Experimenting with the Bare Life: Biopolitics and Anthropology

Like many of the readers of Savage Minds I have been eagerly following the blogs at the “Anthropology of the Contemporary”:http://anthropos-lab.net/ laboratory. In these blogs Paul Rabinow, Nikolas Rose and others have been exploring ‘biopower’, or the unique form that modern disciplinary power takes on in today’s world, when the very biological aspect of life can be subject to what management and inspection. The result is what Agamben has called bios or “the bare life” of the subject stripped down to its biological essentials.

Some people consider this sort of theorizing to lack any sort of ‘applied’ dimension. And yet it is very important to note that Foucault himself wrote “I would like my books to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area… I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.” For many young professors such as myself who are starting out writing their first book, there is much in this notion of the biopolitics of the bare life that can be useful.

The most important notion, for me, is the idea of the reproduction of the subject under the conditions of the bare life. Foucault insists in Discipline and Punish that power constitutes a subtle but thorough-going disciplining of the body. Similarly, the carceral self is regulated at all times by a system of discipline that describes in minute details its daily activities. The inmates of panoptical institutions, forever, had their daily schedule regimented down to every last quarter of an hour.

The importance of producing docile bodies cannot be missed by junior professors, who must put in fourteen and eighteen hour days. Control of the body is central at all times or else one may fall asleep or, dosed on enormous amounts of caffeine, find the body unable to concentrate on reading anthropology.

It is clearly this sort of scrupulous regimentation that academics could learn to profit from. Scrutinizing my own schedule, for instance, has revealed that I spend up to four hours a day ‘eating’ despite the fact that the act of nourishing the body itself takes mere minutes of my day. Preparing food also wastes time that could be spent reading or correcting papers and as Mauss pointedo ut long ago, eating in the presence of others (I think here of my wife ) involves talking with them — an act which builds social solidarity but wastes precious minutes. And of course because it is considered rude to speak with one’s mouth is full, one can only eat when The Other speaks.

Purchasing food and eating in private is also suboptimal. Walking office to the university cafeteria can take upwards of twenty minutes and of course during these moments one risks encountering other bodies that will attempt to engage you in discourse. Even the fastest prepared and easiest to handle food — the Taco Bell burrito supremes that Foucault so enjoyed during his time at Berkeley — are relatively expensive and filled with non-essential ingredients which fatten the body rather than discipline it.

For this reason I’d like to announce here on the blog my new experiment in anthropological optimization through biopolitical mastery of the self — I am going to give up food for the entire month of April in order to live the bare life for anthropology.

After careful consultation with Paul Rabinow and a dietician, it quickly became apparent to me that rigging up some sort of nutrient drip into my body to eliminate food altogether was untenable — not only would the machinery take time to manage, but the risk of infection was high, which would result in illness and lost study time. After some looking around I havedecided to start myself on a diet of “blue green algae pills”:http://www.klamathbluegreen.com/ supplemented by an occasional “protein shake”:http://www.naturesplus.com/products/productDetail.asp?criteria=search&searchVar=4573&productnumber=4573&category=25 to supply protein and vitamins. Since my goal is to remain totally immobile (to facilitate reading) hopefully I will need little nourishment. Also, after discussing this plan with my mother, he pointed out that I would get colon cancer if I had no fiber, I will also be taking some “psyllium husk pills”:http://www.greatestherbsonearth.com/nsp/psyllium_seed.htm.

I am eager to share the outcome of my experiment with the readers of this blog — as we all know the job market is extremely competitive. The archaic order of professordom is passing away and those of us who can find some way to be — as Rabinow put it — “modern” will have a definite advantage over those people who waste hours eating every day. As Foucault put, behind every meal “we must hear the distant roar of battle.”


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

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