Fillip 17 — Fall 2012

Imitation of Life: Biopolitics and the Cinematographic Image
Maria Muhle

Das Glück ist nicht immer lustig. —Rainer Werner Fassbinder1

In 1976, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault introduced what would become a polemical concept in his work as well as for his interpreters: the “bio-politics of the population.”2 This notion has since polarized readings of Foucault’s theory of power, perhaps more than Foucault himself ever intended. The most prominent and popular reading of biopolitics nowadays may very well be its “ethical” interpretation with respect to bioethics. Biopolitics in this sense is the “politico-ethical” administration of the new possibilities of the life sciences, predominantly of biology and genetics.3 This bioethical reading of biopower in terms of governance recovers another line of interpretation that, even though it considers biopower in politico-philosophical terms, gives way to a twofold reading: either the analysis of biopower is structurally linked to an analysis of the regime of politics as a permanent state of exception or it is subtended with a “positive” politics of life that thwarts “negative” power over life. Roberto Esposito has described this polarity of the notion of biopolitics as an “insurmountable oscillation” between a positive and productive reading of the relation between politics and life and another, negative and tragic, reading. While the former awards life with an intrinsic potency (or politics) that resists biopower, such as that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt propose, the latter, articulated by Giorgio Agamben, radicalizes Foucault’s concept of the thanato-politics in his notion of “bare life.”4

What these varied interpretations of the notion of biopolitics are struggling with is to define the notion of life rather than the term “politics” or “power”: they provide a “definition” of life (as biological life, as bare life, or as vital power) that Foucault himself, for coherent reasons, never gave. I would like to propose a genealogical study of the term biopolitics that diverges from the aforementioned understandings or interpretations of the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics insofar as it aims at defining not the notion of life that biopolitics refers to but rather the relation itself established by Foucault between the notion of life and the strategies of power. I therefore refer to the understanding of the notion of life that Foucault himself puts forward, which is “simple life,” life as nothing else (neither bare nor inherently resistant) than this—which was produced within the epistemic rupture around 1800 as a functional biological concept.

But the relation of power to life is a double or twofold relation, since life is not only the object of power relations in the biopolitical age but at the same time offers the functional model for biopolitical strategies. This specific imitation of life by biopolitical strategies relates to another imitation of life that emerged in and around the same epistemic rupture around 1800: the photographic or filmic image as a mechanically objective representation of reality. Nevertheless my hypothesis is that the relation between biopolitics and the photographic or filmic image is not reduced to their capacity to represent life, but rather to their specific positivity inasmuch as they both produce life through their imitation and as an imitation, or a correlate of power-knowledge techniques.

Imitation of Life I

In Foucault’s “canonical” definition of biopolitics in History of Sexuality I, he introduces “bio-politics” (with a hyphen that is dropped in the following years) as one side or pole of a twofold power over life that he distinguishes from the right to make die attributed to sovereign power. The two principal forms in which power over life has developed are not antithetical, but rather constitute two poles of the change that power undergoes around the seventeenth century in which its aim becomes “to ensure, sustain, and multiply life.”5 The first pole is constituted by the disciplines, “an anatomo-politics of the human body,” centred on “the body as a machine”6 and to which Foucault dedicated one of his main works, Discipline and Punish (1975), as well as his lecture series Abnormal, at the Collège de France, in 1974–75.7 The second pole of the power over life—biopolitics—develops around the middle of the eighteenth century and is centred on the “species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes.”8 This species body is governed (or “supervised”) through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls that Foucault calls “a bio-politics of the population.”9 He concludes this first introduction of the notion of biopolitics as follows: The setting up, in the course of the classical age, of this great bipolar technology—anatomic and biological, individualizing and specifying, directed toward the performances of the body, with attention to the process of life—characterized a power whose highest function was perhaps no longer to kill, but to invest life through and through.10

Foucault thus defines biopolitics on the one hand through its reference to life as its object, as opposed to the sovereign power, whose object is the juridical subject, and to disciplinary power, whose techniques are directed toward the individual. Or, as Kate Steinmann has pointed out in “Apparatus, Capture, Trace: Photography and Biopolitics,” the introduction to this series of the same name for Fillip, Foucault’s notion of biopolitics aims at the “historically specific transformations...of the relationship of power to life,” which constitutes the “threshold of which life became the subject and centre of political order.”11 On the other hand, the specificity of biopolitical techniques lies in their positive and non-repressive relation to life and in the fact that these techniques are intrinsic and not external to their object. Biopolitical techniques increase, protect, and regulate life—in short, they “make live.” And they do so by infiltrating the processes of life (instead of repressing or suppressing them) in order to regulate them from the inside.

