Biopower and Security

[Presented at the conference “La biopolitique outre atlantique après Foucault”, 77ème congrès de l’ACFAS, l’Université d’Ottawa]

In L’histoire de la sexualité, La volonté de savoir, Michel Foucault defines biopower as the practices engaged by the modern state to effect an “explosion, donc, de techniques diverses et nombreuses pour obtenir l’assujettissement des corps et le contrôle des populations” (p. 184).   Developing his notion of biopower through the many exegeses of disciplinary power he studies throughout his career, Foucault focuses his interpretations of  biopower on various styles of governments which have historically devised myriad controls of the body — be it in the areas of public health creation and regulation, heath crises and quarantine, military education, the creation of the mental hospital, the structure of modern the prison or the public policies which evolve discourses of the body and onto the body:

[Il] est centré sur le corps-espèce, sur le corps traversé par la mécanique du vivant et  servant de support aux processus biologiques : la prolifération, les naissances et la mortalité, le niveau de santé, la durée de la vie, la longévité avec toutes les conditions qui  peuvent les faire varier; leur prise en charge s’opère par toute une série d’interventions  et de contrôles régulateurs : une bio-politique de la population (1976, p. 183).

Foucault suggests that the somatic, the individual body, is controlled as a means to dominating the general population.  Maintaining that biopolitics were developed in the second half of the 18th century and were centered entirely on the body—it’s health, mortality and continuance—Foucault details this newly born power which has not replaced disciplinary power, but that was instead simply grafted onto disciplinary power, as he writes in Il faut défendre la société :

Ce sont ces phénomènes-là que l’on commence à prendre en compte à la fin du  XVIIIe siècle et qui amènent la mise en place d’une médecine qui va avoir, maintenant,  la fonction majeure de l’hygiène publique, avec des organismes de coordination des  soins médicaux, de centralisation de l’information, de normalisation du savoir, et qui prend aussi l’allure d’une campagne d’apprentissage de l’hygiène et de médicalisation  de la population (1997, p. 217).

This is the distinction between biopower and disciplinary power is imperative to understand in moving forward through his various readings of power: Foucault reads disciplinary power as that which focusses upon people as individuals—subjects to train, teach, punish, surveil and utilize—whereas bio-power focuses on individuals as people—as a “species” to conglomerate, regulate, characterize, and ultimately forecast.  Where disciplinary power focuses on particular individuals, Foucault sees biopower as that which focuses upon an extrapolated individual who can be serialized to the point of being interchangeable, repeatable and disappearable.

How does biopower function pragmatically and historically then? In an effort to bring Foucault to the everyday, which I strongly believe is a moral imperative inherent within his writings and life practices, I will mention briefly how biopower has manifested itself in recent history. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities outlines how in colonial Asia was literally amassed through the census: health programs which were established to regulate the population as a mass; the installation prenatal programs to influence birth rates; creation of the census to know the colonial population, and so forth.  One of the effects of the British colonial census in Malaysia, for instance, was that the categories became more overtly and “exclusively racial” while religious identity was disappeared after the between the census of 1871 and 1901 while nationalities became “pseudoethnic subcategories”, such as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and so forth (pp. 164-165).  Anderson notes the reifying violences of bio-power in the colonizer’s will to homogenize identity:

These “identities”, imagined by the (confusedly) classifying mind of the colonial state, still awaited a reification which imperial administrative penetration would soon make possible. One notices in addition, the census makers’ passion for completeness and unambiguity.    Hence their intolerance of multiple, politically “transvestite,” blurred, or changing identifications. Hence the weird subcategory, under each racial group, of  “Others”—who, nonetheless, are absolutely not to be confused with other “Others”.  The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one—and only one—extremely clear place. No fractions (pp. 165-166).

Similarly, these mechanisms of governmentality were deployed in the 19th and 20th centuries by imperialists in many African nation from the creation of the census, health programs, maps, to the “preservation” of the “African past” through the building of museums.  Indeed, we see this kind of polemic cast upon the people who are inserted and removed from discourses of nationhood in Canada whereby people paradoxically called “First Nations”, the Inuit and Métis are conveniently inserted or made invisible within the greater playing field biopolitics such as the special dates when independence and nationhood are “celebrated” — be it Canada Day or La Fête “nationale” du Québec — en masse as a means of consolidating identity while conterminously eliding those voices and bodies which challenge these various, and quite fictional constructions of nationhood which are replete with historical ellipses and devoid of any autochthonous presence or history.

