THE FANTASTIC BESTIALIZATION OF THE BIOPOLITICAL SUBJECT IN MARIE DARRIEUSSECQ'S TRUISMES.
Marie Darrieussecq's dystopian novel Truismes, (3) published in 1996, only a year following the original publication of Homo Sacer, takes up many of the themes present in Agamben's work: hybridity, animality, social exclusion, and unimaginable acts of violence. This fantastic tale recounts the progressive animalization of its narrator into a woman-pig hybrid, which gradually increases before plateauing at a stable point, after which the visibility of her pig-like characteristics waxes and wanes. Although the reason for her metamorphosis remains unexplained, the rise to power of the fictional political party Le Social-Franc-Progressisme and its leader Edgar provides the framework for a biopolitical reading that considers the narrator to be a representation of bare life. Truismes can thus be read as a fictional interpretation of biopolitical power in which the universe of Darrieussecq's novel resembles Agamben's camp, where the state of exception has become the rule and personal liberties are denied by a State that exhibits totalitarian control over its subjects' lives and bodies.
The first part of this analysis will establish links between Truismes and Homo Sacer in order to elucidate certain otherwise enigmatic aspects of Marie Darrieussecq's novel, before considering in its latter parts how Truismes might complement a strictly theoretical understanding of biopolitics by revealing the different ways in which it affects individual biopolitical subjects. This will bring us to examine the sexualization of the narrator's bestiality in order to identify the variations in how human bodies are controlled according to constructions and expectations of gender, before turning to the representation of the biopolitical subject's individual experience. Finally, we will widen the scope of this comparative analysis in order to question how it might shed light on literature's role in the biopolitical discussion more broadly.
THE BIOPOLITICAL PARADIGM OF AGAMBEN'S CAMP IN TRUISMES
Agamben develops a biopolitical theorization of totalitarianism in Homo Sacer by bringing together the ideas of Foucault, which lack a direct application to the totalitarian politics of the twentieth century, and those of Hannah Arendt, which lack a biopolitical perspective, through the concept of bare life. Reversing the words of Arendt, who considers the supreme goal of the totalitarian state to be the total domination of human life, he writes: "The radical transformation of politics into the realm of bare life (that is, into a camp) legitimated and necessitated total domination" (Agamben, Homo Sacer 71). The camp becomes originary in Agamben's theory and is not defined by the events that took place there, but by the juridico-political structure that allowed the events to take place. Following the historical example of the Nazi concentration camps, one sees that the state of exception in times of national crises becomes confused with juridical rule itself, norms become indistinguishable from the exception, and fact becomes law. Everything becomes possible and the concepts of subjective rights and juridical protection quite simply no longer make sense.
We can elucidate the universe of Truismes by reading it as a camp, which neither looks to explain the narrator's monstrosity nor ground the political acts in any form of rationalization. The only way to make sense of this dystopia is to see it as a world without sense, as Agamben's camp that equates fact with law and therefore renders everything possible, and to read the narrator as a representation of bare life. The novel begins with what appears to be a democratic, capitalist society, in which the narrator's job at a perfume boutique exposes the exploitation of its workers, both sexually and economically. However, the narrator quickly starts to physically transform, gaining pig-like characteristics, which themselves transform depending on her hormones, her emotional state, and the way in which she is treated by others. Although she is rejected by her colleagues and partner as her metamorphosis progresses, it is just such bestiality that makes her the perfect symbol for the campaign of the new political candidate, Edgar, who will ultimately be elected into power. The biopolitical element of his politics is explicitly underlined by the slogan on his campaign posters, "Pour un monde plus sain," written underneath an image of a corpulent narrator with a rosy complexion and pig-like facial features standing next to Edgar (Darrieussecq 87). The context in which this photo was taken further emphasizes the dangers of a biopolitics in which a certain standard of health is only achieved at the expense of the abuse and exclusion of certain citizens. After being abandoned at a waterpark by her boyfriend, the narrator encounters men from Edgar's political party, is subsequently caught, threatened and verbally abused, called names such as "un boudin" and "une chienne," before being photographed for Edgar's publicity campaign (Darrieussecq 65). There is therefore a contradiction between the message promoted on the poster, which portrays her as the symbol of good health, and the novel's message, which represents through her degradation an unhealthy, even abusive political system.
