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Catherine Mills

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Catherine Mills

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About This Book

The concept of biopolitics has been one of the most important and widely used in recent years in disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. In Biopolitics, Mills provides a wide-ranging and insightful introduction to the field of biopolitical studies. The first part of the book provides a much-needed philosophical introduction to key theoretical approaches to the concept in contemporary usage. This includes discussions of the work of Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Roberto Esposito, and Antonio Negri. In the second part of the book, Mills discusses various topics across the categories of politics, life and subjectivity. These include questions of sovereignty and governmentality, violence, rights, technology, reproduction, race, and sexual difference.

This book will be an indispensable guide for those wishing to gain an understanding of the central theories and issues in biopolitical studies. For those already working with the concept of biopolitics, it provides challenging and provocative insights and argues for a ground-breaking reorientation of the field.

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Part I
1A new regime of power
Michel Foucault is widely regarded as the most important figure within debates on biopolitics, since while he did not invent the terms ‘biopower’ or ‘biopolitics’, his work is a touchstone for contemporary debates on these political rationalities. Of central importance is his claim in The Will to Knowledge (Foucault 1990),1 that the emergence of ‘life’ as an object of politics at the end of the eighteenth century marked a definitive shift in political rationality. Perhaps surprisingly, though, given the influence of his work within biopolitical studies, Foucault himself spent little time directly discussing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics. This has been taken by some as an indication that these were not especially important to him as analytic tools, and played only minor roles in the development of his thought.
In contrast to this view, one of the guiding presumptions of this chapter is that, while only explicitly discussed at a few points, the concept of biopower is an important point of conjunction for a number of Foucault’s concerns, from his early interest in medicine to his later concentration on ethical subjectivity. As Claire Blencowe (2012, 3) claims, ‘[t]he concern with “life” as a historically produced category and with the role of limits in the constitution of life and experience stretches across Foucault’s oeuvre, from The Birth of the Clinic to The Care of the Self’. This is not to say that there is an overriding conceptual continuity in Foucault’s work that inevitably leads to the notion of biopower, and subsequently, resistance to it. Rather, as Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze (2013, 7) note, Foucault’s thinking about biopower is replete with ‘shifts, feints, changes in focus and direction’, a comment that could easily be extended to Foucault’s work as a whole. Further, the place that the notion of biopower occupies in Foucault’s oeuvre is itself ambivalent in that it both draws upon earlier threads and turns them to new ends, ones which, it is probably fair to say, he never fully realized. However, at the level of ‘problematology’ (Osborne 2003), a greater continuity begins to appear, in which the notion of biopower can be seen as a particular refraction of a problem or question that Foucault addressed throughout his work, namely the problem of knowing ourselves (understood in a very particular sense). Thus, ‘biopower’ is not an anomaly in his work, but is fundamentally tied to both earlier and later concerns. To establish this claim, I provide an overview of Foucault’s account of the ­genealogy of biopower, and its emergence as a particular rationality of power that ‘fosters life or disallows it’ in the modern era. Focusing on Will to Knowledge, but with reference to the more recently published texts of his Collùge de France lectures especially Society Must Be Defended (2003b), in this chapter, I want to bring forth both the continuity and disruption that biopower entails for Foucault’s thinking.
To this end, in this chapter I outline several aspects of Foucault’s work, with a focus on the way that the notion of ‘biopower’ ties together a number of different strands in his thought. In particular, I trace connections between his concern with biopower and his earlier work on the history of medicine and the epistemic status of ‘life’, as well as with his later work on ethics of the self. Following a brief overview of Foucault’s principal accounts of the emergence of biopower, I investigate his approach more closely along the three axes of knowledge, power and subjectivity. In regards to the first of these, in the second section of the chapter, I outline connections between biopower and Foucault’s earlier work in the so-called ‘archaeological’ phase, on the episteme that underlies modern knowledge of life and medicine. In the third section of the chapter, I outline the key theoretical claims that Foucault makes in his genealogy of power; within this, I focus on the question of norms and their operation, since norms are not only central to biopower, but also help tie conceptual aspects of Foucault’s oeuvre together. Finally, I consider the status of Foucault’s later work on the ethics of the self in light of the apparently thwarted approach to sexuality and power initiated in Will to Knowledge.
Right of death and power over life
