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Biopolitics, ethics and subjectivation


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257 Pages

You can change the print size of this book


This collective book proposes to re-examine and explore the paradox of modernity through the triad structure of biopolitics, ethics and subjectivation, as it has served as an effective analytic tool for Western cultures (Foucault, Agamben, Negri...). The authors ask themselves if this framework can be tested on as varied cultural conditions as those in Asia, South Asia, Africa, Latin America or Eastern Europe.



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Biopolitics, Ethics and Subjectivation

© L’Harmattan, 2011
5-7, rue de l’Ecole polytechnique ; 75005 Paris


ISBN : 978-2-296-54545-8
EAN : 9782296545458

A book edited by
Alain Brossat, Yuan-Horng Chu, Rada Ivekoviý,
Joyce C.H. Liu

Biopolitics, Ethics and Subjectivation


Joyce C.H. Liu

This volume is the result of the international conference and summer
school onBiopolitics, Ethics and Subjectivation: Questions on Modernityheld in
June 2009, co-organized by the Graduate Institute for Social Research
and Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan, and the
Department of Philosophy, University Paris-8, France. The spirit behind
these co-operation has been stated very well by Alain Brossat, the
founder of the societyIci et ailleurs, in his statement regardingIci et ailleurs:
here and elsewhere. We organize these events for researchers and
graduate students from different countries to meet in a five-day
workshop, with diverse historical and cultural backgrounds, different
fields of specialties, and varied scholarly training. Each time, the focused
problematic brings us together to exchange our thoughts, to deliberate
our papers and to communicate, to dialogue and to understand. The
2009 conference is the 3conference and summer school co-sponsored
by SRCS of Chiao Tung University, Taiwan, and the Department of
Philosophy, University Paris-8, France since 2005. The first one is
Pólemos, Stásis: An International Symposium,Taiwan, Juneheld in Yilan,
2005. The second one isCulture & Politics, held in Chilhac, France,
September 2007.

The theme of Biopolitics,Ethics and Subjectivation: Questions on Modernity is
deliberately selected in order to problematize the question of biopolitics,
the genealogy of ethics, and the subjectivation raised by Michel Foucault.
The Foucaultian assumption concerning the difference of the pastoral
power in Christian society and the Confucianism in Fast Eastern
societies was radically questioned. Situated in Taiwan, an island with
complex colonial histories, mixed with traditional
Chinese/Taiwanese/Japanese cultures, and with rapidly globalized
commercial market and increasing number of immigrant workers, the
2009 conference was organized to encourage contributions, discussions
and debates not merely on the European conditions but more on the
Fast Eastern spheres, the post-colonial situations and the global-capitalist

The papers in this volume raised questions such as whether the
theoretical framework on the question of biopolitics, ethics, and

subjectivation elaborated by contemporary European thinkers be
transported and re-examined in a different context, such as the East
Asian countries. What differences and what varieties could be observed?
Whether the Confucian tradition serve as an alternative for the
subjectivation or as a more severe disciplinary order? The project of
modernity in East Asian countries, was closely inter-related. It is obvious
that Western epistemological apparatus has penetrated and permeated
East Asian countries, starting from the mid-18century and throughout
the 20century. Western concepts, such as citizen, subject, nation,
people, sovereignty, international law, along with different forms of new
knowledge, were introduced into the Chinese-using spheres, including,
Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan. There new concepts were coated with
traditional Chinese or Japanese phraseology, but endowed with modern
rationality and national justification. We need to ask: was there a
particular alternative mode of the East Asian Modernity, or was the
Asian world-view altered by the West? How did the triad term of
biopolitic, ethics and subjectivation take shape? Through what cultural
institutions and historical processes, with what specificities? In the long
and varied processes of translations, was it a total transplantation or was
it resistance with modification?Along with this line of thinking, can we
further ask whether the revival of Confucianism be a complicit force in
disguise for the expansion of the nationalist and global cognitive
capitalism? Could we raise questions against the contemporary power
alliance in the Asian world that is still the follow-up of the project of


