This week, we are discussing Elizabeth Povinelli’s (strangely prescient) introduction from Geontologies: A Requiem for Late Liberalism, ”Three Figures of Geontology: The Desert, the Animist, and the Virus”. Povinelli is an anthropologist and theorist who engages critically with both Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, and Mbembe’s notion of necropolitics, bringing in the question of the relationship to the world as living and dead at the same time. This, simultaneously, brings us back to the questions about the management and direction of the exercise of political power beyond the pandemic and into the ‘Anthropocene’, thus bringing together the strands of discussions from previous sessions of the Self-Isolation Reading Group and its precedent, the Ontopolitics Reading Group (2018-9).
The online meeting for the reading group will take place on 29 May, 4.30-5.30PM BST via Zoom. Contact Jana Bacevic (firstname.lastname@example.org) for the meeting ID and password (note: you need to email at least one hour prior to the meeting).
The review below is written by Harriet Cooper, Senior Research Associate in Health and Medical Humanities at the University of East Anglia, UK. Her book, Critical Disability Studies and the Disabled Child: Unsettling Distinctions, was published by Routledge in 2020.
COVID-19 and the figure of the Virus: Reflections on Povinelli’s ‘The Three Figures of Geontology’
What wonder that we are hearing a potential shift in our political discourses from […] the demand “listen to me” to the statement, “I can’t breathe.”’ (Povinelli, Geonotologies, p. 43).
Povinelli writes these words with reference to anthropogenic climate change, but how do we read them differently right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? One of the issues that has been on my mind over the last few weeks is the question of what it means to be focussed on meaning-making, at this time of crisis. What are the ethics and the politics of such an orientation? In my field – medical humanities – as well as in many parallel disciplines, we have witnessed a kind of ‘rush to the keyboards’ (Gugganig and Klimburg Witjes, 2020), as hundreds of academics blog about different aspects of the crisis. As Bacevic and Carrigan, 2020) observe in a brilliant recent podcast, such activity transforms the crisis into an object of knowledge, out of which academic capital can be forged. It feels pretty discomforting to turn the lens on ourselves, and our practices of self-commodification, in this way (and I really like the way Jana’s work does this – see Bacevic (2019)). At the same time, I don’t think we should ignore the fact that the narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet been set down (Jarvis, 2020), but we feel it starting to crystallise around us. Will it go down in history as a rupture? If so, what kind of rupture will it have been? Can academics in the social sciences and the humanities play a role in shaping the narrative, or is it hubris to think so? I find myself wanting to be part of this conversation; I feel nervous about opening my mouth because I don’t blog very often, yet driven to pitch in by a combination of academic narcissism, a fascination with viral imaginaries and a sense of the urgency of the narrative-making task at hand and the political stakes involved (even as I worry about whether writing and thinking can actually change anything). I do think that there is a realness to the need to try to shape the emerging narrative, an urgency to the work of trying to make sense, of trying to capture the discourse, of trying to undo the discursive work of regressive forces. I do think that sense-making is a political act right now. In this review piece, I’m trying to make sense of Povinelli’s essay ‘The Three Figures of Geontology’ – Chapter One in her book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. One of the main attractions of Povinelli’s essay right now is its intriguing deployment of the figure of the Virus. What does it mean to read Povinelli’s discussion of this figure retrospectively, while trying to make sense of the pandemic – and what does this say about reading as a situated activity, as a political act, in itself? I’m probably not going to answer that question, or any of the others above, but I think they could be good conversation starters for the reading group! I will briefly share a few thoughts on how I think Povinelli is using the Foucauldian concept biopolitics, before focussing more closely on the suggestive, but ambiguous, figure of the Virus.