The most influential statement of what Foucault sought to capture by the term ‘biopower’ is the brief chapter in Will to Knowledge subtitled ‘Right of Death and Power over Life’. Foucault’s basic point in Will to Knowledge is that rather than discourse about sex and sexuality being repressed in the Victorian age, it was continuously produced and incited, requiring infinitesimal detail and giving rise to constant anxiety. He argues that sexuality is not a ‘natural given’ held in check by a power that operates through interdiction and rule, nor the secret and obscure domain of our selves that knowledge gradually discovers. Rather, sexuality is the name of a ‘historical construct 
 a great surface network’ (Foucault 1990, 105) that links the body and its pleasures to the operation of power and knowledge, in continual circuits of incitement, intensification, regulation and discursive elaboration. As an historical construct, sexuality is deployed not simply as a means of prohibition and control, but as a means of harnessing the forces of the body, both of the individual and the population. In this, the deployment of sexuality was fundamentally integrated with a shift in the rationality and operation of power, from sovereignty to biopower.
Foucault begins his account of the emergence of biopower in the final chapter of Will to Knowledge by contrasting it sharply with the sovereign right of death that characterized political power up until the nineteenth century. Sovereign power, he argues, operated deductively, as a ‘subtraction mechanism’, such that it was ‘essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself; it culminated in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it’ (Foucault 1990, 136). At the end of the Classical period, however, this form of power underwent a profound demotion, such that deduction was no longer the predominant form of power but merely ‘one element among others’ that collectively worked to ‘incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize and organize the forces under it’. Further, the right of death of the sovereign underwent a correlative transfiguration to ‘align itself with the exigencies of a life-administering power’ (Foucault 1990, 136). This new ‘life-administering power’ incorporated death into its functioning, but in the process, transformed its political significance. Thus, Foucault writes, ‘the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death’ (Foucault 1990, 138).2 While death does not disappear from the horizon of power’s operation, then, its status is profoundly transformed from being the emblem and right of power, to a mere ‘counterpart’ of a power that administers and fosters life.
Foucault argues that this new life-administering power emerged in two basic forms, beginning from the late seventeenth century and extending through to the nineteenth. The first of these forms to emerge at the end of the seventeenth century was that of the disciplines, which treated the human body as a machine in order to optimize and control its capacities through the ‘parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility’ (Foucault 1990, 139). This was the form of power that Foucault analyzed in detail in Discipline and Punish. However, in the eighteenth century, he argues, this ‘anatomo-politics of the human body’ came to be complemented by the second form, a ‘biopolitics of the population’, which focused on the species-body and its biological characteristics of mortality, birth rates, morbidity, longevity et cetera in order to subject them to measurement and regulatory control.3 These two forms of power thus operate as the two poles of biopower, where one focuses on the body in order to individualize and manipulate the forces of it and the other is ‘centred not upon the body but upon life’, that is, in which ‘bodies are replaced by general biological processes’ (Foucault 2003b, 249). These two poles, Foucault insists, are tied together through a ‘whole intermediary cluster of relations’ at the level not of speculative discourse but of ‘concrete arrangements that would go to make up the great technology of power in the nineteenth century’ (Foucault 1990, 139, 140). The notion of bio-power thus combines the earlier work on disciplinary power in Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1977) with a new form of power that Foucault identifies as bio-politics.
One of the principle mechanisms that tied these two poles together was, in Foucault’s view, the deployment of sexuality. Sexuality, Foucault argues, emerged in the nineteenth century as one of the most significant vectors of the new formation of power. He writes, ‘[i]t was at the pivot of the two axes along which developed the entire political technology of life’, tied both to the intensification and subjugation of the forces of the individual body in discipline and applied to populations because of its consequences (Foucault 1990, 145). ‘Sex was a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species’ (Foucault 1990, 146). Foucault argues that while sovereign power had prioritized the blood relation as one of its fundamental values, the regime of biopower that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century focused instead on sexuality. This shift of focus was associated with the emergence of a congeries of concepts such as heredity, progeny, degeneracy and perversion, within which sexuality was not a symbol of power, but its object and target. Again, Foucault is careful to note that the transition from a society of blood to one of sexuality was not a distinct rupture, but entailed a series of ‘overlappings, interactions and echoes’ (Foucault 1990, 149). Interestingly, one of the major axes of this overlapping between a society of blood and one of sexuality was race. However, Foucault’s comments in Will to Knowledge are brief, especially on the issue of race, and at this point, it is helpful to turn to his more extensive discussion in the lecture series presented at the Collùge de France in 1976, and published some years later under the title, Society Must Be Defended.