But while the emergence of life as the new object of power seems to be readily established, the “positive” relation of power to life needs to be defined more specifically, especially inasmuch as a “positive” relation does not mean that biopolitics stands for a “positive” politics in which life would deploy its inner potentials. On the contrary, the attribute “positive” (in opposition to repressive) refers to the functioning mode of modern power strategies. I would thus like to argue for a concretization of the positive relationship between power and life in the following manner: in order to better invest life, the strategies of power adopt the operational system “life” as their model, or, in short, they imitate life; that also means that the social norms of the biopolitical society of normalization are designed as if they were living norms.

This is indicated on the one hand by the general opposition that Foucault establishes between the changeability, flexibility, and adaptability of the norm and the rigour of the law; on the other hand—and a little more specifically—the thesis of a mimetic relationship between power and life can also be translated into the following affirmation: the norms of the society of normalization, whether in biopolitical or governmental mode, tend to the self-preservation of the global whole (of the population, or the market) or respectively to the perpetuation of its equilibrium. Biopower thus relates to living phenomena, and it does so by following the model of the living—i.e., in a mimetic proximity to living processes. Biopower is a power over life (and not a power of life) that adopts the inherent vitality of life as its own mode of functioning—and exteriorizes it in its social norms, in order to take possession or usurp its object at close range, to control, observe, regulate, and arrange it.

Such an understanding of the positive relationship of biopolitics to life marks a displacement in Foucault’s writings, since Foucault himself implicitly oscillates between two notions of biopolitics, a restricted and an extended one. There is a tendency in his writings to present the notion of life in a purely biological sense and to treat life as the object of a biologico-medical knowledge. In this case, biopolitics in the restricted sense should be exclusively understood as a governmental technique based on biological knowledge. The market development, for instance, that provides the essential field of investment for modern power would then not be accessible to the Foucauldian analytics of power, insofar as it is not regulated by a purely biological knowledge but rather by a metaphorized biological knowledge.

This restricted sense was later rearticulated or broadened through the introduction of the notion of governmentality in the lecture series Security, Territory, Population (1977–78) and The Birth of Biopolitics (1978–79), which represent Foucault’s reaction to the discernment that the “narrow” notion of biopolitics focuses mostly on the relation to its “new” object (life) and leaves aside the specific positivity of this relation. In other words, the notion of governmentality comes to correct a constraining tendency in Foucault’s writings and suggests a new perspective on the analytics of power, whose conceptual methodology however remains within the framework of biopolitics. This means at the same time that there is no rupture between the studies on biopolitics and those on governmentality since the differentiation between biopolitics and governmentality would become necessary only if biopolitics were exclusively defined through its object, life; but if biopolitics is understood in an advanced—one could say in an economic—sense (i.e., as that form of power that appropriates life in a double sense, as its object and as its functional model), the difference between the two strategies (governmentality and biopolitics) vanishes.

Mixed Lives

In his short text on social and vital norms entitled “From the Social to the Vital,” published in the second section of On the Normal and the Pathological, entitled New Reflections on the Normal and the Pathological: Twenty Years Later (1963–66), and as an amplification of his arguments in his 1943 Essay on Some Problems Concerning the Normal and the Pathological, Georges Canguilhem established a similar relation between power and life that he describes as an imitation of the vital by social norms. It has been often said that New Reflections was written under the philosophical impact of Foucault’s analysis of The Birth of the Clinic and the study of what Canguilhem called “social norms”—i.e., those techniques of power that saturate life and, to a certain extent, primarily constitute it “as life.” It was here that Canguilhem himself, following the Foucauldian impulse, turned to the analysis of social phenomena that he no longer assigned or subordinated to the vital realm or the vital norms—as he had done in the 1943 text, where he argued for the absolute lack of hierarchies among the phenomena of the living and therefore subordinated the social differences to vital ones. On the contrary, in New Reflections, Canguilhem differentiated two regimes, two “allures,” two airs of life—the social and the vital—that he designated as incommensurable with each other. Canguilhem articulated the relation between these regimes as a mimetic one: “The phenomena of social organization are like a mimicry of vital organization in the sense that Aristotle says that art imitates nature. Here to imitate does not mean to copy but to tend to rediscover the sense of a production.”12 And: “Social regulation tends toward organic regulation and mimics it without ceasing for all that to be composed mechanically.”13 Society, therefore, is “both machine and organism.”14

