In preparation for a paper I've agreed to write and a course I'm slated to teach, I'm going to try to look systematically at some writing on biopolitics and biopower. The remarks here will likely have the mixed (up) quality of being addressed to undergraduates as well as to my future writing-self (in my teaching, I am perpetually torn by a sense that I should cover a great deal of material--lots of reading--and the desire to pick texts apart in a detailed, obsessive fashion; part of the challenge of teaching undergraduates is that many seem to think that spending more time on a text means that they don't need to re-read it or read it more closely; they assume "there's no more reading;" reading is eyeballs on pages).
The thematic of the course, and of the paper to a degree, is set by two remarks, Foucault's (cited by Agamben) that "modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question" and Zizek's "biopolitics is postpolitics."
At any rate, I'm beginning here with the last section of The History of Sexuality, "Right of Death and Power Over Life." The book was published in French in 1974 and in English in 1976.
1. As the concluding section of The History of Sexuality, "Right of Death and Power Over Life," reiterates some of Foucault's key themes in the book, primarily his critiques of the repressive hypothesis and psychoanalysis.
a. Foucault rejects the claim (prominent in the 60s) that the Victorians installed a repressive regime of sexuality and that the liberation of sexuality would be the liberation of people. Instead of sexual silence, he notes both the command that sex speak and an extensive sexualization--the hysterical woman, masturbating child, Malthusian couple, and perverse adult.
b. In connection with his critique of the idea that there is a truth of sex that needs to be made to speak, Foucault also criticizes psychoanalysis. With psychoanalysis "the task of truth was now linked to the challenging of taboos." Psychoanalysis provides a mechanism for the deployment of sexuality; indeed, to this extent, its emphasis on telling the truth and freeing oneself from sexual repression prevents it from serving as a critical resource against the deployment of sexuality. Far from it--psychoanalysis by the end of the 19th century had become one of its key instantiations and institutions of dissemination.
One of the ways that psychoanalysis serves the deployment of sexuality is by providing a mechanism for attaching sexuality to the system of alliance. Alliance was rooted in a sovereignty of blood. Psychoanalysis connects this sovereign power to the law of the father: desire itself depends on the law. Without law, there can be no desire (the incest prohibition and the Oedipus complex at the basis of adult sexuality).
2. "Right of Death and Power Over Life" does not begin, though, by repeating these themes. Instead, it begins with sovereign power as power of life and death (the right to take life or let live). This is a juridical power (and thus not absolute). And it is a subtractive power, a power that takes a way, that can appropriate and seize. Sovereign power can "seize hold of life in order to suppress it." The sovereignty Foucault is discussing here is the sovereignty of the system of alliance.
3. Foucault says that the mechanisms of power have changed in "the West" since the classical period of the system of alliance. Subtraction is now accompanied by forces of generation and ordering. Where there was submission and destruction there is now also incitement, reinforcement, control, monitoring, and optimization. There is also a change in the sovereign right of death which is "now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life."
On the one hand, this change is a simple shift from death to life, from sovereignty understood as the right to take life to sovereignty understood as the right to maintain and develop life. On the other, there is also a change in the locus of this right: from the sovereign understood as king to the sovereign understood as the social body.
Foucault does not emphasize this right of the social body. Nor does he emphasize that central to the change from the classical age were the American and French revolutions, the spread of liberalism and democracy. I do not intend my point here as a criticism but rather as a reminder of our different conjuncture. Foucault writes at a time when communism was still an option, when radical anti-war, anti-nuclear, and post-colonial struggles did not necessarily anchor their claims in the supposition of democracy but also and with awareness of the promises of socialism. He writes, moreover, in the context of a movement against a regulatory state, a state viewed as consisting of a vastly expansive power to administer, mobilize, and optimize, a state with the capacity many times over to destroy the planet in a nuclear conflagration.
Accordingly, rather than emphasizing the right of the social body, Foucault emphasizes the war capacity of the state rooted in power over life:
Wars are no longer wages in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital.
For Foucault, then, atomic war is the flipside of the power over life, as if the democratic extension of power multiplies sovereign force exponentially. A war is not the defense of a juridical sovereign (soldiers do not sacrifice their lives as requirements for the defense of sovereignty). Rather, "at stake is the biological existence of a population." And the reason for this: "because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, and the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population." So, race war and the extermination of peoples (waged in the name of a right to exist, in the case of Israel). But also the very existence of a power distributed throughout the population; democracy has a genocidal core (or, at least democracy as organized in the system of sexuality, the regulatory state, and the administration of life).