After Edgar's successful campaign, his political regime transitions further into a form of totalitarianism. (4) As a result, the xenophobia and racism present since the beginning of the novel are acted upon with Edgar in power, as seen through the expulsion of all people of Arab descent from the country. While the narrator is living at a hotel on the outskirts of Paris, the sector of French police called les gendarmes remove her Arab friend for deportation, later seen on television crying among many others and forced onto an airplane. In addition, freedom of speech is severely limited and access to information restricted. The most prominent example is the politically mandated censorship of dangerous books as a part of its "health campaign." This censorship is also complemented by a profusion of political propaganda, as seen in the obligatory speech that the narrator is forced by one of Edgar's main officials to recite to journalists, telling them all the good that Edgar had done for her.
The final and maybe most telling way in which Truismes' dystopia resembles Agamben's camp is the enactment of unjustified violence. The novel represents the murder of innocent people on a large scale through the repression of rebellion and the elimination of patients in a psychiatric hospital, but Edgar's unlimited power is perhaps most shockingly visible in the violence he directly ordains at his holiday party. The narrator is brought to the party as an object of spectacle due to her monstrous form, and the spectacle continues when young men and women are abused and then shot until the floor is entirely covered with blood. Such explicit violence demonstrates the extent to which fact has become law and that there are no juridical restrictions placed upon Edgar's political power in order to protect his subjects. By reading Truismes as a camp, we can consider the narrator's mysterious transformation to externally represent her political status in the novel. She is included in the political realm due to her obligation to comply with its censorship and submit to its punishments, yet is offered no form of protection and is excluded from all forms of social and political community. Her hybrid political status is externalized in her monstrous form.
SEXUALITY AND GENDERED BEASTS IN TRUISMES
We can thus see how biopolitics helps us to better understand the narrator's transformation and her relationship to the political body, but in order to delve further into this comparative analysis, we must reverse our approach: what might the novel contribute to our understanding of biopolitical theory? Two possibilities result from such an inquiry: Firstly, that the novel directly addresses the question of gender dynamics in biopolitics, and secondly, that it reveals the experience, particularly the affective experience, of the biopolitical subject. We will put aside the latter for now, and start with the question of gender, which is essential insofar as Foucault and Agamben construct totalizing systems, which do not sufficiently account for differences based on gender, race, or otherwise. (5) But sexuality, of course, does play a fundamental role in Foucault's biopolitics. It is, in fact, the primary target of a biopower that aims to reinforce the species and its capacity for domination: "a la jonction du 'corps' et de la 'population,' le sexe devient une cible centrale pour un pouvoir qui s'organise autour de la gestion de la vie plutot que de la menace de la mort" (Foucault 193). However, the way in which sex and sexuality interact with gender dynamics and the differences they produce is largely ignored in Foucault and Agamben's work. (6)
In Truismes, Darrieussecq clearly associates animality with sexuality by drawing a correspondence between the narrator's transformed state and an increase in her sexual desire, but this also has important implications for gender expectations and norms, which are most clearly exemplified by the two animals employed to represent bare life, the pig for the female narrator and the wolf for her male lover, Yvan, the only other hybrid character in the novel. Darrieussecq's gendered characterization is surely not insignificant; her choice of an aggressive, dominating wolf conforms to the normative male image. On the other hand, the French word for a female pig, une truie, can also be used in a pejorative way to describe a licentious woman. Given the gender dynamics present in the novel, we can consider that the pig externalizes society's conception and treatment of women in the novel, specifically pointing to the double bind in which women are extremely sexualized and then criticized for it upon moral grounds. For example, although the narrator is required to give sexual favors to her boss and clients for her job at the perfume boutique, one of the few professional positions available to women, she is severely criticized by the physician who performs her abortion, saying that she is "damnee pour toujours" and "une fille perdue" (Darrieussecq 31). Such unjust moralizing criticism is not limited to words; the clinicians do not even give their patients anesthesia during the procedure because they do not want to waste it on girls who "n'ont qu'a faire attention" (Darrieussecq 30). Later, when forced to engage in sexual acts at work, the narrator must either fabricate screams of pleasure or stifle her cries, depending on the expectations of her clients. Their conflicting desires represent the contradictions in expected female sexual behavior, with the desire for both an innocent, submissive girl and a sensual femme fatale, but either way, female sexuality only exists for the service of the male characters.
Moreover, the narrator adopts these attitudes to the extent of externalizing them not only physically through her transformation, but also in her writing. For example, she blames herself for her bizarre situation because she wanted to work rather than accepting to stay at home and have children. As a result, she is convinced that the best possibility for young girls today "c'est de trouver un bon mari, qui ne boit pas, parce que la vie est dure et une femme ca ne travaille pas comme un homme, et puis ce n'est pas les hommes qui vont s'occuper des enfants, et tous les gouvernements le disent, il n'y a pas assez d'enfants" (Darrieussecq 63). Her statement clearly emphasizes the role of biopolitics through the government's message that there are not enough children, which specifies the role played by politics in shaping the attitude of shame and regret that she adopts.
