City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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Inventing Maps: Medical Police as Public Space Cartographer, part 2

ΙΙ. White Aprons, or How One Philosophizes with a Lancet

The recurring tragedies at the aquatic fringes of Europe thus give birth to a logical paradox. The meticulous production of the conditions of risk and exclusion leading to the tragic shipwrecks in the Mediterranean continue to claim for themselves the aura of the random and of the mysterious that would otherwise inherently characterise natural world phenomena. And it is this insistence upon naturalisation that offers, as we saw previously, the ideology of border controls their much-desired de-politicisation—helping its zealots vanish beyond the horizon of moral responsibility. This surplus of “natural” disasters stands in perfect alignment with the discursive assumptions of the humanist hypothesis. The protagonists of the humanitarian performances wander around as natural objects—and they die as such. We saw how their naturalness equips them with all essential meanings during their uncertain itineraries toward Europe. It condemns them to hover around while grounded to their biological finiteness. Their physical temperatures reveal their presence in the sea from afar.[1] Their physical needs stand as their sole meanings, suffocatingly occupying their symbolic spaces. And their physical growth is the one that will secure them a place in the world of law. Because it is by now well-known that for the youngest percentage of the populations that arrive at the shores of Italy, their naked biologicality also means something else. It gestates all elements necessary in order to judge upon their inclusion in some special protection status and essentially, their assigning to a “dignified” legal status. Some assignment reached after a precise estimation of their age. Medical reports concerning skeletal age, dental age and physical growth of a young individual are in this way converted into a legal tool par excellence.[2] A special protection status is offered to under-age individuals, putting their precise age estimation at the stake of a series of medical examinations that act as an initial screening mechanism, on the basis of a crucial age threshold.[3] It is doctors, then, that decide upon the legal status of a percentage of these populations. Here, biology speaks the language of courtrooms.

The emergence of the figure of the doctor at this stage does not appear to be incompatible. To the contrary, it affirms the tight relationship between the medical sector and the legal world. Some relationship not limited to the function of contemporary legal technologies alone, but one that establishes itself, first and foremost, at the notional level—as proven by the uses of the word crisis. In his studies on Psychiatric Power, Foucault demonstrates the legal-medical context of the term, showing how it was prevalent in the questionings of illness during a long period, spanning from Hippocratesup until the birth of pathological anatomy. For the medical practices of that long time, crisis meant the truth of the illness. It was the moment when illness would declare itself present. It was a moment of struggle between life and death, a moment of relapse, the kairos, as per Hippocrates, that signified a crucial turning point in the illness’ trajectory.[4] Up until the crisis would break out illness was, essentially, nothing. It remained both invisible and mute. It was the crisis that revealed it, that signalled its presence, and that delegated the doctor to judge it in the sense of the juridical decision, for its own truth, selecting the appropriate means to manage its symptoms.[5] The crisis, then, appears as a thickening of symptoms that, once they become apparent, make the illness truly exist. That decide for—and comprise—its truth. It is hereby important to locate the double meaning of the term crisis. On the one hand it describes a crucial moment in the illness’ trajectory. On the other, it comprises the privileged topos for the exercise of medical practice—implicating the doctor in a way that renders him initially responsible for the diagnosis of this trajectory and then by extension, for the management of its symptoms. The doctor ought to recognise the crisis and to decide upon its management. The doctor is, in other words, called upon to judge.[6]

The importance of judgement and decision that characterises the role of the doctor throughout those twenty-two centuries of Medicine, as described by Foucault, brings its juridical relevance to date through the example of age estimation. And it shows how the doctor will momentarily turn into a juridical body, one that will decide upon the fate of the entire young population eventually reaching the European shores or surviving catastrophes. In these examples, the doctor may not be called upon to judge on the outbreak of some concealed disease—yet his role is nevertheless strictly tied to the duty of revealing some “truth” inscribed and expressed in a bodily manner.[7] The revealing, in other words, of the biological age of a human organism. Yet this recording is a disputable recording and hence, an “approximate truth”. In the case of age estimation techniques this “approximation” is one expressed through a range that remains, in most cases, unspecified—and one that becomes the juridical topos par excellence for the young refugee and migrant.[8] A mere medical opinion is in this way transformed into a deportation order, or a leave to remain. The dependence upon these medical checks may not concern the entire migrant and refugee populations arriving in Europe yet it nevertheless highlights the importance reserved by the management of their naked biologicality as the ultimate political issue at stake. The authors of the report titled Assessing Chronological Age of Unaccompanied Minors in Southern Italy claim that “[a]ge estimation of unaccompanied minors is a fundamental principle of human rights and dignity”.[9] But this is not merely yet another instrumental and selective use of the term “human rights”. It additionally comprises a process evidently bypassing some elementary aspects of medical moral code. As the related report issued in late 2011 by the Separated Children in Europe Programme tells us, the process of estimating the age of young unaccompanied refugees and migrants in Italy is rife with deficiencies, omissions and assumptions essentially comprising a mechanism for the infringement, not the protection of whatever “human” rights.[10]

Any meticulous observer of transformations that have taken place in the technologies of the field of criminal law procedure since the end of the 19th century would admittedly fail to be surprised by the conventional tests of age estimation that take place in some makeshift medical labs in Italy today. Ever since the days when Alphonse Bertillon would assort his first anthropometric samples in Paris, colossal transformations have taken place in regard to the involvement of bodily-physical characteristics in the field of criminal procedural law and criminology. What was at stake during that triumphant initial entering of the human body upon the police laboratories of the time was the creation of a lasting dependence of those who would repeatedly offend—then so-called “persistent offenders”—by some inescapable biological truths of theirs.[11] The caretakers of this entering showed blind trust to the latter. And so, developments in fields studying human body phenomena gradually became developments in the field of procedural substantiation itself. The body, then, would henceforth exude innocence or guilt. And it would do so in a non-negotiable and terminal manner. This was the main purpose of the appeal to the previously apocryphal and enigmatic world of the body: to dissipate the veils of mystery and to disband any doubt that would traditionally cast its shadow upon the practice of judgement (crisis) and decision-making. Yet the certainties that the body would so open-handedly offer were not limited to the field of juridical and medical practice. As we shall see, they soon became a means for a broader way of thinking; a way of thinking politically.