Chapter I

Foucault, Bio-politics and Governmentality

In a text called « the analytic philosophy of politics », a lecture he gave in
Japan, in 1978, Foucault considered his own position as a philosopher
or, more generally, as a “public speaker”in its very relativityto other
situations, to other conditions–stating-conditions. As he evokes other
the question of prisons, of the prison system– aquestion he has been
dealing with at great length during the previous years - he takes into
consideration the stake of relativity (or, if we prefer, “de-centring”) by
saying this: having visited two prisons in the region of Fukoka, he has
“taken notice that the problem of penalty, of delinquency, of jail has to
be identified,in your society[meaning in Japan] in very different terms as
in ours [meaning Western or French society]”. For this reason, he adds,
he has given up his project to present a lectureabout the “specific
problem of prisons”. For what he would have to say on this issue would
be solely related to the European context in which it was worked out and
he would risk to fail in transposing it into these quite “different”
For this reason, Foucault has decided to transform his lecture into a
rather risky exercise: the examination of the “question of power” , the
presentation of some proposals and concepts related to an analysis of
politicsunder the conditionof their reference (submission) to the “test” of
the heterogeneous, of the different, of the discontinuous– specifically
the “test” of a differentiation/opposition between “West” (“Europe”,
“our societies”, “in our countries”, “Western countries”...) and “Far
East” (Japan”, “Far Eastern societies”...).
So, the issues, the analysis, the concepts he is going to present in his
lecture are constantly not only linked to, but depending on this
reservation or general condition: it is a “story” of the West which is
“narrated” here according to a style or a mode which is characteristic of
philosophy; if this “story” can have avaluefor a Far Eastern public, if
this public can spot in it paradigmas or receive stimulations from it, it is
obvious that these “operations” will not take thesimpleform of
transpositions, but rather rely on the examinations of variances,
distances, differences or even contrasts. In such a context, the critical
thinker has not so much to implement “strong” concepts or analytic
proposals whose universality would stand out quite naturally; he has to
practice the art tomake “singularities” surge up – specificobjects or
topographies which have to be connected together or compared.
So, having mentioned the “great illnesses” ofpower in the XXth
century and in the West, fascism and stalinism, having shown how, in the
West again, philosophy was brought to form a close bond with the
State’s fate, having stridden along the history of the pastoral power,


notably in its relation to Christianity, Foucault sketches out the
programme of a comparative research: “It would be worthwhile to
compare pastorate, pastoral power in Christian societies with what was
the role and the effects of Confucianism in Far Eastern societies”.
Drawing up the general outline of such a research,he adds: “One should
make the difference[my emphasis, AB] between pastoral power and
Confucianism: the pastorate is mainly religious, Confucianism isn’t;
pastorate aims at a goal which is in the hereafter and has a role to play
here below only in relation with this hereafter, while Confucianism plays
mainly an earthly role; Confucianism aims at a general stability of the
social body, implemented by a set of general rules which become
imperative for each individual; the pastorate, by contrast, sets up
individualized relations of obedience between the pastor and his flock...”
What matters here is not the more or less fragile character of the
comparison brought up by Foucault. What obviously matters is the
inclusion in his research field of the dimension of relativity, the
implementation, inplicitly or explicitely, of such notions as difference,
heterogeneity, “singularity”, discontinuity –notions which make way for
a special attention to cultural differences, cultural dissent or dispute.
All the texts which have been put together in this part of the book
elaborate the issue Foucault is dealing with in the lecture he gave in
Tokyo, in April 1978. Each author handles the subject according to his
own interests, fields of research and references, but each of these short
essays draws us back to the question raised by Foucault: how to
incorporate the factor of cultural heterogeneity in our discourse, in our
theoretical devices?
Alain Brossat


Power over Life/Power of Life:
What is a Non-organizational Politics?
Pheng Cheah

