Deleuze, Nikolas Rose, Philosophy, Sociology

Deleuzian Politics, or: what to think of the horizontal body?

This week I handed in an essay on Nikolas Rose’s book The Politics of Life Itself. In the essay I try to comprehend what it means for Rose that we, as biological citizens, understand ourselves in fully somatic terms. Furthermore, I consider the fact if this, as becomes apparant, very liberal or governmentality perspective really ‘exhausts reality’. That is; following Rose’s use of Deleuze, I try to show how there is always something that ‘transcends’ the body inside the immanent, horizontal plane of individuality, politics, science and economics. For Rose, we as somatic individuals more or less have at our disposal the biomedical, genetic facts of science so as to use them to work on ourselves and, consequently, to authorize the knowledge that flows from science and, according to Rose, determine the path and direction of these sciences. With Deleuze, I try to show that, following the example of the altering relation between experts and laymen, there arise new forms of ‘horizontal’ hierarchies and authorities. It’s interesting to see how Rose combines Foucault and Latour to subsequently turn to Deleuze to work out his comprehension of a new 21th century somatic ethics or self-management, but, in doing so, forgets that Deleuze is always ‘more than’ predictable.

Deleuzian politics, or: what to think of the horizontal body?

Lukas Verburgt

Nikolas Rose, in Politics of Life Itself, describes his project at hand as a ‘cartography of the present’, as ‘a history of possible futures’. This mapping of the present entails a double – and as we will see, ambiguous – opening up of the individual body. Due to advances in molecular biology and genetics, life itself has been molecuralized, that is; we have come to understand our bodies in genetic terms and this caused the fact that our bodies and our lives have become open to politics. Taken together, for Rose, this molecuralization and opening up to politics entails profound implications for the way we are governed and the way we govern ourselves. This is what Rose calls ethopolitics; the individual body is at the same time the principle target for ethical work and, as a molecular whole, the entity around which new forms of government and governmentality are taking shape. As Rose remarks: ‘[t]he ethos of human existence [..] has come to provide the medium within which the self government of the autonomous individual can be connected up with the imperatives of good government.’ (Rose ‘07, 27). It’s important to note that for Rose knowledge itself is a thought-style, that is, borrowing this term from Ludvik Fleck, science not only determines what counts as an explanation, but what there is to explain. Ethopolitics extends this idea, extrapolates it to the body itself, because what influences what there is to explain cannot, in our molecularized present, be limited (in its effect) to science alone. Our bodies, for Rose, are composite entities. They are ethical, political, technological, biological and financially valuable at the same time. Molecular biology profoundly altered what it means to be human and this has given rise to, as said, new political associations (biopolitics), capitalization (biocapital) and ethics of the self. So, here again we find an ambiguous path; science itself caused the contemporary space in which the production and configuring of truth is hybrid – not limited to one particular domain –  in character. In this space of ethopolitics – where ethics relates to knowledge, profit to truth and bodies to politics – lies Rose’s strength of analysis and, simultaneously, an ambiguity that he doesn’t  solve or touch upon.

Liberal body, liberal politics: ethics as action

The emergent form of life that Rose tries to identify is that life that is caused by the molecuralization of the body and the changing political rationalities this has caused. According to Rose, there is a direct relation between the growing capacities to control, reshape and engineer the body via molecular biology and the development of political rationalities from state controlled health policies or eugenics to growing individual responsibilities and the increasingly obligatory character of active citizenship in the wake of the 21th century. For Rose, ‘[m]olecularization was not [..] simply the use of artifacts fabricated at the molecular level [..]It changed the way in which we understand and govern our bodies [..] it caused a new ethico-political relation.’ (Braun ‘07, 4). Given this fact, molecularization caused new ways of conceiving and acting upon the body. For Rose then, these new ways imply shifts in the relation between the individual and its body and the individual and politics. Consequently, there exists an intrinsic relation between the way we understand our bodies and the way we govern it. With regard to both, it is important to see that for Rose ‘[b]iology is not destiny, but opportunity [..] For one who lives, to identify the biological bases of an affliction is [..] to render that condition open to intervention, transformation, and rectification at the molecular level.’ (Rose ‘07, 51) Nevertheless, or thereby, ‘[t]he very meaning and limits of life itself are subject to political contestation.’ (Rose ‘07, 49). As a consequence of these two developments, Rose signals the emergence of, on the one hand, an innovative new ethics of biological citizenship and genetic responsibility and, on the other hand, a somatic ethics and self in which and for whom the body becomes the principle object for self management and techniques of the self. Ethopolitics, then, is the term Rose uses for this contemporary ethical-political relation to the self, that is: our bodies. This new relation marks the historical shift from ‘biopower’ – in which the state controls and disciplines its citizens to maintain (or enforce) a healthy population – to an age of bio- or ethopolitics wherein the individual management of, and responsibility for the somatic self forms the inner kernel of citizenship. This is what Rose defines as the virtues of this new  ‘biological citizen’; ‘[a]ctvism and responsibility have now become not only desirable but virtually obligatory – part of the obligation of the active biological citizen to live his or her life through acts of calculation and choice. Such a citizen is obliged to inform him or herself not only about current illness, but also about susceptibilities and predispositions. Once so informed, such an active biological citizen is obliged to take appropriate steps, such as adjusting diet, lifestyle, and habits in the name of the minimization of illness and the maximization of health.’ (Rose ‘07, 147) Apparently, what becomes important now with regard to this influential information is content, authority and ‘implementation’. That is; when knowledge is placed in the service of the improvement of life (Rose ‘07, 83) and when this life is at the same time a strictly individual responsibility and that which is at stake in politics, the question becomes as follows; who is governing and who is governed, who is counseling and who is being counseled, who are the experts and who are the lay people? It is at this bifurcation of the molecularization of life and the individualization of risk that Rose’s ‘cartography’ gains oversight, but loses focus.