One may therefore claim that age estimation tests belong to this police tradition commencing at the end of the 19th century and which dramatically widened the interweaving of law with the life sciences sector—some interweaving that was only indicatively revealed earlier on through the notion of the crisis. In either case, this particular mechanism of human assortment belongs to a much wider array of public security practices relating the issue of migration to regulations of the criminal law. And this is what connects it, paradoxically, to Bertillon’s distant practices. Age estimation tests comprise an exemplary case of interweaving the body with the law. And it may be pointless to continue to insist upon their technical deficiencies and the unreliability of their results. What retains its distinctive meaning, and re-introduces us to the environment formed by the humanist hypothesis, is that bare life, as main protagonist and as a product of this humanist project, hereby acquires a particular technical and communicable “form”. It can be articulated, in other words, through specific practices, through sizes and qualities, through recognisable and materially inscribed expressions. This articulation becomes much more than a mere projection of some irreversible physical characteristics; it becomes meaning and subject position. A position that, as Arendt would suggest, is determined by the field in which the subject itself can hold no responsibility whatsoever.[12] Along the same lines, and referring to the widespread contemporary biometric technologies, Agamben writes: “If […] my identity is now determined by biological facts—that in no way depend on my will, and over which I have no control—then the construction of something like a personal ethics becomes problematic”.[13]

The involvement of the human organism in these brief medical examinations is only one of the most contemporary articulations of the political importance acquired by the body during modernity’s arrival. As stressed out by Esposito, it is modernity that shifts the centre of gravity of human meaning from the heavenly worlds—to which christianity had condemned it for centuries—to the earthly reality, declaring “the biological survival [to be] the highest good”.[14] In describing the transformations taking place during the formation of the modern state, Foucault articulates this shift along a similar line, as follows: “It was no longer a question of leading people to their salvation in the next world but rather ensuring it in this world. And in this context, the word ‘salvation’ takes on different meanings: health, well-being (that is, sufficient wealth, standard of living), security, protection against accidents”.[15] This persistence upon the protection of life and the new meanings enjoyed by the notion of health in this modernist threshold launch an unprecedented recourse to the functions of the biological world. And no matter how paradoxical it may seem, modernity sought its truths and its meanings in the world compiled by these natural extra-historical functions. This recourse to the natural world appears to haunt modernist thought. Some naturalisation that allows, as we saw, for the ideological legitimisation of the tragedies piling up at the borders of Europe is not only a discursive stratagem upon which humanist paradoxes are concentrated. It also comprises, on the one hand, a valuable field of problematising the human condition—offering an array of symbolic interpretations and discursive tools. On the other hand, it comprises an inexhaustible field of scientific investigation and documentation, gradually claiming its own autonomy; some autonomy that eventually and in turn becomes meaning in itself.

It is well-known that the modernist culture was characterised from the outset by an obsession to rule over the natural world. Yet at the same time, it never ceased to invoke it both in order to give meaning and to judge its accomplishments, as well as in order to give shape and to interpret its social constructions.[16] The notion of the natural never ceased to cause awe nor to haunt the visions of technique and science. The conditions were born, therefore for a mysterious cyclical movement. On the one hand, the modernist ventures launched an endless struggle to overcome nature. On the other hand, they never ceased to invoke this in order to affirm and vindicate their choices—discovering, in its face, the ultimate refuge of truth. Yet this strong bond with natural “truths” and natural laws was not confined to the functions and specificities characterising the technical world. It occupied, in addition, a large part of the practices of social meaning-assigning in themselves. Perhaps the most typical expression of the said occupation lies in the widespread biologising practices that emphatically accompany the processes of anxious meaning-assigning of social relationships and human nature—grounding, as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins would have it, the processes of meaning-assigning to the “sclerotic framework of a corporeal determination of cultural forms”.[17] The modernist obsession to describe cultural forms, moral behaviours and social structures through knowledge of the biological world phenomena would grow along with this knowledge itself. As the delving into life phenomena continued, the status those offered to the symbolisms and the meaning-assigning of human hypotheses was inflated. Today, the figure of the young refugee and migrant finds its paradigmatic position at the conjuncture between this knowledge and these symbolic intentions. Right where a mere dental examination seamlessly meets complicated law regulations. Yet this meet-up did not take place all of a sudden.

At approximately the same time when the renown Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen would come to light, Europe would play host to some crucial political transformations. The forming of the nation-state signalled a series of unprecedented technical-administrative reconfigurations, at the core of which one can discern a tremendous interest in the phenomena of life and the functions of the human, by now as a biological species. In studying the importance of sexuality as the field where the disciplines of the body and the controlling of population phenomena meet—and in describing these new adjustment controls as a biopolitics of the population—Foucault identifies that exact era as western world’s “threshold of the biological modernity”. The modern human is no longer merely “a living animal”, as Aristotle had claimed, but “an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”.[18] We therefore see that the Declaration of Rights of 1789, which concerned us so much earlier on, and which attempted to inscribe the “inalienable” rights of human to the mere fact of their birth (and that alone), cannot be understood out of the context of the new role taken on by the meaning of human (human as body and human as species) within the emerging biopolitical framework of that time. Both are articulated in the light of a tremendous concern for the human’s biological background, one that is not only limited to the narrow confines of a bureaucratic project that is requested to take charge and to safeguard the quality of life of its population: instead, as revealed to us by the Declaration, this project tries out new interpretations and introduces novel political meanings.

