On headless chickens & necropolitics

The rooster came out of a wire cage crowded with other chickens— white, brown, black— pressed against each other and pecking through the little wire squares. The owner of the stall, a man in a grey t-shirt with long hair and a scraggly mustache, braced the russet-feathered rooster against the bloodstained table and raised a cleaver as wide as my face. The silver blade glinted in the Malaysian afternoon sun. The smell of droppings and dried grass hung in the air.

I hid my face in my hands when the knife came down, but I heard the thunk of metal against wood and then the strangled bleating and I saw the plump body, headless, quiver and thrash as the butcher held it by its feet and dunked it neckfirst into a bucket of water.

There’s a sticker on one of my bookends with a piece of a Frantz Fanon quote on it: “Colonialism only loosens its hold when the knife is at its throat.” Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics, which draws on Fanon in its decolonial approach, thinks of late-modern colonial occupation as a unique combination of “the disciplinary, the biopolitical, and the necropolitical.” According to Mbembe, biopolitics and the Foucauldian notion of “making live and letting die” is not enough to explain the prevalence of death today— thus, it is useful to examine the ways that power of death itself is enacted in the control of populations, in tandem with technologies of discipline and biopolitical power.

Necropower operates through spatial and narrative practices which facilitate the relegation of subjects to an existential state that hangs between life and death— the status of the “living-dead.” Mbembe names these intermediate spaces “death-worlds.” The status of the living-dead is visible in what Mbembe terms the topographies of cruelty— for instance, the paradoxical life of the enslaved subject: while a person’s humanity is stripped and whittled down to an item of possession by a colonial master, an “instrument of production,” they sit astride the line between death and life, between commodification and personhood, when they “demonstrate the protean capabilities of the human bond through music and the very body that was supposedly possessed by another.”

In his recounting of Hegel’s discussion of death, Mbembe describes politics as “death that lives a human life.” For Hegel, death is not only an inevitability of life but also voluntary in the case of the human. When humans transform the natural world to create a world that suits our own needs, we are consciously assuming the risks of death at the hands of our own negation of the elements. But it’s in those risks that the human becomes a subject, set apart from the animal. In upholding and manipulating death, in risking life for humanity, the sovereign is constructed. 

When a chicken is beheaded, knife at its severed throat, it continues to flap its wings and flail about (even run around if its feet aren’t bound by a fist) for minutes afterward. Only when it has ceased to struggle is it plucked, dissembled, and wrapped in paper parcels to take home for dinner.