From indefinite solitary confinement in “Special Housing Units” in the United States to life without parole in supermax cells around the world; from preventive detention at Guantánamo Bay to arbitrary detention and torture in other black sites or secret prisons; from administrative detention in colonial prisons in Israel to immigrant detention centers, the hunger strike has emerged as a radical form of refusal in a carceral landscape where colony operates as prison, prison as war camp, and war camp as immigration jail.
Refusal maintained in the hunger strike is the refusal of the life and the death (deadly synonyms) legally manufactured in the deep recesses of an excrescent law–an admixture of ordinary regulations and exceptional powers–which blurs the distinction between norm and exception (Hussain). This Möbius-strip-like topology of the law which makes it possible to pass continuously from an ordinary regulation to an emergency measure and back from an exceptional power to administrative rule, miraculates (Colin Dayan calls it sorcery) a proliferating species of rightless entities who are made and unmade by the sheer force of the political-theological dispositif of the person.
Dispositif of the Person
The critique of the performative violence of this apparatus that arises from the more recent writings of Roberto Esposito is that the promise to extend the full protection of law to all human beings by virtue of the category of person is not fulfilled not because of its limited affordance, but rather because of its expansion (Two; The Third Person; see also Esmeir on the colonizing operations of modern law). For the dispositif of the person is a peculiarly differentiating apparatus that divides and thereby organizes some supposedly undifferentiated life into two distinct parts, one of which is subordinated to the other.
Locating the origins of the dispositif in Roman law, Esposito draws our attention to its simultaneously personalizing and depersonalizing agency. The Roman law, with its descending gradation stretching from the persona to the res, creates a legal unity through an exclusionary inclusive logic (thus the paradoxical status of the slave as person-thing) in order to arrange a multiplicity of living individuals into an infinitely divisible hierarchy of classifications which gives or takes away status without ever fixing legal identity.
In the Christian theological inflection of the dispositif, this duality between the artificial persona and the natural homo is incorporated within the living individual in the form of a splitting/doubling into body and soul and/or animality and reason. The transition from a functional to an ontological division has the critical effect of introducing a transcendence within the very unity of the living individual: the rational, moral, spiritual part now exercises its sovereignty over the bodily, carnal, animal part, reducing the latter into a servile instrument akin to an internal slave. Consequently, this internal division and hierarchical ordering fabricated by the Christian theological dispositif produces the subject as the supplement of subjection (cf. Foucault, Althusser, Montag).
It is in this essential indistinction between subjectivation and subjection that Esposito finds the intrinsic connection between the “biopolitical corporealization of the person” and the “spiritualistic personalization of the body.” Though the former reduces the human to body and the latter raises it above, both presuppose the objectification of the body as a living thing. In other words, this factitious but fully real person, which is added to the body by the dispositif, utilizes the very exteriority of the body to put at stake the ownness of life. Degrees of personality, then, have no other function than imposing a hierarchical structure so as to judge the (non)value of life from a transcendent point. Sovereignty in the biopolitical epoch operates as a “personhood-deciding machine [that] marks the final difference between what must live and what can be legitimately cast to death.”
Esposito notes that sovereignty in the biopolitical epoch constantly transforms the exception into the norm and the norm into the exception. If the exception to the old right of sovereignty–the right to let live–has become the new norm, then, the new power to make live, one may say, is never the rule, but the exception in late liberalism. Not only is life–its qualities, vitalities, capacities, ongoingness, and limits–not equitably distributed, but more perniciously a life that is severed from its own capacity to exist is forcefully imposed on living beings in order to experiment with and capitalize on their flesh, bodies, times, and relations which are valorized as harvestable material (meat in slaughterhouses, stolen time in prison, al Qaida data in Guantánamo, and speculative rehabilitation in Gaza). Not only the power to make die and let die get blurred to the point of indistinction, which finds its expression in the deliberate abandonment of populations to premature, uneventful and slow deaths whose ultimate cause is insidiously absent, but the power to make live itself turns into the perverted power not to let die. As Jasbir Puar has incisively argued, it is less the endless multiplication and intensification of death than unremitting survival that is not anything else than a mockery of life itself in the settler colony. The Israeli occupying forces debilitate bodies, vital infrastructure, and futurity itself, forcing the Palestinians to live as though they were in a perpetual state of dying without death.