       Horizontal Hierarchy: Experts and Laymen

Perhaps by accident, perhaps implicitly, the terms ‘the horizontal’ and ‘the flattened’  have a twofold meaning for Rose. To be sure, they have an ontological significance in a Deleuzian sense: ‘[c]ontemporary genetics is beginning to operate in a ‘flattened’ world, a world of surfaces rather than depths [..] The genetic code is no longer thought of as a deep structure that causes or determines, but rather as only one set of relays in complex, ramifying and nonhierarchical networks, filiations and connections.’ (Rose ‘07, 130) For Rose, biological citizenship, the somatic self, the individua-lization of risk and the molecularization of life, are taking shape within a ‘post-ontological’ conception of life wherein vitality means surfaces and associations and not depths and determinations. It is interesting to see that in some passages Rose seems to suggest that this ‘non-hierarchical’ web of networks is also present in the, as mentioned above, fabrication and meaning of what there is to explain in, for instance, molecular biology or genetics. Not only human beings create and live in a flattened world; genes do too. ‘[I]n the interventions that proliferate in this flattened world, almost any vital element can, in principle, be freed from its ties to cell, organ, organism, or species, set free to circulate and to be combined with any other, provided certain conditions are met.’ (Rose ‘07, 16) Moreover, as much as for humans as for genes, our contemporary age isn’t about a depth ontology; for Rose, the mind and the soul have been made governable through brain scans and, at the same time, genes don’t point to hidden truths but to risk and possibility. Within this flattened world, we must speak of unpredic-tability, uncertainty, ‘non-hierarchical’ relations and connections and not of determination, certainty, or, most important, authority. Or, in fact, we do have to speak of authority, but in a ‘horizontal’ way[1]. If we take the issue of governmentality as a core example of this horizontal authority, we can see that ‘[t]he disputes about life itself, about the possibilities that are opened to us in our emerging form of life, and about dilemmas generated by our increasing and inescapable responsibility for our own biology, will be worked out only in the messy interactions of science, technology, commerce and consumption that are the territory of contemporary vital politics.’ (Rose ‘07, 104) It is precisely inside this messy space that we can locate a crucial development, namely that of lay expertise. This is such a vital insight, because it encloses a nuanced ambiguity that Rose doesn’t figure out completely, namely the (i) determined and, at the same time, (ii) deter-mining character of the activities of the ‘biological citizen’. (i) Following Rose, it is the molecularization of life that opened up the space for the somatic, biological and genetic acting upon, experiencing and talking about the body. As Rose remarks, ‘[t]hese new truths of ourselves arise not out of philosophy, but out of research’ (Rose ‘07, 190) and it is this research that caused a shift in human ontology and entailed new ways of seeing, judging and acting upon our bodies. The problem of risk here enfolds itself as a specific biopolitical, biocapitalist and biomedical issue; molecuralization caused the mobility of the elements of life, implying the opening up to politics and financial profit. As a consequence of this opening up of our bodies to circulate in these new circuits, we are obliged to work on ourselves, to hope for a better future by making informed, calculated, responsible decisions about our bodies at the molecular level. That is; the management of risk has become individualized and takes place in a messy, hybrid space of ‘identity practices’. Part and parcel of this carrying out of our biological citizenship is, evidently, knowledge. Not accidentally, this is exactly what is at stake in the (ii) determining character of our self management. As Rose states, ‘[k]nowledge forms an integral component of such technologies and practices of self-government and this knowledge itself is heterogeneous [..] Self actualization, responsibility, choice and prudence – ethics that can be only operative in the light of a knowledge of one’s bodily truth.’ (Rose ‘07, 114/125) But, simultaneously, the authoritative character of this knowledge disappeared as a result of, on the one hand, the heterogeneous, non-hierarchical networks or the ‘messy space’ in which it circulates and, on the other hand, the altered relation between the expert and the layman. Rose mentions this last alteration in the following way[2];

