Rewriting a Biopolitical Narrative

The West Bank Wall separating Israelis from Palestinians

Seemingly from the dawn of time, humans have been categorizing everything into piles of ‘same’ and ‘different.’ These categories even extend to humans themselves: who is same and who is different. At some point, someplace in western Europe, a hierarchy was established with Man at the top and other creatures strung out below…following this, was an extended hierarchy of race. Same story, who is same and who is different, but this time the story afforded power, subjectivity, and legality to those at the top—those who were same—and not those who fell below—who were different. Thus, a structure of biopolitics began.

Biopolitics basically controls lives, determining who is afforded what kind of life, and who gets to have a say about it—who is allowed to be part of a political process. The interrogation of biopolitics continues to scratch the surface of the structure, addressing one issue at a time, but not the whole structure itself. Within biopolitics, a norm is established, constituting ‘sameness,’ and that which is different must make a plea to gain the same legal level of humanity as the norm is granted automatically.

An example of this can be found by examining the institution of the nation state of Israel, and the forced migration of Palestinians. In the establishment of Israeli land, Palestinians were basically told, “You don’t exist on this land, this is our God-given land, and we are going to occupy it.” Some Palestinians were evacuated during war and told there was nothing to return to, some pushed out by Israeli developments, and some clung to their land and property eventually being driven out when nothing else was left. Once free of Palestinian ‘refugees,’ the only thing left was to erase any remaining proof of former Arab life, solidifying the transfer of Palestinian to Israeli land.1

The icing on this metaphorical colonist cake is that Palestinians are given no legal sovereignty in Israel or even within the United Nations. In 2012 the U.N. voted to accept Palestine as a “nonmember observer state,” the same status afforded to the Vatican, according to this article by CBS. This pretty much means that although Palestine is recognized as an entity, it is not allowed a voice: it is not as much a country as Israel. The legality issue extends to Israeli government and court as well; Palestinians are not citizens of Israel, so suing the country or specific corporations can be very difficult as Israel does not necessarily have to treat the plaintiffs as they would Israeli citizens. This dual estrangement leaves Palestinians in a grey zone of the law, affording them no structure to appeal to that can be held accountable for what is being perpetuated against them…leaving them virtually no agency. All of this boils down to the system of biopolitics and how it has shaped the western view of political life

One good thing about biopolitics is that it is structured around systems of categorization that, although long-lasting and far-reaching, are extremely fragile. Systems such as race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Each system has a hierarchy in which is established the norm, and under which all normalcy is created. In most western countries, white men who are wealthy, cis-gendered and heterosexual (among other things) are at the top of the biopolitical hierarchy, and they are the norm the society is structured to. However, as I’ve said, these constructions are fragile, they can be deconstructed and reorganized and rethought.

Because the systemic constructions are fragile, they need constantly to be reinforced through media, society, culture, and politics. Because the structure requires constant affirmation, it could be relatively easy to disrupt. The structure must be challenged, constantly; it must be interrogated to bring to light the reality of the fragile constructions. New structures must be created, proposed, accepted—where hierarchal structures are not the basis of political thought—instead, where political and ethical relations interrogate human interactions with each other and with the world. This fantasy story of biopolitics cannot be allowed to continue masquerading as reality—we must entertain a new story in order to create a better reality.

  1. This essay is based in part on an article by Gabriel Piterberg titled Erasures detailing the creation of the nation state of Israel and relations with Palestine.
  2. As well as an article by René Dietrich titled The Biopolitical Logics of Settler Colonialism and Disruptive Relationality.
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