The opening section of Povinelli’s chapter engages with Foucault’s influential concept of biopolitics and the work that has sought to qualify, modify or expand on it, including Mbembe’s (2019) notion of necropolitics, which we discussed in the last meeting. Povinelli argues that the key figures that Foucault associates with ‘the biopolitical’ – ‘the hysterical woman, the Malthusian couple, the perverse adult, and the masturbating child; the camps and barracks, the panopticon and solitary confinement’ (Povinelli, 2016, p. 4) have started to be less relevant to us as we attempt to explain and understand ‘late liberalism’. As alternative figures, she proposes the Desert, the Animist and the Virus, all operating within a ‘geontopolitical’ framework. ‘Geontopower’ is, for Povinelli, a formation that is both hidden and revealed by ‘our allegiance to the concept of biopower’ (p. 4). Drawing on Deleuze’s idea that ‘concepts open understanding to what is all around us but not in our field of vision’ (Povinelli, 2016, p. 4), she argues that the discursive dominance of ‘biopolitics’ can simultaneously reveal and obscure what might need to be thought in order to understand the times we live in. It is interesting to observe here that the language of ‘seeing’ comes to stand in for, and do work on behalf of, ‘knowing’, not only in Povinelli’s lexis, but in my attempts to paraphrase (see Vidali (2010) for a thought-provoking discussion of knowing conceptualised as seeing). Povinelli asks us to think critically about how, culturally, we confer ‘Life’ upon some objects and not others, and for me this aspect of the chapter frequently brought to mind connecting ideas from critical disability studies, including Vidali’s, as well as Chen’s (2012) work on hierarchies of animacy, in which passive and active grammatical forms are an important point of reference. Certain forms of embodied being (sighted embodiment, for example) are continuously naturalised as ‘able to know’ via stock metaphors in the English language (think of ‘insight’, for example). Do such structures have an exclusionary effect on those for whom sight is not a given? And what does it mean – to return to Povinelli’s examples – to say that a rock is alive or not alive, and does our understanding of this utterance depend on who the speaker is? Povinelli’s chapter introduces a new figurative language, designed to make us question our orientation within culture.
Geontopower inflects and develops Foucault’s famous concept of biopower in at least two important ways. Firstly, it moves the focus away from the governance of life and death and towards, instead, the circulation of affects (as well as discourses and tactics) associated with Life and Nonlife in late liberalism. We might want to think in the reading group about what this placement of emphasis does: for me, the reference to ‘affects’ brings into view the affective cultures and communities that come into being in and through networked connectivity. The second distinction foregrounded by geontopower is not so much ‘“make” live, “let” die’ (Foucault, 2003, p. 241), but rather the distinction which exists, or which may in future exist, between ‘Life’ and ‘Nonlife’. The temporality of this distinction could be an interesting discussion point, since Povinelli refers to the ‘discourse, affects and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between Life and Nonlife’ (p. 4, my italics). I read this as a reference to the anticipated effects of climate change, but it is a phrase whose syntax and meaning I was puzzling over.
Nonlife is an important term for Povinelli: it reminds us that ‘death’ happens to things that have first had to have ‘life’, and so to operate only within that binary – life/death – may be to fail to notice how hierarchies of animacy (Chen, 2012) may themselves naturalise colonial and extractive practices. In relation to this point, the following quotation would be a fascinating one to examine:
As I am hoping will become clear, Capitalism has a unique relation to the Desert, the Animist, and the Virus insofar as Capitalism sees all things as having the potential to create profit; that is, nothing is inherently inert, every thing is vital from the point of view of capitalization, and anything can become something more with the right innovative angle. Indeed, capitalists can be said to be the purest of the Animists. This said, industrial capital depends on and, along with states, vigorously polices the separations between forms of existence so that certain kinds of existents can be subjected to different kinds of extractions. Thus even as activists and academics level the relation between animal life and among objects (including human subjects), states pass legislation both protecting the rights of businesses and corporations to use animals and lands and criminalizing tactics of ecological and environmental activism. In other words, like the Virus that takes advantage but is not ultimately wedded to the difference between Life and Nonlife, Capital views all modes of existence as if they were vital and demands that not all modes of existence are the same from the point of view of extraction of value. (Povinelli, 2016, p. 20).
This analogy between the Virus and Capital itself is intriguing: for both, it is the difference between Life and Nonlife that simultaneously matters (value is extracted differently from each state) and does not matter at all (value extraction can take place regardless of the state). Both have a kind of extractive (dis)regard for Life.
The figure of the Virus is doing some quite complex work in Povinelli’s text. We could say, crudely, that while the figure of the Animist is associated with vitality (including a kind of fetishisation of vitality associated with indigeneity, and the idea of the native), and the Desert is associated with that which is inert (but which Capital seeks to territorialise), the figure of the Virus encompasses both Life and Nonlife, or somehow mediates between them.
The question of whether viruses are alive has been debated by scientists for years, yet as Koonin and Starokadomskyy (2016, n. p.) note, ‘the question is effectively without substance because the answer depends entirely on the definition of life or the state of “being alive”’. The authors explain that within biology, viruses are understood within the ‘replicator paradigm’: that is, they are parasitic in the sense of requiring host cells within which to replicate. Viruses are not autonomous, and are inert when outside of living cells, but they are able to reproduce once they find cells in which to do so – in some cases, extremely rapidly and with toxic consequences for the host, giving rise to the metaphors of multiplication and colonisation associated with the virus in culture. Fascinatingly for our purposes, the fundamental principles of the replicator paradigm, as rehearsed by Koonin and Starokadomskyy (2016, n. p.), involve a personifying lexicon, whereby the co-evolution of parasites and hosts is described as an ‘incessant arms race’ and viruses are placed on a ‘selfishness-cooperation’ axis, a scale which indexes the tendency of any given virus either to wreak destruction on the host cell, or to work collaboratively with it in some way for the preservation of both. Throughout the paper there is a tension between metaphors of interdependence and those of competition. The authors refer to the replicator paradigm as a ‘conceptual framework’ that has been ‘central’ the advancement of biological thought. Is our ability to think ‘the virus’ parasitic upon metaphor?