On that same period, Foucault would once again refer to the notion of biopolitics—extracting elements from the specific environment formed by the strong interest in life phenomena. And he chose to do so, at his 1975-76 lectures, through the phenomenon of racism: racism as a state choice and as a state mechanism for the management of a domestic enemy.[19] Soon enough, Foucault realised that within this new form of power relationships undertaking the functions—and by extension, the very meaning—of (organic) life in an unprecedented productive and protective manner, one ought to seek the ways in which death continues to be intentionally applied; this renown, absolute right of the sovereign. The introduction of the notion of racism takes upon itself the task of filling this void, proving that life can harmoniously coincide with death within the exact same discursive-governmental framework. Yet it is my life and the death of the Other. Or, to be precise, my life through the death of the Other.[20] This is racism’s signature function. The detailed description of which Foucault leaves incomplete, since during his succeeding lectures, in which he takes on processing the characteristics and particularities of biopolitics anew, he appears to be allured by the productive affirmations and the laws that organise the world of political economy.[21] Some allure that henceforth only allows him to approach death as a mere population phenomenon,  as a stand-alone natural dimension to be managed by the liberal state—not as some catastrophic result of one of its select tactics.[22]

Yet we know that the emergence of liberalism did not by any means suggest the withdrawal of racism. To the contrary: racism comprises a purely modern phenomenon and a statuary element of liberal governance, meticulously hidden behind the infamous values of equality and universality. Identifying the crucial gap formed by Foucault’s choice not to study the emergence of the bourgeois class in Europe as a quintessential product of its colonial practices,[23] Ann Laura Stoler points at the links tying liberalism to nationalism during that crucial period of transformations for european states. And so, she claims that “[t]he most basic universalistic notions of ‘human nature’ and ‘individual liberty’, […] rested on combined notions of breeding and the learning of ‘naturalized’ habits that set off those who exhibited such a ‘nature’ and could exercise such liberty from the racially inferior”.[24] In this way, she shows that the moral principles that govern liberal democracy are constituted within the colonial context, first of all as racialised principles—and that the notion of citizenship ought to be conceived only through its gendered, class and racial connotations.[25] In this way, the colonial environment proved to be a testing ground for the philosophy of bourgeois liberalism[26], since regulative colonial policies not only allowed for the conditions of subjectification of the colonized, but at the same time constructed the european bourgeois identity itself, in all its different versions.[27] Nevertheless, cross-reading Foucault’s observations and covering his gaps through Stoler’s careful commentaries we may for a second ponder upon the importance pertained, at that time, by the discussion over the defence of society reserved for state racism—and by extension, its health—through some very systematic policies of constituting and conceptualising the enemy within. Some enemy that, in the biopolitical horizon of its interpretation, henceforth becomes biologised.[28] A construction that is vital not only for the functions of racism but for the constitution of the liberal nation-state per se. Stoler suggests that we trust those who interpret “the racialized ‘interior’ frontiers that nationalisms create, not as excesses of a nationalism out of hand, but as social divisions crucial to the exclusionary principles of nation-states”.[29] Racism does not comprise an accident in the process of the formation of the modern state—but rather, an integral part of this very process.

The importance of all these observations, and their relationship to the naturalisation that has concerned us up until this point, commence from the meeting point between this biological emergence and its undertaking with the new conceptualisations of danger; a meet-up that is constitutive for the modern national state. They commence, in other words, from the fact that within the biopolitical framework shaped on the one hand by the political-administrative transformations of the second half of the 18th century and on the other, by the ways in which state racism welcomed these transformations a century on, the ways in which the enemy (within) were questioned were updated themselves. In a condition, in other words that is characterised by “the acquisition of power over man insofar as man is a living being”[30] and due to the fact that the biological element henceforth enters a field entirely controlled by the state mechanisms, racism henceforth constitutes a phenomenon that is radically different to what was so far known as the “race struggle”[31]—and this racism now comes to be articulated not through a warlike relationship but through a biological-type relationship instead; fully compatible to the modern specifications and demands of biopower.[32] The enemy, in this case, is not merely a political-military opponent. They are a threat within the social body itself. Some threat that is, first and foremost, biological—and whose presence is henceforth articulated hygienically, becoming the subject of a number of relevant regulations. It is for this reason that Bauman claims that “racism is unthinkable without the advancement of modern science, modern technology and modern forms of state power”, making it clear that it “is a thoroughly modern weapon used in the conduct of pre-modern, or at least not exclusively modern, struggles”.[33] The transformations characterising the conceptualisations of the enemy are in this way proven to be inextricably interwoven to a sum of new techniques and ways of conceiving and describing it, which are in turn founded upon the knowledge rapidly produced by the field of life sciences. The sectors of medicine, of physical anthropology and of public health were assigned, in this way, a prime role not only for the needs of a “convincing” documentation and meaning-giving of biological differences but also, in the constitution of the modern national state in itself, through the particular questioning of its domestic threats. Talking about the immense importance of the combination of medicine and hygiene in regard to issues of sexuality control during the 19th century, Foucault writes that it comprises “if not the most important element, an element of considerable importance because of the link it establishes between scientific knowledge of both biological and organic processes (or in other words, the population and the body), and because at the same time, medicine becomes a political intervention-technique with specific power-effects”.[34]

And so, amidst the environment shaped by the above transformations, the constitution of the modern state may only be understood through the terms of the health of its population. Some population that appears as a new size, with its own characteristics, whose management requires a particular form of knowledge that is from now on offered by the newly-emergent fields of statistics and demography.[35] The state, as a guarantor of the life and the health of its population, urgently takes on a dual protective role that functions in a self-constitutive manner. On the one hand, it meticulously constructs the biologicised enemy within. On the other hand, it intervenes in order to protect society from the danger it gestates itself, focusing upon the “dangerous” and the “degenerative” bodies. Sometimes upon those bodies that “violate the law”, sometimes upon those bodies that are ill and transmit, and sometimes upon those that merely “differ”.[36] All these variations of the bodily are described in common in theories concerning degeneration and hereditary, in fears for the diffusion of immorality and criminality, and in the discourses over social deregulation.[37] In the practising of these theories and discourses, the modern state builds a near-clinical image for its self, for its lustiness and for its integrity—articulating this practically in terms of belonging and exclusion. It therefore makes some sense for us to study the role played by biosciences in the above constitution—since it is these sciences that are the most qualified to suggest the new biological enemy of the state, that come as the ultimate attempts to naturalise hierarchies, to turn differences ideological and to legitimise exclusions, utilising the prestige and the precision fitting to their observations.[38] The rich knowledge concerning the natural backdrop of the human was born inside the same framework that led to the formation of the nation-state. We ought, therefore, to conceive the biomedical discourse as a discourse that is largely racialised, in order to conceive the role that it plays in the conceptualisation and in the constitution of natural identity itself.

