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Politics in Sovereign Power Over Life and Death

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

In this blog post, I will be discussing the power to dictate life and death as explored by scholarly philosophers Achille Mbembe and Michel Foucault.


Perhaps the first case that comes to mind when referencing Achille Mbembe's concept of necropolitics in the Western world is the tragic case of the Nazi assasination of Jews during the second World War. According to the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazis were swayed to kill and sterilize 675,000 people under the guise of "cleansing" Germany from "genetically diseased" persons. Important to influencing the masses, then, powers like the one established in Germany, which spew rhetoric that deemed certain life "not worth living." This is key in therefore setting the state apart as sovereign, i.e. manifesting the right to kill.

In other words, the politics surrounding hate and violence create an extralegal state of exception. First coined by German philosopher Carl Shmitt in the 1920s, a state of exception exploits the concept of bare life, or life without political and legal rights. In the following video, Giorgio Agamben, an Italian political philosopher, explains the state of exception as is applies to life and violence.


For centuries, race has played a key role in differentiating what postcolonial theorist, Edward Said, would describe as the Other-ly in order to justify targeted atrocities. Mbembe's work concerns primarily the progression he calls "The Becoming Black of the World," which describes three periods of social progress that result in Europe "losing its place as the center of gravity" in global politics. It begins with the African slave trade, during which black people were treated as cattle, traded, and butchered as such. The second period is defined by their liberation through war and civil rights movements in countries like the United States and South Africa (marking the end of the apartheid). Present day civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter define the third period. Globalization, integration, the consequences of neoliberalism, according to Mbembe, lead to "capital no longer [relying] on black extraction but on the technical manipulation of difference".

As explained by Agamben in the previous video, when the rule of law is suspended (for certain persons), there is an exception to normalcy within democracy that constitutes power over the domain of life. In many instances, this technical manipulation of difference described by Mbembe can also be found within discourse surrounding immigration and border control, the fallout of which we are witnessing unfold at extremes in Ukraine and Palestine.

In 2015, as tensions at the U.S. and Mexico border rose, artist Richard Barnes took interest in collecting found items. Backpacks, IDs, clothes and single use items inspired a curatorial installation of work titled "State of Exception," which won the ArtPrize competition in Michigan that year.

During his presidency, Donald Trump was particularly active in political discourse about the treatment of people crossing the nation's border. Perhaps one of the most shocking and enthusiastic stepping stones of his electoral campaign was the proposal to build a wall at the border and have Mexico pay for it. His response to what he referred to as "our country being stolen" was under much ridicule after U.S. Immigration Detention Facilities came under fire for separating children from their parents. The rhetoric used by the president, often referring to people crossing the southern border as "drug dealers, criminals, and rapists," was an issue of concern in juxtaposition to the sudden militarized advancements, which echoed a tone of sovereignty.


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