Grinding Us Into an Essence I: On Fundamentalisms, Research Time, 14/04/2016

So here’s another post about my philosophy research that contributes to bugging everyone I know to read more Antonio Negri. It’s been a busy week so far, but I’ve started reading Commonwealth, the culmination of his decade-long trilogy of masterworks co-written with Michael Hardt.

The first two books were largely critical. Empire was a diagnosis of the major changes in the qualities of our economy and politics as globalization reached its most intense form in human history. Multitude was an analysis of how to resist the different vectors of oppression – states raging against their falling power and the systematic pressures of poverty.

Commonwealth is about understanding what kind of new subjectivities can emerge from that struggle with the utopian potential to overcome our cycles of violence to build a more just global humanity. So that’s a pretty tall order for a 400 page book. Little steps make a big achievement.

The book’s first little steps explore the different politics that focus on the material nature of the human body. There are a lot of approaches to this, and not too many of the ones people have tried so far work at all. 

Probably the most visible politics focussing on the material body today are the fundamentalisms – religious, nationalist or racist, and economic. It sounds weird, but follow how the reasoning goes.

Religious fundamentalism – whether Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or Jewish, the major world religions with noteworthy such movements – focusses an enormous amount of authority on controlling how people treat their bodies. What they eat, their social lives, how they have sex and who it’s with.

Nationalist fundamentalism similarly exercises authority over people’s bodies, controlling their social networks, sexual, and family lives. It targets people for oppression and violence based on physical attributes like skin colour, ethnic markers, or physical stereotypes like big noses or even height.

Economic fundamentalism is the same, though we don’t often talk about this right-wing vision of humanity this way. Here, the material body faces analysis and control of its physical production and consumption. 

Then a contradiction appears in all these fundamentalisms. All that focus and effort spent controlling singular individual bodies is justified in the name of a transcendent ideal.

The religious fundamentalists subordinate the meticulous control of the body to a purpose of care for the immaterial soul. It forces conformity to its dogma of the divine. With nationalism, the singular nature of the body is ignored, and all that control ends up being only to maintain conformity to its vision of nationhood and ethnic character. Economic fundamentalism reduces all the different aspects of human life to economic relationships. Instead of individuals and people, we’re homo economicus.

But until the moment of that contradiction, the unwavering focus on people’s material bodies and what’s done with them makes fundamentalisms of all kinds into powerful biopolitical perspectives. And it’s a good route to help understand exactly what this overused but less-than-understood term actually means. To be continued. . . 

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