by: Richard Hudon
Balancing on a knife’s edge, our nation has proven it is not ready to shed its mantle of hatred and dominance. Time and again, the United States of America finds new enemies, both foreign and domestic to rally against. One may think that this is simply due to a largely ignorant or prejudice populace, and while that may have some merit, its primarily manifested by the manner in which our State operates. This manner of operation is known as biopolitics, a concept developed by Michel Foucault, one that examines the practice of preserving a major populace at the cost of minorities. Foucault’s definition of racism factors into his ideas of biopolitics, as a driving force for society and to endure State ideologies. We can see these theories play out in David Wojnarowicz’s book, Close to the Knives, in which he recounts his life as a gay man living in a biopolitical society, both before and during his struggle with AIDS. Wojnarowicz’s idea of a ONE-TRIBE NATION shares certain characteristics with Foucault’s biopolitics, with some apparent differences.
Biopolitics is a means of controlling population and managing resources, health and education. It is also a way to ensure the ideologies of the majority take precedence in the formation, expansion, and maintenance of the State. Fundamentally, biopolitics requires a group of peoples, a minority, to be ostracized and effectively sentenced to death, by way of neglect, for the survival and progress of the majority. What this means, is that the Sovereign, which at the present time is the public majority, chooses a group of people to unite against; not based on what the State is, rather, what the State is against. In Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz gives us a first hand perspective of this neglect, writing about national prejudice towards gay culture, the segregation of AIDS- and HIV-positive gay men into inner-city ghettos, and the disregard of a whole sub-culture by both politics and medicine in what he terms, the ONE-TRIBE NATION.
Wojnarowicz’s theory of the ONE-TRIBE NATION seems to combine the ideas of biopolitics and tribalism (a system of being organized as tribes). It acts as an in-depth critique of our hive-mentality, unquestioning prejudice, and highly-conservative political system. Where biopolitics effectively neglects a group of people until they die off, the ONE-TRIBE NATION neglects the needs of these people, while simultaneously pitting the majority at war with them for being outside of the ONE-TRIBE NATION’s ideologies. Regarding this ideology’s relation to tribalism, Wojnarowicz explains that the ONE-TRIBE NATION is in fact constructed of a wide variety of tribes, each with their own beliefs and values, but due to the ONE-TRIBE NATION mentality, we fail to see this conglomeration of tribal nations amidst the overarching sovereign that is the ONE-TRIBE NATION of the United States of America. So to clarify, biopolitics neglects the smaller for the sake of the larger, while the ONE-TRIBE NATION chooses one tribe for the many tribes to band against.
Interestingly, before Wojnarowicz explains his ONE-TRIBE NATION theory, he hints at it earlier in Close to the Knives. When speaking of the ONE-TRIBE NATION as a theory, Wojnarowicz always capitalizes the term, save for his first usage of it when he states, “we are born into a preinvented [sic] existence within a tribal nation of zombies and in that illusion of a one-tribe nation there are real tribes.” [Wojnarowicz 37] It would seem that the manner of enunciation in this regard, denotes that the ONE-TRIBE NATION theory was not developed until after Wojnarowicz’s contraction of AIDS and his discontent for social policies increased exponentially, hence the enunciated capitalization. Analyzing this difference, it would seem as though the lesser, small-caps version, is simply a descriptive phrase, whereas the greater, all-caps version, indicates the formation of his theory. That being said, I find his first usage of one-tribe nation to be a concise definition of his later theory.
Ultimately the ONE-TRIBE NATION is a construct designed for domination and to breed nationalism. Wojnarowicz explains that there isn’t just one solitary nation, in fact, “there are millions of separate tribes in this illusion called AMERICA.” [Wojnarowicz 153] What he means here is that there are countless varied ideologies, some more similar to others, but each one quite unique, and that we hide these individual tribal ideals to maintain unity under a ONE-TRIBE NATION, for the sake of pride and security. This method of preservation ultimately leads to a biopolitical system, in that the unification and success of the majority is a result of the displacement and neglect of a, or several, minorities.
