Biopolitical Governance: Race, Gender and Economy

Biopolitical Governance: Race, Gender and Economy

by Hannah Richter (Editor)


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For years critical theorists and Foucauldian biopolitical theorists have argued against the Aristotelian idea that life and politics inhabit two separate domains. In the context of receding social security systems and increasing economic inequality, within contemporary liberal democracies, life is necessarily political.

This collection brings together contributions from both established scholars and researchers working at the forefront of biopolitical theory, gendered and sexualised governance and the politics of race and migration, to better understand the central lines along which the body of the governed is produced, controlled or excluded.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786602701
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 05/17/2018
Series: Global Political Economies of Gender and Sexuality Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.96(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.81(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Hannah Richter is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, as well as PhD Candidate in Political and Social Thought at the University of Kent, UK.

Read an Excerpt


Foucault and the Two Approaches to Biopolitics

Marco Piasentier

What is biopolitics? What kind of relationship does biopolitics establish between politics and biology? Although the etymology of the term 'biopolitics' seems to suggest a straightforward meaning resulting from the relationship between biological life and politics, the current literature is characterised by a wide variety of definitions. As the social theorist Thomas Lemke notes in his thoughtful introduction to this field of research, '[p]lural and divergent meanings are undoubtedly evoked when people refer to biopolitics' (Lemke 2011, 2). Lemke is not the only scholar to acknowledge the difficulty in establishing a satisfying definition of this term; the scale of the problem is well exemplified by the decision of the philosopher Roberto Esposito to begin his major work on the topic with a chapter entitled 'The Enigma of Biopolitics'. In the first chapter of Bios: Philosophy and Biopolitics, Esposito traces the enigmatic character of biopolitics back to the thinker who introduced it into the Continental debate — Michel Foucault — and maintains that the problematicity encountered by the French philosopher concerns 'the same logical and semantic configuration' (Esposito 2006, 43) of biopolitics. According to Esposito, the impasse characterising this field of research depends on the fact that 'notwithstanding the theorization of their reciprocal implication ... politics and life remain indefinite in profile and in qualification' (Esposito 2006, 43–44).

In this chapter I focus on the work of Foucault, with the aim of explaining the impasse in defining the notion of biopolitics. Following Esposito, I claim that it is the lack of a correct articulation of the relationship between politics and life that lies at the core of the 'enigma of biopolitics'. However, the enigma does not concern the lack of inquiry into the two terms comprising this concept; at stake is a deeper and more complicated issue. I argue that when politics and biological life meet to constitute the notion of biopolitics, their function becomes that of representing two opposing theories of the human being. In turn, these two ways of defining the human determine two mutually exclusive approaches to biopolitics: the discursive and the vitalist. The 'enigma of biopolitics' is the name of this fracture.

The two definitions of the human being that I take into consideration in this chapter contribute, from opposite sides, to challenging his ultramundane origin. The reason for their conflict is the definition of the world to which the human being is returned after his fall. On the one hand, the notion of the human being of the discursive approach to biopolitics can be summed up, paraphrasing a famous Foucauldian passage, with the sentence: the human being is 'a thing of this world'. The original Foucauldian passage reads as follows:

Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint and it introduces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth — that is, the type of discourse it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances that enable one distinguish true and false statements. (Foucault 2000a, 131)

Paraphrasing this quotation and affirming that the human being is 'a thing of this world' means that every society has a general politics of the human being — that is, the mechanisms and instances that enable every society to distinguish between normal and abnormal. Assuming this mundane definition of man means affirming that there is no human being prior to the 'dispositifs' or historical 'machinations'— to use a Heideggerian term — so the human being has always already been thrown into the processes of subjectification and desubjectification. Reaching a point where it is possible to say what the human being is remains structurally impossible.

On the other hand, the definition of the human being proper to the vitalist approach to biopolitics entails a form of animalisation of the human being where his essence is found in the natural world of life. This definition of man can be expressed in Foucauldian terms, paraphrasing another passage on truth. The ultramundane notion of truth is no longer returned to the mechanisms of discourse and power but to the horizon of biological life: 'The true\ false dichotomy and the value accorded to truth constitute the most singular way of living that has been invented by a life that, from the depths of its origin, bore the potential for error within itself' (Foucault 2000b, 477). In this case the human being is not the product of social practices but is the result of the natural evolution of life. The human being becomes an animal among other animals. Social practices and their true or false value are nothing more than an invention of a life which seems to be animated by a force aimed at its own survival and reproduction.

The opposition between these two notions of man determines two approaches to biopolitics. They can be distinguished from one another precisely because of the hierarchy they impose on the two terms comprising the word 'biopolitics': biological life and politics. Whereas the discursive approach implies the politicisation of biology, with the consequent reduction of every biological definition of the human being to an epiphenomenon of political struggle, the vitalist approach involves the biologisation of politics with the consequent reduction of politics to an epiphenomenon of biological life.

