Summary

Written by Achilles Mbembe and translated by Libby Meintjes in 2003, “Necropolitics” explores the concept of biopower and its relations to sovereignty and the state of exception in order to answer questions regarding the politics of death. Mbembe is particularly concerned with examples of sovereignty whose central project is “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” (14).  Mbembe provides a number of definitions throughout the article, including his helpful definition of sovereignty as it exists in colonies and slave plantations (in this quote he is specifically discussing South Africa under apartheid): “the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” (27). He identifies the colony and the plantation as “manifestations of the state of exception” (22) over which the sovereignty wields its right to kill in order to rule these societies via terror formation and necropower.

At first I had difficulty understanding the precise difference Mbembe argues for between biopolitics and necropolitics. I think his concluding statement helps to highlight how they differ:

I have demonstrated that the notion of biopower is insufficient to account for contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death. Moreover I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead. (39-40)

Necropower therefore focuses on the negative goal of control over death as opposed to biopower’s positive goal of control over life. Additionally, it seems that necropower controls large populations via the management of death (as opposed to the individual executions of a classical sovereign) rather than controlling large populations via the management of life. Part of the work of necropolitics, looking at Mbembe’s definition of sovereignty, then, is determining who is “disposable” and therefore able to be managed via death (very similar to Judith Butler’s discussion of which lives are disposable, and how lives become disposable). For both Mbembe and Butler, the answer to this question seems to be whoever is determined to be less than human or not a subject (which is how Foucault’s bioracism comes into play).

Notes & Quotes

  • Mbembe’s inclusion of slavery in his discussion of necropolitics is helpful for my 19th century American list, as well. I’m particularly interested in his final discussion of the close tie between suicide and freedom: Death in the present is the mediator of redemption. Far from being an encounter with a limit, boundary, or barrier, it is experienced as “a release from terror and bondage.”  As Gilroy notes, this preference for death over continued servitude is a commentary on the nature of freedom itself (or the lack thereof). If this lack is the very nature of what it means for the slave or the colonized to exist, the same lack is also precisely the way in which he or she takes account of his or her mortality. Referring to the practice of individual or mass suicide by slaves cornered by the slave catchers, Gilroy suggests that death, in this case, can be represented as agency. For death is precisely that from and over which I have power. But it is also that space where freedom and negation operate. (39)

Does this mean that, under a necropolitical regime, like a slave plantation, the slave can only gain agency via death? If so, this concept is deeply tied to Castronovo’s Necrocitizenship. 

  • In considering which horror films might work well with Mbembe’s concept of necropower, I first thought of the survival horror game. If we look at Saw as the exemplary survival game horror film, the players in the game operate under a form of necropower, in their own separate “death-world” (the anonymous derelict factories where the game is held). The players are made to feel like they have a choice, and therefore agency, in determining whether or not they die within the game, however, this choice is really nonexistent due to the unsavory options available. It is through the constant and present threat of death that the players play the game (or refuse and die, thereby gaining agency by escaping the game via a form of suicide) and learn the true value of life. However, this version of life is defined only through the negative of death. This connection is deepened through Saw’s own connection to the War on Terror, which as an example of a contemporary sovereign “material destruction of human bodies and populations,” is a great example of Mbembe’s necropolitics.

“Necropolitics” (2003) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.