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Disaster: Contagion,immunity and the pathologising of the foreigner


This response will argue that Roberto Esposito’s assertion of a contagion/immunity paradigm is imperative to understanding contemporary biopolitics. This response will discuss how Foucault’s model of sovereign power over the body is now in need of critique in the face of contemporary biopolitics due to new links between the body and technological advancement. This will be mobilised by the alternative which Esposito offers in immunitas. The implications of Esposito’s perspective will be cited in order to offer an interpretation of Steven Soderbergh’s disaster film Contagion.



Foucault’s perspective on biopolitics stems from historical progression, for example, the medieval sovereign power was a monarchist power. It asserted itself over the body by its ability to take life from its subject. This created a direct link between sovereign decision and its capacity to assert itself over the body precisely in its ability to take life. However, this simply renders the medieval period as one where the sovereign is a power that takes life and not one which grants it. This is of course a notion in history, but its function here is to establish the progression that powers undertake.


In society must be defended Foucault states that; “Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem.”[1] Here, Foucault sees an eventual shift from the absolute power of monarchism into ‘biopolitics.’ He sees this as an interdisciplinary discourse in which governmental systems make their power known by the sanctions as well as grants which can be placed upon the ‘biological’ live body. Prior to the 19th century, the sovereign was able to end life through the spectacle of public execution of the live body, thus its power could only be asserted by its ability to remove life. However, due to the later emergence of greater social, epistemological and technological fields, life could be given, in a hospital room, this granted life biologically, it could also grant life in law with a birth certificate for every citizen. Whilst also not losing its ability to punish; the prison could temporary take your agency and make the lived experience of the body limited for a period.

The implications of this are that biopolitics are enacted in order to acknowledge the life of the subject, but also remind the subject that as the state can grant life, it can still discipline it. In the history of sexuality, Foucault claims that the function of biopolitics is to order life.[2] In the above example of prison, life is ordered into the criminal and the non-criminal. What is also implied is that the state grants life, as seen by the introduction of this in law by the introduction of the birth certificate which is literally an acknowledgment that the ‘body is alive’.

In many respects, Esposito borrows much from Foucault in that he acknowledges the relationship between biological life and politics. However, one major difference for Esposito is that for him, immunity protects life, in its binding to it. This differentiates from Foucault’s perspective as for him, politics and life exist in a relationship in what politics can grant to life. One must realise that though Foucault acknowledged the rise of advances in several discourses he did not foresee what Esposito states as; “The body experiencing a state of profound alteration, down to its essential fabric[…] In all cases [of modification] it enters into a direct, or actually symbiotic, relationship with what is other than itself; in the specific and literal sense that it carries its other within itself.”[3] For Esposito then, it appears that the other, that is the agent which creates immunity take a vaccine for example, and life become intertwined with each other. the body and the other thus become one.

This involves, for Esposito, the; “artificialisation[4] of the body. Examples of this exist in the use of prosthetic limbs and pacemakers; in these instances, the body becomes directly linked to the ability of technology and sees its removal as a natural entity hence its ‘artificialisation.’ This challenges Foucault as for him the body is seen as a ‘natural canvas.’ Contrarily, the artificialisation of life through immunity then, as previously discussed, sees that which is from outside of the body, becoming one with the body. It is here in which a paradox emerges as foreign objects are both the source of immunity, the vaccine, and the cause of contagion, exemplified by the virus.

However, to simply disregard Foucauldian notions of the biopolitical when discussing contemporary biopolitics would be short sighted, instead, it makes sense to see both together. Esposito’s proclamation may make sense in discussing the modern world pre Covid-19, the emergence of this disease however sees the emergence of state induced means to ‘protect life’ challenging the immunity paradigm somewhat in that immunity cannot protect life if no literal immunity exists. However, Esposito asserts that; “[immunity] is the nerve centre through which the political governance of life runs.”[5] Though the literal lack of immunity is apparent, the concept of it is still present and is borrowed by the politic in its discourse take for example president trump proclaiming Covid-19 to be; “the Chinese virus.”[6]Here we see the application of the political borrowing the biological in order to other that outside its borders as a ‘virus’ this of course being that which is a contagion. The Chinese thus become the source of invasion to the body, the source of contagion.

Steven Soderbergh’s disaster film contagion however, in its aesthetic constraint to make the virus it presents “largely indiscriminate”[7] cannot explicitly state in speech where the virus comes from. However, from one scene in which a pig is taken to the butchers despite showing signs of illness[8], the film implies that due to the lack of food safety standards in Kowloon, the virus was able to spread there. The film presents; “the wrong pig in the wrong place” easily translated to the real world as the’ wrong bat in the wrong place.’ What we see here is how the film can present the other, through the idea of implication; the ‘Chinese virus’, is presented instead as ‘the virus of Hong Kong.’

Here, one can see how biopolitics asserts the other as that outside of itself and how this is drawn along borders; it is here in that the film acknowledges Foucauldian notions that the foreigner presents dangers.[9] Or, more specifically for Esposito, this occurs within a model of; pathologizing the foreigner.”[10] Language of pathology, through implication, in directly scribed to Hong Kong natives as it is ascribed to the Chinese, hence the foreigner become the direct cause of contagion and hence become the root of fear.

However, this film sees a departure from the Foucauldian and mobilises the notion from Esposito that the threat of contagion offers the chance for one to be in communication with the other due to the fact that the immune system, that is the self, is “inherently dedicated to communication.”[11]

This occurs in the scene of the film in which the government doctor allows a young boy to bypass the ‘lottery system’ of the vaccine by giving his own vaccine to the boy[12]. Thus, exemplifying how the threat of contagion makes the immune system, in this instance the body politic to help one another in order to battle disease. This sees a government official surrender his own immunity in order to help the community, this mobilises Esposito’s notion precisely in the ‘communication’ at play within the body politic.

However, turning to the politicians of Britain during the covid-19 outbreak one can see a breakdown of community by Michael Gove’s action of offering his own daughter the test of covid 19 over that of healthcare staff.[13] Thus, further challenging the notion of Esposito’s assertion that Foucault’s perspective of biopolitics is dated when in actuality, such as action in which the state is directly able to prioritise itself over the life of its populace illuminates Foucauldian perspective.

In conclusion, though Espoisto’s perspective on the biopolitical are in no doubt valuable, this does not mean one should discredit the pas work of Foucault, especially in conjuncture with current affairs. The state has both created a system by which its main aim is to ‘preserve life’ whilst also using the notion of immunity to pathologies the foreigner. It is for this reason that one must see both perspectives and their implications when discussing the contemporary biopolitical.

[1] Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended, pp.247-248 [2] Michel Foucault,The history of sexuality [3] Roberto Esposito, Immunitas, pp.247-248 [4] Ibid.p.147 [5] Ibid. [6] Donald Trump, cited in Lucy Kiu, Trump sparks anger by calling coronavirus the 'Chinese virus' The guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/17/trump-calls-covid-19-the-chinese-virus-as-rift-with-coronavirus-beijing-escalates [7] Nick Roddick, ‘Only the Stars Survive’ in Performance and Politics in Popular Drama, [8] Contagion Dir..Steven Soderbergh (distributed by Warner Bros, 2011) [9] Ibid.society must be defended [10] [11] Esposito.ibid.p.174 [12] Ibid. Contagion [13]


#FilmReview #covid19 #foucault #esposito #analysis

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