Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance
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Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance

Lauri Siisiäinen

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Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance

Lauri Siisiäinen

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About This Book

Political resistance is flourishing. In this context, there is a growing interest to reread Michel Foucault's work, especially from the late period, from the perspective of resistance, social movements and affirmative biopolitics. Yet what has been missing so far is a book-length, comprehensive study focusing on this topic. This volume undertakes this task, providing an original typology of the resources of resistance discovered in Foucault's late thinking:

  • resistance as discursive protection of autonomy

  • bodily and affective resistance

  • the strategies, arts and practices of affirmative biopolitics or 'politics of life'

The book shows how these different types of tools, arts and practices can be used in resistant politics, in struggles against various regimes and institutions of power and government, so that they mutually supplement and reinforce one another. The author embarks on advancing Foucault's insights on resistance from where he stopped. Furthermore, the volume proposes a novel assessment of the Foucauldian political toolkit in the 21 st century context, addressing its pertinence for struggles against neoliberalism and post-Fordist capitalism.

Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance will be an important resource for students and scholars interested in Foucault, resistance and 21st century politics within many fields, including political science, international relations, contemporary and continental philosophy as well as sociology. The work elaborates fresh methodological insights, fruitful for further empirical research on social and political movements.

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This chapter suggests that we discover an extensive and detailed treatment of resistance in Foucault’s late 1970s and early 1980s engagement with the intrinsically interrelated notions of care of the self and parrēsia, that is, truth- or frank-speaking. In the overall composition of this book, this is the most widely discussed and generally familiar section in Foucault’s late work, from the basis of which we embark on exploring the resources of resistance, and on discovering what the late Foucauldian political toolkit, or toolbox of resistance, looks like1. In this book, it is not possible to delve into an extensive, comprehensive treatment of all the dimensions of the ideas involved in care of the self and parrēsia. Fortunately, there are thorough studies which have already undertaken this task. In what follows, I shall first somewhat briefly sum up those aspects of these notions which I take as most crucial for bringing to the fore their potentials and effects of resistance. Then, the question is evoked concerning their political pertinence or the lack of it today, in the context of the 21st century neoliberal and post-Fordist governance and management2.
It is known quite generally that Foucault, in his works of the late 1970s and early 1980s, traces the origins of the care of the self and parrēsia back to ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. From the point of view of resistance, probably the two most important philosophical schools with the most far-reaching implications for Foucault are the late Ancient, Hellenistic and Roman schools of Cynicism and Stoicism, although Epicureanism is discussed as well. When Foucault engages with these, he often does not draw out clear, stark differences between these philosophical schools. The final lectures dealing with Cynicism which Foucault delivered at the Collège de France before his death in 1984, as part of the course Le courage de la vérité, will be addressed later, due to some of the exceptional points made (See Chapter 3.1.). In this chapter, the material scrutinised comprises a plethora of Foucault’s other texts in which he elaborates the notions of care of the self and parrēsia. Indeed, he is not greatly interested in implementing a minuscule comparative analysis. Instead, he undertakes a reading which is selective as well as synthesising in its nature: he picks up certain common features, expands upon them, and then uses them as material to elaborate the novel notions of care of the self and parrēsia. This is also the perspective I shall adopt in this book on Foucault’s various readings of Greco-Roman philosophy, emphasising his manner of using these readings as sources for his own conceptual elaborations, rather than assessing them as studies on the history of philosophy or history of ideas3.
