Report on ‘Re-doing Biopolitics’ session, RGS-IBG 2011

A report by Olly Zinetti, Open University

The session, ‘Re-doing Biopolitics’, was rooted in conceptions of biopolitics derived in particular from Esposito’s text, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (2008). It was from the interconnected nature of livingness the text proposes, and the political consequences affirming such interconnectedness generates, where discussion began. Knowing, then, that biosecurity – making life safe – is not static, rather it is a set of ongoing practices (Hinchcliffe and Bingham, 2008), the session and its speakers sought to tease out the workings of those practices, with papers focussed on the empirical.

The papers presented were diverse and exciting. Charles Mather’s paper took us to sites in South Africa where efforts were made to reduce the spread of foot and mouth disease (FMD). Taking the UK’s 2007 FMD outbreak as his point of comparison, Mather went on to talk through the complex sociopolitical landscape this outbreak negotiated in its South African context. Specifically, Mather refers to a sociopolitical landscape in which the ways state and citizens interact determine the practices that state could employ when responding to FMD as a biosecurity concern, directing specifically whether to cull or vaccinate animals. Kezia Barker’s paper too addressed a space in which a political framework to securitise life was to be negotiated. Drawing on fieldwork in the Galapagos, Barker’s paper examined the ways by which the tensions created by movements of people and industry could be regulated such that they might coexist with the needs of a space, home to a unique and important ecosystem, for which stability, particularly in the context of protection from invasive and non-native pests and diseases, is central to its preservation.

For Olly Zanetti, variation rather than stability was found to be key to the biosecurity regime he discussed. Examining the way plant genetic resources are mobilised in practices of food security, Zanetti showed how, in a range of agricultural techniques, genetic change and difference were central to the creation of novel new food plant varieties, and as such were vital in the undertaking of food security practice. Though disorder was key to the biosecurity regime Zanetti outlined, that disorder was only useful because it could be known and understood. A similar theme underpinned Linda Masden’s paper, which focussed on avian influenza in Turkey. Masden examines how various knowledge practices are employed to link domestic and wild birds and thus plot cartographically ways the country might be bioinsecure.

Finally, Stephen Taylor’s paper was centred on his ethnographic fieldwork in an South African HIV/AIDS support group. Citing Esposito’s notions of community and immunity, he explored how that group and its incorporation into wider networks in the HIV/AIDS sphere works to transform individual bodies into a community of political actors and in so doing engendering an affirmative biopolitics.

This vibrant session drew together a broad body of work which examined the doing of biopolitics in numerous contexts. In a world where the falsity of a bifurcation of nature and culture is widely acknowledged, and where practices of securitisation are continuously climbing the political agenda, the session offered useful insights into current work in what will surely remain a pressing area of research.

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