Modernity is the era of bio-power, the age of the political control over
life. The most provocative contribution of Foucault’s and Deleuze’s
thought to political philosophy is the attempt to articulate a power of life
that evades the power over life. Insofar as bio-power involves the
political organization of life and, therefore, a conceptualization of life as
a teleological or end-oriented process, i.e. as an organism, Foucault and
Deleuze can be said to espouse a non-organismic vitalism: an
understanding of life that is no longer centered on the organism or on
organization as the source of life. But given that the living organism has
provided the metaphorical template for almost all normative theories of
the political in modernity, what exactly is a non-organizational politics?
This essay begins by briefly examining why politics was understood in
organismic terms in the first place before turning to consider the reach
of a non-organismic vitalist account of politics.
Normative theories of the political regard the political realm as the site
for the achievement of human freedom. They have modeled the political
sphere after the organism because its special causality as an organized
and self-organizing being is the closest analogue we have to the rational
spontaneity, auto-causality and self-actualizing power that is freedom.
Kant’s Third Critique contains the first modern formulation of the
organismic metaphor of the political body.
The analogy of these direct natural ends can serve to elucidate a certain
[kind of] association [Verbindung] [among people], though one found
more often as an idea than in actuality: in speaking of the complete
transformation [Umbildung] of a large people into a state, which took
place recently, the wordorganizationwas frequently and very aptly applied
to the establishment of legal authorities, etc., and even to the entire body
politic. For each member [Glied] in such a whole should indeed be not
merely the means [Mittel], but also an end [Zweck]; and while each
member contributes to making the whole possible [der Möglichkeit des
Ganzen mitwirkt], the idea of that whole should in turn determine the
member’s position and function.

ImmanuelKant,Kritik der Urteilskraft, inWerkausgabe, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel
(Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968), 323n; Ak. V: 375n;Critique ofthe Judgment, trans.
and ed. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 254n.

Kant’s metaphor elucidates the associative ties of the emergent
republican state. ‘Organization’ refers to an unprecedented articulation
of individual citizens into legal institutions and even the formation of the
state itself from individual members. This kind of state exhibits a
purposive auto-causality similar to that of an organism because it is a
self-organizing whole in which there is a reciprocity between parts and
whole, means and end. Unlike earlier non-organismic accounts of life
that explained a living body’s capacity for animation in terms of an alien
soul that governs the body, the being of the emergent republican state
and its individual members, like that of an organism and its parts, is not
subordinate to an external force. This homology between an organism’s
autonomous constitution and political freedom helps to elucidate the
socio-political values of liberty and equality. The reciprocal causal
relationship between an organism’s parts implies equality amongst
citizens. The fact that the parts produce each other and the whole at the
same time that the whole produces the parts implies the liberty of
citizens vis-à-vis the polity.
In the wake of Kant’s metaphor, relations between civil society and the
state, the nation-people and the state apparatus, the masses and political
parties have been understood in terms of rational organization as the
source of living movement. Sovereign political bodies are described as
vital, as having a power that will endure, because they are legitimate, i.e.
rationally organized in terms of fluid relations of reciprocity and
feedback between the whole and its members such that its members
actively constitute through their actions the milieu that sustains their
lives. The legitimate political body is therefore the substrate in which
their individual members can live free and fulfilled lives. In this way, the
causality of organisms—their life—becomes the template for
understanding the social life of human beings in an optimal state of
freedom. Indeed, organic life even becomes a regulative idea in the
organization of social relations and the conduct of all levels of collective
The same organismic metaphor informs Marx’s understanding of labor
as the social and socializing activity by which human beings produce and
remake their own life.
By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing
their actual material life. The way in which men produce their means of
subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of
subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of
production must not be considered simply as being the production of the
physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of


activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a
definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so
they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both
with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of
individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their
Marx literalizes the organismic metaphor because he understands human
existence in sensuous material terms. Human life is a unique form of
organic life that possesses the capacity or power of rational
selfexpression and self-actualization through the appropriation of external
nature. Because human life is the power of setting ends, it exceeds mere
physical existence because the human being can make nature a means to
its ends and consciously produce itself. TheEconomic and Philosophical
Manuscripts characterizes nature as man’s non-organic body, the body that
is outside the organic form of his immediate body, insofar as he can
appropriate it as a means of his subsistence and activity.
In practice [plants, animals, stones, air, light etc.] form a part of human
life and human activity. In a physical sense man lives only from these
natural products, whether in the form of nourishment, heating, clothing,
shelter, etc. The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that
universality which makes the whole of nature hisinorganic body,(1) as a
direct means of life and (2) as the matter, the object and the tool of his
life activity. Nature is man’sinorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as
it is not the human body. Manlivesfrom nature, i.e. nature is hisbody, and
he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say
that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that
nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.
Now, this power of life that co-belongs with the human being, which
Marx calls “productive force”, is necessarily a social or cooperative
activity insofar as the production of others is required to satisfy the
needs of the individual.More importantly, a certain sociality is
immanent to the production of human life because as Marx, alluding to
Aristotle, notes in theGrundrisse, “the human being is in the most literal
sense a9YRX SROLWLNRQ, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal
which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.”Social relations

KarlMarx and Friedrich Engels,The German Ideology, trans. C. J. Arthur (New York:
International Publishers, 1970), 42.
KarlMarx,Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, inEarly Writings, trans. Rodney
Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), 328.
Marx and Engels,The German Ideology, 50.
KarlMarx,the Critique ofPolitical EconomyGrundrisse: Foundations of, trans. Martin
Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), 84.


historically condition productive activity and determine its specific shape.
Ideally, relations of production should form an organic totality with
productive forces. They should be part of a dialectical whole that
furthers the latter’s vital development. But since industrial capitalist
social relations fetter and even obstruct this development, they are
literally death-dealing, as evidenced by the proletariat’s struggle for
survival in the face of degradation and immiseration. Referring to the
miserable living conditions of the urban worker, Marx observes that even
the original and most basic human right to life is degraded because the
worker now has to pay to live in a polluted environment with such low
standards of living that human life becomes synonymous with “the worst
possible state of deprivation” where “dirt, this pollution and putrefaction
of man, the sewage (this word is to be understood in its literal sense) of
civilization– becomes an element of life.”Indeed, the basic principle of
bourgeois economy is “the denial of life and of all human needs”
because its aim is to augment capital and not human life.
The revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist mode of production,
figured as the reappropriation of the totality of productive forces, is
therefore the reaffirmation of the power of living labor through the
activity of organization. Despite Marx’s critique of the bourgeois state
and its legal institutions, the proletariat possesses the shape of rational
sovereignty. For Marx, the true sovereign is thesocialthe site of sphere,
co-operative decision-making and social accounting. As he puts it,
“socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human
metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their
collective [gemeinschaftliche] control instead of being dominated by it as a
blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in
conditions most worthy and adequate to their human nature.”
Although it has not previously been discussed in this manner, Foucault’s
account of bio-power is a critique of political organicism and its
understanding of life.The concept of bio-power or power over life is

Marx,Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 359-60.
Marx,Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 361.
KarlMarx,Das Kapital, Volume 3,Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA),
ed. Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus (Berlin: Dietz, 1973-), II, 4.2: 838;Capital: A
Critique ofPolitical Economy. Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1981), 959.
There is some inconsistency in Foucault’s writings about whether bio-power is
synonymous with biopolitics. InThe History ofSexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans.
Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1980), biopolitics is seen as one ofthe two forms
of thepower over life or bio-power. It deploys mechanisms ofsecurity or regulatory
control ofthe population as a biological species as distinguished from disciplinary


