Biopolitical Tattooing

In January 2004, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben caused a controversy when he canceled a course he was scheduled to teach at New York University, refusing to travel to the United States as a result of the introduction of new security measures that required foreign nationals to submit their fingerprints for entry into the United States. Following this, Agamben published a short article titled “No to Bio-Political Tattooing,” in which he explained his reasons and motivation for taking such a stance against these security measures. His refusal to subject his body and its biometric characteristics to security and surveillance practices was an attempt to resist what he saw, building on the concept borrowed from Michel Foucault, as “the progressive animalisation of man which is established through the most sophisticated techniques”( Agamben, 2004 ). Agamben took issue with the ways in which biological life itself is becoming the object and target of mechanisms of control and political interventions.

This entry defines biopolitical tattooing, reviews Agamben’s opposition to it, and concludes with an examination of the interest biopolitical tattooing has received from scholars and commentators, many of whom have expressed concerns and criticisms about the practice.


“Biopolitical tattooing” is Agamben’s metaphor for surveillance and security techniques that are reliant on the “body” for managing life (biopolitics), determining identity (through biometrics), and designating levels of risk and dangerousness to individuals and populations (in the name of preemption). The wholesale developments in passports, identity certifications (e.g., identity cards), face recognition, fingerprinting, and so on, can be regarded as an instantiation of this biopolitical tattooing. The term itself is reminiscent of the process by which inmates of the Auschwitz concentration camp were identified and coordinated through tattooed serial numbers. Through the metaphor of biopolitical tattooing, Agamben (2004) draws a parallel between the paradigm of concentration camps and contemporary security measures to the extent that these are marked by a similar interest in the abstraction, organization, and filing away of what he sees as “the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity: the body’s biological life.”

Agamben’s Concerns

Agamben, 1998 ), the naked form of life that is stripped from its political qualities and legal protection.

The rising use of biometrics in the governance of societies and territories signals the intensification of various illiberal practices in which every identity becomes a suspect identity by default. As Agamben (2004) writes,

applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such, states, which should constitute the precise space of political life, have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it’s humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.

What makes this all the more sinister is the “normalization” process by which surveillance techniques and exceptionalist measures of security become gradually, and at times abruptly, accepted as part of the routine practices of everyday life, often in the name of safety and public interest. According to Agamben, “There has been an attempt the last few years to convince us to accept as the humane and normal dimensions of our existence, practices of control that had always been properly considered inhumane and exceptional.” As such, Agamben warns that the biopolitical tattooing that the United States, for instance, imposes at its borders could well be the precursor to what people will accept, if they wish to be identified as good citizens, as the normal practice of identity registration and the state’s mechanisms.

Others’ Concerns and Criticisms

The concept of biopolitical tattooing has since received some interest from scholars and commentators who are concerned with the actual and potential ramifications of contemporary forms of surveillance and biometric control and, more generally, with the interplay between identity, biological life, and politics. Despite the brevity of Agamben’s 2004 text, “No to Bio-Political Tattooing” does well in condensing some of his major thoughts on sovereignty, exception, security, and the force of law, themes that run throughout the corpus of his writing.

Crucially, this compound conceptual formulation of biopolitics and tattooing indicates the centrality of the body in the current and emerging mechanisms of surveillance. Within the growing circuits of control and monitoring, the body is increasingly being looked to as what Katja Aas (2006) describes as “a source of instant truth” (p. 154), encapsulated in the expression “the body does not lie,” a catchphrase that has been opportunely and profitably marketed by the biometrics industry. This instant truth is not so much about the biographical dimension of the body but, rather, concerns the “body as data” that can be extracted, stored, analyzed, manipulated, and ultimately used for surveillance purposes—“body without words,” as Agamben (2004) puts it.

Despite the usefulness of the concept of biopolitical tattooing in highlighting some of the political and ethical issues pertaining to the rise of electronic and biometric control, it has received some criticism. This is partly due to the generalizing aspect of the text and the problematic comparison of contemporary visa regimes and surveillance practices to Auschwitz. Furthermore, Arne De Boever, for instance, takes issue with Agamben’s use of the term animalization to describe the effects of biopolitics on human life. De Boever asks, “Does biopolitics really reduce human life to animal life? Or does it reduce human life to a life that is different from both human and animal life?” Exploring what form of life is emerging from the current practices and rhetoric of security and surveillance is no doubt a necessary task for comprehending and resisting the ever-pervasive horizon of control under which societies are increasingly living.

Btihaj Ajana

See also Bioinformatics ; Biometrics ; Biosurveillance

Further Readings

Aas, K. F. “‘The Body Does Not Lie’: Identity, Risk and Trust in Technoculture.” Crime Media Culture, v.2/2 (2006).

Agamben, G.Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (trans.Daniel Heller-Roazen). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Agamben, G. “No to Bio-Political Tattooing” (trans. Stuart J. Murray). Le Monde (January 10, 2004). (Accessed October 2017).

Ajana, B.Governing Through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dahlberg, L., ed. Visualizing Law and Authority: Essays on Legal Aesthetics. Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter , 2012.

De Boever, D. “William Watkin, The Literary Agamben: Adventures in Logopoiesis” [Book review]. Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature, v.10/1 (2012). (Accessed October 2017).

Lacy, M.Security, Technology and Global Politics: Thinking With Virilio. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.

Pugliese. J. (2010). Biometrics: Bodies, Technologies, Biopolitics. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.