4. In place, then, of a secret sex or a silence regarding sex, modern society is characterized by a kind of evasion of death (that remains pervasive nonetheless): since power is over life, death "is power's limit, the moment that escapes it; death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, the most 'private.'" Reading Foucault more than thirty years later, we might ask ourselves whether death remains a secret or whether it is widely imagined, whether it is power's limit or power's neglect, extension, supplement, fear, threat, or delight, and whether what Foucault marks as death's escape from power might in fact become an opportunity for considering the working of the death drive.
5. At any rate, for Foucault power over life evolved in 2 forms or poles (that are richly interconnected):
a. the disciplines (an anatomo politics of the human body): view body as machine, optimize its capabilities, extort its forces, increase its usefulness and docility, integrate it into systems of control;
b. regulatory controls (a biopolitics of the population): focus on the species body, "the body imbued with the mechanics of life," they concern birth, mortality, health, life expectancy, migration, housing.
These two forms would be joined via the deployment of sexuality.
6. Biopower was indispensable to development of capitalism:
Biopolitics operated in the economy and made economic development possible: through segregation, hierarchization, allocation of profit, joining groups to expansion of forces. More important, then, than the Protestant ethic described by Weber, biopolitics marked the "entry of life into history.
7. Biopolitics is thus more than the influence of the biological on the political. Plagues have always mattered; famine has political effects. The difference Foucault is emphasizing involves the nexus of power/knowledge and of political techniques. Biopolitics involves a knowledge of the species' life and the tactical use of this knowledge (this would be a point to consider a contrast between Foucault's account of biopolitics and Marx's discussions of species being and of the general intellect). More precisely, as the improvement of agriculture and development of fields of knowledge of life expanded
Biopolitics emerges in a specific context. It is not essential to the political as such or to a specifically Western political ontology. It is not an element of sovereignty's original or originary form but a supplement to and supplanting of that sovereignty, an addition (and set of additive techniques) linked to the spread of political power throughout the population.
8. For Foucault, the classical version of sovereignty in the system of alliance is primarily a juridical form of power; subjects are legal subjects who can be killed but who in that moment of death escape sovereign power. The power of this sovereign is not a power that extends into the management of lives or life. In contrast,
one would have to speak of biopower to designate what brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an age of transformation of human life.
Biopower is not fundamentally a version of juridical or legal power (although it can be made to underlie law and law can be based on and in it as law becomes norm). Rather, it is the set of practices and techniques that politicized life by making it calculable, by making it an object of politics, for political intervention. And, for Foucault, what is crucial here is the species nature of the life, as if it were "all of life." To this extent, biopower can become life itself because it is the flipside of atomic annihilation, the correlative of the knowledge that produces the power to annihilate the species (also through other developments in microbiology).
9. We might understand this biopower as the knowledge/capacity to move/impact the species, to modify and organize the species at will (fully aware that this will not be complete and that there are aspects that will escape this modification and organization). And this knowledge/capacity to organize, tie, bind, bring together is necessarily accompanied by impulses to destroy. To this extent, biopower, as Foucault conceives it here, as life both inside and outside human history (outside in some biological environment and inside the changes of knowledge/power), resembles Freud's account of the drives as between psyche and soma, and as forces of binding and unbinding.
10. Foucault opposes biopower and law. This is not surprising, given the contrast between the system of alliance and the system of sexuality, between his association of juridical power with death and biopower with life. Accordingly, insofar as biopower involves regulation, correction, qualification, measure, and appraisal, insofar as it involves the norm, it is opposed to a law that has to "draw the line that separates the enemies of the sovereign from his obedient subject." Biopower effects a change in law toward regulation, administration, normalization.
11. Resistances to biopower have relied "on the very thing it invested, that is, on life and man as a living being." Life has emerged (been constituted as) the self-evident political object, that which is taken at face value. Thus Foucault emphasizes that life more than law has been the issue of political struggle, even when these struggles are waged in the name of rights. Rights to life, health, happiness, one's body all derive from biopolitics rather than the juridical structure of sovereignty. Biopower produces that which resists it, yet these resistances nonetheless extend it.