As Alison Bashford stresses out, “[n]ation forming has found one of its primary languages in biomedical discourse, partly because of its investment in the abstract idea of boundary, identity and difference, but also because of the political philosophy that thinks of the population as one body, the social body or the body of the polity”.[39] In the framework set by technologies and the discourses of state-liberal racism, and always under the influence of a widespread rhetoric concerning degenerative dangers, the displacement or the extermination of the “degenerative” does not mean, as Foucault shows us, merely the prevalence over a given enemy—but it signals, in addition, the strengthening and the consolidation of life itself.[40] The fields of medicine and hygiene immediately take on, as a result, to materially articulate the terms of the said consolidation. Some undertaking that becomes all the more urgent in the light of the new capacities in transportation and communications.[41] For example, in studying the importance of the institution of hygienic quarantine in the constitution of national identity, Bashford, demonstrates the ways in which this contributed to the conceiving of the notion of national integrity. Through its protective and its prohibitive lines, it “made…”, as she writes, “…otherwise often abstract national or colonial boundaries very real”.[42] The global migration characterising the Interwar Period is treated as an equally crucial biomedical issue. Under the influence of eugenics and early genetics, the racially understood social body, which is now possible to be conceived more “literally” (that is, biologically) is faced with intruders who either carry transmissive diseases, or are judged to be of some “questionable” moral quality.[43] Under the constant fear of the “degenerative” influence of these “dangerous” social groups, drastic measures were taken for the limitation of migration. Some action that is tremendously relevant in the environment formed by the increased migratory flows today, making timely the hygienic importance of borders in turn; borders that “are there to protect life itself”, now more than ever.[44] In studying the particular example of Australia, Bashford concludes that in the end, its own population was constituted through these technologies of border and hygiene control. Some constitution that is on the one hand literal—“with the restriction of entry of certain people on grounds of race, and on public health grounds”. On the other hand, it is imaginary—through the image “of the Australian national body as pure but requiring protection, as white, but precariously so”.[45]

We are therefore dealing with a literal as much as a metaphorical function—both of which maintain their particular importance. Admittedly, the presence of organic metaphors in these observations does not come as a surprise. The anthropologist Mary Douglas, for example, claims that the body comprises a privileged field for the extraction of meanings and symbolisms—in particular, in regard to perceptions concerning social boundary-setting. “The body…”, writes Douglas, “…is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures”.[46] The body that comes under fire, that is threatened, that endangered—its exposed and vulnerable physical orifices in particular—acts, in this way, as a particularly effective condenser for many of the symbolisms related to the violation of boundaries. Bashford reaffirms this symbolic potential through her observations on health and hygiene, where the references to the notion of the pathogenic catapult their own symbolic capacities.[47] Hygiene, she claims in this way, is applied as discourse on boundaries and their violations, hence acting as a primary framework of meaning-assignment that discovers one of its preferential fields of application in the form and in the function of national borders. It shows, therefore, that these do not comprise mere metaphors. “Far from being a straightforward metaphor, the use of the term ‘hygiene’, particularly in the context of nationalism, was a result of the deep connection between the political and cultural imagining of bodies and nations, as well as a long history of an ‘imaginary geo-graphics’ of exclusion”.[48] And so, beyond their metaphorical and the symbolic dynamics health and illness organise, through their regulatory clinical imaginaries, some entirely tangible exclusions—and if need be, death itself. Because as Esposito assures us, the immunising logic fundamentally involved in the construction of modern meanings leads to the negation of life itself, once this traverses a certain threshold. Right where protection and death coexist in harmony, in a zone of absolute indistinction.[49]

In this way, we witness a primarily metaphorical presence of the body (and its nosology) in the political discourse that accompanies the formation of the modern nation-state. We also have a number of entirely material articulations of this discourse which realise, in space as much as in time, the relationship between body and meaning. Referring to a contemporary articulation of the discourse over hygiene, which he terms moral hygiene, Jeffrey Schaler notes that these metaphorical constructions extend the limits and the responsibilities of public health “by applying a medical metaphor to every sphere of life, and then, quite absurdly, taking the metaphor literally”.[50] During this inconspicuous move from the metaphorical to the literal world, a tremendous expansion is granted to biomedical discourse and its applications. And late modernity has admittedly offered us the most totalitarian and the most destructive, perhaps, moment of the expansion in question—one that describes a much more literal and perceptible presence of the biological in the foreground of the production of meanings. The policy of nazism showed some unprecedented meticulousness in assigning the human body with this particular philosophical mission, giving birth to an entirely new way of political thought as a result. The notion-al and notion-assigning responsibilities undertaken by the body during those crucial years are unparalleled. Along with them, the responsibilities of those that would usually study it were also extended. As we shall see, in this case the body does not invade the labs of conceptual constructions as a physical symbol or as a mere metaphor, but as a strict literalism.[51] And without meaning to draw any immediate parallels to that absolute thanatopolitical example of the 20th century, we would claim that the interweaving of body and law as articulated in the aforementioned medical examinations of age estimation, carries with it some of the poisonous aura of this literalism. What characterises the here and the now of our body, which is inescapable, constitutes our unique position in the world.[52] This is the lesson of the nazi racial ideology. And this is also the meaning of the medical opinions in question. It does not comprise, in other words, an organic metaphor, but an organic literalism: a biological index that indicates subject positions.

