What is Biopower a concept developed by Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault coined the concept of biopolitics, or biopower , in the last section of the first volume of his History of sexuality, 1976. In this section, called “the right to death or power over life”, he explains how in the last two centuries a step in the way States exercise power: before power was based on the sovereign’s ability to kill, now it is based on the ability to manage life.

It is therefore a power that not only threatens to despoil property and ultimately life, but also to control life , to make it grow, organize and optimize.

Biopolitics according to Foucault

The ancient form of power had in the afterlife, in death, a metaphysical justification for its terrestrial power. Biopower has its limit in death.

This is shown, for example, in totalitarian regimes , which mobilize entire populations to make war with the pretext of preserving the life of the group, whereas before people went to war, they did so to maintain the political power of the lord or the people. sovereign

The two forms of biopower

For Foucault, several advances in technology that culminated shortly before the French Revolution made it possible to extend and improve life while controlling it better. Thus, biopower began to be exercised in two different but interconnected ways: corporal disciplines and population control.

Corporal Disciplines

Body disciplines emerge in the mid-17th century and focus on making a strong individual body understood as a machine. It is exercised by institutions such as education or the army, but also anatomy. They are systems responsible for shaping the individual to integrate him into society and make him a useful element.

Thus, the educational system, for example, in addition to transmitting a series of knowledge, is responsible for generating a series of habits and bodily attitudes, in the same way as the army.

Population Controls

In the middle of the 18th century, population controls appeared. Whereas bodily disciplines focus on the individual, population controls focus on the species. Bodies are studied as supports for collective biological processes. These are disciplines such as statistics and previously unknown problems of birth control, mortality, longevity, or population health. We see how these are ways of exercising power that do not seek death but manage life.

Thus, it goes from conceiving the governed as subjects of the right to conceiving them as living beings . This has the consequence that, while the old form of power considers human existence as legal, biopower considers it as biological. Thus, power is no longer based solely on law . While the law still exists, this is yet another element in a network of institutions (the family, the educational system, the army, medicine, etc.) that seek to govern by regulating what is normal and adapting to it for all individuals. of society.

Biopower also becomes a new structure for science, which under this new paradigm is constructed as part of the structure of institutions that wield biopower.

Opposition to power

Given this, the opposition to power is based, according to Foucault, on the same biopolitical conception, since this opposition requires the possibility of living a full life, something previously unthinkable. Thus, the ideology of biopower still achieves resistance to power .

Our very conception of sex would be biopolitical. It is precisely sex, the nameless sphere, which seems free from all political interference, where biopower manifests itself in an implacable way.

Thus, common sexual practices, but also scientific conceptions about sex, would be a way of sustaining the status quo power balances through sexual practice. We see here how, for Foucault, systems of knowledge generate what they try to describe, so that, in their essence, they are mechanisms of power.

Biopower after Foucault

Biopolitics became, after Foucault, an entire academic discipline in areas such as political philosophy , philosophy of nature, sociology or political science.

Indeed, the critical framework created by Foucault has become increasingly useful as technology increasingly penetrates biological structures to modify them, molecularly and anthropologically, with the emergence of cyborgs and transhumanism , generating a multitude of ethical and political problems. On the other hand, the transgression of the boundary between technology and nature is central to issues such as climate change.

Today, specialists can be divided into two groups. On the one hand, there are those who believe that every biological notion and every conception of nature are examples of biopower, so that all politics would be within the framework of biopolitics. Thus, there would be no nature to protect, but biopolitics to modify.

On the other hand, there would be those who believed in a kind of positive biopolitics . Following an observation by Foucault himself in The History of Sexuality, this group believes that there is always something in nature that escapes biopower, for example, in the most irrational and intimate vital impulses of human beings, or in the element of randomness present in the functioning of nature, that would occasionally escape the mechanisms of biopolitical control. For this group, the objective is to keep the biopower of nature away from denouncing biopolitical excesses.

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