A reflection on biopower based on Ridley Scott’s film “Napoleon”
The controversial release of Ridley Scott’s film Napoleon invites us to reflect on some of the perverse traces of imperialism embedded in our Western democracies. These are logics of control that yearn to govern everything: life and human nature, related to the concept of biopower, developed by the philosopher Michel Foucault. In the name of the idea of a world and perpetual peace, presented as a model of reason, wars and a negative otherness are justified, undermining the dignity of the person by naturalising that some lives do not matter. Nearly six million people between civilians and soldiers died in the Napoleonic wars.
British filmmaker Ridley Scott has been criticised because his version of Napoleon, played by actor Joaquin Phoenix, does not faithfully represent some important events in the story of the rise to power of the French consul and emperor who capitalised on the popular enthusiasm of the French Revolution to later become an autocrat and, moreover, the promoter of an empire by the stroke of a sabre. Scott argues that a film is neither a history lesson nor a documentary – although those who appeal to certain limits are not entirely wrong – and offers the viewer a commercial spectacle, particularly in the war scenes, with a large number of extras that are augmented by digital means.
However, resorting to advanced technology to dazzle the viewer, in the words of Spanish filmmaker Víctor Erice, does not guarantee that the camera can capture moments of truth. This is less about fidelity to historical events than it is about providing a more human experience. It was achieved by the French silent film director Abel Gance in 1927 with a four-hour version of Napoleon’s life that captivated Stanley Kubrick. It is a biopic with scenes of stunning visual power that can now be seen on some digital platforms.
The vicissitudes of Napoleon Bonaparte’s relationship with his wife, Empress Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in the series The Crown (2016) and arms dealer Alanna Mistopolis in Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018), are given remarkable weight in Ridley Scott’s plot. The couple deteriorated due to Josephine’s inability to conceive an heir to the throne of France, divorcing in 1810. Let us not forget that this filmmaker has in his film career memorable titles such as Alien (1079), Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), The Kingdom of Heaven (2005) or The Last Duel (2021) which are illustrious precedents of the work we are dealing with.
In Napoléon’s film, the director’s ellipsis on the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814), or the reinstatement of slavery in some colonies, is striking. It is fair to point out that enslaved Africans contributed by their suffering and exploitation to making France one of the richest nations on the European continent. Nor is there any mention of the plundering of works of art in conquered countries, or of the milestones that earned the French emperor recognition as the builder of modern France. The French historian Jean Tulard, one of the most renowned specialists on the Napoleonic era, recently declared that as a professor of history at the Sorbonne he would advise against watching this film, but as a film buff he would recommend it. Ridley Scott’s portrayal of Ridley Scott in the film is a very interesting one.
Ridley Scott’s portrayal of Napoleon has upset French audiences who do not bless the vileness of Napoleon’s dictatorship, the re-establishment of slavery in some colonies, or more than two decades of wars that led to the deaths of nearly six million people, civilians and soldiers alike. But they do feel some discomfort when it comes to justifying Napoleon’s mausoleum in the centre of Paris, in the Invalides architectural complex. Moreover, it should be noted that the Napoleonic prototype has found echoes in dictators of the inhuman 20th century such as Lenin, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Ceausescu or Gaddafi, among others. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber saw in him an antecedent of Hitler because of his inability to recognise any you in the other.
Regardless of the controversies raised by the celebrated British director’s approach, the film Napoleon is of profound bioethical interest. The almost two decades in which the French emperor extended his empire across Europe are the keystone of imperialist after-effects that undermine our Western democracies. They refer to logics of control over human life and nature that are closely related to the concept of biopower developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in the framework of a course he taught at the Collège de France (1978-79). The neologisms biopolitics/biopower allude to mechanisms implemented by governments with the intention of governing individual and collective life, as well as territories. These are practices and strategies that inoculate certain logics of power into everyday lives, creating an illusion of freedom that is not real. Foucault succeeds in putting his finger on the limits of liberal democracies.
The question, as necessary as it is pertinent, is how far a government should extend in order to guarantee the proper functioning of society and, at the same time, be respectful of people’s freedom to carry out their life projects. Foucault takes the idea from Benjamin Franklin’s expression “frugal government”. According to the philosopher Alfredo Marcos, alluding to Foucault’s work, it follows from this concept that where virtue and a taste for work are lacking, a more interventionist government will be required. And it will proceed to slim down as soon as it promotes virtue. But it will be abusive if it exploits vice and idleness or encourages them to expand its power and control everything.
Napoleon is the child of a transitional moment, the shift from the feudal world to the bourgeois society of the nation-state, which offers a new paradigm in terms of the concept of biopower. If the feudal lord had the power to decide on the life and death of his serfs, in modern societies, different and more subtle social forms of control are emerging. The Napoleonic period is of interest because it is framed within the Enlightenment dialectics of a world and perpetual peace, to use Kant’s expressions, associated with a model of enlightened reason, which have not only justified wars, but also logics of exclusion.
In their work Empire vs. Multitude , Michel Hardt and Toni Negri allude to three features that may be very familiar to us, given the conflicts we are currently experiencing. The first is the lack of borders, as the domain of empire has no boundaries; the second is the perspectives of empire, establishing an idea of how things that are the object of government are meant to be, according to a perpetual, permanent, desirable and omniscient order; and the third feature is that empire not only regulates human interactions, but also seeks to directly govern all of human nature (Hardt & Negri, 2005:170). It is a dialectic of control whose watchword is the absence of discussion because any discrepancy is interpreted as an attack or danger to the interests of humanity.
Thus, for example, the colonial identity of the Napoleonic period responds to a logic of exclusion, a negative otherness that collides with the cultivation of humanity and the ethical impact of the face of the other, in line with the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas. With the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, negative otherness presents the other as an object, or an inferior being.
Following Hardt & Negri’s work, the keys to biopower are grounded in one or more discourses of truth, with authorities deemed competent to speak of such truths that may be biological, demographic or sociological; norms of life and health that point strategies of intervention towards forms of existence and that may be specified in terms of biosocial emergence over race, gender or religion; and forms that enable citizens’ self-governance.
In short, in contrast to relations of mutual respect between nations and a defence and safeguarding of the individual, today’s biopower is characterised by the impossibility of the unfolding of the human and by the absence of moral norms in alienating, elitist and dysfunctional societies that systematically question the dignity of each person. This is not insignificant when we consider that biopower is currently at play in many areas such as euthanasia, abortion, family laws and the education of children and young people, and it is also decided that there are parts of the world that can endure suffering that is considered intolerable in other areas. If we are able to take flight and not let the special effects distract us from what is really important, the film Napoleon is worth seeing.
Amparo Aygües – Former student of the Master’s Degree in Bioethics – Collaborator of the Observatory on Bioethics