Biopolitics and the Sign of Biology

Biopolitics’ last domain is, finally — I am enumerating the main // ones, or at least those that appeared in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; many others would appear later — control over relations between the human race, or human beings insofar as they are a species, insofar as they are living beings, and their environment, the milieu in which they live. […]

I am simply pointing out some of biopolitics’ starting points, some of its practices, and the first of its domains of intervention, knowledge, and power: biopolitics will derive its knowledge from, and define its power’s field of intervention in terms of, the birth rate, the mortality rate, various biological disabilities, and the effects of the environment. […]

Disciplines, for their part, dealt with individuals and their bodies in practical terms. What we are dealing with in this new technology of power is not exactly society (or at least not the social body, as defined by the jurists, nor is it the individual-as-body. It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted. Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem. And I think that biopolitics emerges at this time. […]

You can see that [the nature of phenomena taken into consideration] are // collective phenomena which have their economic and political effects, and that they become pertinent only at the mass level. They are phe­nomena that are aleatory and unpredictable when taken in themselves or individually, but which, at the collective level, display constants that are easy, or at least possible, to establish. And they are, finally, phenomena that occur over a period of time, which have to be studied over a certain period of time; they are serial phenomena. The phe­nomena addressed by biopolitics are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a population that exists over a period of time.

— Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, pgs 244-246. [// = page break] 

Deleuze asserts in his book on Foucault that Foucault used history so as to think philosophically. If this is so, then, at the very minimum, every time history was used to think philosphically a slight modification would have to be wrought upon history so it would not be literal or the ‘brute facticity’ of the situation (as Foucault once described it). So why is it, in every thing I have read on biopolitics from mainly Anglo authors, they take Foucault literally when he is discussing biopolitics in the middle section of the above quote from Society Must Be Defended? He signals that he is only introducing the domains — ‘the starting points’ – in the early part of the above, and then in the final paragraph gives a general definition in terms of the general phenomena that he suggests concerns biopolitics.

Health, medicine, race, and biology are not the only, the most common, or even the most relevant domains of biopower and therefore biopolitics in contemporary society. To focus on those domains that explicitly deal with allegedly biological concerns in terms of Biology is akin to reading ‘disciplinarity’ only in terms of Criminology. (Is it because Biology has greater credence as a science than Criminology?) I could use much stronger language because it is clear these people are not stupid and yet they write such repetitive nonsense. So far it seems as if most researchers have mistaken Biopolitics as the politics derived from all that that comes under the sign of Biology (rather than focusing on the issue of the governance of the life of populations).

Have they not seen Super Size Me? I want to use it as an example. Is biopolitics only that which happens when Morgan Spurlock visits the doctor? Or what happens when the consumption of McDonalds modifies Spurlock’s body and his life? No, none of this is biopolitics, however the film allows for a certain biopolitcal understanding of the consumption of McDonald’s burgers. The mass of McDonalds consumers is a ‘population’. The act of repetitive consumption of McDonald’s itself is an act of biopower that reconfigures the consuming body so it is addicted (in terms of what Guattari called ‘machinic dope’). Isn’t the myriad calculations by McDonald’s so as to produce a given market anbd poulation of consumers a biopolitical act? This population is in part constituted by the images of advertising. Capitalist eros and the pornographic seriality of the capitalist image are therefore biopolitical problems. Lastly, subjectivities are produced that involve collective modes of sociality within which the perception circulates that “It’s ok to consume Macca’s”. What has this got to do with ‘health science’ or some shit? Nothing!

Forget biology.

I am trying to conceive of the biopolitics of markets in terms of the affective capture and modulation of populations. I need a political economy of biopower in niche-mediated consumer economies for my thesis. The media’s role is to anchor certain populations so they can be exploited by advertising — be it commercial or political — and then organised into action or exchange.

