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Biopower: Foucault and Beyond

Biopower: Foucault and Beyond


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Michel Foucault’s notion of “biopower” has been a highly fertile concept in recent theory, influencing thinkers worldwide across a variety of disciplines and concerns. In The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Foucault famously employed the term to describe “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.” With this volume, Vernon W. Cisney and Nicolae Morar bring together leading contemporary scholars to explore the many theoretical possibilities that the concept of biopower has enabled while at the same time pinpointing their most important shared resonances.
Situating biopower as a radical alternative to traditional conceptions of power—what Foucault called “sovereign power”—the contributors examine a host of matters centered on life, the body, and the subject as a living citizen. Altogether, they pay testament to the lasting relevance of biopower in some of our most important contemporary debates on issues ranging from health care rights to immigration laws, HIV prevention discourse, genomics medicine, and many other topics. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226226620
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/28/2015
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Vernon W. Cisney is a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Derrida’s “Voice and Phenomenon”: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide, as well as coeditor or cotranslator of several other books. Nicolae Morar is assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies and an associate member with the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Oregon. He is coeditor or co-translator of several books, including Perspectives in Bioethics, Science and Public Policy.

Read an Excerpt


Foucault and Beyond

By Vernon W. Cisney, Nicolae Morar

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-22676-7


The Literary Birth of Biopolitics

Judith Revel

Translated by Christopher Penfield

It is no doubt paradoxical to want to anchor the Foucauldian concept of biopolitics — known to have appeared relatively late in Michel Foucault's life, in the second half of the 1970s — to the core of "literary" and linguistic writings from the previous decade. To state this in reverse, it is paradoxical to make the interest in language, speech, and writing, which characterizes much of Foucault's work in the 1960s, the real medium of culture for what will emerge ten years later, within a formidable analytic of power, as a new problematization of the relations between subjectivity, power, and practices of freedom.

This is paradoxical because two real difficulties must be confronted: first, to challenge the traditional division to which Foucault's oeuvre is generally subjected, which neatly separates the periods and themes of research in an effort to nonetheless draw the difficult figure of an interrogation that is complex but coherent even in its apparent discontinuities — in sum, to link "literature" to "politics"; second, to save Foucault from a simplistic reduction to the philosophical "spirit of the times," a reduction that claims that regardless of the disciplinary domain to which they belong, all French thinkers to some extent took up the question of language during the 1960s and the question of power during the 1970s.

In the first case, then, it is a matter of locating in Foucault not the hint of a system, of a unitary and teleological project or a secret design discernable from the origin — concepts from which Foucault is known to have been far removed — but, on the contrary, the echo of a continuous and ceaselessly relaunched work, the movement of which renders precisely necessary the changes in the methodological paradigms, conceptual tools, and fields of inquiry: a coherence that thus in no way claims to erase the discontinuities, the turnabouts, and the changes — which are clearly numerous and important — but aims to read them as stages of a reasoning that proceeds by successive reformulations and displacements or, more exactly, as ever larger revolutions of a spiral winding around itself as it advances.

In the second case, it is a matter of thinking what may be singular in Foucault's thought, independently of the "generational" identification with a certain "milieu" (journals like Critique or Tel Quel, institutions like Vincennes or the Collège de France, collectives like the Prison Information Group, etc.) or with a certain time period (pre-1968, structuralism, the events of May, the militancy of the 1970s, etc.). Clearly, nothing would be less Foucauldian than to read Foucault's work independently of the historical and material conditions of its production; and turning Foucault into an author "outside of his time" runs such risk of ridicule that only certain hagiographic commentaries are willing to do so unrestrainedly. But it is equally true that Foucault cannot be reduced to the simple epiphenomenon of a more general set of currents that would have been largely derived from prevailing intellectual modes — whether one thinks of this strange, second linguistic turn that traversed France from the middle of the 1950s onward, or of the progressive politicization of intellectual discourse and, more generally, of the work of thought — in the ten years that followed 1968, with its procession of debates on the relations between theory and practice, on the forms of engagement, and on the role of intellectuals in the struggles that were then underway or still to come. If Foucault was always a thinker à la mode — and without question he was — it would nevertheless be unfair to consider him as only a modal phenomenon; there is nothing ignominious in public approval if not the risk of becoming static and endlessly repeating oneself, and we know that Foucault was anything but this.

