The Necro-Geopolitics of American Insecurity was a talk delivered by Prof. François Debrix of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, as part of both the Security Lancaster and the Lancaster University PPR Lunchtime Seminar Series'. Introducing Debrix, Dr Mark Lacy of Lancaster University highlighted his publications Tabloid Terror: War, Culture and Geopolitics and Necrogeopolitics: On Death and Death-Making in International Relations. Debrix followed this up with The Geopolitics of American Insecurity: Terror, Power and Foreign Policy, which he had co-edited with Lacy.
The Necro-Geopolitics of American Insecurity was a talk delivered by Prof. François Debrix of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, as part of both the Security Lancaster and the Lancaster University PPR Lunchtime Seminar Series'.
Introducing Debrix, Dr Mark Lacy of Lancaster University highlighted his publications Tabloid Terror: War, Culture and Geopolitics and Necrogeopolitics: On Death and Death-Making in International Relations. Debrix followed this up with The Geopolitics of American Insecurity: Terror, Power and Foreign Policy, which he had co-edited with Lacy.
Debrix began his seminar by referring to the chapter in the latter book by Timothy Luke entitled Hyper-power or hype-power? The USA after Kandahar, Karbala, and Katrina, in which Luke poses the question of whether the US has transitions from a hyper-power to a hype-power; that is, one whose decline, played out publicly in the media and popular culture, conflicts with its professed hyperpower and has to be increasingly obfuscated by insubstantive hype.
One section of IR scholarship has attempted to address this question
by claiming that the US now, in the absence of a hyper-powered
adversary such as the USSR, traffics in
soft power (derisively called
cultural exports by
others). This tradition argues that the new mark of a hyper-power is
its exporting of attractive intangibles such as values and ideas,
rather than shows of overwhelming military force.
Debrix presented various examples of US hype from recent decades:
the premature claims of
mission accomplished during the Bush
era; the Obama-era killing of bin Laden and conversion of the War on
Terror to a drone-powered crusade; and the Trump-era rhetoric of
stable genius and
making American great again. He also
stressed that the idea of hype was not necessarily new or unique to
the past 20 years of the US. The US had always had a
victory culture; perhaps it had always been about hype.
Debrix criticised Luke’s chapter for not addressing the link
between hype-power and death-making, or necropower, in particular
what forms of necropower correspond to hype-power. Today, he argued,
hype-power means causing death constantly, banally, particular of
one’s own people. Today’s necropower, under conditions
of US power, means managing endemics—see Foucault—which
lead to deaths not talked about;
soft killing, slow violence, slow death. Hype-power, Debrix
stressed, was just as deadly as super- and hyper-power.
Citing Achille Mbembe’s concept of
necropolitics—a reworking of Foucault’s
biopolitics, or the power to make life—to describe the
subjugation of life to the power of death and the
making of death-worlds and living-dead bodies (particularly
in the global South), Debrix felt that the definition was too
attached to the
rule, force and violence of the sovereign and its agents,
with a focus on the spectacle and large-scale massacres present in
colonialism; these were, he argued, the preserve of super- and
Debrix’s definition, in contrast, focuses on understanding
necropower as a way of making people live, always with the chance of
massive loss of life by
banal and seemingly trivial means;
uneventful ordinariness of slow deaths through
incompetence, ignorance or indifference, but also at times through
the targetting of vulnerable populations (such as through austerity
Debrix, channelling Foucault, said that during the 18th
and 19th centuries, states turned to address their own
endemics with the intention, perhaps, of controlling them for the
benefit of their populations. However, they had instead produced two
key outcomes: they had created new administrations, new uses of
science, new areas of expertise; and they had figured out how to use
all of these to help some populations to thrive whilst sacrificing
The link between these endemics and deaths, he said,
had been severed for some lives but left for others.
Our modern issues were not the result of super- or hyper-power,
Debrix argued, but of power that has been decentralised, but which
still represented power over life and death. Death-making is now
soft, slow and social; hype-power gives rise to multiple experts,
multiple areas of expertise,
micro-sovereigns or micro-powers whose disseminated power
encourages further hype. This hype-power is risky, as it produced
ever more conditions of death and decay and insecurities that
increasingly cannot be ignored or glossed-over.
Debrix felt that IR scholarship was lacking when it came to
articulating the paradox of US insecurity, but that he had been
drawn to Zoë Wool’s book
After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed, which detailed the lives of wounded US soldiers returning from
conflicts in the Middle East and being treated at the eponymous
military hospital; that is, mostly being left to
linger until healed or dead. Wool proposed the concept of the
extra/ordinary, the limbo zone wherein these soldiers
resided, and Debrix felt that this term applied more broadly, giving
the example of Trump:
a hype machine and a death dealer all at once.
Under hype-power and necropolitics, people exposed to poor health
and insecurity for decades, if not generations, were now being
allowed to die en masse, with the US’ world-class (and
vaccine-producing) medical research industry was dependent on the
same system—one in which the wealthy, the white, etc. receive
world-class treatment whilst others are left to decay. Connecting
this to the militarisation of US police forces, Debrix proposed that
the US’ hyped-up war machine has two branches: the military,
who practice necropower there; and the police, who practice
it here. Both are in
the business of creating bodies, mostly of those already deemed
not to matter.
Debrix concluded by discussion immigration policy through this lens,
arguing that in contrast to the hype of Trump’s
big, beautiful wall was the more mundane and larger-scale
pattern of abuses against migrant bodies, leading to constant,
unnoticed death (in Europe as much as in America). Ultimately,
whether we call the US a super-, hyper- or hype-power, it
nonetheless relies on an ever-increasing pile of bodies.
There then followed a Q & A.