Lauren Berlant – “Slow Death” (2007)

Berlant explains the concept of slow-death as a way of living in this current stage of capital. It is not merely the quiet desperation of Thoreau’s community-others, but a way in which life can be lived laterally, as a self-interruption of the capital subject otherwise exhausted by the forces of capital extraction that soak up all practical energies.

[The essay] argues that in the scene of slow death, a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life, agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment.

She uses obesity as an example of how the processes of eating have become perverted by capitalist pressures. “In the contemporary U.S. context, obesity figures as the freshest case of slow-death crisis-scandal management.”

It is a form of slow death; in fact, the only form of slow death available to many marginalized peoples.

When one African- American essayist describes the ongoing familial and cultural lure of the actually existing American four food groups (sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine), we see that morbidity, the embodiment towards death as a way of life, marks out slowdeath as what there is of the good life for the vast majority of American workers.

She points out that being-fat was always associated with the rich not the poor, and now the number of “overfed” matches the number of “underfed” people in the world for the first time. Thus an old-fashioned Malthusian argument won’t work here—where it is the excessive resources that are killing the poor and people of color. Such “excess” dovetails with a whole range of racist associations: that African American are controlled by animal appetite rather than cultivated restraint; that this excess if marked by their political “excess” or expendability, etc.

She thus points out that the obesity epidemic cannot be explained in terms of liberal concepts of individual sovereignty, choice, freedom, etc. Rather, the biopolitical state forces us to rethink the modes of agency that constitute personal change—such as healthy or unhealthy eating. Remember that for Foucault, sovereignty “is not the right to put people to death or to grant them life. Nor is it the right to allow people to live or to leave them to die. It is the right to take life or let live.” Thus much of what Berlant is arguing is that life-maintenance can in and of itself be equivalent to a form of life-building, but with the idea of construction signifying otherwise than capital modes of accretion. [Relate this to Schilleren idea of not tasting more, but of tasting differently.]

But, for most, the overwhelming present is less well symbolized by energizing images of sustainable life, less guaranteed than ever by the glorious promise of bodily longevity and social security, than it is expressed in regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty, lateral agency, and, sometimes, counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example, in sex, or spacing out, or food that is not for thought.

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