The literary birth of biopolitics, then: a deep-rootedness in language and style of what still remains one of the most complex Foucauldian concepts, for biopolitics plays a pivotal role between the analytic of power and a number of themes that characterize the last years of Foucault's work — the production of subjectivity and the invention of the self, ethics and aesthetics, the relation to the body, and more generally the relation to life. Before venturing forth on this brief genealogy of biopolitics, however, it is necessary to momentarily retrace our steps so as to specify what was truly Foucault's interest in discourse and the extent to which literature is both a subcategory of discourse and its strange blind-spot. To speak of a literary birth of biopolitics is precisely not to speak of a linguistic or discursive birth, and it is on this distinction that we would like to focus.

There are two different statutes of language in Foucault. The first, which largely sustained the identification — at first carefully maintained, then severed in just as clean a manner by the interested party — with structuralism, is really the product of a double displacement: on the side of the materiality of the sign (that is, against a hegemony of sense then identified as being essentially the phenomenological matrix) and on the side of the historicization of the very structures of the discourses of knowledge. In the first case, this leads Foucault to focus closely on linguistics, on general grammar, and more broadly on a number of formal inquiries regarding the functioning of language; in the second, this pushes him in the direction of an archeological reading of discourse. Very quickly, the notion of discourse thus refers in Foucault to a set of statements that, though they may well belong to different fields, nonetheless obey common operating rules — rules that are not only linguistic or formal, but that reproduce a certain number of historically determined divisions (for example, the great reason-unreason division highlighted with respect to madness in the classical age). The "order of discourse" proper to a given period becomes, from the publication of The Order of Things in 1966 onward, a quasi-synonym for what Foucault understood at that time by episteme: a system of traces, of which the differences, variations, heterogeneities, and singularities nevertheless form a great isomorphism, endowed with a normative and regulative function and producing mechanisms for organizing the real through the production of knowledge and the induction of strategies and practices.

For Foucault, it is therefore a matter of analyzing discursive traces by searching to isolate the laws of their operation independently of their nature and conditions of enunciation: as he explains clearly, "it was original and important to say and to show that what was done with language — poetry, literature, philosophy, discourse in general — obeyed a certain number of internal laws or regularities: the laws and regularities of language. The linguistic character of language facts was an important discovery for a certain period." But at the same time, it is also a matter of describing the transformation of the typology of discourse between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which is to say, of historicizing the procedures of identification and classification proper to this period — all the more so, no doubt, since what is in question is a configuration to which we still belong. In this sense, Foucauldian archaeology is a linguistic analysis reinvested within a vaster interrogation of the conditions of emergence of certain discursive apparatuses that sometimes support practices (as in History of Madness) and other times engender them (as in The Order of Things or The Archaeology of Knowledge). It is in this context that Foucault thus simultaneously engages in the analysis of what he calls the "discursive masses" and an archaeology of the human sciences.

Yet there is equally another statute of language, one that Foucault sometimes refers to as a veritable "structural esotericism," and whose existence he takes particular note of at the time of the work on Raymond Roussel, before the Rousselean model is in turn applied more generally to a number of writers — or rather: acts of writing — in the years to follow. By contrast to the first configuration we considered, this esoteric literature is a practice of language that seems to frustrate both linguistic analysis and archaeology: an experience of speech that, precisely because it is speech, indicates the "outside" of all language and denounces both the internal economy and the foundational divisions of language.

Now, at the end of the 1940s, Foucault attended the courses at the École Normale Supérieure that Maurice Merleau-Ponty had dedicated to Saussurean linguistics. We may recall that for Ferdinand de Saussure, language is the object of linguistics, whereas speech, being entirely invested in the subjective dimension of the speaker, is by contrast an impossible object of general description: in sum, while linguistics, to the degree that it is the science of the functioning of language, is also the science of historical languages, speech, in turn, is the object of no science. Speech is thus the outside of any linguistic approach.