“After all…”, asks Esposito, “…isn't it a biological given, blood precisely, that constitutes the ultimate criterion for defining the juridical status of a person?”.[53] The question describes the absolute superimposition, according to the Italian thinker, of the two semantic roots of the immunization notion—that is, the biological and the juridical one. And it proves that in the nazi case—as in the case of the examinations of age estimate, one could add—we find ourselves faced with a dual mechanism, one facet of which is occupied by the absolute biologisation of the juridical and the other, by the absolute juridicalisation of the biological.[54] The nazi example, taking on the formidable focusing upon the biological procedures that constitute the human, elevates the demand for the protection of life—some life which, apart from constituting a signifying metaphor for the german Volk, is matched quite literally with care for its health, as articulated through a long list of related laws and regulations. For the health of every individual body, which would henceforth comprise both the guard and guarantor of the health of the german national “body” as a whole. Which is why Hans Reiter, one of the top officials in charge of the Reich’s hygienic policy, would stress upon the importance of everyone endorsing this new way of biological thinking; since what was at stake was no less than “the ‘substance’ of the same ‘biological body of the nation’”.[55] The body therefore steps into the foreground of political procedures in some unprecedented manner, turning nazism into a “realization of biology”[56] or, as Rudolph Hess declared, “nothing but applied biology”.[57] The hygienic mechanism of national-socialism ought to defend health and the purity of this biological legacy that emerges as destiny and from now on, as the foremost political duty.[58] In this way, this presence of the fatal and of the inescapable becomes a subject of undertaking.

“The body is not only a happy or unhappy accident that relates us to the implacable world of matter. Its adherence to the Self is of value in itself. It is an adherence that one does not escape and that no metaphor can confuse with the presence of an external object; it is a union that does not in any way alter the tragic character of finality”.[59] This is how Lévinas describes the ontological repercussions of nazi philosophy in regard to the new importance acquired by the relationship between the human and her/his body. This obsessive inscription of meaning onto the body comprised a systematic philosophical-medical project that on the one hand demonstrated some unprecedented faith in the notion of the race, and on the other some non-negotiable trust in the biomedical tools for the needs of racial protection. Closely following developments in genetics and eugenics, the nazi medical personnel took on both the task of the strict biological definition of the german race, as well as that of the turning of this definition into a political aim. Agamben writes that “[n]azism […] did not limit itself to using and twisting scientific concepts for its own ends. The relationship between National Socialist ideology and the social and biological sciences of the time—in particular, genetics—is more intimate and complex and, at the same time, more disturbing”.[60] The disturbing effect caused by this particular relationship concerns the fact that “these concepts are not treated as external (if binding) criteria of a sovereign decision: they are, rather, as such immediately political”.[61]

And so, the immune mechanisms that raised an unprecedented demand for the protection of human life from the dawn of modernity, in the case of nazism experience their most intense and their most murderous embodiment. As care for life is equated with the complete annihilation of any degenerative factor, ceaseless hygienic interventions are rendered inextricably interwoven with the mass death practices characterising the Reich. Practices that are equally medicalised and scientifically designed, that were applied with the certainty that they protect the health and the integrity of the national body, freed from the presence of assorted degenerative threats[62]— primarily the “jewish threat”. The discourse over the threat in question was no hollow wording; it claimed to equally be in a position to identify and to biologically substantiate the latter. And the ambition for a naturalised interpretation of this absolute degenerative biological evil was born long before the nazis took power. As revealed by a letter sent by Hitler on September 16, 1919 to his friend Adolf Gemlich, the time had come at that moment for old-fashioned emotional antisemitism to be overcome, since it did not help in the understanding of the real degenerative effect the Jews had on the german nation. As the still young Hitler would stress out, “[a]ntisemitism as a political movement may not and can not be determined by flashes of emotion, but rather through the understanding facts”.[63] The most important of these was the unquestionable fact, for Hitler, that jewishness henceforth ought to be understood in racial, not in religious terms.[64] This new understanding would gradually pave the way for the mass medicalised extermination of the Jews. As Bauman writes, “[o]nly in its modern ‘scientific’, racist form, the age-long repellence of the Jews has been articulated as an exercise in sanitation; only with the modern reincarnation of Jew-hatred have the Jews been charged with an ineradicable vice, with an immanent flaw which cannot be separated from its carriers”.[65] Hitler, then, echoed the scientific spirit of his time—he was by no means a pioneer with the demand articulated in the letter in question. Already from the end of the 19th century, the rich anti-semitic discourse attempted to substantiate the “jewish question”, claiming that the threat posed by the Jews not only stemmed by their biological nature, but that it was, in addition, inalterable.[66] On the basis of this inalterable condition, the Jewish proved to be unreceptive and hence worthy of displacement and extermination. The appeal to biology, then—in this, as much as in other examples—was not suggested merely by the symbolic capacities offered by the endless array of organic metaphors, but also by racism’s inherent need to describe its subject as irreversible. Some irreversibility offered open-handedly in biomedical science’s field of study: in the field where one would locate what Lévinas calls inescapable, final and eternally given.



[1]: See for example Koslowski Rey, The Evolution of Border Controls as a Mechanism to Prevent Illegal Migration, Migration Policy Institute, Washington DC, February 2011, p.9. Available at

[2]: See Nuzzolese Emilio, Solarino Biagio, Liuzzi Claudia & Di Vella Giancarlo, Assessing Chronological Age of Unaccompanied Minors in Southern Italy, Am J Forensic Med Pathol, Volume 32, Number 3, September 2011, pp.202, 203.