formulated on the basis of two connected arguments: an explicit
historical argument about a change in the nature of power in modern
Western societies starting from the eighteenth century, and a submerged
philosophical argument about the nature of life and its relation totechne
that lies at the basis of these historical changes. The historical argument
is that the two related representational figures for understanding power–
that of the sovereign and the law– failto capture the operations of
power in modernity where the sovereign modality of power, typified by
prohibition and repression, has been displaced by two productive forms
of power, namely, discipline and government.This displacement
occurred in the conjuncture of the post-Westphalian interstate system
and the rise of capitalism and the concomitant sphere of political
economy. In this context, the new principle of political power is the
optimization of the state’s forces through processes that generate them
and make them grow as well as regulating and ordering them. The
population as a source of wealth and a productive force is a crucial
component of these forces.The earlier form of bio-power was
disciplinary and directed at the life of the individual body. It sought to
optimize its capabilities and forces so that they could be extracted at the
same time that the body was rendered controllable and docile so that it
could be integrated into the machinery of production.Disciplinary
power is thus an anatomo-politics that focuses on the living body as a
machine, endowing it with the capacity for labor. It is an infra-power
(sous pouvoir), “a web of microscopic, capillary politicalpower [that
attaches]…men to the production apparatus, while making them into
agents of production, into workers.” Thesecond form of bio-power,
which developed later and which Foucault called a biopolitics of the
population, focuses instead on the population as a species as this impacts

mechanisms that concern the life ofthe body (139-45). HereafterHS. But in the three
sets oflectures from the years 1976-79, where the distinction between discipline and
government/security is sharper, bio-power and biopolitics are used interchangeably and
is targeted at the population. See Michel Foucault,Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at
the College de France, 1977-78, trans. Graham Burchell (Hampshire and New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 1. HereafterSTP. This changes the dating ofthe emergence
of bio-powerfrom the seventeenth to the eighteenth century.
See Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” inFoucault 1954-Power. Essential Works of
1984, Volume3, ed. James Faubion (New York: The New Press, 2000), esp. 215-222,
andSTP, Lectures 4-6, esp. 103-110.
mercantilism inSee Foucault’s discussion ofSTP, 68-69.
SeeHS, 139, 141.
Michel Foucault, “Truth and Juridical Forms,” inFoucaultPower. Essential Works of
1954-1984, Volume3, ed. James Faubion (New York: The New Press, 2000), 86.


on larger economic processes such as consumption, balance of trade and
the circulation of goods and money. As a living species, the population is
subject to natural, biological processes, the conditions of which can be
regulated, managed, and controlled through governmental intervention
so that the population can be adjusted and calibrated to facilitate
economic processes.
The differences between the two forms of bio-power are noteworthy not
only because they are often confused with each other, but also because
governmental technologies most clearly bring out the fundamental
features of the power over life and, more important, the power of life
that is its basis. Although both forms of bio-power are generative and
productive in contrast with the repressive power of sovereignty, they
function very differently and by deploying different technologies that are
appropriate to their respective targets. Discipline takes control of
individual bodies and increases their productive force. It treats these
bodies as individual organisms, the organs and capacities of which must
be augmented and trained to work together as a whole that can function
with the greatest power and efficiency. Hence, it is a form of direct, even
physical constraint that seeks the total control of every level of the body,
even the space of its movement. In contradistinction, government is
directed at a living mass (the population). It does not seek to discipline
its target so as to render it useful or docile. The population cannot be
controlled in the same way as individual bodies because it is subject to
larger biological processes that are characterized by chance and
randomness. Hence, government only seeks to regulate its object, to
achieve a state of equilibrium or regularity by predicting the probability
of the random events that can occur in a living mass and by
compensating for its effects. As Foucault puts it, regulation involves “a
technology which aims to establish a sort of homeostasis…by achieving
an overall equilibrium that protects the security of the whole from
internal dangers…. [A] technology of security; …a reassuring or
regulatory technology.”
Foucault characterizes the difference between the two forms of
biopower in terms of two series: “the body-organism-discipline-institutions
series, and the population-biological processes-regulatory
State”.key thematic distinction is between the organism and life: The
the functionality of the organs of the human body qua individual

SeeHS, 139,STP, 70.
Michel Foucault,‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976,
trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 249.HereafterSMBD.
SMBD, 250.


