Biopolitics, bodily boundaries and fear

“The more we consume and the better our health, the better we are controlled.” Preciado 2020

The past few years have seen stronger upholding of boundaries of different forms: borders, nationalism, racism are more prominent and noticeable than ever. From COVID, to US politics, to immigration policies in Australia, we sense a tightening of boundaries, independence and separation, and what I see as a manufactured sense of fear at any breach of these boundaries, bubbles or borders. From a biopolitical perspective, I’m interested in how one scale affects the other—in this project I’m interested in speculating how nanobiotechnologies might influence politics and wield power over life and the body—and one of the important relational connections that has been made apparent during the current pandemic occurs via emotion, public demand and resultant policy. I think also that our misunderstanding of the concept of the boundaries, of the relationships between individuals and communities, and of ethics in general is clouding our judgment and stopping us from critiquing the long game.
In thinking about the potential biopolitical implications of nanobiotechnologies, it is important to understand the relationship between community and immunity, which has analogues in the body, geopolitics and law among other scenarios. The Italian philosopher and key theorist in biopolitics Roberto Esposito says that while community connects subsets of individuals to one another through a shared sense of identity, “to belong entirely to the originary communitas means to give up one’s most precious substance, namely, one’s individual identity, in a process of gradual opening from self to the other” (Esposito 2013, p. 84). Community is then something that is open while immunity is something closed. This is seen in the biological sense of immunity, which implies that a body is able to resist infection from external pathogens.But while this may appear at its surface level to be a simple binary, community on one side and immunity on the other, it is interesting to take the biological scenario and overlay it onto its political analogue.
“The negative mode [of immunity] that has characterized the biopolitical paradigm is not a result of the violent subjugation that power exerts on life from the outside, but rather the contradictory way that life itself tries to defend itself from the dangers that threaten it, contradicting its other equally prominent needs. Immunity, necessary to the preservation of individual and collective life – none of us would stay alive without the immune system in our bodies – if assumed in a form that is exclusive and exclusionary toward all other human and environmental alterities, ends up counteracting its own development” (Esposito 2013, p. 86). Rather than continuum or a spectrum then, immunity and community operate in an ethical circle. If one is too embedded in the community for example, one could loose their individual identity as Esposito suggests, or become sick. If one is too immune, one might suffer aloneness and become vulnerable to other disastrous fates such as poor mental health. Of this, I’m sure we are all negotiating our own balance during COVID lockdowns across the globe. Equally true is the use of treatments that respond in a manner of molecular reductionism (a term I’ve borrowed from cultural theorist Ashley Dawson). Assume we segregate the body via technologies employed in the treatment of disease, over time, we may be surprised by how the biopolitical system responds as a whole, enveloping communities, molecules, bodies, societies, and cultures. Like smartphones and their incredible usefulness coupled with a serious diminishment of the abilities of empathy and intuition that we are only now starting to recognise, nanobiotechnology too is a sort of Pandora’s box.

When we demand the best treatment for us as individuals, or we demand treatment availability that privileges the value of individual life, we skew the concept of ethics toward the concept of the immune. Ethics, to most nanobioscientists I have spoken with, means the ethical treatment of the individuals involved in their testing regimes, perhaps with a side of doing general good for the health of the world’s population. But where is the space for a broader ethics that considers new technologies from the perspective of the community, which can, and often does, have conflicting needs/ethics to those of the individual? Tied up with this, and entwined with the notion of biopolitics is thanatopolitics or necropolitics, simply, the politics of death: the ways that we govern aspects of death, such as euthanasia, illegal suicide, burial practices, the right to die, the expectation that we are treated for diseases (or immunised against them). There is a kind of hypocrisy at play: policies that allow for medical use may simultaneously allow toxic substances/therapies into the environment, our food or medications.

Esposito shows that biopolitical issues occur as a result of governance that overemphasises the importance of biological immunity over community. “Derrida brought to the fore in another fashion – between immunization and self-immunization. We all know what autoimmune diseases are. They are pathological conditions that occur when our body’s immune system becomes so strong that it turns against itself, causing the death of the body. This does not happen all the time, of course. Normally the immune system is limited to a role of preservation, without turning against the body that houses it. But when this does happen, it is not provoked by an external cause but rather by the immune mechanism itself, which is intensified to an intolerable degree. A similar dynamic is also recognizable in the body politic, when the protective barriers against the outside begin to represent a greater risk than what they are intended to prevent. As we know, one of our society’s greatest risks today lies in an excessive demand for protection, which in some cases tends to produce an impression of danger, whether real or imagined, for the sole purpose of setting up increasingly powerful preventive defense weapons against it [emphasis mine]” (Esposito 2013, p. 86).

“For Foucault, the techniques of biopolitical government spread as a network of power that goes beyond the juridical spheres to become

a horizontal, tentacular force, traversing the entire territory of lived experience and penetrating each individual body.” (Preciado 2020, para 2). For the anthropologist Emily Martin, as for Critical Art Ensemble who I will write more about in an upcoming blog, the controlling force over the body is not just the technology itself, but the shared political-cultural concept of the body. Martin studied immunity and politics in relation to the polio and AIDS crises in the United States. “The body’s immunity… is not a biological fact independent of cultural and political variables. On the contrary, what we understand to be immunity is constructed through social and political criteria that produce sovereignty or exclusion, protection or stigmatization, life or death” (Martin cited in Preciado 2020, para. 6). Pandemics, Preciado continues: “allow us to appreciate how the virus actually reproduces, materializes, widens, and intensifies (from the individual body to the population as a whole) the dominant forms of biopolitical and necropolitical management that were already operating oversexual, racial, or migrant minorities before the state of exception” (2020, para. 8). The current pandemic is setting the scene within which the regulation and dissemination of nanobiotechnologies will operate in coming years. Now, as increasing numbers of nanobiotechnologies enter first-time-in-human experimental trials, is the moment to be questioning: what biopolitical repressions are made visible by the current crisis that are in normal times hidden, and how might they be renegotiated before the widespread introduction of nanobiotechnologies?

