is to adopt Foucault’s understanding, where critique operates as “an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. . . . It is a challenge directed to what is.”12 For Foucault, a general characterization of critique is “the art of not being governed quite so much.”13 To critique the deadly operations of dominant affirmations of life in relation to biomedicine—and the extension of biomedical logics into everyday life—entails contesting pervasive regimes of health; questioning forms of governance that delimit how health, well-being, life, and death can be understood; and creating openings for alternative biofutures. We have analyzed the normativizing conventions and intimate governing functions of affirmations to hope, target, thrive, secure, and green—and those critical practices that wage against such affirmations. What other kinds of insurgent critique might be—or are—staged in these and other biocultural arenas?
Finally, alongside refusing death’s disavowal through mourning and staging insurgent critique, it seems imperative that we attend to ourselves and one another through new and expansive forms of care. In the preceding chapters, we have explored a range of creative practices of care that push against biopolitical logics at work within particular biocultural spheres in late liberalism. Indeed, the necessary political rejoinder to deadly life-making appears as an ontology of care—where care denotes the ethical practice and enactment of critique (that we outline above) and efforts to repair our social sphere so that we can live and die as well as possible.14 An ontology of care “expose[s] how neoliberal biopolitics makes live and lets die—how it kills in the name of life, and relies on the differential production of corporeal vulnerability and death as our modus vivendi.”15 Care acknowledges and responds to the biopolitical (and disciplinary) production of death, through recognition, refusal, and tending to life otherwise. Through care we might enable new socialities, where life is cultivated and affirmed in different ways: as a communal rather than individual pursuit; as that which enables co-belonging across thresholds (that separate within life and between life and death) and that bridge autonomy and relationality; and where dependency, interdependency, and shared vulnerability are foregrounded rather than denigrated.16 This ontology of care is—and will continue to be—a difficult path, particularly when divisiveness and vulnerability are produced, maintained, mobilized, and exploited as core governing tactics of neoliberal biopolitics. To labor against deadly life-making, then, will ultimately require vigilance in relentlessly centering death in counterpolitics and practices. It will require that death and the deadly effects of governing logics and strategies inform how we will endure and live on.