[3]: The report titled Review of Current Laws, Policies, and Practices Relating to Age Assessment in Sixteen European Countries states in this regard: “age assessment is used in Europe mainly to establish whether or not (and for how long) an individual is under 18 years of age and therefore eligible for protection under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) and other relevant international, European, regional and national legal instruments”. Specifically in the case of Italy, it stresses out that “[i]n practice, most age assessment cases related to separated children are initiated because authorities suspect that an individual who claims to be a child is aged above 18. Sometimes age assessment is requested to establish whether the child is aged above or below 14 in relation to criminal responsibility”. See Review of Current Laws, Policies, and Practices Relating to Age Assessment in Sixteen European Countries, Separated Children in Europe Programme (Thematic Group on Age Assessment), May 2011, pp.4,16. Available at

[4]: See the lecture of January 23rd, 1974 in Foucault Michel, Psychiatric Power – Lectures at the College de France 1973-74, trans. by Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2006, pp.242,259

[5]: Ibid., p.244

[6]: In the same regard, when attempting a brief perambulation in the conceptual dynamic of the crisis, Agamben reaffirms its medical use—which, along with its theological dimension comprise its two semantic roots. In either case, the term is connected to the notion of judgement, which in the medical field concerns the doctor’s opinion when the illness’ trajectory has reached the stage of struggle between life and death. See in this regard Agamben Giorgio, The Endless Crisis as an Instrument of Power: In conversation with Giorgio Agamben, 04 June 2013, available at

[7]: “The physician speaks only to utter the truth […] He names and he orders, that's all”, writes Foucault in this regard. See Foucault Michel, Speech Begins after Death – In Conversation with Claude Bonnefoy, trans. by Robert Bononno, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London 2013, p.35

[8]: Concerning the error margin, the aforementioned report by the SCEP is affirmative: “In a number of cases, the margin of error is not indicated at all, or in an unclear way: for example, the certificate issued states the ʻcompatibility with the adult ageʼ without indicating any age range”. Review of Current Laws, Policies, and Practices Relating to Age Assessment in Sixteen European Countries, ibid., p.16

[9]: Nuzzolese, Solarino, Liuzzi & Di Vella, ibid., p.206

[10]: See Review of Current Laws, Policies, and Practices Relating to Age Assessment in Sixteen European Countries, ibid., pp.16-17

[11]: See in this regard the chapter Identity without the Person, in Agamben Giorgio, Nudities, trans. by David Kishik & Stefan Pedarella, Stanford University Press, Stanford California 201, p.49-50

[12]: See Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ibid., pp.373,374,382

[13]: Agamben, Nudities, ibid., p.52. Let us at this point recall that many years ago, the Italian thinker had expressed the exact same question. He wrote, then, that “[t]he fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible—there would be only tasks to be done”. Agamben Giorgio, The Coming Community, trans. by Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London 1993, p.43

[14]: Esposito, ibid., p.149. See also Esposito Roberto, Interview with Timothy Campbell, trans. by Anna Paparcone, Diacritics, Vol.36, Issue 2, Summer 2006, p.54

[15]: Foucault Michel, The Subject and Power, Critical Inquiry, Vol.8, No.4 (Summer, 1982), p.784

[16]: Sahlins Marshall, The Western Illusion of Human Nature: With Reflections on the Long History of Hierarchy, Equality, and the Sublimation of Anarchy in the West, and Comparative Notes on Other Conceptions of the Human Condition, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago 2008, p.107

[17]: Sahlins Marshall, The Western Illusion of Human Nature: With Reflections on the Long History of Hierarchy, Equality, and the Sublimation of Anarchy in the West, and Comparative Notes on Other Conceptions of the Human Condition, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago 2008, p.107

[18]: See Foucault Michel, History of Sexuality – An Introduction, Vol.1, trans. by Robert Hurley, Pantheon Books, New York 1978, p.143. See also Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ibid., p.243

[19]: See Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ibid., p.254. Foucault also refers to racism in passing in the first volume of The History of Sexuality—yet he chose not to go into further detail. See Foucault, History of Sexuality, ibid., pp.145-146. Yet it would not appear that Foucault’s intentions would include any detailed description of the racism phenomenon nor any recognition, by extension, of the transformations and different uses characterising the notion of race or racism through history. A fact that may give birth to analytical gaps particularly in the environment nowadays formed by the oft-encountered distancing of prevalent contemporary racist discourses from explicitly racial references, and their focusing primarily upon cultural differences instead. We could say that Foucault refers to what Tzvetan Todorov terms racialism, emphasising upon the ideological characteristics of the phenomenon and its relation to scientism, from which it aspires to extract whatever validation it may enjoy. For the distinction between racism and racialism, see Todorov Tzvetan, Race and Racism, trans. by Catherine Porter, in Back & Solomos, ibid., p.64-70. For the transformations regarding the notion of race see Banton Michael, The Idiom of Race – A Critique of Presentism, in Back & Solomos, ibid., pp.51-63

[20]: Achille Mbembe claims in this regard: “[t]he perception of the existence of the Other as an attempt on my life, as a mortal threat or absolute danger whose biophysical elimination would strengthen my potential to life and security—this, I suggest, is one of the many imaginaries of sovereignty characteristic of both early and late modernity itself”. See Mbembe Achille, Necropolitics, Public Culture, Vol.15, No.1, Winter 2003, p.18

[21]: This is proven by Foucault’s intention to change the title of the lectures of the next incoming year, distancing himself from the triptych Security, Territory, Population, and wishing to talk about “a history of ‘governmentality’”, emphasising upon political economy as a form of knowledge that would from that point on offer new capacities for governmental intervention. It is also proven by the fact that the series of lectures for the academic year 1978-79, titled The Birth of Biopolitics, was in the end devoted “entirely to what should have been only its introduction”—that is, to the notion of liberalism. See respectively, Foucault Michel, Security, Territory, Population – Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-78, transl. by Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2007, p.108 and Senellart Michel, Course Context, in Foucault Michel, The Birth of Biopolitics – Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-79, transl. by Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2008, pp.328,331

[22]: Referring to the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and shedding light upon the paradoxical turn in the French thinker’s thought, Agamben writes: “Until the very end, however, Foucault continued to investigate the ʻprocesses of subjectivizationʼ that, in the passage from the ancient to the modern world, bring the individual to objectify his own self, constituting himself as a subject and, at the same time, binding himself to a power of external control. Despite what one might have legitimately expected, Foucault never brought his insights to bear on what could well have appeared to be the exemplary place of modern biopolitics: the politics of the great totalitarian states of the twentieth century”. See Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., p.71. One could finally claim that in light of this development, Mbembe’s question of whether the Foucauldian notion of biopower is sufficient becomes timely; a question that stimulated him to introduce the notions of necropower and necropolitics. See Mbembe, ibid., p.12

[23]: To be precise, Foucault makes some brief references to colonialism as a racialised practice during his 1975-76 lectures, but chooses not to delve further in the matter. See for example, Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ibid., pp.60,63

[24]: See the chapter Cultivating Bourgeois Bodies and Racial Selves, in Stoler Ann Laura, Race and the Education of Desire – Foucault's History Of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, Duke University Press, Durham & London 1995, p.131

[25]: Ibid.

