Block Four: WHAT WAS BIOPOWER AND WHAT (IF
ANY) FORM DOES IT ASSUME TODAY? 12/5/12 12:48 AM
What does Foucault mean by bio power?
Block Four: less focused on culture and nature – than on the social and the
vital. On the one hand society on the other hand life itself/biology.
The Challenge: Conceptual Thinking
Do not take society as a given
Do not take life as a given
Think of Strathern and what she said about culture or nature
Don’t begin with anthropological certainty but rather with anthropological
curiosity à instead of presupposing that humans are social beings one could
When did the concept of society emerge?
Since When are humans seen as social beings à as beings that cannot exist
but in societies?
At what point did the assumption emerge that a major key for understanding
how people think, live, get sick is to be found in the way a society is
When was it first articulated, that a political intervention in societies would
be a major remedy to diseases?
Since when is medicine and medically relevant biology integrated into social
Politics is a time specific idea, what was politics before, what did they exist
Human Rights: only have human rights as a citizen of a country
The exact same question on could ask for life itself/biology: since when are
humans biological beings?
Michel Foucault (1926-1984)
“What difference does today make with respect to yesterday?”
This is conceptual question
Are new things happening today? New in the sense that we cannot
understand them with established concepts? Precisely because they upset
the logic, the logical coherence, that organizes our existing concepts?
Logical breakdowns Are there openings, movements, changes? What are the consequences for
how we can think and know about humans? Think of ‘society’ or ‘life itself’/
Foucault’s chair at the College de France was called – chair of the history of
systems of thought. You will note, no doubt, that the business of such a
chair is to – thinking about thinking.
We focus here on just one very small aspect of Foucault’s work – bio power.
Biopower is a marginal concept in Foucault’s published (23)
It was not taken up by others before the mid 1990s – but ever since then it
has been a major concept in anthropological studies of medicine and life
Biopower is in most of these studies taken literally – life itself has entered
This is, at best, a purely associative use of Foucault, and, often times, it gets
Foucault profoundly wrong. Take for example – life itself.
Biopower is a form of power
Biological concept of life did not exist before 1800
A focus on ruptures – on the breaking open of a new conceptual space
Only once biology – understood as an epistemic space -- emerged could
humans come into view as biological beings
A focus on Knowledge
It is not that life itself – after thousands of years – got politicized.
According to Foucault, biology is a new form of knowledge
Allows to know humans in new ways, think humans in new ways, to govern
them in new ways
Life entered politics? The politicization of the fact of living? NOPE. Not accord
Instead, life is a new concept.
The analysis takes a place at a purely conceptual level. On that level, life is
not a universal, but a historical category.
What difference does today make with respect to yesterday – conceptually
speaking. What was biopower, for Foucault?
It is a new form of power. It is a form of power that is beyond the sword,
beyond the sovereign, beyond the law, in short – it is beyond classical
The sovereign: the king à negative form of power, exercised his right to life
only by his right to kill (before biopower)
French Revolution: a new form of power emerges
“Power” was now “no longer dealing with legal subjects over whom the
ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it
would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of
life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that
gave power its access even to the body”
“A power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to
administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise control and
Emergence of population statistics, public clinic, health,
This is not a politicization of life. Instead it is the emergence of a new form
of knowledge, of a new way of thinking –which produced humans in new
ways (anthropology = anthropos + logos). This is what Foucault calls –
Beyond the sovereign/king/sword: population (society)
Society is a new actor in history.
From legal realism, to social/vital/realism – a realism that grounds in the
bloody wars between races/societies (populations).
Do you see any parallels with biopower?
In the late 18 century it is assumed that history is produced by a power
struggle that comes in the form of a war of races. à The French Revolution
Biological existence and political existence coincide à biopower
Society emerges as a vital object – which requires bio-political attention
Eugenics à degeneration à concentration camps
Final: 2 pages max, double spaced 1) Explain what thinking about thinking is.
Use a concrete example and author discussed in class
2) Explain why thinking about thinking is important for anthropology.
Foucault talks about the emerge of society, before everything was focused
on the king. Society emerged when people banned together to fight the
power of the king. Society was understood as a biological entity. Society was
made up of one blood, so therefore society is a biological reality. You are
defined as a part of society, by your blood. Unity, society, and nation did not
exist before the biological human being. The emergence of biology as a
discipline can not be reduced to this, but when it did emerge it immediately
had political consequences. Politics of the king was negative, the politics of
society wanted to foster the human, wanted them to grow.
The Breaking open of a new space: a new way of thinking emerged à
This concept – this way of thinking about humanity (as divided into
societies) or about humans (as belonging to societies) did not exist before.
Likewise, very important, the emergence of this concept of society radically
transformed what politics is all about
Before, politics was all about kings. We wage war because the king was in
danger. Once societies came about, war was raged when a whole society is
French Revolution: the emergence of the nation state
Modernity begins after the French Revolution: biopower.
Example: French Revolution
Observation 1: Before the late 18 thcentury, the term society, as we use it
today, did not exist. Societies were not known to exist, humans were not
thought of as societal (or social) beings. However, in the late 18 thcentury
people suddenly start thinking about things human – this includes politics –
in terms of society. The example Foucault gave was the way, in the late 18
century, history was though about and understood. A shift from a concern
with the King towards a concern with Society.
Observation 2: In the late 18 thcentury, and throughout must fo the 19 th
century, terms that were used as synonyms for society were race, nation,
people. When taking a closer look, Foucault notes that a key moment in the consolidation of the society concept – as a new way of thinking – was the
French Revolution. To be more precise, the race-war as which, in the 18
century, people appear to have understood it. As two different races fought
each other to form the nation state.
One society/race kills two other societies/races and says we, we alone, we
the Gaul are the people of France. We are constitutive of the French nation.
The state – the government – has henceforth only one reason to exist: to
make the Gaul flourish. Now, given that the Gaul are a society/race, on way
of making the Gaul flourish is their health.
Observation 3: 1800 is the year in which biology comes into existence. What
is more, he notes that the idea of medicine as a political technology – as a
tool for making the Gaul flourish – is emerging around 1800 as well.
Observation 4: People now start thinking of themselves, very slowly, as
biological organisms at home in a living environment, in need of hygiene.
Humans become subjects of society and biology.
A new form of power has come into existence: biopower. From the King and
the Sword to Society and Medicine/Biology.
Why Biopower is provocative?
Method: A history of the present à writing the history of the present
Writing the history of the concepts that we, today, take for granted
Foucault documents that society emerged as a concept – as a new king of
To care for society, which became the raison d’etre of modern politics, was a
bio political concern and Foucault problematized that.
How? The concern with the social has had a racial quality. Even when the
racial or biological focus was not stressed, when everything was focused on
things social – the racial was still the unarticulated grounds of any concern
What does that do to social activism?
Foucault was introducing motion – motion into a conceptual field.
How to liberate thinking from the social? The need to defend thinking against
Thinking about thinking is political and social. Instead of undermining our
concepts, he looks into the past.
How to be a social scientist without being a racist? Does one want to really hold on to the concept of society? Does one want to
use it as a category of thought, as a methodological tool, as an analytical
term? à Global humanity? Society splits people up.
Anthropology of Modernity à anthropology of reason à anthropology of the
Free of any philosophy of history à linear time line
History of the present à anthropology of the contemporary
Writing the history of the contemporary, is Foucault’s history breaking open?
Are new things happening today? Is something mutating or exploding our
Focused on the here and now.
Foucault was focused on the history of now, based on the past.
Artificiality and Enlightenment: This text introduced the concept of bio power