Foucault on Modern Biopower and Its Attendant Narratives

According to Foucault, modernity ushered in a new hermeneutics of the self in which self-renunciation had become passé given its connection with Christian dogmatic teachings such as original sin and humanity’s need for salvation from, as it were, the “outside.” With the help of new scientific and especially medical discoveries, as well as socio-political and philosophical theories with strong anti-religious biases, a distinctively modern positive self emerges—a self who through scientific and economic progress will eventually remove all mystery from human beings or perhaps genetically reconfigure or eradicate those elements impeding such progress. However, in the wake of several events spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—from America’sDisciplined Audience (Biopower)Enlightenment-inspired and pseudo-scientific rationalizations for chattel slavery to Stalin’s gulags to Hilter’s “final solution” concerning the so-called “Jewish problem”—this positive self of modernity with its supposed firm foundation in (objective) science and (pure) reason has shown itself to be shaped by and established upon its own faith-based mythologies and ideologies demanding total submission and unwavering obedience whether to the party, the State, or some variant of a religio-national or pseudo-theological narrative.[1] Should one resist and challenge these entities and narratives, the consequence was all-too-often not a willing public display of dying to self or a verbal ongoing renunciation of self (sufficiency) via confession. Rather, outspoken critics of so-called progress became unwilling sacrificial victims of Babel-like nations constructed on misguided utopian and self-aggrandizing fantasies.

Here I want to relate the modern pursuit and view of progress to Foucault’s critique of modern “man” or what I argue elsewhere as Foucault’s contribution to the decentering of rather than death of the human subject. Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God through a lamenting madman-prophet goes hand in hand, as Foucault saw plainly, with the death of man as the substitute for God. In other words, Foucault understood and was utterly convinced that human beings would find unbearable the weight of filling in the void left by the death of God culturally and historically speaking. Paradoxically and provocatively, one might say the divinization of humans by humans sharing the same fragile condition did not produce more exalted human beings, but human beings able and willing to engage in calculated “reasoned” projects of violence, terror, and exploitation.

How can modernity (and postmodernity) with all its scientific, economic, and medical advances produce tragedies such as the holocausts and gulags of the twenty-first century, ongoing war campaigns, chattel slavery, and publically accepted lawless spaces (Guantanamo Bay and the hypertrophic U.S. carceral system)? In the History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault provides an analytic account explaining how a new power configuration emerges—biopower and hence biopolitics—and produces the conditions for such blatant calculated thanatotic-elements within the (post)modern body politic. On Foucault’s reading, once Christian confessional technologies were translated from a sin and salvation paradigm into a scientific this-world-only paradigm, Christian pastoral power infiltrates society at large via psychiatry, schools, prisons, and medical practices.  In other words, the new shepherds are school and prison counselors, police and military interrogators, psychiatrists, and medical doctors—those with specialized “secret” knowledge enabling them to decipher the “confessions” of those under their care and to categorize them according to norms in an effort to keep the population pure, safe, and functioning at optimum levels. With the transition from the ancient and medieval monarchical model of absolute power to the modern model of biopower, power is no longer centralized around the person of the king but is distributed in a net-like fashion operating, invading, and permeating the social body far more efficiently and effectively than the previous model.

In its sovereign form, power “was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies and ultimately life itself.”[2] However, with the ushering in of modernity, or what Foucault calls the “classical age” (the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries), rather than operating chiefly through “deduction” (prélèvement) or taxation and other impositions upon and appropriations of the citizens’ wealth, goods, and labor, the new mechanisms of power in the West— while employing these “deductive” methods—constitute an altogether different power schematic. It is a “power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them.”[3] Likewise, whereas in the ancient regime, the sovereign manifested his power over life through exercising his right to kill, now in the modern regime the focus is upon the “right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life. Yet wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and […], never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations.”[4]

With these descriptions, Foucault emphasizes the dangerous side of productive power. In previous posts on Foucault I have been at pains to emphasize the positive aspects of productive power relations as manifest in pedagogical, parent/child, and other non-dominating asymmetrical relations, as well as the resistance possibilities inherent in power relations. However, Foucault’s account allows for and recognizes the other side of this new configuration of dispersed power on the body politic (which of course includes individuals). A new “power of death” expressed in the bloody wars, genocides, and holocausts of modernity

now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations. Wars are no longer waged 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. It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed.[5]

Having highlighted the death and life dialectic of the modern power configuration, Foucault discusses how mere survival rather than living well (eu zein) motivates modern war initiatives as well as their terminations. As he explains,

the power to expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence. The principle underlying the tactics of battle—that one has to be capable of killing in order to go on living—has become the principle that defines the strategy of states. But the existence in question is no longer the juridical existence of sovereignty; at stake is the biological existence of a population. If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.[6]

It is not coincidental that a biologized notion of “race,” what philosopher Ron Mallon called “biobehavioral essentialism,” arose during the nineteenth century. Each specialized discipline has its own a classificatory system giving rise to the introduction of norms or standards and their correlatives, deviations.[7] This hierarchized biologized understanding of “race” can be (and has been) used in conjunction with nationalist religious or secularized narratives to further external and internal wars and genocide campaigns, to exterminate or at least confine and control the enemy within or the enemy without.

With biopower and the asymmetrical knowledge-power relations of secularized pastoral power, we are dealing with an altogether different paradigm of self-knowledge—a paradigm in which ancient and medieval narratives of living well, care of the self, and eternal life have been translated into narratives of living healthily and as long as possible in order to be a productive, contributing worker-consumer of the globalized order. A second translation centers on purification. Whereas the Christian confessional technologies pursued ascetical practices in order to wage war on sin, modern confessional technologies are employed for the purpose of purifying and enhancing the species and thus can and do feed easily into modern “noble lies” about superior “races” which must be free of contaminating influences. In my current research, I show how narratives along these lines combined with Enlightenment and religious elements were very much at work in America’s chattel slavery system—a system aimed at producing docile disciplined bodies mainly for economic purposes, black bodies scripted as unworthy and subhuman and culminating in a new subjectivity—the American slave.


[1] See, for example, Bernauer’s discussion of Hitler constructed as a quasi-messianic figure and “fascism’s discourse of political religiosity” in his essay, “Michel Foucault’s Philosophy of Religion: an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life,” in Michel Foucault and Theology, esp. 81–2. See also, Joerg Rieger, “Empire, Religion, and Subjectivity,” in Beyond the Spirit of Empire. Rieger discusses how manifestations of a perverse logic of self-sacrifice with religious overtones are at work in the narratives surrounding US military recruitment of soldiers and in the ways that wage workers accepting this logic “proudly take on more and more work for less and less pay” while lacking basic workers’ benefits such as healthcare (40, 41).

[2] Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 136.

[3] Ibid., 136.

[4] Ibid., 136–37.

[5] Ibid., 137.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See also, Michaud’s essay, “Des modes du subjectivation aux techniques de soi,” where he discusses biopower as a normalizing power, esp. 16–18.

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