Review of Wilmer & Žukauskaitė’s Resisting Biopolitics, by Jacob Chamberlain


Review of S.E. Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė (eds.), Resisting Biopolitics: Philosophical, Political and Performative Strategies (Routledge, 2016), 318 pages, £112.33


Reviewed by Jacob Chamberlain


Resisting Biopolitics provides a diverse array of thought within the biopolitical cannon, with several driving themes: There is a vital force of ‘life’, energy or matter that brings with it the potential for political resistance; common biopolitical concepts such as ‘bare life’ often disregard the ways in which this force can be utilized as a means of resistance; and the State and the economy have reached new heights of surveillance, data collection, violence and oppression. While resistance is difficult to imagine in the age of biopower, this collection attempts to carve out a vision for what this resistance might entail. To varying degrees of success, the ideas proposed in this collection offer a complex exploration into the potentials of biopolitical resistance, i.e. resistance to oppressive forms of biopower in these otherwise dire times.

Key Words

biopolitics, biopower, Agamben, bare-life, new materialism, resistance

In the opening pages of Resisting Biopolitics: Philosophical, Political and Performative Strategies editors S.E. Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė outline a distinction made by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2009) that problematizes the very title of this collection: a distinction between biopower and biopolitics. The distinction is explained as follows: biopower involves structures of governance, political rule, corporate agency, oppression, hegemony, etc. It demarcates the ways in which people are controlled, maintained, manipulated, exploited, made to live, or let die, by governmental and economic power (today expressed as Governmentality, as the later Foucault elaborated). Biopolitics, on the other hand, is enmeshed within biopower and involves all manners in which biopower is enacted and engaged with or challenged and resisted. The strongest contributions in this collection, I argue, do not resist biopolitics as the title suggests, but understand the necessity to engage with biopolitics in order to resist biopower (whether the authors find it important to make that linguistic distinction or not).

An engagement with biopolitical theory in this way highlights the fluid and heterogeneous aspects of biopower’s effects on our lives and thus also highlights the ways in which it can be challenged through the very life-force it seeks to control. This approach within the cannon of biopolitical theory as Wilmer and Žukauskaitė point out, is often engaged with political economy and forms of organization (labor and other forms) that attempt to counteract the governmentality of today’s neoliberal, capital-driven state forms. Hardt and Negri (2009, 57) explore the works of Foucault to find an alternative view of power. In both Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976), where Foucault carves out the history of oppressive state power (sovereignty, discipline, biopower), he continuously alludes to another type of power—one that enables resistance. For Foucault, power is not limited to those who are in ‘power’ but is something which can be expressed in individuals. As Hardt and Negri state, “But there is always a minor current that insists on life as resistance, an other power of life that strives toward an alternative existence” (57). While these distinctions are not made clearly or consistently by Foucault, Hardt and Negri point out how one can explore the ways in which the “power of life” and the “power over life” interact in Foucault’s biopolitical landscape.

Beginning with Agamben then, this collection incidentally starts off on the wrong foot. The work of Agamben is biopower-centric. Agamben’s work, while often claiming to have a stake in resistance, focuses primarily on the macro, structural functions of the State and its relation to individual autonomy and agency (or lack thereof). Agamben’s view that the current political order has rendered almost all citizens homines sacri places nearly its entire emphasis on the biopower of the State, to the extent that citizens are no longer made to live, but simply let to die, or made to die, in the case of ‘exception.’ Updating his past works (e.g. Homo Sacer and State of Exception) Agamben sets out to define the post 9/11 state as one that has done away with democracy and ‘politics’ all together in the name of crises management via security. While our civil liberties have been eroded to the point of oblivion, dissent is also rendered useless as it is easily manipulated into profitable actions of the state. For this updated Agamben, a laissez-faire security state has essentially replaced the State of Exception: today’s system allows for crises and occasional moments of revolt and in turn “governs and guides them in the right direction once they take place” (23). Such strategic “guidance” and control is manageable given the vast surveillance and biopolitical data mechanisms that have proliferated in the last 15 years.

What this means for the common individual, is that while crises are increasingly common under the ever expanding power of the few, our agency in crises is increasingly rendered futile. From Agamben’s perspective, between the times of his major works at the turn of the century until now we have only further lost voice and agency in the current political order. Our political agency has decreased, while our biological data is used against us should we resist. This rendering of Zoe and negation of Bios, from the Greco-Roman political perspective that is central to Agamben’s theses, envisions us in a post-political landscape.

