Dividing the individual

Craig at theoria suggests that because an individual is indivisible, and that because politics is based on divisions, then “the basic unit of politics” [the individual] is “un-political.”

I would have several questions about this.

First, is the basic unit of politics the person (not, “does politics involve the person,” but “is the person its basic unit“?).

Depending on what a “basic unit” is, let’s assume it is the primitive or primary object of politics. This now forces us to define politics a little more closely. I have always had some notion like “making decisions about how to live [in the polis].” Therefore it may or may not take the individual as its object. Roughly speaking, when it does we can refer to it as “disciplinary” power.

But what about the mass, the group and the population? Roughly speaking this is biopolitics, meaning the characteristics of the population itself. If governmentality is the “contact point” (as I called it elsewhere) between domination and oneself, biopolitics is the management of these selves and others (make sense?).
Second, are individuals truly indivisible and thus a-political? Can we not say that they are without resorting to autism or whatever? Here’s Hacking on “making up people”:

How does making up people take place? Long ago, ‘hip’ and ‘square’ became common names in white middle-class culture. By a parody of Nietzsche, two new kinds of people came into being, the hip and the square. As is the way of slang imported from another social class, both kinds had short shelf lives. But I am concerned with the human sciences, from sociology to medicine, and they are driven by several engines of discovery, which are thought of as having to do with finding out the facts, but they are also engines for making up people. The first seven engines in the following list are designed for discovery, ordered roughly according to the times at which they became effective. The eighth is an engine of practice, the ninth of administration, and the tenth is resistance to the knowers.

1. Count!
2. Quantify!
3. Create Norms!
4. Correlate!
5. Medicalise!
6. Biologise!
7. Geneticise!
8. Normalise!
9. Bureaucratise!
10. Reclaim our identity!

So then we can see that politics (of identity) can pull people in different directions and that these pulls apply to the body of the individual.

Third, the big conclusion:

Hence, liberal political theory quickly dissolves into ethics and policy. Or, as the philosophy departments have it, “political and moral philosophy.”

The language here (“quickly dissolves”) indicates that this result is problematic, and it is insofar as the “political” is linked back to the “moral” (for the individual). We would certainly need to know more about why this is so.

So in my view then I don’t think you can say that the individual is un-political (no surprise to readers, I’m sure, given that it would vitiate the notion of disciplinary power!).


3 Responses

  1. When you say that the individual is not un-political are you agreeing with Craig’s point that liberal political theory, cannot recognise the political, because it vacates all dividing practices from the domain of politics proper?

    Taking the individual as object, as base unit, is precisely not the disciplinary pole of anatomo-politics. Disciplinary power, as Foucault articulates it in HoSv1, is about dividing and sharing the body through a series of drives, impulses etc. The relationship between liberal political theories, that take the individual as base point, and a management of the body, that divides the anatomy into a series of potentials, should be antagonistic to say the least. Which might be why disciplinary techniques often come as challenges to liberal rights – to privacy and bodily integrity. The standard move of declaring someone pathological or deviant, “in serious need of help”, is to exclude them from the liberal body, from being a candidate for ordinary ethical relations between citizens.

    In other words if politics is taken to appropriately be concerned with the individual person, then it can only be a form of biopolitics. It is a way of organising the mass-population as though it were a collection of atomic particles. As you point out through Hacking the person is an entity that is generated and categorised through many forms of auto-management. However, if politics takes the relevant aspects of personhood to be attributes that all persons (supposedly) share-alike, such as reason, autonomy and universal rights then the only division that matters is the original division of the population into individual persons. Hence, once liberal political theory is taken up, all relevant decisions of division are already made for it.

    Which would seem to suggest, banally, that Foucault’s accounts of power do not legitimate liberal political accounts of who the governed are, why they need to be governed and how that government takes place.

  2. Quite briefly – something in greater detail later in the week – I’d want to distinguish between the liberal concept of the “individual” and rival concepts such as the “singular” or “singularity” that follow from Spinoza through to the Deleuze. I think there is something to be said for the position that Paolo Virno takes there was a major class war in thought between “Hobbes” and “Spinoza” – a whole set of concepts; those which eventually culiminated in liberalism – which saw Hobbes’ individual-people-state circuit win out over Spinoza’s singularity-multitude-state circuit.

    Put another way, I’m not sure that Hacking is an argument against what I (poorly and unclearly) wrote. Rather, Hacking seems to support, to an extent, what I wrote. Admittedly, it’s been quite some time since I looked at that paper of his and I likely should if I’m going to continue this line of thought.

  3. Interesting that sometimes these discussions can be going on in slightly different ways in different places. To whit, here’s a blog entry on whether the self exists as such:

    Hume argued long ago that one’s self does not really exist. His reasoning is rather simple to follow. He asks the reader to simply attempt to perceive themselves. What we find when we do so, of course, is that we are never perceiving ourselves, but instead some sort of sensation, thought, or feeling. As Hume put it, the self is nothing but a “bundle of perceptions”.

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