Biopolitics and Asian America
- Belinda KongBelinda KongDepartment of Asian Studies, Bowdoin College
Biopolitics, unlike other conceptual rubrics such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, or the subaltern, does not contain a singular theoretical origin. While Michel Foucault is often cited as the progenitor of contemporary biopolitical thought, a number of other theorists and philosophers have also been credited with significantly shaping its critical lineage, from Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and Achille Mbembe. By extension, the relation between biopolitics and Asian America is an open-ended one, insofar as no one set of theoretical terms or axioms grounds this relation. Moreover, insofar as biopolitics in its widest sense encompasses the intersection of politics and life, including the inverse of life, its domain is potentially infinite. The conjunctions between biopolitics and Asian America, then, can be defined tactically through the following questions: what are some prominent motifs and concerns within Asian American history, culture, and scholarship that may be illuminatingly narrated within a biopolitical framework? Conversely, how have Asian American writers and scholars themselves analyzed these nexuses, and in what directions have they developed their inquiries? Finally, what does an Asian Americanist criticism bring to the study of biopolitics?
These questions can be usefully pursued via three thematics that have formed core concerns for Asian American studies: orientalist exoticism and exhibitions of the Asian body, associations of the Asian body with pollution and disease, and structures of US governmental power over Asian bodies and populations. Asian Americanist criticism has often centered on analyses of the body as a site for the production of racial difference, whether or not they explicitly adopt a biopolitical theoretical lexicon. What Asian Americanist engagements with biopolitics bring to biopolitical thought is a spotlighting of intersectional politics—the insight that the politics of life never simply operates in relation to abstract bodies but always occurs within power economies of race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and other forms of social difference and stratification. Conversely, biopolitical theories allow Asian Americanist criticism to develop in multiple new directions, from medical humanities and disability studies to science and technology studies, from animal studies to post-human feminisms, from diaspora studies to surveillance studies. Ultimately, an ethical impetus and an orientation toward justice continue to animate Asian Americanist critical practices, which hold out the promise of a positive biopolitics within prevailing paradigms of negative biopower.