Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Cameroonian postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe’s 2003 essay “Three Necropolitics” complicates the relevance of Foucauldian biopower[1] in the age of the war machine. Analyzing the development of domination from the plantation to the colony to the 21st century warzone, he argues that power is not solely harvested from the general regulation of biological processes, but from the explicit creation and control of death entailed in the act of killing.  What Mbembe labels as “necropolitics” or “necropower” is a critique and modernization of sovereignty as defined by “the power and capacity to dictate who is able to live and who must die” (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 92; 66).  In the postmodern era, power, rather than apportioned through the “contractual violence” and “typologies of ‘just’ and ‘unjust wars’” legitimated between sovereign entities, is transferred through malleable, asymmetrical, and orgiastically “meaningless” “massacres” of Othered peoples (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 83; 87). At any given moment, power collects around the actor in possession of the most effective killing technology (or in Bataillain terms, capable of executing the greatest “excess” of death) (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 69).  This analysis attempts to highlight the congruences and dependencies between the necropolitical and pharmacopornographic regimes proposed by 21st century theorists Achille Mbembe and Paul B. Preciado, respectively; however, it should be taken as a primer to a more developed investigation of their interrelation, rather than a synthesis of the two theories.

The “paroxysm[s]”of death achieved by such “technologies of destruction” are not strictly biological (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 69; 87). Although Mbembe emphatically discusses the practicalities of death— “the torn bodies, hewn in a thousand pieces and never self-same”—his definition of the concept extends to the impoverishment of life through “infrastructural warfare,”  “resource extraction,”  and the generation of bodily and psychic “pain” (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 80; 82; 79; 91).  The volatile hegemony, then, is an extension of the parasitic dependence between the One (or the Self) and the Other. Mbembe’s global framework exceeds  the scope of traditional intersubjective theory; he posits that the sovereign ego-syntonic Self no longer emerges primarily with the creation of an Other, but rather through the wantonexaction of the Other’s dignity, volition, and personhood through a fugue of literal and figurative slaughters.

The work of Spanish-born feminist theorist Paul B. Preciado belongs to the same theoretical clade as Mbembe’s and illuminates the deathless life of the (white) Self that depends on the “living dea[th]” of the (colored) Other (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 92). Like “Three Necropolitics,” Preciado’s most recent critical opus Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, first published in Spanish in 2008 and translated into English in 2013, paralays biopower into an age of technological immanence. According to Preciado, life in the 21st century is dictated by “pharmacopornism,”  an economic schema dictated by the “industry of the pill, the masturbatory logic of pornography, and the chain of excitation-frustration on which it is based” (Preciado, 40). The “pharmacopornographic regime” constitutes an assemblage of innumerable, polyvalent apparatuses of self-creation (chemical biohacking through hormones and antidepressants, cosmetic surgery, gender reassignment, ‘personal branding’) and self-negation (maximal sadomasochism, pornographic excitation, the “pornification of labor,”  a saturated “virtual and hallucinogenic aesthetic of the living object” (Preciado, 34; 274; 41)). A general understanding of the regime’s basic mechanisms is necessary  to the project of conjoining Mbembe and Preciado’s theories of postmodern power and subjectivity. Fundamentally, the “production of living political prosthes[es]”  through self-administered pharmaceutical intercession and voluntary pornographic habituation ensures the overproduction of “potentia gaudendi, [the] total and abstract capacity for creating pleasure” (Preciado, 119). In this way, pharmacopornism operates through a superficial inversion of the Bataillian principle of excess from which Mbembe’s necropolitics derive; power (and by extension, sovereignty) accumulates as euphoria, instead of agony, reaches the point of “absolute expenditure” (Mbembe, 70).

            That is not to say that Mbembe and Preciado’s two systems of excess exist in contradiction. Indeed their modalities cohere structurally and act as complementary topologies through which to conceive the shape of power in the globalized world. Fundamentally, each depends on the violation of the integrated subject as a productive force. In the formerly ‘third world’ warzones concerning Mbembe, this occurs as a “splintering occupation” (Mbembe, 81). Here, unprecedentedly efficient and high-tech weaponry, such as drones, stage a campaign of vertical domination, literally razing the artificial and biological stratifications that organize life.  This “infrastructural warfare” dissolves the partition between the private and public spheres by reducing each to rubble. With the collapse of such spatial ordering, the distinction between “external and internal enem[ies]” (civilian and militarized populations) that previously limited the scope of warfare is made void. Subsequently, a new semi-paradoxical regime of penetrative surveillance and “invisible killing” can be enforced (Mbembe, 82).  Such longitudinal collapse occurs concentrically. The wreckage of the architectural environment conceals the corollary decomposition of the human body, which is either reduced to “inert pieces of flesh, scattered about everywhere” by terminal implosive force or “amputat[ed]” and immobilized in a protracted state of death (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 89; 87). By disorganizing  physical space, the warmachine enshrines its domain as a “privileged [space] of war and death. Here, the “state of exception” and “relation of enmity” required to wage war and assert sovereignty have become diffuse and constant conditions. These man-made purgatories thus become engines for the production of sovereignty, fueled by the excesses of overkill (Mbembe, 70) .

