Between Life and Death

Iain MacKenzie

Between Life and Death

Available to be Poisoned: Toxicity as a Form of Life

by Dipali Mathur

Lanham: Lexington Books, 2022

In his Collège de France lectures of 1975-6, subsequently published in English as Society Must be Defended, Michel Foucault charted a shift from the sovereign politics of “making die and letting live” to the biopolitical regime of “making live and letting die.”[1] This new strategy of governance focused less on enacting punishments and more on ensuring that lives were lived in accordance with the disciplinary institutions that emerged concomitantly with the arrival of new liberties. One of the markers of this new form of governance was a technological revolution with respect to population management—censuses, surveys, town planning, immunisation, and so much else besides—that has now folded into the information and digital revolution crystallised by the all-powerful computers many of us hold in our hands every day. As how to manage and control the body populace became more important than the sovereign right to torture and dismember an individual’s body, so the biopolitical regime came to micro-manage how we must live if we are to have valuable lives, where value not only taps into social norms but economic imperatives.

While Foucault’s bold gesture has spurred some of the most insightful social and political theory of recent years (and has inevitably come under fire from critics), it is noticeable that recent work has both employed and transformed his initial framing of biopolitics. In Dimitra Kotouza’s discussion of the Greek crisis, she wraps a biopolitical framework around detailed political economic analyses to reveal the brutality of being a “surplus citizen.”[2] Neither made to live nor left to die, becoming surplus situates people in purgatory so that many may experience heaven and many more hell. Similarly, in his discussion of the European migrant crisis, Luca Mavelli invokes the biopolitical relationship between life and death but seeks to transcend “the dichotomous boundaries of Foucault’s argument” in an analysis of neoliberal forms of governmentality that require not simply “letting die” but variously complex forms of sacrifice.[3] There are, in other words, forms of life constituted within neoliberal biopolitical regimes that sit between life and death in a way that is now thought necessary for the maintenance of these regimes. In Dipali Mathur’s startling first book, we come across another part of the world’s population sustaining neoliberal globalisation: the poisoned.

It is worth saying this again: Mathur’s book brings to light how the practices of neoliberal governments—India is the case she examines but by no means the only one complicit in such practices—require the regional circulation of poisons amongst the body populace so that global flows of toxicity can be used to sustain capitalist economies. We can no longer remain blind to the fact that neoliberalism, besides creating “surplus” populations ready for various forms of “sacrifice,” also requires that living in toxic environments saturated with poisons be a regular and regulated way of life for some if others are to be made to live their (apparently) valuable lives. Being aware of the increasingly digital forms of control that make us (let’s say “us, in the global North”) live certain lives is one thing; being made to face up to the consequences of biopolitical control on others (let’s say “those in the global South”) with respect to the normalisation of toxicity as a form of life is, and this is part of Mathur’s point, truly shocking.

Of course, for those who follow critically oriented scholarship from around the globe, this argument is not without its predecessors. Most notably, and readily acknowledged as a key source by Mathur, is Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim and its analysis of the biopolitical apparatuses that condition and constrain how we understand disability.[4] Equally important, though less developed here, are the philosophical discussions that give substance to the idea of “form of life.” Mathur’s immediate source is Jairus Victor Grove’s book Savage Ecology, in which the idea of “war as a form of life” is conceptualised with the help of Wittgenstein and Agamben, but which ultimately understands “form of life” in a manner that gives it an ecological breadth over and above their rather too human-centred depths.[5] Together, and these are just two of many key sources animating Mathur’s work, these studies ground the claim that neoliberal governments need to disable—in this case poison—people to sustain themselves, and that we must approach such biopolitical subtleties that exist between life and death with ecopolitical sensitivities to the human and other-than-human relationships involved. To grasp the “disposable” lives of those “available to be poisoned,” one must map the flow of toxicity in nature, between nature and culture, and then through cultural norms to governmental regimes, at local, national, and international levels. This is exactly what Mathur achieves in this book, with respect to India, and to such impressive effect.

The book is structured into four long chapters. The first sets the scene by placing toxicity in a global and historical context. The litany of polluting industries is perhaps unsurprising, but it is also shocking when written about with such passion and clarity. Within this chapter, two of the big themes of Mathur’s book start to gain real momentum: we need to have the polluting lives we lead made visible to all, and we need to recognise that attempts to live less polluting lives, to chase the green alternatives, are often not available to poorer populations but also not always as non-toxic as they appear. As Mathur concludes this chapter: “toxicity, therefore, becomes a technology of power by which the state can enact forms of invisible killing and invisible violence, not as exception but as the normalized condition.”[6] It is as much the blindness of well-meaning neoliberal subjects to the effects of their green lives that is normalized as it is the inequalities and death of those who are not seen.