This pragmatic-political approach to Foucault’s work is, I believe, quite closely in line with Foucault’s characterisation of (his) critical-philosophical-historical thinking, writing and speech as the fabrication of tools or instruments, to be used in real struggles against use of power and government, and within real contentious ethical and political practices, by different actors in different practical-political contexts and situations4. Or, we might also take into account Foucault’s parallel remark, that his intellectual project has actually been about writing historical fiction, which is quite self-conscious of its selectivity and omissions, and of taking many liberties of interpretation, with the ultimately pragmatic aim of generating such discourse which can be used by actors or collective movements in their confrontations with institutions and apparatuses of power. (Foucault notes that he considers the greatest success of Discipline and Punish to be the fact that it was read and used by prisoners in their real political practices of resistance, so that the book became a part of political reality)5.
To be sure, Foucault did not think it as possible or even desirable to hark back to Ancient Greco-Roman culture, or to directly adopt therefrom models to be imitated. However, it is also quite clear that Foucault’s engagement with Hellenistic and Roman philosophy and culture more generally is far from a strictly contextualist approach. Foucault is quite overt on the urgent, topical, political stakes of his own times, and on their role in orienting the analysis of ancient historical sources, especially when it comes to the topic of care of the self (epimeleia heautou) and parrēsia. Indeed, the possibilities of resistance to power and government of his own epoch provide a perspective to reread Hellenistic and Roman philosophy. The first and ultimate, perhaps the only, locus of resistance to political power is discovered in the relation of self to itself, in a situation, in which the struggle is most crucial against such forms of power and government which work by subjectivation, that is, by the submission of our subjectivity, by constituting us as subjects of a definite kind, structured in a certain way, attached to certain identities, and consequently conducted in certain ways through our self-relations of self-knowledge and self-government6.
Indeed, in Foucault’s analyses, the key modalities of power and government work precisely through constituting us as subjects of a certain kind. This is the case already with panoptic power, with Christian pastoral power of conduct, with psycho-medical power and with the sexuality dispositive. The latter generates sexualised, individualised subjects whose identity is pivoted on the categories of ‘desire’ and ‘sexuality’, and which are further articulated with the biopolitical control or biopower of living populations at the macro level. From the Greco-Roman care of the self and parrēsia, then, Foucault sets out to elaborate and modify resources to oppose such subjectifying power, with opposition taking place within the relation of the self to itself.
Moreover, there is also another – quite explicit – fashion in which Foucault takes the legacy of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy and culture, especially revolving around care of the self and parrēsia, as detachable from their historical context, and as demonstrating vital political pertinence in his own time (the late 1970s and early 1980s). Care of the self and parrēsia are revitalised and further elaborated in Foucault’s late idea of the transgressive-critical ethos of Enlightenment and modernity. Immanuel Kant and Charles Baudelaire are the most evident sources of influence here7. Yet Foucault’s manner of understanding critical thinking, critical discourse and historical-critical philosophy as arts, tools and practices which can help us protect and enhance our autonomy – our radical liberty and potential to transgress the historical borders and forms imposed on us, to become other from what we are, to transfigure and transform ourselves aesthetically – is very closely reminiscent of Foucault’s view of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy as equipment, techniques and exercises of care of the self, and care of autonomy/freedom. In a sense, Foucault situates his own entire intellectual project of historical-critical philosophy, from archaeology of knowledge to genealogies of power, government and ethics (although retrospectively of course) in this strand of political-historical-theoretical (one might say in a certain sense pragmatically oriented) thinking8.
Foucault states very explicitly that freedom or liberty – the free choice – is nothing less than a necessary condition for the care of the self, and for that which is inseparable from the former, the aesthetical-ethical creation of the self, the transformation and transfiguration of oneself, of one’s life and existence into a beautiful work of art. Despite some evident convergences with Existentialist philosophy, Foucault still wishes to distinguish his notion of liberty or freedom from the former. He maintains that what distinguishes his own account especially from Sartre’s – whether or not it is more proximate to the Martin Heidegger of Sein und Zeit, Foucault does not tell us – is above all Sartre’s attempt to put authenticity at the foundation of freedom. Instead, Foucault himself sees authenticity as only one possible historical modality of subjective self-relation among several others. Moreover, authenticity has no constitutive role in Foucault’s idea of the creative freedom and autonomy that is essential to care of the self and aesthetics of existence, which he is developing at least partly through his reading of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy. Foucault contends that this conception of liberty/freedom as empty, indeterminate, autonomous potential for the invention and creation as well as transformation of the self, has in modern philosophy its closest relative in Friedrich Nietzsche9. In a self-consciously circular way, parrēsia together with care of the self is protection, perfection, and self-reflexive realisation of this indeterminate, creative-artistic liberty, while this same liberty is the condition of possibility for care of the self and parrēsia. In all, so central is liberty understood in the sense summarised above, that care of the self becomes even somewhat equivalent to the care for the liberty10.