One finds in the works of Foucault, fifteen years later, an important echo of this division. Even if only at the beginning of the 1960s, Foucault substitutes for the traditional Saussurean language-speech distinction two oppositions that he makes alternate use of: the discourse-language couple, where discourse is paradoxically what is restive toward the order of language in general — that is, what seems not to conform to a strictly linguistic analysis (this is the case, for example, in the production of Raymond Roussel); and the discourse-speech couple, where discourse becomes by contrast the linguistic echo of the articulation between knowledge and power such as it is described through the mechanisms of identification, distribution, and taxonomization, and where speech, insofar as it is subjective, seems by contrast to embody a practice of resistance in the face of the major, rigorously ordered and codified objectivation of discursive production.

In one case as in the other, it is surprising that under the appellation "discourse" and then under that of "speech," Foucault returned to Saussure's idea of a limit of linguistic analysis. And even though Foucault will quickly abandon the discourse-speech identification to definitively place discourse on the side of language — his inaugural lecture in 1971 at the Collège de France, "The Discourse on Language," is the most patent example of this: discourse becomes henceforth a space of order par excellence — the fact remains that this limit, this outside, and this impossible object are three figures that are rejoined at the same moment in Foucault in a number of texts on literature and literary writers. Everything thus transpires as though Saussurean speech had been crystallized by Foucault around this specific writing that is literature — or rather: with regard to a certain literature that indiscriminately mixes authors of the past (e.g., Rousseau, Sade, Hölderlin, Nerval, Flaubert, Mallarmé, and Roussel) and contemporary writers (e.g., Artaud, Bataille, Blanchot, Klossowski, and numerous writers associated with the drafting of the journal Tel Quel with whom Foucault was quite close in the early 1960s) and that groups them together precisely on the basis of this "exteriority" of language.

We must therefore return to the three major matrices of this "exteriority" that appear in Foucault between 1962 and 1966: "limit," "outside," and "impossible object." So, too, must we understand the extent to which Foucault's analyses thereby present an absolutely paradoxical situation, for though the books from the same period affirm the absolute impossibility of an exteriority to the episteme of a given period — because one is never outside of one's own time, and accordingly one must be resolved to undergo its determinations — the numerous "peripheral" texts on literature — generally published in journals under the form of reviews or critiques, and today included in volume 1 of Dits et Écrits — by contrast underscore this exteriority to linguistic description and search for its model and key.

The first major matrix of exteriority appears in Foucault as an obvious homage to Bataille in a formidable text of 1963 that is dedicated to him, which is to say, precisely at the moment when Foucault is writing on Raymond Roussel: it is, namely, the model of transgression. The functioning of this model is simple: there is no limit that does not refer to transgression, which means that there is no space that does not also, immediately, designate its own exteriority. Because a limit is always an act of passage, this act sketches, contrary to its proper function of constraint, the possibility of the gesture that denies it: it is thus at once what refuses and founds the "passage to the limit." And if despite everything the notion of transgression is abandoned fairly rapidly by Foucault, this is because the dialectical link that seems to unite the limit with its own transgression can also be read in the other direction: transgression is also, always, the inevitable reaffirmation of a limit.

The second matrix then intervenes: it, too, is placed under the tutelary shadow of a protective figure — that of Maurice Blanchot — on the occasion of a text that is once again an homage, and which seeks to think exteriority without falling into the dialectical trap. Now, this exteriority is not a metaphysical entity; it is an experience. And it brings into play a theme that at that time was central for Foucault: that of the subject, or rather, its disappearance. Foucault defines the "experience of the outside" in effect as the dissociation of the "I think" and the "I speak," to the degree that language must confront the disappearance of the subject that speaks and register that empty place as the source of its own indefinite outpouring. Language thereby "escapes the mode of being of discourse — in other words, the dynasty of representation — and literary speech develops from itself, forming a network in which each point is distinct, distant from even its closest neighbors, and has a position in relation to every other point in a space that simultaneously holds and separates them all."

