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Bookreview: The politics of life itself: biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century. By Nikolas Rose. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006. $25.95/£14.95. ISBN: 9780691121918

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Reid-Henry, Simon

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Abstract 525BookreviewThepolitics of life itself: biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-firstcentury. By Nikolas Rose. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006.$25.95/£14.95. ISBN: 9780691121918SAGE Publications, Inc.2008DOI: 10.1177/14744740080150040708SimonReid-HenryQueen Mary, University of LondonInthe classic analyses of Foucault, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergenceof a biopolitical state, in which the very vitality of individual citizenscame to be the subject of systems of management (through state provision forhealth and welfare, for example). Such a politics centred on the human bodyis today being reconfigured, claims the sociologist Nikolas Rose, in his newbook The Politics of life itself. To summarize brutally, new ways of understandinglife have resulted in new forms of managing, shaping and contesting it. Thus,vital politics today, Rose suggests, `is concerned with our growing capacitiesto control, man- age, engineer, reshape, and modulate the very vital capacitiesof human beings as living crea- tures' (p. 3). There is much to admire inhis account of the forms that such a politics is taking, and I would encouragethe reader to engage with this work. But two aspects of Rose's account warrantbrief commentary. First, both life and politics are given, in my view, toonarrow a definition in this book. Central to what Rose seeks to analyse, forexample, is the emergence of a particular `style of thought' – drawingon Ludwig Fleck's phrase – based upon a shift in the scale at whichwe think to understand, act on, and act in relation to, human life: from aclinical gaze cen- tred upon the body, to a molecular gaze that understandslife at the level of its component526parts(sequences of nucleotide bases, transporter genes and the like). This approachis in many ways quite helpful, but to its detriment, I think, it emphasizesquestions of techno- logical novelty at the expense of questions about thedistribution and control of those novel systems, not to mention the socialinequalities from which they actively divert attention and in some cases maybe contributing towards. As in the very western biomedical practices the bookseeks to analyse, the infectious diseases, poverty and inequality that structurethe pol- itics of life for most of the world's population are given scanttreatment. This is not, in fair- ness, Rose's intention, but my point is thatit could have been. That it is not is indicative of a widening gap betweenthe literature on public health and the literature on biomedicine and thebiological sciences. Much is made in this book of the new choices and newresponsibil- ities facing the individual. There is considerable scope forsetting alongside this a fuller appre- ciation of how those choices are shapedby the often rather older and more mundane limits set by one's social andgeographical location. Second, there is a profusion of spatial metaphors andreasoning that I think geographers might usefully elaborate, contest and refine.There is something not just inherently but con- stitutively geographical aboutmany of the changes wrought by the life sciences and biomed- icine in particularthat Rose describes in this book and that many geographers are actively engagedin researching. In addition to using geography as a shorthand for thinkingabout the wider implications and distributional effects of these new technologies,therefore (Rose speaks for example of a `cartography of the future' in lieuof a `history of the present'), geograph- ical notions of space, place andscale might well be usefully brought to bear upon this emer- gent social andscholarly field.
Document language English
Publication Year 2008
Page/Pages p. 525-526
Journal Cultural Geographies, 15 (2008) 4
Status Postprint; peer reviewed
Licence PEER Licence Agreement (applicable only to documents from PEER project)