organism, where the organization of the body is literally viewed as the
product-effect of rational-purposivetechne, and the biological processes
of the population as a living mass that is in its constitution aleatory
because it is subject to random events. Life, which scientific knowledge
attempts to grasp in terms of biological processes, is what subtends and
runs through individual bodies. By referring to the aleatory character of
life as a danger that is internal to and from which the population must be
secured, Foucault suggests that these processes are at one and the same
time the substrate of organisms and their capacities and also that into
which organisms can be dissolved or become undone. Such a
formulation echoes an earlier formulation fromThe Birth of the Clinicthat
characterizes the organism as the actualization of life: “Life is not the
form of the organism, but the organism is the visible form of life in its
resistance to that which does not live and which opposes it.”
Foucault’s distinction between the organism and the general biological
processes of the species may seem disingenuous because according to
the German idealist organismic conception of life, the entirety of living
nature can be seen as a purposive whole in which individual organisms
and their species are connected into an organized system of ends. But
Foucault’s point is precisely that a biological species cannot be enclosed
in this kind of totality because life is constitutively aleatory. The very
concept of biopolitics is inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of
the natural, physical or biological dimension of human existence as that
which power has to respect as the element within which it must function
such that power itself is physical action. But what does Foucault mean by
the nature of human beings?It clearly is neither the mechanistic view of
nature as a blind force that needs to be negated, limited or curbed by
human reason nor the teleological understanding of organic nature as
inherently rational and conducive to the final end of universal human
progress. The biological nature of human beings refers instead to the
interfacethe biological-natural processes of the human species between
and the geographical or physical milieu of its existence that can affect
these biological forces. These forces can be optimized towards specific,
limited ends through regulatory technologies that work within nature
insofar as it shapes the milieu of our existence.
But the productive regulation of the natural dimension of human
existence needs to be clearly distinguished from the social or political
constructionhuman life whether we understand this in terms of a of

Michel Foucault,the Clinic: An Archaeology ofThe Birth ofMedical Perception, trans. A. M.
Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1994), 154.


Marxist account of the ability of human beings to produce the material
conditions of their existence or theories of the shaping of the meaning of
human life by constraining social norms. Foucault emphasizes that what
regulation seeks to bring about is “the interplay of reality with itself.”
Power does not seek to constrain material reality. It seeks to let it
develop or unfold in an optimal way. The relation betweentechne and
human life thus operates at two levels. First, the individual human body
qua organism is the product of disciplinary technologies. Here,
biopower is a power over life that produces as its effect the spontaneous
causality of the human organism. The life and powers of the individual
body is the product oftechne, the capabilities of a technical life in which
physisis thoroughly penetrated bytechnebecause of the ability of power to
intervene in, modify and transform bodies through scientific knowledge.
It is, as Foucault puts it, the product of a power to make live. Second, at
the level of the species, however, there is a limit to this power to make
live. Technologies of government and security can plan the
(artificialnatural) material milieu in which the population lives and so shape the
population. But they are unable to completely penetrate the biological
processes of the population and its environment because these processes
are subject to the contingency and accidentality of the temporal and the
uncertain. The merely regulatory function of these technologies indicates
that the technical organization of life and the political tendency towards
systematization is based on the presupposition of power’s impotence, its
inability to eliminate the aleatory. Foucault does not say this explicitly,
but what is disclosed here is a residual power of life.
Foucault is coy about the power of life. There are brief comments about
the non-transparence or opaqueness of the population as a natural
phenomenon to the sovereign that arises from human life’s
unpredictability. Readingbetween the lines of his account of the
historical emergence of bio-power, we can say that there is something
about life that is both indispensable to and impenetrable by power. As a
source of wealth and productive power, the population is the
fundamental element of the dynamic of the state’s power. What is
significant about the ascendancy of the governmental modality of power
is that it takes place within the framework of the population’s explosive
expansion in the eighteenth century. This explosion is an unplanned
event (in the full sense of the word ‘event’) that is salutary for power
because the human masses it creates increases the resources of states.

STP, 48.
SeeSTP, 70-73.