Though Foucault did not dedicate much time to studies of Empire, discourses of nationalism and the body, his writing nonetheless laid the groundwork for studies of biopower in these contexts.  For instance,  the “testing” zones of various systems of organization were to be found in the colonies in the 19th and early 20th centuries  as “French modernity” was displaced upon colonized bodies, architectural spaces and urban sites of modernity as discussed in Paul Rabinow’s French Modern; or the relationship between colonizer and colonized which “was fundamental to the colonial order of things” such that sexuality and race are not separable, nor are theoretical and historical insights to sexuality and the body as detailed in Ann Stoler’s Race and the Education of Desire (p. 4); and of course the techno-politics of the modern state created by the interactions of sugar cane, malaria and discourses of nationalism  in Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts. The epistemology and practices of biopower have retained their traces throughout the twentieth century through the present day and the violences of biopower cannot be overstated either domestically or abroad.

One of the most commonplaces manifestations of biopower from the latter half of the twentieth century through the present day is the production of virtual appearances and disappearances on the contemporary object of power—life and the body.  Biopower, in its colonial and neocolonial exercises, has focussed upon the corporeal and the collective masses, bodies as populations, rendering the somatic visible or invisible depending upon the political circumstances or logistical feat.  For instance biopower can be manifested through seemingly innocuous acts such as the commonplace practice for media to underreport numbers at political demonstrations or to render the visible bodies participating in such demonstrations as “misbehaving,” coding these bodies as dangerous, marginalizing these people from a possible legitimation within more centralized political discourses and praxis.   Where Foucault sees biopower as a technology of control, the exercise of various techniques (and technologies) of authority onto the body, Negri and Hardt see biopower as that which implies resistance, that which “threatens us with death but also rules over life, producing and reproducing all aspects of society” (2004, p. 94) within “immaterial goods” such as knowledge and relationships:

Biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it—every individual embraces and reactivates this power of his or her own accord. Its primary task is to administer life. Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself (2000, 24).

Hardt and Negri view a direct link between global capital and biopower which creates wealth and power for a few while individual control of the body is lost.  Ultimately for Hardt and Negri biopower is the biological life and labor of the body, produced by the body, as exercised by the citizenry through  manual labour and affective exercises (emotional, family, community).  What I find essential in Hardt’s and Negri’s approach is their inclusion of “work” and “production” as factors in the quotidian practices of biopower, whereas for Foucault the somatic is immediate, always present and is often a product of biopower and the institutions that oversee its exercise.

I would suggest that both definitions of biopower are correct inasmuch as Negri and Hardt emphasize the productive value of the biological, emitted from the body outward, and Foucault stresses the institution as ontology in his many analyses of systems of power that effect the somatic: from the welfare state to Fordist controls of the body.  It is this conterminous effective and affective body that contributes to biopower today such as the sequencing of the Human Genome and recombinant genetics,  the pharmaceutical industry which has turned the female body into a laboratory for Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the male body into one continual and necessary erection, or biometrics which is quickly becoming a procedure that is adopted across governments and private industry.  Foucault cites this control of biopolitics in  « Les mailles du pouvoir »:

La vie est devenue maintenant, à partir du XVIIIe siècle, un objet du pouvoir. La vie et le corps. Jadis, il n’y avait que des sujets, des sujets juridiques dont on pouvait retirer les biens, la vie aussi, d’ailleurs. Maintenant, il y a des corps et des populations. Le pouvoir est devenu matérialiste. Il cesse d’être essentiellement juridique. Il doit traiter avec des choses réelles qui sont le corps, la vie. La vie entre dans le domaine du pouvoir (2001, p. 1013).

Foucault views biopower quite differently than the classical vision of sovereignty in which juridical forms of power dominate — biopower is not a version of juridical power, though it is often based upon law or laws are made to reflect its force.  Instead, biopower is a set of practices that politicize life by rendering life an object of science and of political intervention whereby power is exercised onto her body carrying a specifically anatomical and biological effect.   To this extent, Foucault views biopower as the knowledge that can impact the species through organization and modification such that life can be conceived as both inside and outside human history.  Ultimately Foucault opposes biopower to law in L’histoire de la sexualité and “Il faut défendre la sociéte” since he sees that life, not law, is the central issue of all political struggle even if legal domain might seem to dominate: that the rights to happiness, freedom and so forth all derive from the body and not the juridical structures of sovereignty.  Most interesting, however, is that for Foucault biopower continues to produce all forces that resist it, which in turn only extend its reach, like the function of subversion for Butler, biopower is self-producing and self-contesting.