The failure to articulate a nonreductionist relationship between life and politics implies a teleology which inevitably informs both Foucauldian approaches to biopolitics. Beyond the antithesis between the discursive and the vitalist human being, it is, therefore, possible to find a common ground characterised by an unwanted teleological drift. This teleology is a force intended as the site of permanent openness and resignificability, an excess always overflowing its forms, which expresses a constant activity aimed at a work of contestation and metamorphosis set against fossilisation in a fixed identity. This teleology — which prescribes to be like wanderers who never belong to a place but belong to travel itself — can be defined in Foucauldian terms as an 'impatience for liberty' (Foucault 2000a, 319), in the case of the discursive approach and, paraphrasing Foucault, as an impatience for life, in the vitalist approach.

In this chapter, I show how these two definitions of the human being and consequent approaches to biopolitics coexist in the work of Foucault. It is precisely because of this conflict secretly operating in Foucauldian thought that his definition of biopolitics remains enigmatic. This vagueness should not be interpreted as a weakness but instead as a clear sign of Foucault's great capacity for grasping and describing the complexity of the theories involved in biopolitics. In the following pages, I do not propose a totalising explanation of Foucauldian thought, but I try to reveal how his work has become the anchoring point in defining two perspectives that play a hegemonic role in the contemporary understating of the relation between biological life and politics. The fracture between these two approaches undermines the possibility offered by biopolitics to sit astride the wall that today divides naturalism and critical theory, biology and politics. The purpose of this chapter is not to offer a hasty alternative but rather to explore the extent of this fracture in order to lay an adequate foundation for a new biopolitical inquiry.

I begin by addressing the discursive approach; later, I consider the vitalist one. Finally, I show how the fracture between these two conceptions of the human being defines an ontological limbo between the ultramundane and a truly mundane theory of the human being.


At the end of The Order of Things, Foucault proclaims the death of man, arguing that 'man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end ... like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea' (Foucault 2005, 422). In a 1978 interview, he goes back to that famous passage to further clarify its meaning:

In The Order of Things, I made the mistake of presenting this death as something that was under way in our era ... in the course of their history, men have never ceased to construct themselves, that is, to continually displace their subjectivity, to constitute themselves in an infinite, multiple series of different subjectivities that will never have an end and never bring us in the presence of something that would be 'man'. (Foucault 2000b, 275–76)

The interplay between sea and sand described in the two quotations defines a process of subjectification and desubjectification able to continually shape new human figures. The death of man should not to be seen as man's definitive disappearance but, rather, as a way of interrogating his construction and deconstruction through the inquiry into those discourses giving form to and erasing his faceless face. The process described in the two quotations has both a diachronic and synchronic dimension: every subjectification is built upon the ruins of a previous one, and its constitution traces the geometries of inclusion/exclusion proper to each society, such as 'the relationship between sanity and insanity, or sickness and health, or crime and the law' (Foucault 2000a, 318). Critical inquiry shows that the material constituting each of these theories of the human — and, consequently, the perimeters of exclusion they establish — is not the rock of a necessary metaphysics but the sands of a contingent history.

The investigation into the forms of subjectification and desubjectification ultimately demonstrates that man 'is a thing of this world' (Foucault 2000b, 131). He is produced — to continue the paraphrase of the famous Foucauldian sentence on truth — only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint; each society has its 'general politics' of man — that is, the types of discourses which constitute man and provide the means to distinguish between normal and abnormal (see Foucault 2000b, 131). If maintaining that the human being 'is a thing of this world' is to claim that there is no human being prior to the processes of social construction, it follows that the term 'world' cannot help but resonate with the legacy of Heidegger. Foucault himself acknowledges the importance of the German philosopher in an interview conducted in 1984, when he declares that 'for me Heidegger has always been the essential philosopher. ... My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger' (Foucault 1988, 250). In particular, it is the influence of the later Heidegger that emerges in the works of Foucault.

As Gadamer has already noticed, 'Heidegger himself, after the "turning", abandoned his transcendental conception of self' (Gadamer 1981, 104). Relinquishing once and for all the idea of the human being having a permanent structure, the later Heidegger affirms that the taking place of the human being is always already the 'unveiling' of the 'being thrown' and no essence of the human being prior to the 'being-in-the-world' can be posed. Whereas in Being and Time 'anxiety and anticipation of death revealed structural aspects of Dasein that couldn't be defined wholly in terms of the world' (Braver 2007, 218), with 'the turn' (die Kehre), Heidegger fulfils Being and Time's conception of 'being-in-the-world', marking a 'turn' not only in his thought but in the history of Continental philosophy itself. The human being has to be intended to be so intrinsically united to the act of existing that using the verb 'to have' in describing the relation between human being and his 'being-in-the-world' is incorrect, since it creates the impression of a fracture between essence of the human being and his existence (see Agamben 2016). The essence of the human being does not have 'being-in-the-world' as its mode, but 'the essence of the human being consists in being-in-the-world' (Heidegger 1998, 266). 'Being-in-the-world' designates the essence of the human being in the sense that there is no world if there is no man, and man exists, in turn, only in the form of 'being-in-the-world'.

