McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
coercion, liberalism, racism
According to traditional interpretations, the language of the body politic is regarded as an essentially marginal turn of phrase which, if it does have any theoretical importance, simply refers to the civil order formed by agents who agree to exit from the state of nature by transferring their right of self-defense to a duly recognized sovereign authority. From the standpoint of Agamben and Foucault's work on biopower, however, corporeal language is no longer viewed one-dimensionally, as a metaphor of popular consent; rather, we can re-read the body politic in a more literal way, as the intersection of cooperation and antagonism between subjects who vie for power. In other words, the body of society, as well as the body of the individual, is transformed into a space of politics.
While my reading of the body politic views it as a space of antagonism and power, however, I also draw on Slavoj Zizek's argument that political theory has been haunted by what he calls the "corporatist fantasy", which is the idea that society is a unified, organic Whole, without divisions or fissures. I apply Zizek's critique to the social contract tradition, arguing that authors such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and more surprisingly John Rawls all defend a conception of the body politic which eliminates, or at least attempts to eliminate, difference from the social body. I argue that the unity of the body politic is secured in two ways: first of all, signs of antagonism are excluded from the social body, but at the same time biopolitical technologies of power form subjects who consent to the rule of the State. Thus, social unity is guaranteed through a double movement: otherness is systematically excluded, while subjects are normalized and integrated into the social order. I argue, furthermore, that the desire for social unity isn't just a theoretical aspect of the liberal/social-contract tradition; drawing on the work of Foucault, I try to map out the practices of governmentality which actively exclude alterity, as well as producing governable political agents. I conclude with a discussion of Laclau and Mouffe, arguing that their work helps us to re-conceptualize the social body as a space of hegemonic contestation and power relations, moving beyond the liberal fiction that the body politic is formed through non-coercion and consent.
Roberts, W. (2007). Life of the People, Body of the People: Re-reading the Imagery of the Body Politic (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1113