We live in a highly capitalised world, where almost anything can be described in terms of loss and profit. To secure governability, any rule can be made measurable by the notion of risk. Risk technologies help govern subjects of self-rule in response to their own contingency (Dillon 2008: 319). This is the classic biopolitical way of looking at security in terms of ´productivity´. In some of these accounts, however, it seems as if biopolitical approaches were able to describe security without the notion of discursive constructions, like when Michael Dillon (2008) speaks of “Underwriting Security”. In this post I will look at the question of which role discourse can play in biopolitical accounts of security and argue that they do not in fact contradict each other, if only a materialist notion of discourse is applied.

In the first part of the post, I will outline how security is conceptualised in a biopolitical way. In biopolitics, populations are to be secured through circulation, maximising the good through diminishing the bad (Foucault 2007: 18). They follow a transactional logic within which self-governing freedoms enable the biopolitics of security to be practised as transactional freedoms (cf. Dillon 2008).

Threats, in a biopolitical sense, are mostly defined through their delineation to productivity, which is why a governmentality of risk is currently dominating biopolitical security debates. Dillon highlights the relative and transformational potential of risk as it “bypasses the traditional concerns of political philosophy [and] nonetheless binds and does so with an imperial impulse” (2008: 328).

Risk calculation allows for security issues to be assessed in terms of loss and profit. The notion of risk is thereby used to estimate what exceeds the “bandwidths of the acceptable” (Foucault 2007: 6). Dillon argues that risk and security “necessarily go together biopolitically” (2008:312), since security always revolves around life as a referent object and security technologies revolve around governing the properties of that emergent and reproductive object. The referent empirical object of biopolitics is then species in the form of population (ib.: 319). So to speak, transformation becomes the predominant security strategy of living things – a logic that is deeply embedded in our global capitalised economic and financial system (cf. Ib.: 321).

Since, biopolitically speaking, contingency is “constitutive of what it is to be a living thing” (Dillon 2008: 314), life cannot be secured from or against contingency. Biopolitically, it is instead secured through contingency (Dillon 2007, 2008). Since life itself is an emergent being, it calls for a risk-based approach to security (ib.: 310). Contingency in this sense becomes a domain of calculability with the objective of taming chance, the futures or actually time, thereby securing living beings whose very existence is temporal (ib.: 313). Certain scenarios of the future are thus eliminated or enabled, creating a “quite distinctive moral and behavioural economy of existence” (ib.: 314).

Contingency is at the very center of the humanist discourse of modernity, insomuch as it promotes biopolitics of security as consolidating a particular understanding of human life as emergent and dynamic entity, rendering contingency “the epistemic object for biopolitics of security in the 21st century” (Dillon 2008: 314). According to such an account of biopolitical securitisation, the focus in terms of populations is on their aleatory nature and as contingency is a generic characteristic of life as a biological existence, Dillon argues that it underwrites itself (2008: 312):

“Such underwriting security does not differentiate inside from outside in a discursively organized play of friend/enemy or self/other. It therefore does not immediately inscribe a social or political identity – populations and risk pools do not constitute a people in the usual political and cultural uses of that expression. Its domain of production is not that of identity but contingency.” (Dillon 2008: 322)

This is where my critique sets in. Dillon argues that this process of underwriting does not involve a discursive process of inscription that creates social identities and maintains social relations (cf. Dillon 2008: 322). However, I feel that Dillons account of biopolitical security undermines the significance of discourse and discursive constructions and enactments of social realities. In fact, I argue that discourse theory has to be a vital element of biopolitics considering that all forms of social order are somewhat constituted by discourse. To my understanding, the two are not mutually exclusive, but rather they need to work together in order to understand the complex relationships between theoretical concepts, meaning and materialities (cf. Barad 2007: 147). I argue that discourse is fundamental to all theories of social order, if discursive practises are most generally viewed as “boundarymaking practices” (Barad 2007: 149), rather than mere linguistic representations.

