Risk, Fear and Immunity: Reinventing the Political in the Age of Biopolitics, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 37.1
March 2011: 43-71
As an update of his continual concern for contemporary risk society since the 1980s, Ulrich Beck’s latest work World at Risk (2009) alerts us to the deterritorializing effects of global risk on national, geographical, and disciplinary boundaries. On an increasingly global scale, risk mixes up natives and foreigners, while risk calculus connects natural, technical and social sciences, and incorporates almost all aspects of everyday life. Fear, accordingly, spreads out as a kind of carrier that binds so-called global, multicultural civil society; it even prospers as a lucrative risky business. Such an era has witnessed a structural transformation of the roles of the state and various biopolitical institutions, of life itself, of subjectivity and agency.
Drawing on Žižek’s theory of ideology critique and radical ethics and politics, this paper firstly presents a critical survey of contemporary biopolitics, focusing on how health needs contagion as its uncanny double to define and immunize itself, and on how new forms of biomedical experts and knowledge of life flourish with uncertainty and administer our body and life. All of these will be discussed in relation to theoretical accounts of the contemporary risk society and culture of fear to critically look at how risk and fear function as depoliticizing biopolitical instruments for disavowing social antagonism. Theorists such as Judith Butler and Roberto Esposito caution us against the (auto)immunitary biopolitical logic and call for vulnerability, precariousness and finitude to be adopted as the ethical principles for a “positive” biopolitics, while this paper will query whether human subjects are victimized and depoliticized in their discourses. The final part of this paper will turn to Žižek’s recent formulation of radical ethics and politics to address the possibility of reinventing the political in contemporary biopolitics.
biopolitics, contagion, fear, health, immunity, monster, Neighbor, risk