Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Michel Foucault. I am currently writing the Introduction of a special issue of IJFS (International Journal of Francophone Studies) on biopolitics and Francophone postcolonial literature, which is substantially based on Foucault’s work on the relationship between power, knowledge and life, especially in his essays and seminars at the Collège de France from 1976. I post here a very short excerpt from the Introduction, as a tribute to the great French intellectual.
“According to Foucault, in this period of modernity, the old forms of the sovereign power ‘de faire mourir ou de laisser vivre’ were supplemented by a new kind of power: ‘un pouvoir de faire vivre ou de rejeter dans la mort’ (La volonté de savoir: 181). What happens in this shift, and what Foucault wishes to signify by the term ‘biopolitics’, is ‘ce qui fait entrer la vie et ses mécanismes dans le domaine des calculs explicites et fait du pouvoir-savoir un agent de transformation de la vie humaine’ (188). For the first time, life itself ‘passe pour une part dans le champ du contrôle du savoir et d’intervention du pouvoir’ (187); life itself becomes the object of political technologies and disciplinary apparatuses and it is shaped, developed or reduced through regulatory and normalizing procedures. In short, power becomes the management and government of the living, for productive (economic) purposes and for increasing health and wellness. Accordingly, the connection between biopolitics and capitalism emerges as inherent, and suggests potential links with the capitalistic ventures of colonialism and imperialism, which nonetheless, remain unexplored by Foucault.
This grip of power on life has been practised in two main forms since the 17th century. These two poles of development are ‘reliés par tout un faisceau intermédiaire de relations’ (183). The first is the disciplinary power that is exercised directly on the ‘docile bodies’, which are shaped, controlled and used for productive ends: ‘une anatomo-politique du corps humain’ [original emphasis] (183). The second, which developed later, corresponds to the focusing of power on the body-species, that is to say on the regulatory control of populations: ‘une bio-politique de la population’ [original emphasis] (183). This can be understood as a kind of social medicine, administered to the population with the aim of governing its biological life. In this project, an important role is played by the control and regulation of sexuality, not only through a continuation of the marriage alliances which are an established socio-historical feature of western societies, but also with the production of knowledge, through pedagogy, medicine and demography, which intervene in an all-pervasive manner in the biological processes of birth, reproduction, disease, longevity and death. This double technology of disciplining individual bodies and regulating the biological processes of the human species – a new technology of power centred on life – produces a normalised society and, consubstantial with it, a new form of normalised racism. The relationship between the statalisation of biological science, that is to say the use of the sciences of life in order to govern the State, and the birth of modern racism was explored during the lectures Foucault gave at the Collège de France in 1976, published posthumously with the title Il faut défendre la société (1997).”
Today it’s also the second day of the conference that celebrates the 50 years from the foundation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). You can find the program of the conference here.