One of the intriguing things about Povinelli’s three figures – and perhaps especially the Virus – is their ambivalence, or perhaps I should say, multivalence, which allows them a kind of semiotic mobility. The figure of Virus, for Povinelli, draws on the ‘imaginary of the Terrorist’. She writes:
The Virus is the figure for that which seeks to disrupt the current arrangements of Life and Nonlife by claiming that it is a difference that makes no difference not because all is alive, vital, and potent, nor because all is inert, replicative, unmoving, inert, dormant, and endurant. Because the division of Life and Nonlife does not define or contain the Virus, it can use and ignore this division for the sole purpose of diverting the energies of arrangements of existence in order to extend itself (Povinelli, 2016, p. 19).
The Virus, with its indeterminate animacy status, therefore, draws a certain power from the fact that it is neither governed nor governable by the distinction between Life and Nonlife. Through this analogy, Povinelli makes the connection with the Terrorist – the suicide bomber, whose willing embrace of death subverts and challenges the power to ‘let die’. And, as we have seen, it is via the same qualities that a comparison is drawn with Capital. Capital need only take an interest in Life insofar as that is an opportunity to extend itself. Indeed, the fact that the mediation of the pandemic has foregrounded and placed value upon Life has proven awkward for some sections of Capital – as if the ever-increasing visibility of Capital’s logic of expendability could somehow jeopardise its monopoly over social relations. [Could it, perhaps? I ask myself, but I fear I already know the answer].
In England, we are exhorted by the government to ‘stay alert’ in order to ‘control the virus’. ‘Staying alert’ operates as a floating signifier, whose main function here appears to be to individualise blame for catching or spreading the virus, as well as to outsource and privatise the risk associated with returning to work, which had been temporarily socialised via the previous, rather less ambiguous, ‘stay at home’ message. Yet the language of paying attention to an unnamed threat also takes us into the imaginary of the Terrorist – as Jana Bacevic has noted – since this is also the register that is used to remind us, in similarly nebulous terms, to report ‘anything suspicious’ we see on public transport. The injunction to ‘stay alert’ depicts individual vigilance as an ideal form of agency, necessary to counter the virus’ own ‘malign’ agency. It is a familiar register for us to hear from this government, which mobilises the threat of the Other at every turn. Yet for Povinelli, the precise form of the Virus’ agency is hard to pin down. In her discussion, it is simultaneously an environmental activist and a terrorist (linked in the text by their potential to interfere in Capital’s flow), a zombie (bringing to mind artificial intelligence and the computer virus), and a biological virus. The Virus is both an analogy for Capital and a disruptor of circuits of Capital. What are the ethics of the figure, of analogy, of metaphor, in this case? But then again, what exactly is ‘the virus’, without metaphor?
Bacevic, J. (2019) ‘Knowing Neoliberalism’, Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, 33, pp. 380-392.
Bacevic, J. and Carrigan, M. (2020) ‘The Sociology of Time and COVID-19’, Day 5 of The Isolation Pod podcast. Online at https://player.fm/series/the-isolation-pod/day-5-the-sociology-of-time-and-covid-19 [accessed 25th May 2020].
Chen, M. (2012) Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.
Foucault, M. (2003) Lecture 11 (17 March 1976), Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, London, Penguin, pp. 239-264.
Gugganig, M. and Klimburg Witjes, N. (2020) ‘A Slow Conversation on COVID-19’, Backchannels: Society for Social Studies of Science. Online at https://www.4sonline.org/blog/post/a_slow_conversation_on_covid_19 [accessed 26th May 2020].
Jarvis, L. (2020) Doing Politics in Lockdown: The Politics of Memory. Video, online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isw0cB2mLSE&feature=youtu.be [accessed 25th May 2020].
Koonin, E. and Starokadomskyy (2016) ‘Are viruses alive? The replicator paradigm sheds light on an old but misguided question’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 59, pp. 125-134. Online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5406846/ [accessed 25th May 2020].
Mbembe, A. (2019) Necropolitics, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.
Povinelli, E. (2016) Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.
Vidali, A. (2010) ‘Seeing What We Know: Disability and Theories of Metaphor’, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, 4: 1, pp. 33-54.