Sarah Stewart | 6 February 2017
At the closing of what my Facebook feed has collectively termed the ‘garbage fire of 2016’ and the consequent mass proffering of narratives to get through and beyond it, Achille Mbembe offered grave discomfort. Perhaps this is hardly surprising coming from the first person to think through the term necropolitics, the idea that, in modernity, ultimate sovereignty rests ‘in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die’ (Necropolitics 11). The concept does seem in keeping with the now-crashing visibility of the damage systemic racism, ableism, homophobia and sexism enable (brought to you by the 2016 Brexit Leave campaign and the POTUS-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, to list but a few). Modern sovereignty, the contemporary manifestation of the authority to govern, is not restricted to state level, but exists wherever this power is flexed and felt: from internet comments that silence women, minorities and their allies to media that dehumanises, even seemingly (and arguably for the most part) progressive speeches from the likes of Meryl Streep, who nevertheless unwittingly infantilised disabled journalist Serge Kovaleski when she attributed to him a diminished ‘capacity to fight back’ after being mocked. (When someone is speaking on behalf of a group, Allyship 101 says listen to the people in the trenches to understand how helpful this person is being.) All of these things and more insidiously diminish people in both public and private life.
What Mbembe points out in his seminal essay ‘Necropolitics’ (12) is that, while Michel Foucault’s widely referenced biopower usefully identifies the key feature of modern sovereign power as the ability to define and divide those who deserve to live from those who do not, the term is not sufficient ‘to account for the contemporary ways in which the political, under the guise of war, of resistance, or of the fight against terror, makes the murder of the enemy its primary and absolute objective’. In his harrowing farewell to 2016 essay ‘The Age of Humanism is Ending’, Mbembe worries that the escalation of this situation, in which people are ultimately and overwhelmingly recognised as either consumers or enemies of the nation (think bludgers, burdens, potential terrorists and migrant swarms), means the problem of the 21st century is ‘whether civilisation can give rise to any form of political life’ at all.
As 2017 gets underway, and I ponder my new year’s resolutions in the light of Mbembe’s apt but horrifying analysis, I ask myself what is ‘political life’ and why and how should we fight for it? Where should I place my priorities as a researcher, and as a human being trying to live a good life within this system?
Every time I ponder this, Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory weaves its way into my thoughts. In opposition to wellness as the default mode of being, Hedva understands all bodies to be inherently vulnerable and fragile, ‘continuously reliant on infrastructures of support in order to endure’. A key problem that she identifies with the idea of fragility as temporary is that it causes us to think of care and support as temporary as well, rather than fundamental and continuous. People living with illness, injury, disability, people whose identities are at odds with the ‘white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis- and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country’ are only the most visible in their invisibility – that is, their vulnerability to being infantilised and having their experience and complaints dismissed as burdensome, or only tolerated out of pity. Hedva defines a ‘sick woman’ as any person (woman or not) made dysfunctional by this neoliberal, patriarchal system. It also bears remembering that the ‘white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis- and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country’ as a living individual, will not always be so, at the very least in terms of health and ability.
I think Hedva comes up so forcefully for me when I read Mbembe because, in a civilisation based on political life rather than death, these voices should have dignified purchase. Meryl Streep should not dream of characterising a disabled reporter as helpless because people living with disability should be widely treated and understood as equal members of a discussion. Political life is a place of conversation that cannot be had if particular voices and identities dominate so completely, rendering others’ lives merely pitiable, implicitly unworthy of living.
So, now that I’ve put my finger on ‘political life’, what do I do, especially at a time when ‘sick women’ are so acutely under attack? I end this offering with some of my own unfolding actions. This is what I am dedicating some time to:
I am stepping back and understanding that the petitions and alarming political posts flooding my social media feeds are the tip of an iceberg that I have not yet addressed as thoroughly as I can and should.
Because I still have the privilege of some free time, I am regularly setting some of it aside to read and listen to marginalised voices speak for themselves of their own experience as minorities, homeless people, LGBTQ+ individuals, Indigenous, migrants, Gyspy Travellers and Roma, asylum seekers, sex workers, people with disabilities and illness, victims of abuse, children and young people, the elderly, those living in poverty, women from all of these groups and more. My research includes paying attention to non-human entities of the environment and those that directly depend on them. Significantly, this is a slow process.
I am taking time to seek out activists, academics and practitioners who embody and/or have been working on these issues for a long time, listen to their words and recommendations, take criticism on board, and find ways to help their work reach farther.
I am taking this knowledge and building relationships with my government representatives, speaking to them about issues before they escalate, because supporting and confronting these people is where I can have the most forceful and regular impact on political life.
I am making time for but also monitoring my own ‘self-care’, because as a relatively healthy and able bodied, middle-class, straight cis- white woman, it is dangerously easy for me to choose not to look and call this taking care of myself. I understand that to care for oneself as a form of resistance requires that this care be in the service of resistance.
I am taking to the streets whenever I can and looking for ways to include those who are excluded from this form of protest.
And, perhaps most importantly, I am doing all of this with friends. And as I continue practicing what Hedva calls the ‘politics of care’, this generous group of people is becoming ever more diverse.
I’m working on a PhD looking at representations of refugee and asylum seeker experience in the UK. I hold a BA (HONS) in English and Spanish, an MA in Comparative Literature (both from the University of Auckland) and am ever the student of literatures of displacement and resistance.
Article edited by Anahit Behrooz and Emanuela Militello
Mbembe, Achille. ‘The Age of Humanism is Ending’. Mail & Guardian, 22 December 2016, http://mg.co.za/article/2016-12-22-00-the-age-of-humanism-is-ending. Accessed 15 Jan. 2017.
—. ‘Necropolitics’ (2003). Public Culture. 15 (1): 11–40.
Hedva, Johanna. ‘Sick Woman Theory’. Mask Magazine, 19 Jan 2016, http://www.maskmagazine.com/not-again/struggle/sick-woman-theory. Accessed 15 Jan. 2017.