Finally, we can identify an explicit example of the economization of the female body through the prostitution previously mentioned that is required by her job. Although the narrator is officially a saleswoman, she is obliged to provide sexual favors to her boss and clients. These forced sexual acts are described as labor (la besogne), and the equivalence drawn between sexual power and economic power is clearly visible in the image of the director during the narrator's interview at the perfume store: "Le directeur de la chaine tenait mon sein droit dans une main, le contrat dans l'autre main" (Darrieussecq 13). We can thus see that although sexuality may be central to biopolitics for all its subjects, its dynamics play out in a particular way for women, due in part to gender norms and expectations, and leads to the economization of the female body, in particular.
The narrator, however, expresses none of the indignation that one might normally expect from a woman subject to such treatment during a professional interview. Rather, her tone can be described as neutral as she observes: "Le directeur de la chaine m'avait prise sur ses genoux et me tripotait le sein droit, et le trouvait visiblement d'une elasticite merveilleuse" (Darrieussecq 12). Such abuse is certainly shocking for the reader, yet it is stated in a very matter-of-fact manner by the narrator, once again exemplifying the extent to which she has accepted her position. Through such a discrepancy between the reader's reaction and that of the narrator, the narrative discourse invites us to consider the ethical and affective dimensions of biopolitics, as well as how they relate. More specifically, we are brought to consider the ways in which an individual's reception of unjust or abusive behavior is influenced by the political system, and how such an influence might itself be harmful.
AFFECTIVE EXPERIENCE AND LITERARY FORM
More broadly, Truismes complements biopolitical theories through its ability to provide insight into the experience of bare life, rather than focusing exclusively on its functioning and origins. Its fictional, first-person account of a particular woman's life, as opposed to the abstract, or even universal discourse that we often see in Agamben and Foucault's theories, brings a new understanding of how such an experience is lived by an individual, (7) including how the homo sacer figure adopts the discourse of its oppressors, as we have just seen. Even the opening lines of the novel offer an apology by the narrator for the troubling nature of her story. Her refusal to critique Edgar's political regime and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her employer contrasts so sharply with its violent events that her assimilation of societal norms becomes starkly apparent.
The primary component, however, of the novel's representation of the experience of a biopolitical subject is its focus on affect, which puts suffering, and particularly loneliness, front and center. The narrator notes multiple moments when people pass by without deigning to look at her and is haunted by the resulting feeling of solitude. One evening, for example, when she has trouble straightening her hips enough to stand up, she has the impression that former clients are viciously laughing behind her, despite knowing that she is alone on the tile floor. Such an impression, combined with her repeated attempts to return to social life, demonstrates that she does indeed desire to be a part of the collective and suffers from her forced exclusion.
However, affect is not only present as a reaction to her transformation, but is also an integral part of the transformation itself. We see repeatedly throughout the novel that the narrator's animal characteristics are more salient when she is stressed, scared, or suffering. For example, the day that she and Yvan move to another apartment, she writes, "forcement j'etais un peu perturbee, moi je n'aime pas bouger de ma taniere; alors j'etais entierement truie, le groin, les pattes, les reins a l'horizontale, impossible de deguiser quoi que ce soit" (Darrieussecq 134-135). We can therefore see the circular situation in which she is held: a transformation that physically reflects the way in which she is considered and treated by others is internalized by the narrator herself, which, in turn, aggravates her physical state. This in a sense extends the work of Frantz Fanon in Peau noire, masques blancs (1952) to Agamben's theory and the biopolitical context by showing how the dominating voices create an intellectually but also emotionally troubling relationship with the self and one's representation of oneself. Through a psychoanalytic lens, Fanon develops the complicated relationship between black and white people, and particularly the inferiority complex that results from both economic processes and the "interiorisation ou, mieux, epidermisation de cette inferiorite," which create a vicious cycle akin to the one present in the novel (8). Consequently, Fanon shows that we must take into account "les anomalies affectives responsables de l'edifice complexuel" (8) if we are to achieve his ultimate aim: "Nous ne tendons a rien de moins qu'a liberer l'homme de couleur de lui-meme" (6). By revealing the dangers of internalized narratives and demonstrating the important role of affect in this process, Marie Darrieussecq's novel could be said to constitute the first step in an analogous, liberating process for the biopolitical subject.