What, then, are the adversaries against which our liberty needs to be defended? These are all the various states of passivity and dependence, all the states in which one is ‘being acted upon’, in which the subject is being affected, moved, influenced, permeated or overpowered by an exterior event, action, or power of some kind. It is not the impact of the former on the body which is at stake, but rather, their influence on the active/creative, ethical and aesthetical liberty. Such influence curtails the autonomy of our creative potentials and replaces it with dependence – hence the need to protect the autonomy/liberty against it. We should heed that Foucault is not speaking merely of negative or repressive influences (prevention, constraint, limitation), but much more broadly, also of influence of a ‘positive’ and ‘productive’ kind. In other words, it is also the use of power and governing that is ‘soft’ and ‘positive/productive’: this would include actions such as stimulation, enticement, persuasion, conduct and guidance and is inimical to our liberty as radical autonomy of self-creation. Such uses of power, which operate by subjectifying us in particular ways – that is, through assimilating our subjectivity, our self-relations to certain determinate regimes, formations, identities and so forth- are opposed to the creative autonomy/liberty as well. Consequently, the care of the self and parrēsia – as they seek to protect and amplify our freedom – inevitably imply and become inseparable from the continuous resistance and struggle against the whole plethora of such events, practices and power-relations which tend to influence us and compromise our liberty/autonomy in different ways11.
To condense, in Foucault’s view of Hellenistic and Roman care of the self and parrēsia, it is above all discourse and language (logos) – veridiction, names and naming, conceptual signification – which are indispensable as the medium for the protection of our liberty and autonomy. The discursive enunciations of truth, their memorisation and incorporation, are mobilised to resist, to make us flee from, to move us out of reach of the various intrusions of the use of power, including those which seek to submit our subjectivity into the confines of solidified, reified, naturalised identity. In this type of parrēsia and care of the self, truth discourse together with the associated practices of self-mastery and self-observation are used as tools that open out and safeguard or arm our freedom as autonomy and independence, its emptiness and indeterminacy having the potential of innovation and creativity12.
As Foucault recurrently emphasises, especially when elaborating on Stoic sources, philosophical truth discourses and associated ascetic practices work to prepare the subject for struggles against different modes of power, ranging from the sovereign power, and the brutal threat of violence and death, to the ‘softer’, conductive and persuasive variants of government. Discourse is the central equipment of protection and preparation (paraskeuē), making us resistant against relations of becoming influenced, affected, passivated, dependent, overpowered and so forth. The content of logos, of knowledge and truth, varies naturally. Still, whether the truth discourse is about human beings or nature (as is phusiologia ), or about Gods, what is expected from it is precisely the pragmatic value of liberty/autonomy-protection13.
Without this discursive protection equipment, the human being remains vulnerable to the overpowering tendency of exterior events, practices and power. Foucault identifies the events of hardship, suffering and loss, together with their counterparts, the ones giving us pleasure and satisfaction, as posing the most serious threats and tests to our liberty. All such affective states make us dependent on exterior things, events and circumstances: they passivate us, curtail our autonomy, our self-transformative liberty, and also make us governable, that is, amenable to being governed, guided, directed, manipulated, appropriated or exploited in various ways. As a result, the preparation for these kinds of events, ...

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Citation styles for Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance
APA 6 Citation
Siisiäinen, L. (2018). Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Siisiäinen, Lauri. (2018) 2018. Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Siisiäinen, L. (2018) Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Siisiäinen, Lauri. Foucault, Biopolitics and Resistance. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.