Preciado applies “the politics of verticality” to the territorialized body (Weizman qtd. Mbembe, 81). The geopolitical “enclaves” described by Mbembe have been interiorized (Mbembe, 87); as Preciado writes, “the body—each and every one of our bodies—is the invaluable enclave where transactions of power are ceaselessly carried out. My body=the multitude’s body” (Preciado, 119). Preciado translates the architecture of the bombed-out city into the permeable membrane of the medicated cell. While pharmaceuticals operate through covert homeostatic channels, they are nevertheless potent instruments of  infrastructural terror. Although his critique is addressed to Marxists, Mbembe’s assertion that forceful destructuration “eradicate[s] the basic human condition of plurality” and “presuppose[s] a view of human plurality as the chief obstacle to the eventual realization of a predetermined telos of history” illuminates the function of Preciado’s “microprosthetic” neoliberal warmachines (Mbembe, 74; Preciado, 215). In the pharamacopornographic construction, prescription drugs act as “edible panopticons”[2] that homogenize the individual body and the body politic on a molecular level. Rather than existing as a point of variance on a phenotypic spectrum, the individual is made to replicate the ‘normative’ characteristics of a population. The chemical process of “becoming common” staged through the “normalization and capitalization of the living”) collapses established biological and social hierarchies and cultivates a monolithic plane of being from which a surfeit of orgasmic capital can be excised (Negri and Hart qtd., Preciado, 127; Preciado, 170).

As Preciado writes, “pornographic audiovisual grammar has the goal of triggering an ejaculation with the minimal number of shots and scenes” (Preciado 311). The “new sexual technoboy of the multitude” is optimally configured to receive this grammar, and subsequently,  produce the infinite current of potentia gaudendi that “sustains the world’s economy” (Preciado, 308; 292). Although the manufacture of potentia gaudendi ostensibly depends on the existence of a living subject and therefore could be considered antithetical to the productive chains through which necropower develops and is exerted, Preciado assures us that “every technobody, including a dead techno-body, can unleash orgasmic force, thus becoming a carrier of the power of production of sexual capital” (Preciado, 45). Considering the psychoanalytic dimensions of pornographic viewing, it is evident that death inheres to the technologized orgasm. Preciado writes:

Pornographic excitation is structured according to the boomerang: pleasure-in- the-desubjectification-of-the-other/pleasure-in-the-desubjectification-of-the-self: watching a subject that can’t control the force of its sexual production (potentia gaudendi) and seeing it at the very moment it renounces that force, to the benefit of an all-powerful spectator (oneself, the person who is watching) who, in turn, and through the representation, sees him or herself desubjectified, reduced to a masturbatory response. The one watching is pleasured by his or her own process of desubjectification. (Preciado, 270)

In actuality, then, the supercharged pharamcopornographic production of potentia gaudendi relies on a form of autoerotic suicide, in which the subject’s pursuit of spectatorial and sensual pleasure exceeds their ego-instinct. Although the pharmacopornographic subject is aroused to a point of maximum paroxysm, the impossibility of sustained mastery over the digital image means that they are reduced to a state of self-cuckoldry—of “swallowing its own sperm” (Preciado, 270); the body is no longer a sexual agent, but a “bioport of orgasmic force” (Preciado, 43) at once absolutely erect and absolutely flaccid. As massacre abolishes the meaning of death, endless plateaus of pleasure abolish the meaning of life. Temporal existence is condensed to the moment of la petite mort. In Preciado’s words, “Technodies are either not-yet alive or already-dead: we are half-fetuses, half zombies” (Preciado, 44).

            Despite the symmetries between the pharmacopornographic regime and the domain of necropolitical, they are cooperative rather than convergent systems. “The new geography of resource extraction” installed by the warmachine is what supplements the material exigencies of the pharmacopornographic apparatus (Mbembe, 86). Circulations of drugs, fuel, minerals, and bodies from the “zones of exception” in the Southern hemisphere enable such orgiastic cycles of consumer expenditure in the North (Mbembe, 86). It is important to note that the normative “hegemonic” subject fabricated and reproduced by the pharmacopornographic regime is typically “codified as male, white, and heterosexual” (Preciado, 48). This profile does not constitute an exclusionary subjectivity (i.e. one that precludes all subjects that don’t literally adhere to model of gender, race, and sexuality that it prescribes), but rather a general condition of normativity accessible to any body prosthetically integrated with the pliable silicone mold of the supercharged consumer. According to Preciado, “the horizontalization of the consumption of the techniques of production of the body…redistributes the differences between class, race, or sexual identities” (Preciado, 125).

