Wednesday 8 January 2014

Schooltime biopolitics (beware: may cause psychosomatic itching)

John Protevi re-posts a post by Eric Schliesser on lice and biopolitics in his son's school.  Protevi writes:
Schliesser thought he could escape the Borg, but a senior philosopher elsewhere has tracked him down for us here. In this very interesting reflection, he writes about the head-lice inspection all Dutch kids undergo at school, and connnects it to Foucaultian analyses of biopolitics (or, with less fancy terms, that government rationality that licences, among other things, involvement in public health). But, as Schliesser recognizes, it's hard to be simply "against" public health -- what, you *want* your kids and other kids to have lice?
It's an interesting microcosm of a case but this kind of thing flies dangerously close to petty, bourgeois, liberalist whinging - am I alone in feeling this?

Maybe this inspection regime is handled in an unduly authoritarian and sexist manner - that's an issue, clearly - but Eric seems to be taking exception not only with the way this is handled but also with the mere fact of the examination as though it were something quite sinister.

I think the term biopolitics is actually a very poorly one.  It should really be called biogovernance.  Politics implies popular deliberation (if etymology means anything) - biopolitics usually implies something imposed from above/outside (i.e. something more like governance).  Drawing a distinction between these two things allows us to say, provisionally, that biogovernance that precludes biopolitics (i.e. popular contestation) is wrong but biogovernance is not, in itself, a bad thing.  Who doesn't want schools to look after their children's health?  Why shouldn't the state do postnatal checkups?  The real questions are how difficult it is to subject these procedures to contestation and how resistant the mechanisms are to adaptation in light of the participation of those they affect.  (Been reading a lot of Dewey recently, I apologise.)

I don't want to sound belligerent because it's an interestingly mundane case of everyday biopolitics/biogovernance but there is a part of me that's tempted to just snort and ask: first world problems much?

Compare this lice thing to something far more serious like the MMR/autism issue.  That isn't something superficial but a matter of life and death, potentially.  What right does the state have to force people to immunise their kids or nit-comb their hair?  It's very easy to just say 'hands off, you dirty State!' but that is, in my opinion, a reactionary and vulgar liberalism that doesn't recognise the profundity of the political entanglements that the health sciences put us in.  If some parents free ride either in terms of nit-combing or MMR jabs then the health of the whole population may suffer.  So whose liberty trumps whose?  Freedom from state interference or freedom from nits and measles, mumps and rubella?  We don't even need to get past negative liberty to see the conundrum.

Of course these things are often handled badly and any kind of state official with a small amount of power can become an unpleasant fascist - complaining about that is all perfectly valid - so I don't want to detract from the frustration that this kind of thing can create but then again ... come on.  Head-lice are unpleasant things to be afflicted with and they can spread through a school like wildfire, even with intensive combing regimes.  Smothering the issue in a dose of Foucault doesn't, ultimately, cover up the fact that this is a bit of comfortable, middle-class, weekday, school-gate griping.

At the level of political philosophy there's not much more than a cigarette paper's width between this kind of thing and parents taking their kids out of biology class because they don't want them being indoctrinated about that there evolution gubbins.  It speaks, to my ears, not so much to a love of liberty as to a hatred of politics and communal life in general.

I'm probably being completely unfair to Eric about this but it's written and I'm tired so there's no going back now.