This general claim sets up the three chapters that follow, each detailing examples of pollution and its effects in India. Chapter 2 examines how the global history of chemical production and colonialism has India at its black heart, creating a whole system of chemical dependency distributed unevenly through the control of populations already hierarchally ordered by a caste system. There are discussions of infamous examples such as DDT, but Mathur also draws on less well-known examples of the “magic seeds and pesticides” supposed to lead the green revolution. By Chapter 3, we are taken into the full horrors of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster via the legacies that serve, in so many ways, as the exemplars of “toxicity as a form of life.” While the details are perhaps the hardest to read in the whole book, because so horrific, Mathur’s point is more subtle than simply presenting a litany of failures by successive Indian governments. Rather, she establishes that there is an operative regime of truth that enables Indian governments to “‘delegitimize and disavow the experience of the Bhopal gas survivors.”[7] With that firmly in view, she articulates how this regime of truth was constituted and how it continues to function to this day. In another subtle transformation of Foucauldian biopolitics, Mathur establishes that one key element in this regime of truth is its focus on the corporate body (rather than the sovereign focus on the individual body or the biopolitical focus on the mass body); a kind of ‘corpo-politics’ in amongst the variations of “making live and letting die.”[8]

In truth, these 3 chapters would have been more than enough to establish Mathur’s case, had it not been for the arrival of COVID-19 during the book’s final stages of writing. As Chapter 4 makes clear, it was just impossible to ignore how the politics of the pandemic that played out on the global stage repeated and adapted key aspects of toxic governmentality, especially in India. In an echo of Grove’s wholistic understanding of “form of life,” Mathur starts her discussion of the pandemic with a firm focus on the human and other-than-human aspects: “we would do well to remember that humankind cannot hope to escape the devastating ripple effects of poisoning our ecosystems and destroying the fecundity of our natural resources through the toxic colonialism of the planet.”[9] One major impact of the pandemic on Indian society is found at the junction of the airborne virus and the “other airborne pandemic,” India’s notoriously poor air quality. As these two dimensions interact, the effect is multiplicatory. Coupled with a governmental regime that poisons parts of the population to the extent that they must “turn to polluting biomass fuels” to meet basic needs with respect to cooking and heating, the effect becomes exponential. As Mathur reflects upon this unnecessary disaster, the legacies of chemical colonialism that have shaped India’s response to COVID-19, and, perhaps most depressingly, the boost given to the polluting plastics industry as demand for PPE surged, it becomes clear that the colonial logic of old was revivified so that it be further hardwired into the global medical response to the pandemic. As we (“we in the global North”) divided amongst ourselves with respect to staying in our homes or not, wearing masks or not, getting vaccines or not, there were whole sections of the global population whose “availability to be poisoned” as we debated was a feature of the pandemic of which we were (largely) unaware. It is a stark reminder of our often-parochial politics in the global North.

So, what is to be done? It is to Mathur’s credit that she refuses all the easy gestures that might emerge from such searing indictments of global capitalism. Rather, she invites us to not look away, to bring into focus how neoliberal regimes function to create normalized toxicity for whole populations the world over. Mathur wants to make visible! It is a task in keeping with the orienting idea of the “form of life,” drawn as it is from Wittgensteinian conservatism, Agambenian resistance to resistance, and Grove’s apocalyptic politics. But is it enough in a world where even horrors that are made visible get so easily appropriated within already existing systems of signification such that they have little disruptive power? In emphasising the Foucauldian undercurrent to Mathur’s project in this review, I invite reflection on the possibilities contained throughout his work for pulling us beyond what is perhaps the first task of “making visible.” Biopolitics contains forms of bioresistance, regimes of truth produce their own illusions but also escapes, and every poison can serve as a cure if the dosage is right. It is not that articulating a positive politics to overcome toxicity as a way of life should have been included in this book—it is already enough to make visible what is being done in the sustenance of neoliberal production and consumption. As the project develops, which I am confident every reader of this book will hope that it does, then perhaps it is time to step into the Foucauldian assumptions so that they may be adopted and adapted but also may inspire all of us to find ways out of the polluting and polluted lives we lead.

NOTE: For an excerpt from Available to be Poisoned, see “Living in the Toxcene: Toxicity as a Form of Life,” published in the PICT journal, The Faculty Lounge. For a PICT podcast interview with Dipali Mathur, see Bookaholics #14: “Dipali Mathur: Available to be Poisoned.”

IAIN MACKENZIE teaches political theory at the University of Kent.

dePICTions volume 3 (2023): Critical Ecologies

[1] Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-6, London: Routledge, 2003.

[2] Dimitra Kotouza, Surplus Citizens: Struggle and Nationalism in the Greek Crisis, London: Pluto Press, 2019.

[3] Luca Mavelli, Neoliberal Citizenship: Sacred Markets, Sacrificial Lives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

[4] Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

[5] Jairus Victor Grove, Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World, Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

[6] Mathur, Available to be Poisoned, 53.

[7] Mathur, Available to be Poisoned, 100.

[8] Mathur, Available to be Poisoned, 124-125.

[9] Mathur, Available to be Poisoned, 132.