As a consequence of this turn to the social in Canguilhem’s thought, the formerly well-defined vital notion of life becomes more ambiguous and is articulated through a sort of mixed relationship between organic and mechanical determinations. This mixed situation also applies to what Canguilhem defines as social norms, which do tend to operate in a logic of the “as if,” in such a way as if they were vital norms, insofar as they are aimed at the preservation of the homeostatic state of the population, but without ever losing their mechanical character, insofar as they always remain exterior to the phenomena that they govern.

Now, this synthesis between the form of life and the form of social regulation appears to be observable also in Foucault’s analyses of governmentality, namely in the indirect relationship that governmental techniques maintain with the object to be governed. As Foucault explains, governmental techniques relate to life through the mediation of social, economical, geographical, urbanistic, or other external phenomena—i.e., they take hold of life insofar as it is social, economic, or topological. This mediation is what Foucault means when he affirms, paraphrasing Guillaume de La Perrière, that the modern art of governing governs the people through “things”; in other words: men in their relationships, bonds, and complex involvements with things like wealth, resources, means of subsistence, and, of course, the territory with its borders, qualities, climate, dryness, fertility, and so on. “Things” are men in their relationships with things like customs, habits, ways of acting and thinking. Finally, they are men in their relationships with things like accidents, misfortunes, famine, epidemics, and death.15 That is, men (or life for that matter) under material, cultural, or biological aspect.

The name that Foucault gives to this new mix of biological, cultural, and material elements is that of the “population” as an “operator (opérateur) of transformation for the transition from natural history to biology, from the analysis of wealth to political economy, and from general grammar to historical philology.”16 The relation between the techniques of power and the population is thereby not a univocal one but rather a “constant interplay between techniques of power and their object”17 that give way to a reciprocal combination of techniques of power and knowledge: A whole series of objects were made visible for possible forms of knowledge on the basis of the constitution of the population as the correlate of techniques of power. In turn, because these forms of knowledge constantly carve out new objects, the population could be formed, continue, and remain as the privileged correlate of modern mechanisms of power.18

Here, the notion of life is carved out of a purely biological paradigm and transformed into a mixed form that is primarily described on the basis of economic processes—the political knowledge of the contemporary is a bio-economic knowledge, which invests its object by imitating life’s competitive dynamics and creates a milieu in which these dynamics can unfold freely. Nevertheless, this imitation does not occur for life’s sake, that is, so that life can come back to its authentic self. Rather, this imitation of life happens for pragmatic reasons of power; to speak with Foucault: the techniques of power aim at ensuring a better penetration and saturation of life and therefore, finally, an easier and more effective regulation of life. In such a manner, notions such as self-preservation and homeostasis, which brand that specific “life” that emerges in the epistemic rupture around 1800, enter within the realm of power and infiltrate its practices in order to govern or regulate life better and more easily under these circumstances. Life is to be understood exclusively as the “correlate” for a “new” power-knowledge constellation, and it appears only as such a correlate. Life, as Foucault recalls in the most succinct way in The Order of Things, is a modern and synthetic notion. And it is a synthetic notion in a twofold sense insofar as, on the one hand, its biological dynamic, which biopolitics adopt, tends to the formation of a synthetic whole (i.e., a global equilibrium that takes shape within the population), and, on the other hand, life itself is synthesized, that is, produced, “as life,” in the epistemic rupture. Life is a crafted phenomenon and is understood in this biopolitical-economic perspective as an artificially organized nature.

The peculiar perspective Foucault developed on the notion of life becomes especially visible in the passage from biopolitics to governmentality inasmuch as this passage marks a synthesis of the biological and the economic paradigm. The self-regulation that, from Kant onward, had defined the notion of life is transposed, with the Physiocrats, to the modern market events that require a certain freedom allowed by a non-intervention policy and expressed in the famous motto attributed to the Marquis de Gournay: “Laissez-faire, laissez-passer, le monde va de lui-même.”