However, as many have argued (for example, Chamberlain, 2016; Hardt and Negri, 2004; Lee, 2010; Mezzadra, 2011; Ranciere, 2004) Agamben’s concept of politics relies solely on a Western-Greco-Roman discourse (also taking inspiration directly from Hannah Arendt) and thus restricts political action to the voice of the citizen in the confines of the polis, as acknowledged by the State. In this contribution Agamben continues to conceptualize a political framework rife with rigid definitions of political action, as defined by such categories (e.g. Bios, Zoe)—and thus renders political resistance against biopower in the current order nearly impossible. At the very end of Agamben’s essay, he finally calls forth the proposed thesis of ‘destituent power’—a power that ‘cannot be captured in the spiral of security.’ He, however, fails not only to outline what that may look like, but also to explore where such political moments may already exist. As Wilmer and Žukauskaitė point out, Agamben’s view is one based in Political Theology—emphasizing the omnipresent powers of the state in both totalitarian and democratic societies, which “creates a certain sense of inescapable historical determinism and concentrates on the negative aspects of biopolitics” (7), rather than the life-affirming theses, in terms of resistance, of many of the authors that follow in this collection.

Where Agamben’s text misses an opportunity to explore ideas of ‘resistance’ within biopolitics, Rosi Braidotti’s contribution finds biopolitical resistance and politics within the very subjects of biopower’s oppression: in life itself. Similar to Hardt and Negri’s distinction mentioned above, Braidotti turns to Foucault and Deleuze to distinguish politics from the political, i.e. rule from resistance; power from potential; potestas from potentia. Braidotti states, “Politics focuses on the management of civil society and its institutions, the political on the transformative experimentations with new arts of existence and ethical relations” (30). While Agamben remains focused on politics, Braidotti explores the ways in which the political—energy, life force, potentials, even ‘bare life’—persist in opposition to oppressive forces. This resistance requires continual political engagement in every aspect of one’s life. It is a Deleuzian politics of becoming that rejects the notion of ‘bare-life’ as apolitical and rather views all aspects of one’s life as potential sites of political rupture. If governance structures want to rule our biological experiences, then those sites are also potentially sites of resistance. Rather than distinguishing between Bios and Zoe as the political and apolitical subject, this view analyzes political forms, and thus agentic potentials, in all aspects of living, regardless of status rendered by the State.

From Deleuze and Guatarri, Braidotti traces the affirmative potentials (from even the most basic biological experience to our affect and desires) as productive life forces that are just as capable of rendering fissures, ruptures, events, or resistances in political structures. Agamben’s fear, that we have all been rendered bare-life, then misses the proverbial forest of potential dissent otherwise latent within all matter, regardless of political status. Braidotti’s position “aspires to the creation of affirmative alternatives by working through the negative instances so as to collectively transform them into affirmative practices” (55). This idea runs counter to Agamben’s Political Theology, by exploring the antagonistic potentials of life-forces in rejection of capital-P politics, or oppressive forces.

Further, such a distinction can also be clearly traced in Foucault’s later works, which looks at “individuals’ choice, agency,” as Nancy Ettlinger (2011) once wrote. Ettlinger states, “This new direction followed logically from his work on the art of governance because indirect governance rests on the presumption that actors have choices; that is, they can conform to, reproduce, and elaborate discourses and prescribed norms or they can challenge them” (539). Similarly, for Braidotti, the conglomeration of forces that make us atomic, vibrational, social, biological, technological, historical beings is an ever-moving and maneuvering process. For Braidotti, what Agamben refers to as ‘bare life’, i.e. an inhuman or de-politicized subject, is not a vulnerable helpless force, but a “generative vitality” (38). Bare-life is not political death, but rather life seen from another angle—promoting the vital force of all life’s capability to resist power. Political activism becomes an affirmation rather than a negation of life’s antagonistic potentials. To accept this, one has to understand that Zoe has just as much, if not more, political potential than Bios, which is relegated to the world of Politics. Returning to the basic premise of this review, it is with Braidotti rather than Agamben that we might begin to see how one engages in a complex web of biological and political processes, i.e. biopolitical resistance, to challenge biopower’s grasp.

As Braidotti turns to ‘nomadic neo-materialism’ to elucidate these principles, Thomas Lemke’s contribution expands upon the turn to new materialism in biopolitical theory to explore the agentic and active principles of matter within the political. He does so particularly in relation to the bioeconomy, i.e. the industry of “biological products,” its governance and its effects. Lemke’s alignment between Foucault’s notion of “government of things” and the new materialist perspective gives us new insight into biopower’s attempted control over “natural and artificial,” human-non-human, etc., particularly in the context of the bioeconomic politics of living matter. He outlines Foucault’s “relational approach” to biopolitical struggle and how it interacts with these new-materialist agentic perspectives by revealing the blurring of lines between subjects and objects, humans and ‘things,’ and exploring the “milieu” or multiplicity of ‘living’ and non-living objects that work together for or against biopower through combined resistance against the exploitative natures of the Bioeconomy (or at least potentials therein).

