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biopower


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A form of political power that revolves around populations (humans as a species or as productive capacity) rather than individuals (humans as subjects or citizens). The focus of much of his late work, biopower was conceived by Michel Foucault as a distinctively new form of political rationality. Traditionally, according to Foucault's own schematization, western political thought was primarily concerned with the twofold problem of what constitutes the just and good life and how can men (in the period in question, from the time of Aristotle until the early Renaissance, women were excluded from politics) be persuaded to adhere to it. As an art, politics was supposed to serve a higher goal, namely God's purpose. Then, from the early 1500s, a less spiritually virtuous and more politically calculating way of thinking emerged, for which the name Machiavelli is a universally recognized shorthand. Now, political thought focused on the practicalities of obtaining, maintaining and extending the power of the prince, ignoring the freedom and virtue of the citizens. Beginning at the same time as Machiavelli, but only rising to prominence much later, still another form of thinking about power began to be formulated by the nameless bureaucrats and policy-makers who actually run governments, which had no other concern than the power of the state. It viewed the population of the state as a resource and developed knowledge about its people accordingly: on the one hand, it wanted to learn about humans as a species and come to know their biological secrets, and on the other hand, it wanted to develop the capacity of humans as machines by disciplining their bodies. Foucault termed this new kind of political rationality biopower because it concerned itself with every aspect of life, right down to its most minute parts, though only in the abstract. It was interested in the health of the people in statistical terms, not existential terms—it cared about how people live and die, but not who lives and dies. For the first time in history, Foucault argues, biological existence was reflected in political existence, and in consequence the very existence of the species itself was wagered on political questions. Giorgio Agamben's theory of bare life originates in this thesis as does Hardt and Negri's concepts of Empire and multitude.

Further Reading:

H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1983).M. Foucault La Volonté de savoir (1976), translated as The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1978).M. Hardt and A. Negri, Empire (2000).

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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