Marina Camargo, "América-Latex (Post-Extractivism)", exhibited at the 37th Panorama of Brazilian Art – Sob as Cinzas, Brasa, at MAM São Paulo. Photo: Tiffany Danielle Elliott

Necropolitical, by Achille Mbembe, an essay originally published in English in 2003, and in Brazil in 2018, begins in a forceful way, recalling the terms by which Michel Foucault defined biopower in the last classes of in defense of society, course given at the Collège de France, in 1975-1976: “To be sovereign is to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the implantation and manifestation of power”. What Mbembe then asks from this first observation is about the practical conditions that made this power to kill, to let live and to expose to death possible. And, even more, if this conception of biopower could still help in the understanding of contemporary forms of the exercise of politics, whose primary objective would now be the murder of the enemy.

Let us remember then that Necropolitical it was written, not coincidentally, in the shadow of the attacks on the twin towers in New York two years earlier. The semantics of “war”, especially the “war on terror”, used to exhaustion to justify and legitimize all possible means, regardless of the degree of violence and cruelty, to defend, protect and preserve the values ​​of the Christian West, as well as that of liberal democracies, gave Mbembe a chance to reflect on politics as a form of war (taking up Clausewitz's well-known principle, that “politics is war by other means”), to ask what place, in this war, granted to life, death and the body.

Finally, to what extent life, death and the body are articulated with ways of exercising power.
Gathering Foucault, Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, Mbembe will operate a first shift in the Foucauldian conception of biopower when thinking about the indissolubility between biopower, sovereignty, state of siege and state of exception. This last aspect, as we know, became a kind of guiding conception for the understanding of Nazism, totalitarianism, concentration and extermination camps.

In the eyes of several important philosophers of our time, such as Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Agamben and Foucault himself, the concentration camp has become a kind of “central metaphor” for understanding the extent to which the combination of sovereign violence and destruction can reach, what would be a kind of “last sign of the absolute power of the negative”.

The extermination camps of the Second World War would thus represent either the horror that surpasses any imagination (Arendt) or even the place of the most absolute dehumanization that has ever occurred in our history (Agamben). From this perspective, the state of exception, as Agamben says, is no longer the provisional suspension of the Rule of Law, in the face of emergency situations, to become the very paradigm of government, thus constituting a kind of “uncertain zone”, of a “no man's land”, inhabited, however, in the case of the colonization process, by the “desire of an enemy”, by the “desire of apartheid”, by the “fantasy of extermination”, as Mbembe would say, many years later, in Enmity Policies.

Mbembe's uniqueness in this debate is not that he ignores or underestimates the extermination of the Jews. But, it is to produce another displacement in terms of the debate, that is, to show that the conditions of the concentration camp were given by an event that precedes the biopolitical device of the 19th century, that is, colonization and, consequently, , the experience of slavery: “Any historical account of the emergence of modern terror must address slavery, which can be considered one of the earliest manifestations of biopolitical experimentation,” he writes, in Necropolitical.

the shape of planting, by itself, already shows how much the slavery regime constitutes a permanent state of exception. In it, the slave is dehumanized to the point that he only appears as a “personified shadow”, a dehumanization that corresponds to a triple loss: that of his “home”, that of the rights over his body and that of his rights as a “citizen”. .

Without speech and without thought, the slave is an object, a thing, a commodity, which belongs to the master. However, to this growing and overwhelming process of dehumanization, the slave responds, resists, through a reappropriation of himself, especially through music and his own body. There, in the midst of these paradoxes founded on the dehumanized figure of the human, a specific kind of terror emerges, which makes the path between the slave quarters and the planting itself, an experience that touches, all the time, that of death. The colony is thus a place for the permanent exercise of power outside the law and where “peace” is nothing more than the sinister face of an “endless war”.

It is up to us to ask to what extent Mbembe's analysis can help us understand our own history, marked by slavery and racism. Without forgetting that slavery also affected indigenous populations and that slave labor is a practice that still exists in the country. It seems that a necessary step to be taken beforehand is the recognition that we still live, in several aspects, in a state of affairs marked by the experiences of terror and death initiated in the biopolitical experimentation that was the colonization.

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