Posthumanist scholars, such as Barad and Dillon, generally argue that knowledge is produced from certain bodies, usually referred to as apparatuses. Such apparatuses “are particular physical arrangements that give meaning to certain concepts to the exclusion of others; they are the local physical conditions that enable and constrain knowledge practices such as conceptualizing and measuring; they are productive of (and part of) the phenomena produced; they enact a local cut that produces “objects” of particular knowledge practices within the particular phenomena produced” (Barad 2007: 147). However, I argue that they do not exclude a discourse-theoretical analytical perspective. Quite on the contrary, they can be equalled with discursive practices understood as “specific material reconfiguring through which “objects” and “subjects” are produced” (Barad 2007: 148). I thus argue for an understanding of discourse in Karen Barads sense:

“Discourse is not a synonym for language. Discourse does not refer to linguistic or signifying systems, grammars, speech acts, or conversations. […] Discourse is not what is said; it is that which constrains and enables what can be said. Discursive practices define what counts as meaningful statements.” (Barad 2007: 146f.)

According to such an understanding of discursive practices, the discursive production of identity can be thought within a posthumanist, biopolitical account of security. If life is contingent and transformative, security practices aimed to secure living things need to be able to describe the complex relationships between what is thought as materialities and what is thought as meaning. Knowledge is produced through a complex and ongoing network of performances. It cannot be thought outside a system of discursive practises and meaning cannot be established without some sort of identity- or boundarymaking practises. I argue that all sorts of social order are best thought in terms of social relations and social relations depend upon memberships and social identities (cf. i.e. Tajfel 1974).

Therefore, in opposition to the above mentioned quote by Dillon, where he describes “underwriting” security as a process that does not require identity-making processes like the inscription of discursive inside and outside, I argue that these processes of inscribing or enacting social identities cannot actually be isolated from the materialities they describe. Even the above described processes of securitisation which are vastly maintaining themselves by responding to the emerging challenges of life in a reproductive manner, are not devoid of the reproduction of social distinctions, as the – in itself governmental – capitalised regime of biopolitical security of the 21st century shows, that by its very logic reproduced global inequalities.

Modernist discourse is strongly grounded in humanist ideals based on the Othering of nature and nonhumans which serve to reconstruct the very identity of man and humanity (cf. i.e. Haraway 1992: 298, Say 2011: 34). The very ontology of modern discourse is grounded in the Othering of nonhuman things, as opposed to human ones, reinforcing subject-object dichotomies (cf. Nimmo 2011: 62). I argue that these underlying boundarymaking practises necessarily need to remain in our theoretical considerations, in order to gain an analytical understanding of the material conditions they give effect to. In our analysis of security practises I therefore believe we should keep in mind these discursive practises that are vital to the ongoing performance that constitute contingent life. In this sense I would plead not to forget about the writing in “Underwriting” security. I argue that if we adopt a materialist rather than a merely linguistic notion of discourse, we can use the concepts of biopolitics and discourse in a complementary, rather than a contradictory way, in order to describe security.

References:

Anderson, Ben (2019): Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies. In: Progress in Human Geography, 34(6), 777-798.

Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press: Durham & London.

Dillon, Michael (2007): Governing through contingency: The security of biopolitical governance. In: Political Geography 26, 41-47.

Dillon, Michael (2008): Underwriting Security. In: Security Dialoge, 39(2-3), 309-332.

Foucault, Michel (2007): Security, Territory, Population. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Haraway, Donna (1992): The Promises of Monsters. In: Grossberg, L.; C. Nelson and P.A. Treichler (1992): Cultural Studies. Routledge: New York and London, 295-335.

Nimmo, Richie (2011): The Making of the Human: Anthropocentrism in Modern Social Thought. In: Boddice, Rob (2011): Anthropocentrism: Human, Animals Environments. Koninklijke Brill NV: Leiden and Boston, 59-81.

Sax, Boria (2011): What is this Quintessence of Dust? The Concept of “Human” and its Origins. In: Boddice, Rob (2011): Anthropocentrism: Human, Animals Environments. Koninklijke Brill NV: Leiden and Boston,  59-81.

Tajfel, Henry (1974): Social Identity and Intergroup Behavior. In: Social Science Information, 13(2), 65-93

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