In the later Heidegger, as well as in Foucault, the human being is always already consigned to his existence in the world: there is no human being beyond existence so that the act of existing brings the essence of the human being into being. The critical inquiry proposed by Foucault — intended as a 'work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty' (Foucault 2000a, 319) — is precisely a way of showing how every understanding of ourselves is kept within what Heidegger calls 'epochs' and Foucault 'ontologies of ourselves' — that is, one of the many definitions of the human resulting from the interplay between sea and sand and, in other words, one of the many ways in which the 'being-in-the-world' of the human being designates his essence. Whereas I later take into consideration the topological position of that human being who describes the interplay between sea and sand, I now address the relation between Foucault's notion of subjectification and biopolitics.


In the final section of the History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault introduces the notion of biopolitics. In line with the aim of his critical inquiry, addressing this new field of research consists in individuating and describing the emergence of a new subjectification of the human being. Foucault maintains that 'for millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question' (Foucault 1978, 143). The interplay between sea and sand that leads to 'biological modernity' dissolves a form of subjectification that — despite the many and different interpretations — has had a hegemonic role in Western society since ancient Greek philosophy, and that finds one of its most emblematic examples in the Aristotelian definition of the human being. The desubjectification and the consequent possibility of a subjectification enacted by 'biological modernity' entails what Foucault defines as an 'animalization of man' (Foucault in Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983, 138). The key characteristic of this process of animalisation is a redefinition of the hierarchical structure between mind and body which has regulated most of Western thought for millennia. Although Aristotle's mind/body problem is open to different and even contrasting interpretations, it is possible to affirm without a great margin of doubt that his idea of the human being is informed by that 'meta' that allows the overcoming of animal physis in the direction of a transcendent dimension.

In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that the highest good of human beings coincides with happiness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); the ultimate task of politics should be that of reaching the highest good, and therefore happiness. The possibility of accomplishing the task of politics rests on the understanding of what happiness is for human beings; in turn, knowing what happiness is requires a definition of the human being, and Aristotle provides this definition, especially in the De Anima and Metaphysics. In the second book of the De Anima, Aristotle develops a hylomorphic ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'matter', and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'form') doctrine whereby the soul is the form of the body, and the body the matter of the soul. The soul is a general principle of life which does not merely belong to living beings having a mind but can also be found in plants and animals. The soul bears the same relation to the body that, for example, seeing bears to the eye: 'the eye is the matter for sight, and if this fails it is no longer an eye, except homonymous, just like an eye in stone or a painted eye' (Aristotle 2002, 10). It follows that 'we should not ask whether the wax and the impression are one, any more than whether the matter of each thing and that of which it is the matter are one' (Aristotle 2002, 9). However, this hylomorphism is complicated by a form of dualism between the human body and its mind. Aristotle divides the soul into three parts: the nutritive soul proper to plants, the sensitive soul proper to all animals and the rational soul of human beings. In the De Anima, he also writes that the rational soul 'seems to be a different kind of soul, and this alone can exist separately as the everlasting can from the perishable' (Aristotle 2002, 13). Therefore, 'this intellect is distinct ... and this alone is immortal and eternal' (Aristotle 2002, 60).


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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Two Bodies of Biopolitics, Hannah Richter
Part I: The Politics of Life Beyond Foucault
Chapter 1: Foucault and the Two Approaches to Biopolitics, Marco Piasentier
Chapter 2: The Life Function: The Biopolitics of Sexuality and Race Revisited, Jemima Repo
Chapter 3: “Measurement of Life”: The Disciplinary Power of Racism, Hidefumi Nishiyama
Part II: Mapping Intersectional Geographies of the Body: Race, Gender, Sexuality, Economy
Chapter 4: Homo Sacer is Syrian: Movement-Images from the European “Refugee Crisis”, Hannah Richter
Chapter 5: The Biopolitical Economy of “Guest” Worker Programs, Greg Bird
Chapter 6: The Biopolitics of Donation: Gender, Labour and Motherhood in the Tissue Economy, Maria Fannin
Chapter 7: Mapping the Will for Otherwise: Towards an Intersectional Critique of the Biopolitical System of Neoliberal Governmentality, Charlie Yi Zhang
Part III: Embodied Life: Erasure, Contagion, Immunisation
Chapter 8: On the Government of Bisexual Bodies. Asylum Case Law and the Biopolitics of Bisexual Erasure, Christian Klesse
Chapter 9: A Death-Bound Subject: The Gravedigger of the Unmarked Mass Graves in Kashmir, Shubranshu Mishra
Chapter 10: Biopolicing the Crisis: Gendered and Racialised “Health Threats” and Neoliberal Governmentality in Greece and Beyond, Dimitra Kotouza
Chapter 11: Suffocation and the Logic of Immunopolitics, Benoît Dillet

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