With the introduction of governmentality as a new name for power, Foucault was thus able to formulate a biopolitical notion of post-sovereign government that permits to articulate a specific modus of governing a population that functions as if it were its (the population’s) own self-regulation. Governmentality represents a totality of institutions, processes, analyses, reflections, calculations, and tactics that serve the exercise of a form of power “that has the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.”19 It is essential that all three fields—the population as the object of power, political economy as its knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its technique—follow the same projective logic, which does not operate with fixed values but rather with spaces of possibilities and which projects the fulfillment of its power into the future. It is in this sense that political economy, for instance, relates itself to the specific naturalness of society outlined by the Physiocrats and projects the self-regulation of the market as a “second nature” onto the population.20

Physiocracy is the name of an economic current that parts from the conviction that only agriculture can be at the basis of the wealth of a country and finds its expression in the classical liberal exigence of a free market and a minor or reduced role for the state. The representatives of physiocracy, the Physiocrats that Foucault refers to in his lectures, interpret the economic system as a “natural order” that obeys quasi-natural laws. Within this naturalistic understanding of the world, the population as the central element of the economic-agricultural world—and the possible grip on the population—is defined through the same notion of naturalness. The advantage of such an understanding of the “natural population” on the part of the Physiocrats lies in the fact that it is set beyond any juridical, sovereign, or disciplinary connotations and is therefore governable as if it were a “natural” phenomenon. The capitalist market and, with it, the population, function in this sense as if they were living, homeostatic systems; they are artificial phenomena that are treated, by governmental techniques, as if they were natural phenomena in order to make them more understandable, analyzable, and finally governable. The governmental techniques that follow the laws of the self-regulating liberal market and the biopolitical techniques that follow the (self-) preservation of life thus function in the same way: they both constitute their object as a “medium” in such a way that they imitate the mode in which this medium regulates itself—i.e., they imitate life inasmuch as life is in itself a regulating form that becomes the medium for forming or moulding techniques. The fact that life is a mere correlate of power-knowledge techniques means that it appears as a medium of power, a power that infiltrates it in a forming manner. This saturation of life through its formation is the result of the specific relationship between power and life: the techniques of power influence life from the outside but in such a way that they imitate life’s internal self-regulation—as if they would regulate life from the inside, or as if life would self-regulate. In this sense, it becomes possible to affirm that biopolitical governmentality transposes (implicitly or explicitly) the functioning of biological life to a population that is to be governed by being given the means for self-regulation. The population follows, in its economic, medical, topological, etc., aspects, “by itself,” pseudo-vital laws or norms, namely those of self-preservation, that the biopolitical-governmental techniques of power initially suggested to the population.

Inasmuch as power projects the functioning of life onto the population, and by doing so constitutes the population as a functional totality, power mimics or imitates life or, more precisely, its mode of functioning. In this way, the governing of the population becomes unobtrusive but at the same time ubiquitous: power thus grasps and captures the phenomena that are to be governed (the population) in a completely unspectacular but totalizing manner. With that said, it becomes necessary to reject the hypothesis in which biopolitics would be guided by a knowledge of life adequate to the notion of life, as well as the concomitant positive interpretation of biopolitics as a form of power, in which life somehow becomes authentic. This assumption is already deceptive inasmuch as the question of a “true” or “alienated/estranged” life is irrelevant in the context of Foucault’s power analytics—or, rather, such a “true” life exists only as a projection of power techniques in their democratic manifestation. What is decisive on the contrary is that if a form of power operates in such a manner that it promotes, secures, and enhances life in its vitality, it becomes a more perfidious form of life’s domination.

In other words, it cannot be the task of biopolitics to define a true or untrue notion of life or to guarantee an authentic imitation of life where life becomes identical to itself and unfolds its potentials. On the contrary, biopolitics designates the field of strategic analysis of the constitution and the functions of that notion of life that has become dominant in the history of the modern power-knowledge complex. There exists neither an authentic life nor an authentic power—just as there exists no authentic politics or authentic imitation. At the same time, this aura of the adequate life is a necessary, intentional, and powerful illusion of the bio-economic setting of modern democracies that particularly rely on the concern, or the care in Foucauldian terms, that life does improve itself through self-conduct—consequently the modern bio-economic power is presented as the most adequate form of domination for human life under neoliberal conditions.