In the March 17 lecture in this course, Foucault identifies a number of key characteristics of biopolitics as the arm of biopower addressed to populations. He offers several contrasts between disciplinary power that operates at the level of the individual body, and a biopolitics that concerns itself with the new political subject of the population, or ‘man-as-a-species’. Foucault argues that this new technology of power that addresses itself to ‘man-as-species’ is primarily concerned with and attempts to control the phenomena of the mass, that is, with characteristics such as birth rates, rates of mortality and morbidity and longevity across a population. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century thus saw the emergence of natalist policies and concerns with birth control, culminating in eugenics, as well as a concern with what Foucault calls ‘endemics’ – not the sudden mass deaths caused by epidemics, but the ordinary and permanent factors that caused illness and weakened the population, cost money and wasted resources and energy. This gives rise to public hygiene and institutions to ‘coordinate medical care, centralize power and normalize knowledge’ (Foucault 2003b, 244). Further, biopolitics concerns itself with the accidents that befall and incapacitate individuals insofar as they are universal and ineradicable – thus we see the introduction of insurance, the rise of concern with public safety and an emphasis on collective and individual savings. Also central to biopolitics was a concern with the relation between humans as a species and their environment, or the milieux in which they live. This includes both a concern with natural environmental features and their impacts upon populations – the link between swamps and epidemics, for instance – and the rapidly expanding urban environments and their capacity to harbour disease and foster depravity. Several elements cut across these new arrangements and political concerns: the emergence of the new political subject of the population, the focus on aleatory events that while unpredictable at an individual level are constant at the collective level and over a period of time, and the establishment of regulatory controls or security mechanisms that ‘have to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings so as to optimize a state of life’ (Foucault 2003b, 246).
Interestingly, in Society Must Be Defended, Foucault clearly relates the emergence of biopower to the inscription of mechanisms of race within the operation of the state. Indeed, here racism was posited by Foucault as fundamental to the operation of the state, such that ‘the modern State can scarcely function without becoming involved with racism at some point, within certain limits and subject to certain conditions’ (Foucault 2003b, 254).4 The introduction of the concept of race into the increasing knowledge of the human as species plays a significant role in that it is ‘a way of fragmenting the field of the biological that power controls 
 a way of establishing a biological-type caesura within a population’ (Foucault 2003b, 255). Moreover, this caesura or rupture of the biological field of the population allows for a particular configuration of life and death, whereby in order for one race to flourish and live, another must die. This is not exactly a warlike relation of confrontation, Foucault says, but a kind of biological relationship, whereby the health and strength – the purity – of one race demands the demise of the other. This involves, then, a shift in the configuration of the target of destruction: no longer an enemy, exactly, but a threat, ‘either external or internal, to the population and for the population’ (Foucault 2003b, 256). And since the improvement of the species – of one race thereof – requires the elimination of the biological threat presented by another race, this shift legitimizes the mobilization of death within a power that manages life: ‘[i]n a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable’, where ‘killing’ is not limited to direct murder but also includes forms of ‘indirect murder’ such as increased risk of death or even ‘political death’ in the form of expulsion and rejection, for instance (Foucault 2003b, 256). Of course, Nazi eugenics presents one of the more obvious examples of this kind of state racism, but Foucault is also cognizant of the fact that as a mechanism of the State, racism was central to colonialism. Further, though Foucault does not mention this, the integration of the deployment of sexuality with the institutionalization of racism in biopower makes it apparent why miscegenation was of such intense political and social concern in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5
Though this apparent integration of biopower and racism is downplayed in Will to Knowledge, this explicit contextualization is useful in that it brings to the fore two inter-related aspects of the operation of biopower; the first of these is eugenics and the second is warfare. As a particular way of thinking about humans as subject to evolutionary pressures that either led to the degeneration of certain races or their strengthening, eugenics emerged in the nineteenth century and reached its apotheosis in the early twentieth century. Conceptually, it drew strength from Darwinian theories of evolution applied to social circumstance; institutionally, it took the forms of state control of reproduction, for instance, through enforced sterilization, and in the Nazi state in particular, the decimation of populations deemed to weaken the ‘Aryan’ race (Kevles 1995). Central to eugenic thinki...

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Citation styles for Biopolitics

APA 6 Citation

Mills, C. (2017). Biopolitics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)

Chicago Citation

Mills, Catherine. (2017) 2017. Biopolitics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Mills, C. (2017) Biopolitics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Mills, Catherine. Biopolitics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.