[26]: Ibid. p.98

[27]: At the same time, choosing to study the functions of biopower along the side of the notions of the state of exception and the state of siege, Mbembe describes the colonial environment as a field of repeated exercises of exception, in which one can discern some of the fundamental material preconditions for the technologies of mass extermination developed as part of modernity. Perceiving the notion of race as crucial in the meaning-assigning of social segregations, and facing the institution of slavery as one of the earliest biopolitical experimentations, he sees in the colony not only a distinguished topos for the constitution of identities but also, a field for the questioning of humanness itself. See Mbembe, ibid., pp.16-25

[28]: Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ibid., pp.61-62,80,216

[29]: Stoler, ibid., p.130

[30]: Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ibid., p.239

[31]: Ibid., pp.59-62

[32]: Ibid., p.255. Respectively, in commenting upon the interweaving of law and medicine in the shadow of the nazi euthanasia programme, Esposito notes: “it isn't so much that medical killing falls under the category of war as that war comes to be inscribed in a biomedical vision in which euthanasia emerges as an integral part”, in Esposito, ibid., p.133

[33]: Bauman, ibid., pp.212,213

[34]: Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ibid., p.252. Alison Bashford writes, in this regard, that the field of public health as constituted in the 19th century by the English sanitarian Edwin Chadwick, comprises a crucial tool for liberal governance. See Bashford Alison, Imperial Hygiene – A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, Palgrave, London 2004, p.8

[35]: The problematisations of the body in the context of the constitution of the nation-state can only take place, as Stoler show us, in terms of gender and sexuality. As the degenerative obsessions were structurally involved in the attempts to form the new states, it was women who took on the duty of defending racial purity and safeguarding family morality. At the same time, the [n]ationalist discourse staked out those sexual practices that were nation-building and race-affirming, marking ‘unproductive eroticism’ […] ‘not only [as] immoral, [but as] unpatriotic’. See Stoler, ibid, pp.130-136.

[36]: The problematisations of the body in the context of the constitution of the nation-state can only take place, as Stoler show us, in terms of gender and sexuality. As the degenerative obsessions were structurally involved in the attempts to form the new states, it was women who took on the duty of defending racial purity and safeguarding family morality. At the same time, the [n]ationalist discourse staked out those sexual practices that were nation-building and race-affirming, marking ‘unproductive eroticism’ […] ‘not only [as] immoral, [but as] unpatriotic’. See Stoler, ibid, pp.130-136.

[37]: It is important to hereby recall that the field of criminology, as constituted by the Italian Cesare Lombroso, displayed for a few decades a strong belief in the inscription of criminal predispositions into human physiological characteristics. The notion of the born criminal, and the belief in the ability for criminal characteristics to be inherited, comprised the fundamental notions behind the Lombrosian theory. Eugenics as well as the numerous theories on degeneration invested heavily on this capacity of genetic transmission—turning matters of penal treatment and social organisation into issues of biomedical interpretation and management. A typical example of such is offered by the inscription of “criminal” behaviour in the physiological characteristics of the French anarchist Ravachol, as described by Lombroso: “his face features a rather clear asymmetry, is characterised by an evidently narrow temple, the extravagant eyebrow arcs, the nose inclining to the right, the curved and unaligned ears—and finally, the enormous, square-shaped lower jaw that sticks out, all constitute in this head the typical characteristics of the born criminal”. See Lombroso Cesare, Gli anarchici, trans. By Takis Mpouzanis, Isnafi, Iopannina 2011 (in Greek), p.45

[38]: As an example, Stoler mentions that germ theory acted as a prime colonial ideology—and referring to Jean and John Comaroff, she reminds us that “the technologies of colonial rule and the construction of certain kinds of scientific knowledge were […] ‘cut from the same cultural cloth’”. See Stoler, ibid., p.112. Stoler tries to show that the european bourgeoisie was constituted in racial, class and gendered terms, through its colonial practices—highlighting the key position occupied in this formation by the control of sexuality matters through hygiene as well. The sectors of medicine and public health intervened in a regulative manner and were met by an unprecedented impetus at the end of the 19th century, with Pauster’s discoveries inaugurating a large-scale campaign around cleanliness—the eventual aim being, as historian Georges Vigarello writes, the radical reform of human contact. See Vigarello Georges, Le propre et le sale – L' hygiène du corps depuis le Moyen Age, trans. by Spyros Marketos, Alexandreia, Athens 2000 (in Greek), p.247

[39]: Bashford, ibid., p.4

[40]: Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, ibid., pp.252,255. Bauman writes in this regard: “The killing of the bearers of illnesses and degeneration, just like the killing of bacteria or viruses, comprises an operation that serves and augments life. Man does not think of this as murder, but as the salvation of life”. See Bauman Zygmunt, Death, Immortality and Other Life Strategies in Makrynioti Dimitra (ed.), The Political Management of Death, Nisos, Athens 2008 (in Greek), p.148. Let us finally recall that even Carl Schmitt had conceived the effects and the paradoxes of such a notional abuse. He therefore wrote that “[h]umanity as such cannot wage war because it has no enemy, at least not on this planet. The concept of humanity excludes the concept of the enemy, because the enemy does not cease to be a human being. [...] When a state fights its political enemy in the name of humanity, it is not a war for the sake of humanity, but a war wherein a particular state seeks to usurp a universal concept against its military opponent. At the expense of its opponent, it tries to identify itself with humanity in the same way as one can misuse peace, justice, progress, and civilization in order to claim these as one's own and to deny the same to the enemy”. See Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, ibid., p. 54.

