Biopolitics and biopower

The term biopolitics or biopower is defined by Foucault as,

“the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the eighteenth century, modern western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species.” (Foucault, 2007: 16)

Many believe that this regime, inaugurated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was consolidated during the 1970s (Povenelli, 2016). Prior to this, in the age of European kings, sovereign power, a very different formation of power, reigned.

Foucault contrasts three formations of power: sovereign power; disciplinary power; and biopower. All three formations of power are always co-present, although arranged and expressed differently relative to each other across social time and space.

Foucault also differentiates between technologies of discipline and technologies of security, which he defines as two distinct concatenated series (McCormack and Salmenniemi, 2016):

  • body–organism–discipline–institution; and
  • population–biological processes–regulatory mechanisms–State

Aslam (2010: 97-98) points out that “[U]nlike the disciplinary techniques that have their grid on the surface of the individual, where the individual stands in relation to a central panoptic tower whose gaze is internalized, biopolitics correspond to conditions of de-centralized sovereignty. Under these new permissive conditions of circulation and mobility, static modes of control are impossible.”

Such concepts may be useful in thinking about how power is distributed across a particular narrative environment considered as a (political) ‘space of appearance’, in Arendt’s terms.

References

Aslam, A. (2010). Building the good life: architecture and politics [PhD thesis]. Department of Political Science, Duke University. Available from http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/2993/D_Aslam_Ali_a_2010.pdf?sequence=1 [Accessed 17 April 2012].

Foucault, M. (2007). Security, territory, population. Lectures at the College de France, 1977-78. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

McCormack, D. and Salmenniemi, S. (2016). The biopolitics of precarity and the self. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 19 (1), 3–15. Available from http://ecs.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/1367549415585559 [Accessed 27 January 2016].

Povenelli, E.A. (2016). Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

edited 13 May, 2017 by Allan Parsons

Associated Practices

Related Terms

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