Scott Bakker has written a fascinating and extremely timely interrogation of a recent article by Catherine Malabou on the implications of recent biology for biopolitics in Critical Enquiry “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance” Malabou’s piece castigates biopolitical theorists such as Foucault and Agamben for infusing their accounts of embodiment and life with symbolic and vitalistic conceptions whose relationship to biology is inadequately theorised. In response she argues that recent biological work on epigenetics and stem cell therapies supports a decentered, textualist account of biological systems. Or as Malabou puts it: “The living being does not simply perform a program. If the structure of the living being is an intersection between a given and a construction, it becomes difficult to establish a strict border between natural necessity and self-invention.”
Otherwise put, biological mechanisms don’t have determinate functions, but are functionally indeterminate, like Derrida’s iterable marks. This, for Malabou, seems to offer hope for an insurgent biopolitics that will provide a new way of questioning the unity of the political subject:
And how might the return of these possibilities offer a power of resistance? The resistance of biology to biopolitics? It would take the development of a new materialism to answer these questions, a new materialism asserting the coincidence of the symbolic and the biological. There is but one life, one life only.
Biological potentials reveal unprecedented modes of transformation: reprograming genomes without modifying the genetic program; replacing all or part of the body without a transplant or prosthesis; a conception of the self as a source of reproduction. These operations achieve a veritable deconstruction of program, family, and identity that threatens to fracture the presumed unity of the political subject, to reveal the impregnable nature of its “biological life” due to its plurality. The articulation of political discourse on bodies is always partial, for it cannot absorb everything that the structure of the living being is able to burst open by showing the possibilities of a reversal in the order of generations, a complexification in the notion of heritage, a calling into question of filiation, a new relation to death and the irreversibility of time, through which emerges a new experience of finitude.
As Scott argues, it is not clear where Malabou is going with the closing oracle: “There is but one life, one life only.” The call for a new materialism here does suggest a dialectically uneasy cocktail of anti-reductionism and its contrary. It’s as if the question of life and embodiment is being framed only to be pre-emptively closed by deferring to a future theory that no one has a clue about. That said, there seems to be a useful point of exposure to the outer dark of posthuman possibility space here.
Even if one can make a case for a kind of Derridean textual ontology of life, that doesn’t buy us continuity. It buys us something like a condition of possibility claim – i.e. living things have the structure of the iterable mark in virtue of the functional indeterminacy of their component mechanisms. But even if some functional indeterminacy is a condition for contentfulness (As Dennett argues in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) it isn’t the same. And it doesn’t tell us whether or not amping up functional indeterminacy won’t lead us to the lip of the semantic apocalypse, which is why the transcendental model is misleading and why Malabou’s closing remarks are so in need of their own deconstruction.