Objective Life

The discussion around the possibility of an authentic imitation of life that is the ideological desideratum of modern biopolitical strategies and that, following Foucault, historically emerges around 1800, coincides, on different levels, with another fundamental mimetic discussion of the early nineteenth century—the discussion around the notion of the mechanical image. The discussion evolves around the difficult relationship between representation and the object represented, between the image and its object—life. And evidently it originates in the art historical debate about realist representation in the traditional arts, and especially painting. Photography represents a specific perspective in this discussion inasmuch as its mechanical status, at first glance, allows for an a-subjective, or objective, representation of reality, inaccessible to those other arts that are created by an artistic subject.21 André Bazin thus claims in his seminal essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”: For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.22 And Roland Barthes radicalizes this “cult, a mania of the reference for the reference’s sake”23 in his description of a 1921 photograph by André Kertész of a boy leading a blind Gypsy through a Hungarian village: “I perceive the referent (here, the photography really transcends itself: is it not the sole proof of its art? To annihilate itself as a medium, to no longer be a sign but the thing itself?).”24

Nevertheless Barthes maintains that this refere­ntial obsession crystallized in the punctum of the image, the “that-has-been,” applies only and exclusively to the photographic image and is necessarily lost with the moving image, which is “protensive”—i.e., it never reaches the standstill position indispensable to the punctum of the photographic image: In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does not, however, have this completeness (which is fortunate for the cinema). Why? Because the photograph, taken in flux, is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views; in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favor of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a specter. Like the real world, the filmic world is sustained by the presumption that, as Husserl says, “the experience will constantly continue to flow by in the same constitutive style”; but the Photograph breaks the “constitutive style” (this is its astonishment); it is without future (this is its pathos, its melancholy); in it, no protensity, whereas the cinema is protensive, hence in no way melancholic (what is it, then?—It is, then, simply “normal,” like life). Motionless, the Photograph flows back from presentation to retention.25

Not so for Bazin, for whom photography and cinema alike “satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism.”26 He thus negates an essential difference between the photographic and the filmic image, placing them instead in a logic of accomplishment: while photography “embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption,” the film appears as the “accomplishment of objectivity in time”: “Now, for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration.”27 The filmic image, the image in motion, represents the completion of photography in time. This Bazinian topos of cinema as the “accomplishment of objectivity in time” evidently refers back to a traditional self-description of film as that art of life where life comes to its most authentic representation—consequently the moving image that captures the movement, the dynamics of life, is even more accurate than the photographic image and its necessary stillness. So, if Dziga Vertov claims that cinema represents “life as it is” or “life caught unawares,”28 he expresses early cinematographers’ dream of an “all-embracing cinema that gives us a total illusion of life,” such as Villiers de l’Isle-Adam had projected in L’Ève Future (1887) in the animation of photography, a form that he calls “successive photography” that makes visible “movements, flowing as in life itself.”29 This classical relationship between cinema and life highlights the authenticity of life as well as that of cinema as the medium that represents life in its most authentic way, and is pinpointed down among other things by the names of the technological precursors of the cinematograph such as the vitagraph, the bioscope, the vitamotograph, the biocam, the animatograph, the zoopraxiscope, or the biograph.

It would be possible to claim that the photographic image is the representation of the disciplinary regime, of the controlled and disciplined individual whose movements are brought to a standstill, as in the inert photograph. Cinema would then be the setting in motion of the disciplinary individual, its coming to life and thus the passage to the paradigmatic biopolitical representation of life. But this difference is only a superficial one, insofar as the question of the imitation of life does not concern the specific content of the image, nor its duration, but its productivity, which is conveyed not in the movement or stillness of the images but in their artificiality, an artificiality or mise en scène that encloses photographic images such as Stan Douglas’s recent series On Entertainment (2011), or installations such as William Leavitt’s Theatre Objects (late 1960s–present), as well as film images of classic melodramas such as Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959).