‘Over the past three decades many aspects of biomedical languages of description and judgment moved from the esoteric discourse of science to the lay expertise of citizens.’ (Rose ‘07, 108) 

‘[T]he combination of genetic and enterprising forms of selfhood creates new relations with expertise, reconfiguring power relations in significant ways.’ (Rose ‘07, 128)

‘The lay experts are also ‘experts by experience’ as they generate and authorize their own knowledge, and the Web communities become mediators, organizers, compilers, and editors of knowledge [..] Professional experts are no longer regarded as the sole authority of truth.’ (Rose ‘07, 128)

This implies that individuals – whether they are ‘citizens’, ‘lay people’, ‘patients’ or ‘web-users’ – actively shape the enterprise of science and form what counts as a biopolitical issue. This means that the knowledge we, according to Rose, need to have to act responsibly as a biological citizen is as uncertain and undetermined as our own actions and choices[3]. Moreover, the lay experts ‘[g]enerate and authorize their own knowledge’ (Rose, 129) and thereby make manifest the radical horizontal surfaces on which ethics relates to knowledge. As Rose notices, the layman doesn’t only consumes knowledge or influences the enterprise of science, but exactly because he or she engages itself with the shaping of, for instance, genetic and biomedical knowledge, he or she constructs itself ‘[a]s autonomous, prudent, responsible and self actualizing.’ (Rose ‘07, 129)

        The empty space of the liberal body

This then, is the nuanced ambiguity we referred to above; the determined and determining character of the activities of the biological citizen manifests itself when we take into regard the fact that scientific knowledge causes the existence of the biological citizen and the risky space in which it lives, while the biological citizen determines, in its own right, the course and ways of authority of this scientific knowledge. We can make three tentative points here. First, what does it mean that, according to Rose, laymen are determining the course and content of science  by which they were ‘brought into existence’ in the first place? Who is obliging here; the layman or the scientist? And second, when responsibility, prudence and autonomy (Rose, ; 07, 129) only come about by actively consuming and shaping scientific knowledge, are not the lay experts the only biological citizens? When this is not the case, we are dealing here with a frame that does not do anything[4]. And thirdly, when, consequently, only lay experts are biological citizens, there exists an empty space, a vast territory of people for whom the ‘[n]ew truths about ourselves’ (Rose ‘07, 190) don’t necessarily make prudence and responsibility possible or obligatory. As a result, we could ask who this biological or ethopolitical subject, that Rose has in mind, exactly is. One thing we know is his origin, since for Rose what marks the subject we are talking about here, is the fact that it’s been given unprecedented responsi-bility for self-government as a consequence of the fact that ‘[t]he task of public authorities is not to direct or provide for the citizen but to establish the conditions within which the citizen could become an active and responsible agent in his or her own government.’ (Barry ‘01, 135) So what seems to be an empty, undetermined space, is for Rose exactly what characterizes our present; the horizontal, non-hierarchical networks in which knowledge, authority, technology and subjectivity exist and relate, mark the distinctly liberal surrounding within which biological citizenship is encouraged and, while carried out, seen as a proof the rise of governmentality. But, as many commentators and authors in the philosophy and sociology of science have indicated, it is highly controversial whether the relation between, for instance, experts and laymen is really that non-hierarchical or unproblematic (Kerr, Cunningham-Burley, 2007; Franko Aas, 2006; Callon, 1999; Beck, 1992). Furthermore, it is not uncontroversial to suppose that, like Rose, biological citizenship is, in principle, freely accessible. We could say that Rose is able to assume this on the basis of an ‘intrinsic molecula-rization’ (Braun ’07, 12) that encloses a view of the body as the principal entity for self-management, choice and responsibility – characteristics Rose uses to identify the contemporary self. Nevertheless, the body seems to exist in another, distinctive way, namely as a body  ‘[e]mbedded in a chaotic and unpredictable molecular world, a body [..] haunted by the spectre of newly emerging or still unspecifiable risks. A body [..] no longer in terms of a governmentalization of life itself, but in terms of the extension of forms of sovereign power.’ (Braun ‘07, 2007) This is no longer a Deleuzian body that makes use of the horizontal, but a body that is thrown into a flux of ‘extrinsic molecularization’[5]. That is; the ‘virtuality’ of the molecularization of life and the body, as the practical acting upon potential risk, isn’t just opening a highly liberal governmentality-perspective, but manifests as well new forms of hierarchy or processes that ‘transcend’ the purely ethical and individual technologies of the self. This implies that the genetic or biological body does not ‘exhaust reality’. If, as we have seen, biological citizenship only exists when it is carried out, we have to think not just of the new ethical-political perspective, but we have to ask ourselves who is carrying this out or how it can be carried out. That is; as many have shown (e.g.; Dehue, ’09, Mirowski, ’05, Beck, ’92) both the relation between politics and the self and science and the self are in no sense just possibilities or heterogeneous developments that exist at the disposal of the responsible citizen. The Deleuzian body and Deleuzian politics are thus not only ‘mechanisms’ that flatten out questions of authority, hierarchy and responsibility, but they  change their shape, meaning and content as well. When we return to the relation between experts and laymen, we can see that, indeed, this relation has altered in the horizontal, flattened space of our molecular age, but this doesn’t explain the new forms of authority that are taking shape. To conclude, there seems to exist an empty space next to the – however promising –  highly liberal, horizontal acting upon the body, wherein the heterogeneous, flattened, horizontal relations between science, politics, economics and the individual are not just possibilities, but risks that ask for analysis in their own terms. When the ‘biological citizen’ wants to prove as a useful concept, we have to take into account under which conditions it can be carried out and under which restrictions it can be acquired so as to know to what extent and how it exists.