10 thoughts on “Biopolitics and the Sign of Biology”

  1. Three reasons immediately come to mind:

    (1) The pace of translation of Foucault’s works into English was spotty and slow at best – major works were translated rather quickly, but what we’re seeing is that the ostensible “lack of citation” (so to speak) in the “official” works was largely supplement by the College de France lectures. The introduction of these lectures into English was quite slow and limited to a small sub-set of the totality of the lectures. For the most part, the only lectures that made into wide circulation in English were the first two lectures from ‘Society Must be Defended’ published as “Two Lectures” in Power/Knowledge and the second lecture from “Security, Territory, Population” published as “Governmentality” in Ideology & Consciousness in the early eighties and reprinted in The Foucault Effect in 1991.

    This resulted in a rather strange interpretation of Foucault – with respect to governmentality, Nik Rose’s gang sticks out and with respect to the “analytic of power,” Mark Neocleous’ articles on Foucault stick out. The problem is further compounded by the introduction of Italian works into English that heavily drew on Foucault’s lectures, which had long circulated in Italy – Agamben, Negri, Virno stick out here.

    (2) Further compounding the problem was that the “Italian interpretation” largely “metaphysicalized” Foucault’s comments on biopower and sovereignty and significantly reworked the concepts. And, whatever he is, Nik Rose isn’t a particularly talented theorist. By that I mean he doesn’t write theoretically and he doesn’t think theoretically and, yet, his interpretation of Foucault rapidly became the dominant interpretation of Foucault in the English language social sciences. (Compare the version of Foucault in English language scholars who are also fluent and widely read in French compared to, say, the average work from the governmentality school.)

    (3) The “toolbox” and the “provisional” tone Foucault adopted led to sloppiness on the part of people “using” him. They really did make whatever they wanted of his work – and he, in their understanding, endorsed it! The average “Foucauldian” paper is standard Anglo-American abstracted empiricism without the Parsonian vocabulary.

    I’m writing a short essay on SMDB and HSI right now and will post it later – hopefully this week.

  2. Craig,

    Thanks for this. It makes a lot more sense couched in the sort of context you outline, especially regarding the dates of translation/publication.

    My target was a relatively recent special issue of a respected online journal. (Well, respected by me anyway.) Only a couple of essays do not derive biopolitics from the simplistic biology + power = biopolitics equation of the middle section of the above quote. Although Foucault does use some weird schema of ‘power’ and ‘force’ in one of the earlier lectures. I have yet to get a grip on what he is talking about. Apparently the people have ‘force’ but the sovereign has ‘power’ (but no ‘force’). It is weird in the sense that he is talking about a form of ‘power’ that is not capillary like disciplinary power (or ‘force’ in this schema). I think ‘force’ might correlate with ‘biopower’ but I am not sure.

    Yeah, it sucks not being able to read French. I try to read everything available (eventually!!), and there is at least enough out there now for people to get a feel for Foucault’s work and be skeptical of what is currently being written. What gets my goat are all the edited collections coming out that have “Foucault and [so and so]” titles. I picked one up at work last night and it was terrible. There was no imagination. Maybe the others are better.

    The classic example of getting it completely wrong is anything that mentions the human genome project. Eventually this may have biopolitical ramifications, but in itself, there is nothing ‘biopolitical’ about it. Looking at the health plan the scientists were on or the form of sanitation and the types of supermarkets to which they had access when they were doing the research involve questions that are more biopolitical.

    I am now extremely hesitant to use any of this in my diss without reading the ‘population’ lectures. I have read a paper from Massumi and one by someone else (I think of the governmentality school, well it was published in their journal) and they provide two different readings!?!? I trust Massumi’s reading much more, but I am not sure, because I haven’t read the bloody lectures… Similarly I trust the Italians’ readings much more, given that their intentions — what they want to do ‘with’ Foucault — is relatively explicit compared to the anglophones who only seem to ‘do’ Foucault with no ‘with’. I didn’t know that the lectures had been translated into Italian years ago. That explains a lot.