To conclude, I would like to relate this productive imitation of life, which marks the biopolitical governmentality as Foucault has described it, to a genre of image production that attributes a special status to the imitation of life, the filmic melodrama, as Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film of the same title suggests. But instead of focusing on this specific film, I would like to describe the imitation of life as the paradigm of melodrama in general, or rather of the post-melodramatic, in the style of Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes, and, in a way, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and I would like to show to what extent this melodramatic imitation of life maintains an essential relation to the paradigm of biopolitics.

Imitations of Life II

Melodrama can be described in a general way as the biopolitical genre of the longue durée inasmuch as it presents the everyday problems of normal people, their relationship problems, jealousies, and social anxieties.30 Melodrama is the drama of biopolitical normalization of unimportant, irrelevant, invisible lives—it is the imitation or representation of a life that is not worth being depicted: histories of the normal people, not the heroes, of everyday actions rather than battles, the longue durée in lieu of special events.31 It is in this sense that Todd Haynes describes Sirk’s melodramas as “a way of looking at the powerless” in the mode of compassion—there is, in Sirk’s films, and to some degree also in Fassbinder’s, a “social morality” in which “we” all converge—but that nevertheless does not give way to any form of heroism, insofar as the characters do yield to conventions by the end and do not overcome their social challenges.32

This social drama becomes particularly apparent in the filmic triad composed by Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955), Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002), three films that describe the preservation of a “normal” population through social control—by their children, their gossiping neighbours, friends, and colleagues—and social regulation. The inadmissible love that all three films depict is crisscrossed in Sirk’s film by class and age differences and in Fassbinder’s movie by differences in ethnicity and nationality. In Haynes’s film, class, race, and sexuality differences are all taken up—the white housewife falls in love with a younger, black gardener while her homosexual husband is at first pathologized and “medically treated,” but in the end his homosexuality is much easier for society to absorb than the mésalliance of the abandoned wife.33

A paradigmatically biopolitical issue is also addressed in Haynes’s film Safe (1995), which Haynes has described himself as his most Fassbinderian work. The film centres on the paranoid hypochondriac delusions of a woman named Carol White and her strategies to immunize herself against any environmental influences. Her “environmental illness” triggers a biopolitical security apparatus that finally leads her to relocate her “life” to a white, disinfected, porcelain igloo in the health community called Wrenwood, which lies in the middle of the desert. But Safe cannot be reduced to its “biopolitical subject,” which it transgresses in a way that sheds light on the paradigm of the imitation of life as a biopolitical paradigm. The film is thus not only biopolitical because it shows life as biopolitical—i.e., as an exposed life in which all biopolitical conflicts such as racism, homosexuality, (mental) illness, security paranoia, are inscribed. It is in fact and to a greater degree biopolitical because this peculiar status of life is not only reproduced in the film but also produced by it, inasmuch as the film stages life becoming a medium that is formed through power and knowledge techniques. The film ultimately stages the indistinguishability between first and second nature that is the paradigm of biopolitical governmentality.

In a short analysis of the “documentary jargon of authenticity,” Hito Steyerl has pointed at the paradox that is constituted by Vertov’s claim that film should depict life as it is—the claim for a representation of life as it is. That is, a life that is identical with itself is necessarily based on the assumption of the existence of such an authentic life—an assumption that Steyerl critiques by showing that the question of authenticity or verisimilitude is only raised through and by the recording, or life’s mediation, through a medium. Verisimilitude makes sense only when put in relation to copies, to imitations. As is well known, a neutral recording, or a recording of something as it is, is not possible, since everything appears as already mediated, subjectively saturated through montage, cadrage, etc. That is the dilemma of documentary theory: “Documentary life can be everything except itself.”34 That also means that the life as it is that Vertov wanted to record does not exist as such but is produced in the first place only in the image. The realization of the desideratum of authenticity is thus exclusively possible within and through film: “Vertov’s camera-eye assembles more then ordinary life: It produces a sort of sur-life [Über-Leben], the true life, life ‘as it is.’”35 A true life that exists only in its being recorded, in its imitation—or, to borrow Steyerl’s words: “‘True’ life is a copy without an original.”36