Indeed, it is at these moments, when Puar’s and others’ analyses seem closest to Giorgio Agamben, that their account of bare life could not be more distant from the immanent indistinction between law and life that Agamben endeavors to address in the closing sections of Homo Sacer.
Taking Agamben to task for his ahistorical reading of biosovereignty and politically disabling figuration of bare life, Banu Bargu contends that “resistance itself” must be read as resistance to this very indistinction between law and life. Describing biosovereignty as a temporally located, contradictory and unsettled assemblage of sovereignty, discipline and security, she claims that two forms of resistance emerge from the ambiguous unity of the power of life and power over life—the right to life and the right to death as representing two sides of the biopolitical antinomy, with “life-affirming struggles” demanding more equal and equitable redistribution of life sources, political recognition, and reparation for wrongs on the one hand, and “necroresistance” performing an absolute refusal of the biosovereign domination on the other. For Bargu, one can overcome the biosovereign assemblage not by expanding the norm–or making it more inclusive of racialized, gendered, and classed forms of life–but by renouncing it in toto in the ultimate and definitive sacrifice of life.
Instead of neatly separating the forms of resistance to biosovereignty into life-affirming struggles and necroresistance and mapping them (and life and death) onto the reform/revolt dichotomy, I suggest that we conceive life and death as relational rather than oppositional categories. For every differentiation and intensification of death creates new possibilities of life; and every differentiation and intensification of life entails experiences of “death” that cannot be reduced to the power of one’s death. In the next section, I give a critical overview of the conceptual frameworks that are offered to understand the forms of resistance to biosovereignty.
Negation of Life
Referring to chosen death as the ultimate form of insubordination under slavery and modern colonial occupation, Achille Mbembe argues that death and freedom coincides in an ecstatic instant when the negation of life becomes inseparable from the explosive yet transient opening of future in the present. Pursuing Mbembe’s reading of suicide bombing in “Necropolitics” further, Bargu’s neologism “necroresistance” opposes a complete and total immolation to biosovereign power’s incomplete or partial destruction, which separates the living being and political being, zoē and bios, the human and the inhuman. Despite her critique of survival as remnant of the biosovereign production of the (in)human, the total negativity of self-destruction as the crux for the whole of Bargu’s argument is irremediably linked to a process of dialectization and spiritualization through which the political Cause nonetheless continually sur-vives (in the sense of above life) the hunger striker.
Weaponization of Life
Bargu’s reading of the hunger strike-cum-death fast of political prisoners in Turkey is organized largely by a topology of inversion, taken in the first instance from Allen Feldman’s locution “weaponization of the body” and displaced in such a way that the weaponization of life comes to signify the sacrifice of life in the name of political existence that would, in the end, be worth more than biological life.
In his earlier and influential ethnography of political violence in Northern Ireland, Feldman rearticulates the body as a specular(ized) site of violent transaction between sovereign state power and insurgents that trans-form it into a “weapon-artifact”. On this account, the agency of the IRA insurgents inheres in taking the place of the sovereign and mimicking its violence to the end of reversing the relations of domination by counter-bifurcating the self and actively objectifying their own body as an instrument of violence. Yet, the reversal of these relations of domination partakes in the very same relations it denounces, and Feldman’s ethnography finds itself dramatizing this circular logic by which all objects of violence end up becoming subjects of violence. Consequently, Feldman reads the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike as a deathly purification of the self, a “sacrifecal” expulsion of sovereign state violence by means of eating the very body that has become infested with it — in other words, consuming the enemy by consuming the self.