Yet from the late 1970’s through the end of his life, beginning with Naissance de la bioplitique, Foucault makes another shift in his evaluation of power and in his strategic analysis of security through governmentality, specifically his critique of the liberal government and its power over life.  Foucault views liberal governmentality as that which is not only measured (in order to test its effectiveness), but as that which engages the fiction of “nature” in order to mould its governmental practices in seeking out the emergent processes that it set out to govern:

Peu importe que ce droit soit légitime ou pas, le problème est de savoir quels effets il a et si ces effets sont négatifs.  C’est à ce moment-là que l’on dira que l’impôt en question est illégitime ou, en tout cas, qu’il n’a pas de rais d’être.  Mais c’est toujours à l’intérieur même de ce champ de la pratique gouvernementale et en fonction de ses effets, non en fonction de ce qui pourrait la fonder en droit… (17).

Essentially Foucault reflects upon how the government can or cannot be effective in terms of understanding the natural processes that it seeks to govern.  And this texts emphasis on what is natural since Foucault recognizes that “nature” itself can be be manipulated by governmental practices putting into question this “naturality” that even political power can and does violate:  “Qu’est-ce qui va faire qu’un gouvernement va bousculer, en dépit même de ses objectifs, la naturalité propre aux objets qu’il manipule et aux opérations qu’il fait?” (19).  Indeed there seems to be a schism between what is “nature” and what is “governable” as if one cannot govern or affect the other, as if both must remain intractable.  It is here where see the birth and the force of biopolitics as one cannot be reconciled in terms of the other and retain their relative separation to the other posing future questions of how juridical power might and can effect change in nature and how nature can affect juridical discourse.

And we see this type of contestation as Foucault attacks liberalism since its “jurisdiction” necessarily encroaches upon the “nature” of individual freedoms:  “C’est-à-dire que le libéralisme, l’art libérale de gouverner, va se trouver contraint de déterminer exactement dans quelle mesure et jusqu’à quel point l’intérêt individuel, les différents intérêts, individuels dans ce qu’ils ont de divergent les uns des autres, éventuellement d’opposé, ne vont pas constituer un danger pour l’intérêt de tous» (p. 67).  Foucault continues to maintain, however, that liberalism’s danger is not so much univocally poised against the individual or the collective, but rather that liberalism must first and foremost respond to the “security strategies” that actually go against the very condition of liberalism itself:

La liberté et la sécurité, le jeu liberté et sécurité, c’est cela qui est au coeur même de cette nouvelle raison gouvernementale dont je vous donnais les caractères généraux.  Liberté et sécurité, c’est cela qui va animer de l’intérieur, en quelque sorte, les problèmes de ce que j’appellerai l’économie de pouvoir propre au libéralisme (p. 67).

When individual will endangers mass markets or private enterprise, where factories must not pose dangers to its workers, the economy of power to which Foucault here refers, marks this juncture where the states right/obligation to “protect” threatens the freedoms of the individual.  What is “natural” to this social order, once threatened, can unleash a series of arbitrations that actually provoke a confrontation between juridical power and biopower.

Certainly there are many instances when we see the absence of the juridic agencies and where power effects the body directly.  Yet, there are so many instances today whereby we are not seeing a gradual dissolution of the role of the state, the institution, in the continuance of biopower, and instead we are seeing an increased interest in the production of biopower through the role of the state and private institutions often stepping in for the state.  We see many historical instances where biopower is attempts to normalize or order as mentioned early and in recent years: Halliburton’s contractualization of war-torn Iraq to bring back “order”, the USA’s use of mercenaries in Iraq basically surrogating war through the security firm Blackwater, Bechtel’s unsuccessful attempt to dispossess Bolivians of their water resources in the late 1990’s, right to die cases from the USA, to Switzerland, to Italy, and the long distance, video game-like manner of fighting “wars” through computers, drone and the more recent trend of subletting war through local, darker skinned bodies.  And at other times, biopower rests entirely within the realm of the legal as the disappeared body is absent and its past presence or its present absence can only be attested by the very legal frameworks of documents, testimonies and recorded data.  What we notice more and more in recent years is that in the name of security, nothing is sacred, not even life.