This is what the image of the filmic melodrama in its absolute and exposed artificiality presents: the melodrama does not produce—similar to the biopolitical-governmental power strategies—a “true” life; on the contrary, the film creates a biopolitically definable, synthetic, and medial life. While literary or traditional melodrama super-elevates ordinary gestures in order to assure the victory of the good life over the bad or untrue one, the filmic melodrama or post-melodrama is one that translates this super-elevation into an exposed artificiality and freezes it there. Haynes designates this stylized and abstract melodramatic language as a “freezing over of social interactions”: both the language and the negotiated conflicts exist only in a mediated, indirect way—like the governmental life that exists only as it is mediated through things. From a formal perspective, it is the colour that intensifies this impression, as Frieda Grafe has strikingly shown: Most of Sirk’s melodramas take place in small cities, almost in the countryside. But this has almost nothing to do with nature. Only later, when he started to shoot in colour, did this become completely obvious: this nature in the cinema is frosted with an artificial varnish.37 Analogously, Haynes’s San Fernando Valley, a paradigmatic all American west-coast suburb, becomes the biopolitical milieu par excellence, where territorial, biological, and cultural elements are formed into an artificial-natural complex in which or through which the life of the population is regulated, conducted, and governed, as Foucault described it in his lectures.

It is this biopolitical synthesis that likewise applies to life a biopolitical life that exists only in and through its milieu: In the backdrop...the films deal with how thanks to the possibilities of the moving image reality can be reproduced more realistically, so that true and false nature become undistinguishable.38 It is not the content—life under biopolitical circumstances—that inscribes itself in the form; rather, it is the form—the suspension of mimetic difference between true and false, authentic and inauthentic—that is transferred to the object of the film, i.e., to the filmic life. In this sense, Aljoscha Weskott affirms that life appears in Haynes’s “composed kitsch imitation, mirroring, stylization,”39 as, for example, in the last scene of Safe, when Carol White affirms her self-identity by addressing her reflection in the mirror and the camera/spectator and whispering “I love you, I love you, I love you” for nearly one insufferable minute.40

Therefore, the melodramatic image does not raise the question of the representation of life as alienated and estranged. Nor does it stage a desire for authenticity. On the contrary, life remains within its status as a medium; it is inscribed as imitation in the images. Melodrama thus abdicates the notion of “authentic life” and becomes the countermodel of the avant-garde.41 Because life in melodrama emerges in the indistinguishability between true and false, authentic and inauthentic, natural and artificial, it is solely medium, a substrate that is saturated and infiltrated from external influences, social conflicts, and emotional expectations—or as Raymond Deagan, the black gardener in Far from Heaven, puts it: it is impossible “to see beyond the colour of things.”

This determined indeterminacy—the absence of any essence of life—corresponds to a biopolitical-governmental marking of life, where life is formed as a correlate, i.e., as infiltrated by strategies of knowledge and power and finally by techniques of presentation and representation. In melodrama, life as well is primarily presented as the correlate for power-knowledge techniques, but the imitations of life do not consist only in the exhibition of this correlatedness, determinability, and artificial naturalness, but rather in presenting the process by which artificiality and naturalness become indistinguishable—i.e., by presenting life as the medium of efforts of formation that it performs on itself. And therefore it would be possible to reformulate the relation between film and life to the effect that it is not film that comes alive, nor does the film demonstrate a biopolitically alienated life, but rather life becomes filmic; that is, life becomes radically artificial, inauthentic, and mediated, thanks to its hypertrophic imitation, which Grafe calls “more than life,” “bigger than life.” Or, put in other words, we could affirm that biopolitics and film both become illusionist machines that produce a life that exists only in its imitation and that therefore is at the same time as true to life as possible and as artificial as possible.