We can thus understand both what links Foucault to Saussure — the idea that a certain experience of language denies linguistic analysis, or objectivating discourse — and what radically separates them; for where the subjective investiture of speech was for Saussure the criterion of its exclusion from the field of scientific analysis, for Foucault, by contrast, it is precisely the disappearance of the subject that marks the specificity of the experience of an exteriority to the discursive order. The order of discourse and disorder of speech are thus both opposed and rendered symmetrical by this absolute choice to think language as structure without any reference to the one who carries it out. This explains, then, why Foucault still tries to account for the exteriority of language in linguistic terms — to speak of a "structural esotericism" is not the least of the paradoxes since it amounts to attempting the description of the outside of linguistic structures in terms of structure. However, this probably explains less the evident fascination that he experiences for the figures that embody this outside: for Foucault may say that he is not interested in the personage of Raymond Roussel, but the fact remains that all of his work is permeated by its strangeness, just as, many years later, Foucault will confess to having been reduced to silence by the personage of Pierre Rivière, "the parricide with the reddish-brown eyes."


Excerpted from Biopower by Vernon W. Cisney, Nicolae Morar. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Vernon W. Cisney and Nicolae Morar
Introduction: Why Biopower? Why Now?

Part I : Origins of Biopower

Judith Revel
One / The Literary Birth of Biopolitics (translated by Christopher Penfield)

Antonio Negri
Two / At the Origins of Biopolitics (translated by Diana Garvin)

Ian Hacking
Three / Biopower and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers

Catherine Mills
Four / Biopolitics and the Concept of Life

Paul Patton
Five / Power and Biopower in Foucault

Part II : The Question of Life

Mary Beth Mader
Six / Foucault, Cuvier, and the Science of Life

Jeff T. Nealon
Seven / The Archaeology of Biopower: From Plant to Animal Life in The Order of Things

Eduardo Mendieta
Eight / The Biotechnological Scala Naturae and Interspecies Cosmopolitanism: Patricia Piccinini, Jane Alexander, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Part III : Medicine and Sexuality: The Question of the Body

Carlos Novas
Nine / Patient Activism and Biopolitics: Thinking through Rare Diseases and Orphan Drugs

David M. Halperin
Ten / The Biopolitics of HIV Prevention Discourse

Jana Sawicki
Eleven / Precarious Life: Butler and Foucault on Biopolitics

Part IV : Neoliberalism and Governmentality: The Question of the Population

Todd May and Ladelle McWhorter
Twelve / Who’s Being Disciplined Now? Operations of Power in a Neoliberal World

Frédéric Gros
Thirteen / Is There a Biopolitical Subject? Foucault and the Birth of Biopolitics (translated by Samantha Bankston)

Martina Tazzioli
Fourteen / Discordant Practices of Freedom and Power of/over Lives: Three Snapshots on the Bank Effects of the Arab Uprisings

Part V : Biopower Today

Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose
Fifteen / Biopower Today

Ann Laura Stoler
Sixteen / A Colonial Reading of Foucault: Bourgeois Bodies and Racial Selves

Roberto Esposito
Seventeen / Totalitarianism and Biopolitics? Concerning a Philosophical Interpretation of the Twentieth Century (translated by Timothy Campbell)


What People are Saying About This

Leonard Lawlor

Biopower is a remarkable book. Although it contains essays written by the most important and well-known commentators on Foucault, it is really more than a study of Foucault’s concept of biopower. The majority of the essays expands, extends, and transforms the concept of biopower. Like all of the essays in the volume, the introduction written by Morar and Cisney is excellent. They are to be congratulated not only for organizing such an impressive volume, but guiding us through it with their analysis. This will be the definitive volume on biopower for decades to come.”

Daniel W. Smith

“With Biopower, Cisney and Morar have assembled a stellar collection of essays from some of the leading scholars working in Foucault studies today. One of the volume’s strongest features is its dissemination of the concept of biopower beyond Foucault’s use of it. Topics as diverse as the life sciences, the birth of statistics, contemporary medicine, HIV prevention, race, gender, and the Arab uprisings are all examined from the viewpoint of the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, demonstrating their continuing relevance. This will be a crucial book for Foucault studies, for biopolitical studies, and for our contemporary understanding of what Foucault called ‘the history of the present.’”

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