However, these masses, which are characterized by biological processes,
also escape the sovereign modality of power. The governmental power
that arises in response to this new object attempts to control these
biological processes. But their inherent unpredictability, as indexed by
the population’s unplanned explosion, is also a limit that governmental
power cannot overcome. For human life is a resource because of its
unpredictable explosiveness. What distinguishes it from non-living or
mechanical forces, which exhibit a complete regularity, is its capacity for
exponential increase if it is rationally controlled and augmented. In other
words, the unpredictability of life processes made life the target of
regulation in the first place and it remained resistant to bio-political
calculations despite the pervasive shaping of life by government.
Foucault had explored the idea of something that both stimulates and
evades rational calculation in an earlier discussion of Nietzsche’s
understanding of knowledge as an action that seeks to petrify and
destroy a thing and subject it to relations of force and violence so that it
can grasp it in the element of truth.Knowledge, Foucault suggests,
arises from hatred, contempt or fear and it is life’s unpredictability that is
feared the most. Foucault returns to this idea in one of his final essays on
Canguilhelm. But he reversed his earlier argument by describing the
concept as a way of living and not a way of killing life.“Life –and this
is its radical feature,” he observed “is that which is capable of error” and
this tendency to err is the origin of conceptual thought.“Error is the
permanent contingency around which the history of life and the
development of human beings are coiled.”
This view of life as a set of processes that are radically heteronomous
and subject to error and contingency clearly breaks with the conception
of life as a teleological mode of causality that Marx inherited from
German idealism. In modern political philosophy, the legitimacy of the
organic political body refers to the obedience of its members secured
through rational organization. Conversely, a political body lacking a
rational basis sustains itself through an antithetical relation to truth.
Power functions negatively: it either prohibits behavior that is anti-social
or motivated by selfish interests through juridical instruments or

See Foucault, “Truth and Juridical Forms,” 12-15.
Michel Foucault, “Life: Experience and Science,” inAesthetics, Method and Epistemology:
Essential Works ofFoucault 1954–1984, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: The New
Press, 1998), 475: “Forming concepts is a way oflivingkilling life; it isand not a way of
a way to live in a relative mobility and not a way to immobilize life.”
Foucault, “Life: Experience and Science,” 476.
Foucault, “Life: Experience and Science,” 477.


represses knowledge of the state’s illegitimacy or, in the case of Marxist
arguments, it mystifies the truth that the state is an instrument of class
exploitation. In contradistinction, according to Foucault’s analysis of
biopower, the spontaneous power of the human organism is generated by
political technologies that do not follow from and even undermine the
logic of universal normative reason as the basis of freedom. On the
other hand, the population must be managed and governed, not by the
external imposition of laws, regulations or even norms, but by respecting
and working within what is natural in the population precisely because
the population is a living force that must be enhanced and optimized
even as this living force is by its very nature not completely amenable to
rational calculation because it is endlessly alterable by virtue of being
subject to variations and accidents.
Three important implications follow from this break with political
organicism. First, reason is at work in bio-political technologies but at a
different level from that of universal, normative reason. Their rationality
is that of specific means-ends relations. They are not registered by
consciousness, the mind, or the psyche through processes of recognition
(as Hegel would say) but work instead at the level of the body and in the
shaping of the biological processes of the population and the
physicalmaterial milieu that condition this biological existence. These rational
technologies function at a more fundamental material level than rational
legitimation. They are needed because of the opacity of the population to
the sovereign will. They enhance the capabilities of the population,
including its powers of life and labor, and thus enable control over the
population’s needs and interests. This is why Foucault emphasizes that
the relation between sovereign and the population “cannot simply be
one of obedience or the refusal of obedience, of obedience or revolt….
The variables on which population depends are such that to a very
considerable extent it escapes the sovereign’s voluntarist and direct
action in the form of the law. If one says to a population ‘do this,’ there
is not only no guarantee that it will do it, but also there is quite simply no
guarantee that it can do it.”
Second, this means that the object of governmental power is not a group
of individual juridical subjects capable of voluntary actions that are
permitted orprohibited through sovereign legal command. It is not “a
collection of subjects of right…, of subject wills who must obey the
sovereign’s will through the intermediary of regulations, laws, edicts” but
instead “a multiplicity of individuals who are and fundamentally and

STP, 70.