  1. “Happiness is not always fun.” Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974).
  2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 139.
  3. For this reading of the notion of “biopolitics,” see Christian Geyer, ed., Biopolitik: Die Positionen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001). For the critique of a liberal eugenics, see Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).
  4. See Roberto Esposito, “Vom Unpolitischen zur Biopolitik,” in Das Politische und die Politik., eds. Thomas Bedorf and Kurt Röttgers (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2010), 89–101, here 98f.
  5. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 138.
  6. Ibid., 139.
  7. Even though the main topic of the lectures on the abnormal is the functioning of the disciplinary power under its psychiatric institutionalization, Foucault’s description of the transition from disciplinary power to biopolitical power is more explicit here than in Discipline and Punish. It is thus possible to affirm that a genealogy of the Foucauldian analysis of biopolitics starts with these lectures. See Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974–1975 (New York: Picador, 2003).
  8. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 139.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Kate Steinmann, “Apparatus, Capture, Trace: Photography and Biopolitics,” Fillip 15 (Fall 2011), 6.
  12. Georges Canguilhem, On the Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1978), 156. For the original French, see Le normal et le pathologique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1966). My emphasis.
  13. Ibid., 158.
  14. Ibid., 155.
  15. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 134.
  16. Ibid., 109.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 144.
  20. See Thomas Lemke, Biopolitik zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2007), 62, and Thomas Lemke, Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction, trans. Eric Frederick Trump (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 45.
  21. The question of the objectivity of mechanical images has been widely discussed (and re-discussed after the so-called digital turn), and it has been established that there is no such thing as an objective image nor an ontology of the image. I do not want to go into this discussion here, but I still would like to follow the early thesis of mechanical reproduction inasmuch as it stresses the necessary artificiality of the image and relates its realism to this automatism of the production process. Realism is thus not an objective imitation of life, but rather, in a Brechtian sense, the insight that all reality, whether within or without the image, is always artificially produced.
  22. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Summer 1960), 7.
  23. Philippe Dubois, quoted in Peter Geimer, Theorien der Fotografie zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2010), 35. My translation.
  24. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 45.
  25. Ibid., 89–90.
  26. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” 7.
  27. Ibid., 7–8. I have modified the translation here.
  28. Dziga Vertov, “Kunstdrama und ‘Kinoglaz,’” in Schriften zum Film (München: Hanser, 1973), 25.
  29. André Bazin, “Der Mythos vom totalen Film,” in André Bazin, Was ist Film? (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2009), 46.
  30. For the notion of the longue durée introduced by the historians of the École des Annales, see, among others, the writings of Fernand Braudel as well as the multivolume project History of Everyday Life directed by Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby. I take the notion of the “longue durée of the biopolitical modernity” from Serhat Karakayali, “Vom Staat zum Lager: Von der Biopolitik zur Biokratie,” in Der Nomos der Moderne: Die politische Philosophie Giorgio Agambens, ed. Daniel Loick (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2011), 59–76, here 64.
  31. For the study of this topos in literary theory, see Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  32. The quotations of Todd Haynes on Sirk and Fassbinder are taken from a conversation on Fassinder and the melodrama included in Angst essen Seele auf, directed by Rainer Werner Fassinder (1973; Berlin: Arthaus, 2007), DVD.
  33. In Imitation of Life Sirk has also addressed the question of North American racism, which is negotiated in the film around the “invisible colour” of Sarah Jane, Juanita Moore’s light-skinned daughter, who flees to the world of the white people only to reappear at the end of the film for the burial of her mother.
  34. Hito Steyerl, “Kunst oder Leben? Dokumentarische Jargons der Eigentlichkeit,” in Die Farbe der Wahrheit: Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld (Wien: Thuria und Kant, 2008), 94. My translation.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Frieda Grafe, Filmfarben (Berlin: Brinkmann und Bose, 2002), 72. My translation.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Aljoscha Weskott, “The Life of Carol White: Life/Melo-Relations in Todd Haynes’s Film Safe,” manuscript, n.p.
  40. See Dirk Setton, “It’s out there…. Pathologie der Sicherheit und Poetik der Überempfindlichkeit in Todd Haynes’s Safe,” Polar, no. 11 (2011), 35–42.
  41. Weskott, “The Life of Carol White,” n.p.
About the Author

Maria Muhle is Professor for Aesthetic Theory at Merz Akademie, Stuttgart, and co-founder of August Verlag Berlin, a publishing house at the crossroads of philosophy, politics, and art. Her research focuses on biopolitics and the notion of life as well as on the notion of aesthetic realism in the context of a political aesthetics. Recent publications include “Biopolitics and Life: Foucault and Canguilhem,” in The Government of Life, eds. Vanessa Lemm and Miguel Vatter, (Fordham University Press, forthcoming), and “From the demos to the plebs—two notions of political subjectification,” in Thinking Resistances: Current Perspectives on Politics and Communities in the Arts, vol. 2, Thinking–Resisting–Reading the Political, eds. Anneka Esch-van Kan, Stephan Packard, and Philipp Schulte (Diaphanes, forthcoming).

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