We thus see how Truismes brings us to consider aspects of the biopolitical subject's experience--gender differences, affective reactions, internalized narratives--that are not communicated through biopolitical theory, but perhaps we could even go a step further, by speculating that literature, and particularly fantastic literature that allows for the creation of such a dystopia, is in a certain sense necessary for further explorations of biopower, thanks to its positioning outside of the realm of reason. We know that one of the criteria constituting Agamben's camp is its irrationality; since everything becomes possible when fact becomes law, no action can be combatted through reason. And the novel, insofar as it represents events that go beyond both the reader's understanding of what is reasonably possible as well as the narrator's own understanding of what is happening to her, creates just such an irrational space. Yet this irrationality is not something to be overcome in the novel; on the contrary, as the narrator herself emphasizes while reacting to the public's incredulity regarding the wolf attacks along the Seine, "C'est la rationalite qui perd les hommes" (Darrieussecq 126).
Incomprehension has a more fundamental role in Agamben's theory, however, because bare life must be thought on the threshold of the unthinkable limit of life. At the end of Homo Sacer, Agamben compares the treatment of bare life to the metaphysical quest for pure Being as a potentially impossible task: "[O]ne could say that reason cannot think bare life except as it thinks pure Being, in stupor and in astonishment" (Homo Sacer 102). Consequently, he accepts that his proposed solution for the problems of biopolitics raised in Homo Sacer, "a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoe," remains inconceivable for now, stating that it will only become a real possibility through a new field of research that extends beyond the current intersection of politics, philosophy, the medico-biological sciences and jurisprudence (Agamben 188). Bare life may therefore be condemned to remaining indeterminate and impenetrable in these realms, but might it be further explored in a literary space of stupor and astonishment? Marie Darrieussecq's novel certainly suggests so.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. StanfordUP, 1998.
--. The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford UP, 2004.
Darrieussecq, Marie. Truismes. Gallimard, 1998.
Deveaux, Monique. "Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault." Feminist Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994, pp. 223-47. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3178151.
Fanon, Frantz. Peau noire, masques blancs. Editions du Seuil, 1971.
Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualite. Vol. 1, Gallimard, 1976.
Gefen, Alexandre. Inventer une vie: La fabrique litteraire de l'individu. Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2015.
Repo, Jemima. "The Biopolitical Birth of Gender: Social Control, Hermaphroditism, and the New Sexual Apparatus." Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 38, no. 3, 2013, pp. 228-44. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24569452.
Weheliye, Alexander. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and the Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke UP, 2014.
(1) The reference to the original source is missing in Homo Sacer. Although Agamben cites the third volume of Foucault's Dits et ecrits just prior, this citation refers uniquely to the quotation that precedes it.
(2) Cf. Agamben's later work The Open: Man and Animal (2002) for further exploration of the relation between men and animals as it relates to politics. In particular, chapter 16, "Animalization," asks whether a humanity that has taken upon itself the task of managing its own animality is still human, and whether such a life that is neither human nor animal can be felt as fulfilling, while the subsequent chapter, "Anthropogenesis," returns to the idea that "in our culture, the decisive political conflict, which governs every other conflict, is that between the animality and humanity of man. That is to say, in its origin Western politics is also biopolitics," (Agamben 80).
(3) The French title plays with the connection between truth, through the concept of truisms, and animality, given that the French word for a female pig, or sow, is une truie. English editions of the novel offer a different pun, through the title Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust & Transformation.
(4) Indeed, according to Agamben, one of the primary implications of modern biopolitics is the solidarity between democracy and the totalitarian state on what he calls the "historico-philosophical level" (Homo Sacer 13). This similarity stems from the democratic effort to acquire the freedom and happiness of men in the very place (bare life) that founds their subjection.
(5) We will limit our discussion here to gender here since that is the novel's primary focus, but the question of race in biopolitics has certainly been taken up by others, including notably Alexander Weheliye in his recent Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (2014).
(6) For more on the relationship between biopolitics and gender, see for example Monique Deveaux's "Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault," which identifies "the tendency of the Foucauldian conceptualization of the subject to erase women's specific experiences with power" (224) or Jemima Repo's "The Biopolitical Birth of Gender: Social Control, Hermaphroditism, and the New Sexual Apparatus," which argues that "in the 1950s, gender emerged as an apparatus of biopower" that upholds the social order (230).
(7) Our discussion here can be placed within a larger trend in contemporary French literature that explores the lives of individuals and their singularity, examined by Alexandre Gefen in his Inventer une vie: La fabrique litteraire de l'individu (2015). Gefen writes: "nos contemporains, las de l'autonomisation de l'art et des pieds de nez aux savants, verront la litterature comme un mode complementaire de comprehension du monde, de ressaisie de la dimension individuelle des problemes abstraits, d'une pensee par cas, et reconnaitront l'efficace de l'emotion et de l'imaginaire" (16).
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