Rathole: Beyond the Rituals of Handwashing, e-flux, #119 – June 2021
In the spring of 2020, when the World Health Organization formally announced the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and governments began introducing new restrictions, some philosophers looked to Michel Foucault, who created tools for analyzing mass disease in relation to discourses and strategies of power. Exploring the places where power and the body intersect—in prisons, hospitals, schools, menageries, and so forth—Foucault’s political history of illness points to the continuity between diverse discursive practices that shape our experience of infection, pathology, mental illness, or sexual perversion.
In his 1978 lecture course “Security, Territory, Population,” Foucault identifies three regimes of power relating to epidemics: a regime of sovereignty based in exclusion (as in the case of leprosy); a disciplinary power that introduces quarantine restrictions (as in the case of the plague); and finally, a more recent politics of security introducing new practices such as vaccination and prophylaxis, which have been used since the eighteenth century to control, for example, smallpox. Foucault arranges these regimes chronologically, but emphasizes that they do not so much replace each other as evolve into one another, so that each subsequent regime retains elements of the previous ones.