Follow-up to Lisa Guenther’s “The Biopolitics of Starvation in California Prisons”

Earlier this month, we reposted Lisa Guenther’s “The Biopolitics of Starvation in California Prisons.” Guenther recently wrote a follow-up to this article, “Erring on the Side of Life,” which appeared on New APPS and explores a CA judge’s ruling that hunger-striking prisoners may be force-fed:

This is a classic case of what Foucault calls biopower: the power to make live and let die.  The CDCR reserves the right to “make” prisoners live, even if they refused nourishment and signed a legal document requesting not to be fed, even after they lose consciousness and are no longer able to speak.

But it goes even further: the CDCR will not even let the hunger strikers die, at least not on their own terms, as expressed by their own will, both in a legal document and in a collective effort to reclaim some meaning for words like freedom and self-determination.

This is a particularly intense form of biopower.  It is the power to make live and not to let die; the power to issue a (social and civil) death sentence under the cover of care, protection, and respect for the autonomy of the individual’s “free will.”

But a system that neither lets you live nor lets you die is not “erring on the side of life.”  It is deploying life as a instrument and alibi for death.  And it is undermining the very foundation of law in a respect for the binding word of another.  You might not approve of that word.  As President Obama said of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo, “I don’t want these individuals to die.”  But there is no rule of law without a respect for the other’s binding word.

In effect, the refeeding order authorized by Henderson transfers the silence of “brain death” and biological death into the living, breathing, resistant life of hunger strikers by undermining the power of their words to bind the actions of others, to make a claim on the institution of the prison and the courts, and to exercise even the minimal social power to let themselves die.

Force-feeding prisoners – whether at Guantanamo Bay or in the California prison system – does not err on the side of life.  It errs against life, and against the social relations that make life meaningful and, quite frankly, bearable.

Political life is based on the possibility of conversation, on the exchange of meaningful words.  And you can’t talk with a tube shoved down your throat.


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