In her ethnographic analysis of the hunger strikes in Israeli colonial prisons, Ashjan Ajour similarly argues that the technique of separation between body/mind and body/soul created by colonial power and employed by the Israeli prison system of surveillance and control against the bodies, minds, and souls of the Palestinian captives can be turned into a technique of resistance by transforming the decay of the body and the lapse of consciousness into the immaterial force of rouh (soul). In distinction to Feldman and Bargu’s emphasis on the subversive mimesis of power of death, countersubjectivation in Ajour’s argument is produced in and through disembodiment, the spiritualization of the body into an immortal entity that simultaneously sustains and is sustained by the broader national liberation movement.
All three authors thus pose the same question of the subversive investment of the dualities instituted by the dispositif of the person toward the end of liberation from it.
Suspension of Life
Akin to Agamben’s reading of the over-comatose body of Karen Quinlan as a coincidence of life and death that is perpetuated by life support technologies and legal decisions, Hourya Bentouhami argues that the new border surveillance biotechnologies turn the vegetative and unconscious layer of the biological being of migrants into a site of self-betrayal which come to possess a veridictional and testamentary capacity superior to and against their speaking beings. Writing of life strike (holding one’s breath, sewing mouth and eyelids shut, covering oneself in thick clothes, and hunger strikes) and self-strike (burning identity papers and fingertips) as creative bodily techniques used by migrants, she emphasizes that that these techniques of “dying alive,” which only simulate death rather than realizing it, have no political claim other than the affirmation of life.
Notwithstanding Bentouhami’s subsumption of thanato-mimesis to necroresistance, suspension of life and negation of life are radically different. I find it theoretically and politically more generative to sharpen the distinctions between different experiences of death rather than subsuming them to the general category of necroresistance. Metonymic blurring might be useful in articulating the singularity of the biosovereign assemblage, but ultimately it fails to think the specific (and in particular nontranscendent) forms of politics finding expression in these forms of resistance. New readings attentive to the interval between death and dying are urgently needed to think anew the “mutable and virtually infinite survival” harboring a multiplicity of temporalities, relations, and possibilities of life which precede, contradict, and exceed the political theological identity of sovereignty and death.
Bargu, Banu. 2014. Starve and Immolate. The Politics of Human Weapons. New York: Columbia University Press.
Thinking with and against Foucault and Agamben’s formulations of the sovereign function in biopolitics, political theorist Banu Bargu’s analysis of the hunger strike-cum-death fast among political prisoners in Turkey opposes a complete and total immolation to biosovereign power’s incomplete or partial destruction, which separates the living being and political being. The argument about total negativity of self-destruction that is put forth by Bargu, however, gives little importance to the temporal structure of the hunger strike, thereby failing to notice the indeterminacy of the relation to death that distinguishes hunger striking from self-immolations and suicide attacks.
Esposito, Roberto. 2012. Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal, translated by Zakiya Hanafi. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press.
______________. 2015. Two. The Machine of Political Theology and the Place of Thought, translated by Zakiya Hanafi. New York: Fordham University Press.
Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito’s genealogy of the dispositif of the person has important implications for critical theories of resistance to biopolitics. If spiritualistic personalization of the body is ultimately no more than the reverse side of the biopolitical corporealization of the person, then critical theories which locate the source of resistance in the power of one’s death remain caught in the proprietorial logic of the dispositif of the person. Esposito’s philosophical gesture toward the impersonal opens new avenues to think the experience of dying on the hunger strike beyond death as the ultimate form of self-possession.
Feldman, Allen. 1991. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Departing from a Nietzschean performance theory of power, anthropologist Allen Feldman’s seminal ethnography of political violence in Northern Ireland poses the question of the subversive investment of the dualities instituted by the dispositif of the person toward the end of liberation from it. The ethnography dramatizes a logic of mimetic subversion in which all objects of violence end up becoming subjects of violence by counter-splitting the self and actively objectifying their own bodies as instruments of violence. In the end, the cannibalization of sovereign state violence functions as a fatal and fateful exigency, one that reveals in the inevitability of self-consumption the desire for a proper body and body politics.