Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

JULIAN VIGO, Terror and Somatic Control: Biopower and Security, Counterpunch, May 05, 2015

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In The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (L’histoire de la sexualité, La volonté de savoir), Michel Foucault defines biopower as the practices engaged by the modern state to effect an “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (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 the modern prison or the public policies which evolve discourses of the body and discourses of power onto the body:

[I]t is focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. (1976, 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—its 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 “Society Must Be Defended” (Il faut défendre la société):

These are the phenomena that begin to be taken into account at the end of the eighteenth century, and they result in the development of a medicine whose main function will now be public hygiene, with institutions to coordinate medical care, centralize power, and normalize knowledge. And which also takes the form of campaigns to teach hygiene and to medicalize the population (1997,217).

This 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.

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