Žukauskaitė’s contribution traces the trajectory of biopolitical thought, from Foucault and Deleuze to Robert Esposito, that likewise has problematized the binaries such as citizen/non-citizen or human/nonhuman, in favor of a renewed concept of biopolitics that “unleashes forces which are non-human, impersonal, or asubjective” to explore the ways in which all forms of life and matter can create problems for biopower—or “life as the capacity to resist force” (88). Žukauskaitė looks into the political potentials in the micro, or minor, masses and “flows”: the relationality of all matter in terms of potentials and resistance, as opposed to an appeal to the macro structures of institutional politics. This too rejects citizen/non-citizen binaries in terms of power (potentia) and agency and finds strength in the “fibers” that connect all matter to reaffirm the “power of life” over the “power over life.”

Several essays in this collection look even closer at microbiology and the body to explore the active resistance of ‘non-human’ life. Notably Margrit Shildrick explores the human body as a supra organism that is hybrid and multitudinous in nature. With the assemblage as a model for organic life, Shildrick explores life as a “nonpersonal vital force”; this problematizes singularity or subjectivity in exchange for a relational assemblage of matter that has potential for resistance in this very vitality. Similar views are echoed in Catts and Zurr’s artistic biological exploration of the ‘body’ as an ecological system, which looks at the vital activity and agency of ‘bare-life’ itself in controlled and uncontrolled environments.

Maguire, Harding, and Colman, however, respectively spend less time on the theme of ‘resistance’ and more time on biopower and the technological advances of biopower’s surveillance. Likewise, Saskia Sassen provides a thorough analysis of the state of civil liberties in the late-capital era. Sassen in particular paints a bleak portrait of the current era in which we have reached a systemic edge. This era can only produce on its edge the expulsion of a growing number of “abjectly poor people” displaced in refugee camps, prisons, slums or brutal working conditions, while the biosphere and water resources are “expelled from life” as dead land, air and water. Sassen’s contribution alongside Andrés Fabián Henao Castro’s piece on the necropolitical state of migration, set the context in a powerful albeit devastating way, in which biopolitical resistance must occur. The job is immense. However, there is nothing to be said for such resistance in Sassen’s piece and very little left to the last few lines in Castro’s. Both contributions stick out as empirically rich, while diverging from the heady biopolitical analysis of the bulk of the text and for this reason are a welcome point of contextual stability. However, in line with the Agambian perspective that haunts other parts of this collection, both leave little room for resistance.

The strongest pieces in this book problematize Agamben’s Bios/Zoe dichotomy in terms of political agency, in favor of a more liberated (and complicated) conception of being, life, and experience, specifically in terms of expressing resistance and the political. While those pieces come largely from the perspective of new materialism, it could be said that the collection does lack a broader contextual or historical analysis of resistance in general. However, the authors show that new materialism provides us with a clear path away from Agamben’s Greco-Roman discourse, which this collection starts with, in order to understand the ways in which, as Deleuze put it, “When power becomes bio-power, resistance becomes the power of life…Is not life this capacity to resist force?” (2006, 77, cited in Wilmer and Žukauskaitė, 9). Such is the framework for resistance within biopolitics.


Chamberlain J (2016) On autonomy and migration: The politics of statelessness. In: Paunksnis S (ed) Dislocating Globality: Deterritorialization, Difference and Resistance. Leiden: Brill, 3-28.

Ettlinger N (2011) Governmentality as Epistemology. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101(3): 537-560.

Hardt M and Negri A (2009) Commonwealth. Harvard University Press.

Lee C (2010) Bare life, interstices, and the third space of citizenship. Women’s Studies Quarterly 39(1): 57-81.

Mezzadra S (2011) The gaze of autonomy: Capitalism, migration and social struggles. In: Squire V (ed) The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity. London: Routledge, 121-143.

Ranciere J (2004) Who is the subject of the rights of man? The South Atlantic Quarterly 103(2/3): 297-310.

Jacob Chamberlain is a PhD student in Geography at Clark University, Massachusetts, USA, and holds an MA in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths College, University of London. His research is focused on migration and critical theory. [email protected]