            On the one hand, this horizontalization entails the subsumption of difference into a capitalistic neoliberal monoculture; however, the ability to enter into this collective consciousness, or perhaps more accurately, unconsciousness, is predicated on the capacity to consume. The “self-consciousness,”  vertical disorganization, and wanton impoverishment that characterizes the enclaves of death effectively prohibits any such consumption (Mbembe, 69). Although the “living dead” also contain potentia gaudendi, in the economy of excitation-frustration they are most often reduced to the condition of pornographic and “toxicological” laborers—their bodies take on the provocative inertia of dildoes, fleshlights, pills, and injectables (Mbembe, 92; Preciado, 311). According to Preciado, the “most pornified bodies have been those of non-human animals, women and children, the racialized bodies of the slave, the bodies of young workers and the homosexual body”—more simply, the body of the Other is most vulnerable to penetration (Preciado, 48). If, as Bataille writes, sovereignty is “the transgression of all such limits” including the “prohibition against killing,” then murder is the superlative penetrative act (qtd., Mbembe, 70; Mbembe, 70). A perpetual state of massacre in the “pauperized zones” of the “single, delocalized, interconnected city” used by Tony Negri and Michael Hardt to model the contemporary world catalyzes a perpetual state of penetration in the “zones of luxurious comfort” (Preciado, 342). The apogee of orgasmic excess is achieved through the medium of the dead body. Preciado notes, “it’s enough for a body (whether natural or artificial “living” or “dead,” human or animal) to be very well lit, and as desirable as it is inaccessible, possessing a masturbatory value directly proportional to its ability to act as an abstract and dazzling fantasy” (Preciado, 269).  Conjugating the pharmacopornographic subject’s supreme fantasy of self-annihilation and the established vampiric relationship between the ‘prosperous’ first and depredated third worlds, respectively, the dead body can be seen not only as an acceptable locus of potentia gaudendi, but the ultimate object of erotic desire in the 21st century. Bataille posited an association between “death, sovereignty, and sexuality,”  which the dialogue between Preciado and Mbembe pushes to its conclusion: the ultimate locus of postmodern power is the dyad between the corpse and the necrophile (Mbembe, “Three Necropolitics,” 69).

            The systems of reality inscribed by Mbembe and Preciado are erotic inversions in which sadism and masochism reach their apotheoses. Following the model of global urbanity proposed by Negri and Hardt, the erotic economies of the pharmacopornographic and necropolitical spheres are mutually sustaining and operate on the bases of boundless consumption and terminal inequality. In each, the eradication of multivalent material and biological spaces—the collapse of the building into the body, the collapse of the skin into the cell—by macro and microprosthetic warmachines facilitates the mass production of optimized subject-bodies. Hemispheric capitalism translates the traditional philosophical dialogue between the Self and the Other into a new binary between the pharmacopornographic technobody and the anonymous cadaver. Each new subjectivity constitutes a miniaturized fulcrum of power-production, either through the potentia gaudendi of the pornified body or the imprint of sovereignty visible on the dead one. In of themselves, neither system provides a comprehensive postmodern cosmology; however, their interaction illuminates the broader erotic and economic exigencies governing the global state of exception and entrenching our relative conditions of inertia and overstimulation. In considering our available mechanisms for jamming the circuit—biohacking and suicide bombing in Preciado and Mbembe’s analyses—its is therefore vital to consider them not only as hemispheric disturbances, but to challenge the way in which they may only be mutations of the global necrophilic hegemony.

Works Cited

  • Mbembe, Achille. “Three Necropolitics,” in Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019
  • Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Translated by Bruce Bendernson. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2013.

[1]French theorist Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower, most explicitly discussed in his 1976 A History of Sexuality, can be understood as a departure from sovereign power. While the latter is traditionally predicated on the sovereign’s ability to exact death or to negate, Focuault presents biopower as a form of social regulation dependent on the creation of manageable populations. In this sense, it is fundamentally productive and therefore distinct from the destructive mandate of the sovereign.

[2] In context, this phrase is coined by Preciado to refer to the oral contraceptive pill; however, the regulatory practices which characterize this medication are evident across all self-administered pharmaceuticals. Therefore, it is used generally in this analysis.

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