[41]: Later on, Bashford would stress out that the population question that emerges in the Interwar Period, and begins to comprise a subject of systematic study for the then newly appearing League of Nations, is primarily problematised within the framework formed by population movements and flows, rather than through issues of reproduction and regulation of sexuality. The dramatic increase and the facilitation of movement on a planetary scale forces the League of Nations to manage the “international hygiene” as “hygiene of immigration” and to approach the population matter in terms of “space, density, movement and land”. See Bashford Alison, Global biopolitics and the History of World Health, History of the Human Sciences, Vol.19, No.1, 2006, p.80

[42]: Bashford, Imperial Hygiene, ibid., p.124

[43]: Ibid., p.145. The connection to the moral sphere is achieved precisely through this arbitrary biologisation of moral behaviours, identical to the scientific determinism described earlier on by Todorov. Referring to the notion of knowledge-based politics, he notes: “Having established the ‘facts’, the racialist draws from them a moral judgement and a political ideal”, in Todorov, ibid., p.66. On a similar note, Esposito writes in describing the short-circuit characterising the biologising strategy: “What appears as the social result of a determinate biological configuration is in reality the biological representation of a prior political decision”. See Esposito, ibid., p.120. And so, we return to the connection between biology and law and to the uncontrollable notional exchanges characterising their relationship. Biology, then, speaks because it has been authorised to do so. And the problematic raised in this discussion concerns precisely this authorisation.

[44]: Mitropoulos Angela, Contract & Contagion – From Biopolitics to Oikonomia, Minor Compositions, Wivenhoe, New York & Port Watson 2012, p.122

[45]: Ibid., p.162

[46]: Douglas Mary, Purity and Danger – An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge, London and New York 1994, p.116. See also pp.4,123,126,165

[47]: In regard to the metaphorical uses of the notion of illness, see also Sontag Susan, Illness as Metaphor,  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1978, pp.58-61

[48]: Bashford, Imperial Hygiene, ibid., p.5

[49]: Esposito Roberto, Terms of the Political – Community, Immunity, Biopolitics, trans. by Rhiannon Noel Welch, Fordham University Press, New York 2013, pp.59-62 και Esposito, Interview with Timothy Campbell, ibid.

[50]: Schaler Jeffrey A., Moral Hygiene, Culture and Society, Vol.39, No.4, May/June 2002, p.64

[51]: Esposito Roberto, Terms of the Political, ibid., pp.81,85

[52]: The observation can only vindicate Arendt when she had claimed that “[t]he new refugees were persecuted not because of what they have done or thought, but because of what they unchangeably were”. See Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ibid., p.376

[53]: Esposito, Bios, ibid., p.183

[54]: Ιbid., pp.138,139,183

[55]: Ibid., p.113. See also Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., p.84

[56]: Esposito, Terms of the Political, ibid., p.73

[57]: Esposito, Bios, ibid., p.112

[58]: Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., p.86

[59]: Lévinas Emmaneul, Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism, trans. by Seán Hand, Critical Inquiry, Vol.17, No.1, (Autumn, 1990), p.68

[60]: Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., p.85

[61]: Ibid.

[62]: The starting point in this acquitting procedure was Hitler’s personal order to Reich leaders Bouhler and Brandt, according to which they were called to take on the duty of expanding the responsibilities of the doctors in question so as “to allow the performing of euthanasia to patients with illnesses that are incurable, according to human judgement”. The document is dated September 1st, 1939; a fact revealing that along with the official commencing of the war, another war broke out—this time for the consolidation of the national body. See Cause of Death: Euthanasia – Disguised extermination of the mentally ill during the Nazi period (Prinzhorn collection), trans. by Emi Vaikousi, Indiktos 2011 (in Greek), p.15

[63]: Steinweis Alan E., Studying the Jew – Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany, Harvard University Press, Cambridge-Massachusetts-London 2008, p.7

[64]: The Jews, to be precise, were identified with the notions of the “abstract” and the “formless”, in contrast to the absolutely “concrete” substance of the german and every other race, in this way turning them into an anti-race. See Lacoue-Labarthe Philippe & Nancy Jean-Luc, Le Mythe Nazi, translation by Victor Kamhis, Estia, Athens 2008 (in Greek), p.60 and Bauman, Modernity, Racism, Extermination, ibid., p.217. Moishe Postone explains that in the environment created by the spread of racial theories and the rise of social Darwinism in late 19th century, a strong tendency was observed for the conceptualisation of history in biological terms. In the case of national-socialism and the paradoxical “anti-capitalism” this represented, the german people identified with the notions of Gemeinschaft, of race, of concrete labour, of land and blood—as opposed to the Jews who were equated with the notions of flow, global capitalism and the “rootless”, abstract financial capital. In the biological spirit of the time, and under the influence of a particular fetishism characterising this distinction nazism, according to Postone, attempted to articulate this concrete/abstract opposition in organic terms. It is therefore interesting to see that “[o]n the level of the capital fetish, it is not only the concrete side of the antimony which is naturalized and biologized. The manifest abstract dimension is also biologized—as the Jews”. See in this regard, Postone Moishe, Antisemitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust”, New German Critique, No.19, Special Issue 1: Germans and Jews, Winter 1980,pp.108-112

[65]: Bauman, ibid., p.219

[66]: Typical such examples are those of Wilhelm Marr, Eugen Dühring, and Edouard Drumont. See Taguieff Pierre-André, L'Antisémitisme, trans. by Anastasia Iliadeli & Andreas Pantazopoulos, Estia, Athens 2011 (in Greek), pp.13-22,26-27



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