Foucault on Biopower

Throughout Foucault’s axiomatics, the interplay between power and sexuality is examined in relationship to the discourse surrounding sex and pleasure. He argues that by putting sexuality into discourse first through confession and then by scientific inquiry, sexuality then becomes a modus operandi for the judgment of authoritative powers. In part five of the text, “Right of Death and Power Over Life,” Foucault extends his axiom regarding sex and power to rulers’ (and he includes modern governments to this category) ability to control death and life. Thus, what we may consider an individual’s biological “right to life” is in fact a misnomer when we consider the political sphere in which all of us are contained.
That is, the sovereign possesses the power to either inflict death on an offender within the territorial domain OR to cause death to multitudes of people outside of that territorial domain (as in the case of war) to maintain life. Foucault notes that prior to the modern age (which he seems to classify as beginning in the nineteenth century), patriarchal authority figures exercised power more by what he calls “deduction”: “The sovereign exercised his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing; he evidenced his power over life only through the death he was capable of requiring” (136). He further contends that a shift occurred regarding the ruler’s emphasis on deduction (“taking away” life) in favor or the West’s shift to “a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them” (136). How, then, in this context have “massacres…become vital” (137)? Foucault asserts that these full-scale, technology based slaughters are waged for the purpose of preserving life, a paradox that is striking to both the author its reader.
As soon as I began wondering why Foucault included this examination of the power to impose death in a history of sexuality, he began to implicitly and then explicitly address the connection. In previous sections he argues that sexuality is the secret that must both be kept secret while obsessively be brought into discourse. In turn, discourses regarding death follow a similar pattern. For example, when discussing capital punishment, he states that “One had the right ot kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (138). This statement clarifies the argument that death occurs to preserve life, in theory. Concomitantly, though, we can equate the observation to sexuality also, for sexual behaviors existing outside the sphere of acceptable behavior, perhaps labeled perversions or even crimes, could also be viewed as a potential threat to life.
Even more noteworthy is the contention that “death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, the most ‘private’” because it is in actuality the moment that power actually loses its dominance: “Now it is over life, through its unfolding, that power establishes its domination; death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it” (138). Suicide, then, becomes an act of defiance of the power structure, for the individual assuming the role of death giver, or rather life taker, is laid in the hands of the individual. Power establishments hold life as the trump card for control. If the body in power’s grasp takes hold of this power, he or she is in a private realm beyond power-surveillance.
Foucault ends this section by getting to his central point: biopolitics. He asserts that in the seventeenth century, the scientific examination of the body assumed two forms not in contrast with each other: First, the body as machine which the power structure labeled as “disciplines” and the “anatomo-politics of the human body,” which he categorizes as a vehicle for “capability” and “extortion” and second, 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 causes these to vary” (139). Admittedly, at first I was confused about these definitions as Foucault labeled them, not seeing the differences between these definitions. Both categories seemed to define the power structure’s exploitation of the human body for political ends. Then, I realized that Foucault differentiates the body used individually for its particular capacities (linked to anatomy) to its collective processes (linked to biology) “setting up, in the course of the classical age, of this great bipolar technology….directed toward the performances of the body, with attention to the processes of life—[and] characterized a power whose highest function was perhaps no longer to kill, but to invest life through and through” (139). Thus, Foucault returns to his previous arguments that as the modern age progressed, power’s ability to wield death as the trump card was replaced by the manipulation of sustaining and protecting life as its apparatus. People fear death, but they don’t want to talk about it. They want to keep life. They want to labor under the illusion that they can control it, hold it like a commodity. In turn, the power structure uses this wish to sustain life as its literal commodity as capitalism advances and bodies are then used to advance the superstructure.
He concludes with a return to sexuality. Certainly, one cannot discuss the power structure’s aim to control life without acknowledging sex as the vehicle for life. He notes that power “spoke of sexuality and to sexuality; the latter was not a mark or a symbol, it was an object and a target” (147). Sexuality’s ubiquity and the fact that “it was everywhere an object of excitement and fear at the same time” (148) incited the discourse of the nineteenth century which Foucualt first analyzed in part one. This “analytics of sexuality” (148) demonstrates the power structure’s ultimate attempt to control human behavior and even life itself. Although Foucault points to the apparent focus on an individual’s right to life, this is but an illusion. Through sexuality, he contends, we gain full access to our body’s capabilities, and indeed our very identity (156). It is no surprise that those in power would want to subsume that power and harness it for its own ends.
Questions to Examine:
Why is religion not brought into this analysis of biopower? It is the blatant vehicle for control of sexuality.
Can an individual actually escape the dominance of sexual discourse in relationship to self -knowledge?

2 thoughts on “Foucault on Biopower

  1. alexislothian

    Key also to understanding what Foucault means by biopower is that its processes affect not only how life can be ended but how it is lived: the administration of life at every moment, including our lived bodily experience. We name ourselves and our practices and pleasure through a discourse that is given by and produces in its turn the systems of power in which we live; whether we do so by affirming structures that are given (like marriage, say) or by refusing them, we are still a part of it.

    I think the answer to your first question might be in the discussions of confession that appear in the earlier sections; for the second, perhaps we can turn to the very end of the book. I look forward to discussing them both!

    1. Susan Petrole Post author

      Thank you for helping me to “upack” this rather dense section! (Well, all of Foucault is dense, but I like that). I think that today’s discussion helped to clarify this notion of naming as both creating a space for conforming (as you refer to as “affirming structures”, which is a useful way of phrasing it) as well as resisting it.

      As far as religion, I did see today how Foucault does address the traditional Christian schema at the end of the book. I must have been rather sleep deprived and missed that passage. Even if he did not fully analyze its relevance, as we discussed today, it just may not have been part of his purpose: certainly a rhetorician’s prerogative!

      All thanks,


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