Education, study and knowledge

Biopower: a concept developed by Michel Foucault

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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 "right to death or power over life", he explains how in the last two centuries a step has been taken in the way of exercising the Power on the part of the States: previously power was based on the sovereign's ability to kill, now it is based on the ability to manage the lifetime.

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

Biopolitics according to Foucault

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

This is shown, for example, in totalitarian regimes, who mobilize entire populations to wage war under the pretext of preserving the life of the group, while before people went to war they did it to maintain the political power of the lord or the sovereign.

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The two forms of biopower

For Foucault, various advances in technology that culminated just before the French Revolution made it possible to lengthen and improve life while better controlling it. A) Yes, biopower began to be exercised in two different ways but interconnected: the disciplines of the body and the controls of the population.

Body disciplines

The disciplines of the body emerged in the middle of the seventeenth century, and focused on making strong and useful an individual body understood as a machine. It is exercised by institutions such as education or the army, but also by anatomy. They are systems in charge of mold the individual to integrate him into society and turn it into a useful item.

Thus, the educational system, for example, in addition to imparting 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 emerged. While body 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 the level of health of the population. We see how it is about ways of exercising power that do not seek death, but rather manage life.

Thus, the governed are conceived as subjects of law to conceive them as living beings. This has the consequence that while the old form of power contemplates human existence as legal, biopower contemplates it as biological. A) Yes, power is no longer based exclusively on law. Although the law continues to exist, this is one more element in a network of institutions (the family, the educational system, the army, medicine, etc.) that seeks to govern by regulating what is normal and adapting to it all the individuals of the society.

Biopower thus also becomes a new framework for the sciences, which under this new paradigm are erected as part of the network of institutions that exercise biopower.

Opposition to power

Faced with 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 reaches even resistance to power.

Our own conception of sex would be biopolitical. It is precisely sex, that nameless sphere, which seems free from all political interference, where biopower is relentlessly manifested.

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

Biopower after Foucault

Biopolitics has become, after Foucault, all an academic discipline within fields such as political philosophy, the philosophy of nature, sociology or political science.

Indeed, the critical framework created by Foucault has become more and more useful as technology penetrates more and more into biological structures to modify them, both at the molecular level and anthropological, with the rise 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 the experts could be divided into two groups. On the one hand, there are those who believe that every biological notion and every conception of nature it is an instance of biopower, so that all politics would be within the framework of biopolitics. Thus, there would not be a nature to protect but bio-policies to modify.

On the other hand, would be those who believe in a kind of positive biopolitics. Following a note from 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 vital vital impulses. irrational and intimate aspects of the human being, or in the element of randomness present in the functioning of nature, which would occasionally escape the control mechanisms biopolitical. For this group, the goal is to keep nature out of biopower by denouncing biopolitical excesses.

Bibliographic references:

  • Foucault, M. (2007). History of sexuality. 1st ed. México, D.F.: Siglo XXI Editores.
  • Nilsson, J. and Wallenstein, S. (2013). Foucault, biopolitics, and governmentality. 1st ed. Huddinge: Södertörns högskola.
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