Foucault makes reference to this intersection of law and life detailed in Il faut défendre la société wherein he distinguishes the “règle juridique dérivée de la souveraineté” from “la règle naturelle”.  For Foucault the idea of emancipation is displaced by another ideal of preserving sovereignty wherein juridical laws are replaced by those of medical normalization for the good functioning of a “society of normalization” (34-36).  And later in the 1980’s he maintains this dichotomization between individual will and the good of society society as we also see in his article «Qu’est-ce que les Lumières» wherein Foucault summons the reader to dispense with the antediluvian dichotomies of domination and emancipation in favor of a subject who can function despite her limits simply because “historical ontology” enables the subject to constitute herself, to question herself, and ultimately to change:

[L]’ontologie historique de nous-mêmes a à répondre à une série ouverte de questions,  elle a affaire à un nombre non défini d’enquêtes qu’on peut multiplier et préciser  autant qu’on voudra; mais elles répondront toutes à la systématisation suivante:  comment nous sommes-nous constitués comme sujets de notre savoir; comment nous  sommes-nous constitués comme sujets qui exercent ou subissent des relations de  pouvoir; comment nous sommes-nous constitués comme sujets moraux de nos  actions (p. 576).

Reading Foucault’s conceptualization of the individual responsible to herself requires the subject to adopt a posture of active engagement rather than one passivity or of objectification in order to understand how “we constitute ourselves”, lending the active voice to traditionally passive manoeuvres in addressing power.

So what is the limit between the individual’s freedom and the security of the people in an age when the body is produced by the techniques of power and likewise when the body produces these very techniques?  Foucault continues this distinction between these two interests:

Quel va être alors le principe de calcul de ce coût de la fabrication de la liberté? Le principe de calcul, c’est bien entendu ce qu’on appelle la sécurité.  C’est-à-dire que le libéralisme, l’art libéral de gouverner, va se trouver contraint de déterminer exactement dans quelle mesure et jusqu’à quel point l’intérêt individuel, les différents intérêts, individuels dans ce qu’ils ont de divergent les uns des autres, éventuellement d’opposé, ne vont pas constituer un danger pour l’intérêt de tous (2004, 65-66).

In effect since the turn of this century international political economies have focused upon questions of security, especially in the wake of September 11, 2001.  More directly, the body has become the immediate focus being targeted by the liberal juridical powers in the United States among many countries in attempting to, as their political rhetoric states “target terror”.  In proclaiming a war against terror, the US government has created, more overtly than any other government — although many governments do participate in this “war on terror”, most do not declare their cooperation as such — a tactical agenda completely in line with Foucault’s notion of “dispositifs sécuritaires” and biopower in that the body is the tactical line of evidence and division as well the conterminous object of biopolitics and subject of her own atonement or redemption.  The security strategies in the “war on terror” hold the subject hostage because her body, once private, is rendered public and her security “threat” is scrutinized against itself and the juridic discourses which render it either more innocent or more guilty.  Inevitably, the body is this space of dédoublement wherein it is inscribed with from the inside and from without the signs of race, citizenship and ethnicity.  Distinguishing fictions or truths to include those of race or citizenship, for instance, do not concern the systems of biopower.  Rather biopower effects a recreation of the recreate truth, albeit temporal, that generally suit the political climate of the moment.  Is it so surprising then that the nude body of John Walker Lindh, also known as “The American Taliban”, was dissected in the media and the center of a terror-vivisection to prove that terror can even come from within, from a nice “all American” looking boy from California?  Is it even in the least shocking that John Walker Lindh did not take part in terrorist activities as he remains locked up in an Indiana prison for another thirteen years while the government which actually did aid the Taliban (the United States) to the tune of at least $43 million has remained conspicuously uninvestigated?  Indeed this war on terror is in fact not at all on terror but on  the fictions of perceived terrorists.  By disembodying and de-personifying the war through language while creating an ostensible enemy that is inanimate—the Muslim subject as evil— biopower functions through an insertion into the somatic and behavioural typologies set up through the discourses of terror.  Hence, the “dispositifs sécuritaires”.


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio.  Homo sacer.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.  (Revised Edition)  London: Verso, 2006.

Foucault, Michel.  Naissance de la biopolitique. Paris, Gallimard, Seuil, 2004

Foucault, Michel. « Il faut défendre la société ». Cours au Collège de France, 1973-1974. Paris: Hautes  Etudes;Gallimard;Seuil; 1997.

Foucault, Michel. « Les mailles du pouvoir ». Dits et Écrits II.  Paris: Gallimard, 2001.

Foucault, Michel. «Qu’est-ce que les Lumières». Dits et écrits, Vol IV. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. La volonté de savoir. Histoire de la sexualité, 1. Paris: Gallimard; 1976.

Hardt, Michael et Toni Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hardt, Michael et Toni Negri. Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Negri, Toni. « Negri on Foucault”.  9 October, 2004.

Stoler, Ann.  Race and the Education of Desire:  Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.