  3. On population, I can’t more strongly recommend Bruce Curtis’ work, especially his last book, The Politics of Population (about the census in Canada, but the actual empirical context doesn’t present significant troubles), and his essay in The Canadian Journal of Sociology, “The Impossible Discovery,” which more or less says that Foucault’s concept of population is incoherent. Do note, however, that Bruce is a “foucauldian”! And, as you know, Brett Neilson is doing work on population and demography/census. (Bruce also attacked Rose and Miller on state and power in The British Journal of Sociology.) I’ve likely revealed my bias, but I wouldn’t trust Rose’s work on “life itself” that much. People who know more about the science than I tell me that he doesn’t get the science right – these are people who do the history of medicine and health from a “foucauldian” perspective. I haven’t seen much of the book yet – and I’m not sure if it has made it to the bookstores yet – but Lorna Weir’s new book on the government of pregnancy is worth reading.

    I’ll send you my essay when I finish writing it – it is essentially about force and sovereignty. (If you’re looking for a comparison from Deleuze on force, you wouldn’t be wrong to look at Nietzsche and Philosophy.) This aspect of his argument is unappreciated. I’d like to think I’m the only one who gets it! There are distinctions that need to be made that Foucault wasn’t entirely clear about. On the one hand, force is used in a mechanical sense as in two objects in motion hit one another: what happens? (This is the sense of “force” in the sections on “analytic of power relations” in the “method” chapter of HSI.) And, on the other hand, force is used as the opposite of law and Foucault is too quick to associate law with sovereignty. (This is the sense of force used in SMBD.) When he says that force and sovereignty are different, he’s more or less saying that the power of sovereignty is the power to make law and that force is the violence that cannot be captured by law.

    The essay will be a few more days coming – I’m only about 3000 words in…

  4. In my reading of it a few years ago I argued that the federal government’s advertising asking people to report suspicious (‘terrorist’) activity was a kind of biopolitical project. Perhaps I was wrong about that particular usage, but it seems self-evident that biopolitics/biopower shouldn’t be confused with the biological.

  5. Would the misunderstanding of Foucault by Anglo philosophers be related to the fact that most US universities are Analytically inclined, ignoring (or perhaps contesting, invalidating?) Continental Philosophy? It is understandable if non-experts misunderstand Biopolitics as Biology, but the philosophers the academia considers great? I have the same frustration with Dreyfus and Rabinow’s Michel Foucault book which I thought misunderstood some of the most important stuff about Foucault.

  6. Hi loryanzo!

    I don’t know enough about US universities to intelligently comment, plus I have very little to do with actual philosophy departments. (I am some sort of nerd, granted, but I find it hard to engage with people who only have ‘paranoid’ readings of key texts and authors.)

    However, this sort of thing reminds me of something that Deleuze said in an interview (or short essay in one of the interview books) about the difference between having something to say and saying somehting because you have to. I often feel when reading work that people get so excited about particular authors and the absolute brilliance of their thought that they feel like they have to say something even if it is of little relevance. I know I am like that sometimes. It is not because I am stupid, although I have my own stupidiities, but because I get so excited about something. This affective dimension to scholarly writing should probably also be included alongside structural issues and translation issues.

    One moment i remember was when I read in ATP about the ‘furore and celerity of the war machine’ and I was like ‘holy shit!’. furore and celerity = fury and speed = the fast and the furious. that sent me on a D&G tangent with my dissertation writing that lasted about a year. lol! that literal reading was stupid, it certainly works, but it was still stupid.


    Getting people to habitualise and performatively deploy a calculus of perception (‘alert but not alarmed’) that requires them to take into account some sort of risk that accounts for (or ignores) their wellbeing is precisely the sort of thing as derived from Foucault that I think is biopolitical. The biopower of a population which can be affectively attuned by this shared calculus is used not to counter-terrorist ends, but as a political means for the production of heterogeneous populations with collectively attuned subjectivities.

    However, I think this rock was dropped years ago to produce the big ripples in a pond, and what we are seeing now are the much more complex interactions between the little waves as they bounce around the pond. Sometimes they build up and other times they cancel out.

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