Nikolas Rose – The Politics of Life Itself


Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-first Century, Princeton University Press, 2006.

While reading Rose’s The Politics of Life Itself, I thought that it was complementing Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s Biocapital, where I had felt something was missing. If Biocapital focuses on the global-scale capitalist economy under the effect of biotechnological development from the perspective of science studies and political economy, The Politics of Life Itself covers much broader areas from biopolitics to bioethics. Especially, five mutations he categorized in the first chapter, which describe the key characteristics of biopolitics in the twenty-first century, are impressive: molecularization, optimization, subjectification, somatic expertise, economies of vitality. These factors contribute to describe almost all the conceptions and related fields that biomedical science and technology have cultivated in our society by now.

His way of arguing, however, seems to be less creative but properly constructed with various theories and concepts borrowed from other scholars. Thus, in some degree, it looks like an aggregation of every possible theoretical position which has been involved in the contemporary biomedical science and its related domains: almost an encyclopedia of biopolitics. Nonetheless, it is positive that this bricolage has complex and organic story to tell, as Rose acknowledges that “the events traced in this book are not episodes of a single narrative—there is and will be no single point of culmination or transformation”(252).

If we had read this book before other biomedical books in our syllabus, we could have understood them more easily. For I think that this book can provide us, in the face of biopolitics and bioethics, with basic tools equipped with philosophical ground. In this sense, it might be the book about the philosophy of life. But as he asserts, his aim in this book is “not so much to call for a new philosophy of life, but rather to explore the philosophy of life that is embodied in the ways of thinking and acting espoused by the participants in this politics of life itself”(49). But, after reading the book, it is not clear, at least for me, what “life itself” he is dealing with means. It is still too abstract, or rather phenomenological.

    To compare this book with other biopolitical authors’ in our reading list might be fruitful. Unlike Rajan’s Biocapital, Rose’s The Poloitics of Life Itself never mentions Marx and his theory of political economy, although both books are deeply influenced by Foucault’s biopower and politics of body. In addition, Rose was not able to show how biopolitics is mapped in the globalization of genetic economy and the international relationship of biocapital. On the other side, as Rajan’s biocapital was not mentioned, Joao Biehl’s Vita had no place in this book. But when Rose focuses on the concept of “biological citizenship” or “genetic citizenship” Biehl’s observation on life and zone of social abandonment would be helpful as much as Adriana Petryna’s contribution to the concept is. While Jennifer Reardon’s Race to Finish had too narrow perspective in problematizing her arguments concentrating on the Project, Rose’s book touches this subject of race in the age of genomic medicine in proper degree. Barbara Allen’s Uneasy Alchemy could have its place in the part of biological citizenship. Our next reading, Rayna Rapp’s Testing Women, Testing the Fetus has been mentioned several times in this book. I guess Rapp’s book will give us the detailed description of how genomic development enabled the new kind of eugenics and bioethics judging the value of human-being or -becoming. 


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