As Preciado sketches out the relationship between biotechnologies and control, he may as well be speaking about nanobiotechnologies:
“We are no longer regulated solely by [the passage of power and knowledge] through disciplinary institutions (school, factory, barracks, hospital, etc.) but by a set of biomolecular technologies that enter into the body by way of microprostheses and technologies of digital surveillance subtler and more insidious than anything Gilles Deleuze envisioned in his famous prognostications about the society of control.In the domain of sexuality, the pharmacological modification of consciousness and behavior, the mass consumption of antidepressants and anxiolytics, and the globalization of the contraceptive pill, as well as antiretroviral therapies, preventative AIDS therapies, and Viagra, are some of the indicators of biotechnological management, which in turn synergizes with new modes of semiotechnical management that have arisen with the surveillance state and the global expansion of the network into every facet of life” (Preciado 2020, para. 12). “What is now being tested on a global scale through the management of Covid-19 is a new way of understanding sovereignty. The body, your individual body, as a life space and as a network of power, as a center of production and of energy consumption, has become the new territory where the violent border politics that we have been designing and testing for years on “others” are now expressed, now taking the form of containment measures and of a war against the virus. The new necropolitical frontier has shifted from the coast of Greece toward the door of your home. Lesbos now starts at your doorstep. And the border is forever tightening around you, pushing you ever closer to your body. Calais blows up in your face. The new frontier is the mask. The air that you breathe has to be yours alone. The new frontier is your epidermis. The new Lampedusa is your skin. For years, we considered migrants and refugees infectious to the community and placed them in detention centers—political limbos where they remained without rights and without citizenship; perpetual waiting rooms. Now we are living in detention centers in our own homes.” (Preciado 2020 para. 16).

“Covid-19 has legitimized and extended such governmental practices of biosurveillance and digital control by standardizing them and making them “necessary” to maintain a feeling of immunity and national health. Nevertheless, the governments that have implemented extreme digital surveillance measures have not yet envisioned prohibiting the traffic and consumption of wild animals or the industrial production of birds and mammals—which is at the origin of viral zoonosis production, including SARS-COV-2—nor the reduction of CO2 emissions. What has grown is not the immunity of the social body but the tolerance of citizens under the cybernetic control of the state and corporations[emphasis mine]” (Preciado 2020, para. 19). One of my concerns is that the current pandemic is leading to fear and an excessive and rapid demand from the public for immunological protection and surveillance that may radically inform the landscape into which nanobiotecnologies will emerge over coming decades. The pandemic perhaps paves the way for an unquestioning acceptance of nanobiosensing technologies in particular and the danger is that existing laws regarding biological and medical surveillance will just be transferred onto new nanobiosensing technologies being ushered into this space (as we have already seen with substances such as nanosilver). This tolerance that Preciado identifies, is something we need to be aware of, and perhaps to shed, as we consider nanobiotechnologies.

The task at hand, argued Esposito in 2013, is “to overturn in some way – indeed in every way – the balance of power between “common” and “immune”; to separate the immunitary protection of life from its destruction by means of the common; to conceptualize the function of immune systems in a different way, making them into relational filters between inside and outside instead of exclusionary barriers.” (Esposito 2013 p. 86-87). In this excerpt he touches on an important point for my work, that of exclusionary barriers. These conceptual boundaries, whether they be the barrier of the skin, or between organs, or national borders, are conceptually responsible for the fear of their breach, whether by nanobots or “illegal” migrants. If the concept of the boundary is to be believed then the thing exists as an individual (body or nation), and the “other” is also created. Note too how important language is here, “nanobots” holds a vision of more control of better controlled mechanical articulation, and “illegal migrants” is a dehumanising term. These words, these names, hold power in part through their creation of emotions. One of my collaborators, a chemist who makes nanoscale therapeutics and so can be re-labelled a nanoscientist, told me that they never refer to their therapeutics as nanotechnologies, but by their chemical names, because of the fear response associated with the term “nanotechnology”. That this language is thus recognised and manipulated within scientific-regulatory spaces is both interesting and concerning. 

Even though Foucault died of AIDS, says Preciado (2020), he provided us with some of the best “cognitive protective equipment” against “rampant and contagious disinformation” (2020, para 1). I love this idea of cognitive protective equipment, and I hope the works I create following this research and development phase can contribute to both cognitive and emotional protective equipment. Grey Goo (working title) will be an experimental documentary/video artwork that addresses nanobiotechnologies and their influence on the human body as well suggesting the role of media in spreading “contagious disinformation”. The fictional grey goo scenario refers to a process where out-of-human-control nanobots reduce all material matter to individual atoms effectively dissolving everything on earth. Although this is physically impossible and nanotechnologies are far from robotic (see the Drexler-Smalley debate), within the body, nanotechnologies may cross boundaries between organs and create all sorts of havoc as yet unknown to the nascent discipline of nano-toxicology. Utilising a real-time audiovisual instrument I am currently designing, this work will be digitally recorded from a slow disintegration of the video and audio. It will distort human forms and question the role of nanobiotechnologies in how we conceive of the biological body—physiologically, culturally and politically.
Still from my experiments for the real-time video work Grey Goo (working title).
Esposito, R, translated by Hanafi, Z, 2013, Community, Immunity, Biopolitics, Angelaki, 18:3, 83-90, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2013.834666
Martin, E, 1994, Flexible Bodies, Beacon Press.
Preciado, P, 2020, Learning from the virus, Artforum, <>.

Leave a Reply