In his last lecture of Society Must Be Defended Foucault points to the late 18th century disappearance of what he calls “the great public ritualization of death,” a disappearance he claims is still ongoing today. He writes, “Death—which has ceased to be one of those spectacular ceremonies in which individuals, the family, the group, and practically the whole of society took part—has become, in contrast, something to be hidden away.” (17 March) Foucault makes this comment as part of his larger set of assertions about the growth of “biopower” (or “regulatory power”) on top of and amid disciplinary power during the 19th century. Disciplinary power attends to the body directly; it individuates. To be subject to disciplinary power is to be formed as an individual subject. But biopower “absolutely” does not relate to the individual body, Foucault asserts; rather, it concerns the population or even the entire species of humanity. Biopower attends to the generalizable dimensions of an event or problem, to “endemic” situations, such as how to design housing for the poor, provide clean water to rural towns, or handle city garbage. “Death,” he writes, “was no longer something that suddenly swooped down on life—as in an epidemic. Death was now something permanent, something that slips into life, perpetually gnaws at it, diminishes it and weakens it.”
Death in the 19th century became permanent, deindividualizing, and invisible: absorbed by biopower.
Foucault’s comments brought to mind Roland Barthes’ comments about death in Camera Lucida (section 38). If death disappears from public view in the second half of the 19th century, Barthes insists, “Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere.” Photography, he suggests, is that place. “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.”
Death in the 19th century became prevalent, individualizing, and visible: absorbed by photography.
These two perspectives seem oddly to come together in our early 21st century: the invisible deaths of active warzones and medical crises, on the one hand, and the singular images that bubble up and slice through the fields of impersonal death, on the other. The borders and contours of these warzones and medical crises are constantly being managed and discussed. We hear national leaders manage problems—how to get arms to the right people in Syria, how to control the movements of citizens into warzones, what counts as being ‘at war,’ and whether flights from Liberia should be banned. We hear public officials discuss protocols—how to establish rapid and reliable hospital screenings, who gets protective gear, how can staff be trained efficiently, who needs quarantine. We see desert beheadings, funerals in Gaza, soldiers in Ukraine who may or may not be Russians, the exterior of the Dallas hospital, headshots of the Americans who’ve contracted the virus, the funeral for Thomas Duncan.
As Foucault makes agonizingly clear, the managing of invisible death has everything to do with race. Black African bodies and Palestinian bodies “browned” by the very power dynamics they contest flood the greyed-out periphery of our points of view. The singular images that do leak into our visual frame transmit the ‘affective economies’ of their situations and by means of their very circulation they constitute a hovering and temporary public sphere. Images and affect mediate discourse—not the other way around.