I hear endless news stories of murder around the nation where the defendant claims self-defense because this queer tried to touch him and the defendant being freed and I’m lying here on this bed of Peter’s that was the scene of an intense illness and the channel of the tv has been turned to some show about the cost of AIDS and I’m watching a group of people die on camera because they can’t afford the drugs that might extend their lives and some fella in the health- care system in texas is being interviewed—I can’t even remember what he looks like because I reached through the television screen and ripped his face in half-he’s saying, “If I had a dollar to spend for health care I’d rather spend it on a baby or an innocent person with some illness or defect not of their own responsibility; not some person with AIDS …” [Wojnarowicz 105]
This stream of thought is a prime example of Wojnarowicz’s feelings leading up to his theory of ONE-TRIBE NATION, and what it is like to live as a subjugated minority in a biopolitical State. One can see a striking resemblance in the plight of gay men to that of black men in the late-nineteenth century and through much of the twentieth century, in that both minorities were easily arrested, beaten, killed, and of course neglected en masse to the point of death. I draw this comparison between the suffering of both blacks and gays in American society to emphasize how long we have existed in a biopolitical system. Prior to black people, it was the indigenous peoples, and presently it is a number of minorities, including muslims, people of color, LGBTQA+, immigrants in general, and yes, still the indigenous peoples. Foucault saw this, and although he didn’t offer any specific answers, he at least got the discussion started by identifying and defining biopolitics, biopower and the usage of racism by the system.
Racism, as Foucault suggests, is the motivating factor for this death through neglect. Foucault’s use of the term racism is not simply rooted in a biological or ethnic sense, as we are most familiar with it, but instead is prejudice towards any person or persons who endangers the, “health, progeny, race, [or] the future of the species,” [Right 50] and also specifies that sexuality is, “not a mark or a symbol,” but, “an object and a target,” for an act of racism. We see this played out in Wojnarowicz’s writing, from the political indifference and scorn, to the medical industry’s complacency in treating the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the confining of afflicted gay men in ghettos. The ONE-TRIBE NATION fears the race of homosexuals, thinking their morals, values, health and well-being are all in danger of being corrupted.
Understanding biopolitics requires becoming familiar with the concept of biopower as well. Basically, if biopolitics is the management of resources and populations, biopower is the the implementation of the biopolitical practices and the enforcing of the State’s ideologies. “Racism is inscribed as the basic mechanism of power,” [Society 254] states Foucault, specifically referring to his concept of racism described previously. We see this manner of biopower playing out in Close to the Knives repeatedly, from the early chapters where Wojnarowicz is having to dodge police and the gaze of the public, simply to enjoy a moment of passion with another gay man, to the later chapters describing the comments of politicians, the lack of medical assistance for the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the living conditions of all those gay men afflicted with these viruses in large cities. Would the State have the same response is the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in Washington D.C, amongst all the white-collar, caucasian, male politicians? Not likely.
Capitalism requires competition, and for this reason, biopolitics will remain ingrained in U.S. policy until we move away from this culture of consumerism. For one group to survive, another must perish. In this ONE-TRIBE NATION, filled with zealotous nationalists and religious fanatics who desire nothing less than total adherence to their moral codes, it easy for politicians and executives to pit the masses against anyone with even the slightest difference. Close to the Knives is just one of many examples of how our zombified populace is manipulated into warring with other tribes, tribes that exist as part of our ONE-TRIBE NATION until the powers that be decide otherwise. Racism is no longer limited to the color of one’s skin or hereditary origin, it is now a tool of the biopolitical regime, a weapon of biopower intended for domination. Moving away from competitive capitalism, towards a cooperative socialism, is one way we may overcome this state of biopolitics. In fact, there are many ways to overcome this system of neglect, but no matter which way we pursue, it must be a path of cooperation and compassion, or else racism, and therefore power, will continue to flourish.
-Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1991.
-Foucault, Michel. “Right of Death and Power Over Life.” Biopolitics: A Reader, Edited by Timothy C. Campbell and Adam Sitze. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.
-Foucault, Michel. “Chapter 11: 17 March 1976.” Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. New York: Picador, 2003.
Originally written as an essay for Professor Jackson Nichols’ class, Philosophy 291: Death and Dying.
20 November 2016