Barry, A. (2001) Political Machines. Governing a Technological Society (Londen:  The Athlone Press)

Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society. Towards a New Modernity (Londen: Sage Publications)

Braun, B. (2007) ‘Biopolitics and the Molecularization of Life’ in Cultural Geographies 14/1

Callon, M. (1999) ‘The Role of Lay People in the Production and Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge’ in Science, Technology and Society 4/1

Dehue, T. (2009) ‘Onderzoekers die afhankelijk zijn van de farmaceutische industrie ruïneren onze gezondheid’ in NRC Handelsblad, 21-02-2009

Franko Aas, K. (2006) ‘’The Body Does not Lie’: Identity, Risk and Trust in Technoculture’ in Crime, Media and Culture 2/2

Kerr, A.; Cunningham-Burley, S.; Tutton, R. (2007) ‘Shifting Subject Positions. Experts and Lay People in Public Dialogue’ in Social Studies of Science 37/3

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social (New York: Oxford University Press)

Lemke, T. (2004) ‘Disposition and Determinism – Genetic Diagnostics in Risk Society’ in The Sociological Review

Mirowski, P.; Van Horn, R. (2005) ‘The Contract Research Organization and the Commercialization of Scientific Research’ in Social Studies of Science 35/4

Rose, N. (2007) The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (New Jersey: Princeton University Press)

Rose, N.; Novas, C. (2000) ‘Genetic Risk and the Birth of the Somatic Individual’ in Economy and Society 29/4

Walters, W. (2006) ‘Border/Control’ in European Journal of Social Theory 9/2

[1] I choose to concern myself with the relation between laypeople, patients and biological citizens on the one side and political-scientific categories and knowledge on the other side. That is; I will not deal with issues concerning the complex and changing relations between politics and science, politics and the pharmaceutical industry, science and the pharmaceutical industry or issues of progress, technology and normativity. This is mainly because my emphasis falls on the reality and mode of existence of the biological existence and the relation between scientific knowledge as explanans and explanandum.

[2] See, for instance pages 83, 108, 128, 152 for a specific elaboration on the altered relation between experts and laymen and between doctors and patients. I quote several passages in full to show the importance of this changed relationship between experts and laymen with regard to the non-authorative character of knowledge. The implications of this non-authorative character will be discussed on page 8. Rose (2004) The Politics of Life Itself  

[3] This is exactly what characterizes the ‘horizontal’, ‘flattened’ world, because it entails at the same time risk, acting upon virtuality, the non-authorative character of knowledge and a new, Deleuzian, ethics of the self. 

[4] I use this Latourian way of speaking to point to the fact that the question ‘who can be identified as being biological citizens?’ must be answered in the following way; ‘those who can freely exercise this active citizenship’. When taking this question and answer into account, we can ‘feel’ the ambiguity that resides between these two sentences, because for Rose the biological citizen is at once a citizen that has been brought about and must bring about its own identity. See, for instance, Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social

[5] This difference relates to what Williams Walters calls the Deleuzian ‘control society’ that is ‘modifying’ the Foucaultian ‘disciplinary society’. This ‘control society’ ‘[d]eploys forms of authority that are external to the subject but which seek to effect relationships of interiorization and disciplined self-governance [..] Yet, in control societies power has become more fluid, less centered [..] Power has become immanent to social orders that understands themselves as [..] risk societies.’ (p. 4) This is the Deleuzian expression of the ambiguity which resides in Rose’s analysis; the mode of existence of the biological citizen does not only highlight liberal self-governmentality, it also encloses new forms of exterior modulation, influence and immanent authority working upon the individual body. Walters, W. (2006) ‘Border/Control’   


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