essentially only exist biologically bound to the materiality within which
they live”.The regulation of the population understood in terms of the
life processes of the species requires technologies that work with nature
in order to enhance and shape these processes. Hence, Foucault notes
that whereas law works in the imaginary and discipline works in a sphere
complementary to reality, security works within reality, “by getting the
components of reality to work in relation to each other, thanks to and
through a series of analyses and specific arrangements.”
What we see then is a severe ironization of political organicism.
Biopower is organismic to the extent that it organizes human life at the
individual and mass level and so connects economic processes and social
and political institutions to form a tight web of relations. However, this
network problematizes the two modes of freedom associated with
spontaneous life– thefree rational will and free creative labor. In their
very constitution, both forms of freedom are regulated by technologies
of power operating at the level of individual bodies and the population.
In particular, the Marxist topos of alienated labor loses its pertinence
because the capacity of living labor that is degraded through alienation is
from the start created by political technologies to facilitate the
accumulation process.
The third implication of Foucault’s break from political organicism is a
radical rethinking of freedom. The web of relations formed by bio-power
is also not a genuine organismic totality partly because the source of
organization and systematization is the heteronomy of life. The analysis
of biopolitics examines how political power is sustained through and
consists of a series of necessary political engagements with forces of
individual bodies and mass human life in relation to a living
environment. This means that both the state and human life are
heteronomous. The state is not an autonomous sphere but merely a
terminal form of more capillary forms of power. By the same token,
human life is the product of technologies of power that are not deployed
by the rational will. Yet, for Foucault, heteronomy and freedom are not
opposed. Instead, freedom and resistance arise from the grounding of
politics in the heteronomy of life. By virtue of its heteronomous basis,
the political sphere is opened up to micro-practices of organization and
technologies from below just as the constitutive vulnerability of human
life to technologies of bio-power makes individual bodies and masses a

STP, 70, 21.
STP, 47.
See Foucault, “Truth and Juridical Forms,” 85.


fundamental part of the dynamic of power, thereby enabling resistance.
This is the essential meaning of the governmentalization of the state,
which must be understood as a radical break from the organismic
understanding of the political in terms of an all-encompassing mode of
rational self-organization from above exemplified by Hegel’s state as
The intrinsic connection between freedom and governmentality is why
Foucault suggests that we can only fully understand biopolitics after we
have understood the governmental regime of liberalism.The
governmental regime ofraison d’Étatalready informed by the was
principle of treating the population as a physical-biological species and as
respecting the process of nature, working within them in order to
enhance them. Liberal governmentality, which emerges in the
mideighteenth century with the rise of the object of political economy,
develops this respect for nature even further in the principle thathomo
oeconomicusis a subject of interest who must be left alone (laissez-faire) in
the free pursuit of his self-interest as it spontaneously converges with the
interests of others. It is a form of governmentality that governs through
restriction and self-limitation, aneconomicart of government, both in the
sense that it governs according to the principles of political economy and
the principle of frugality.Simply put, although Foucault would
undoubtedly reject this dialectical vocabulary, liberalism is the truest
form of biopolitics, biopolitics in its nakedness as it were because it is a
form of government that respects the spontaneity of life as the best basis
of government. Foucault characterizes it as a “governmental
naturalism.” “The game of liberalism – notinterfering, allowing free
movement, letting things follow their own course;laisser faire, passer et aller
– basicallymeans acting so that reality develops, goes its own way,
follows it own course according to the laws, principles, and mechanisms
of reality itself.”
Freedom, understood as the respect of certain freedoms and, more
specifically, the letting-be of the free play of individual interests, is a
principle of governmental self-limitation that is indispensable to
knowledgeable, good government and its aim of increasing the forces of

SeeMichel Foucault,Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79The Birth of,
trans. Graham Burchell (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 22.
BB, 271.
BB, 61.
STP. 48.


the state.Accordingly, freedom is neither the spontaneity of the
autonomous moral will nor concrete moral action within the substrate of
ethical life (Sittlichkeitin the Hegelian sense). Its spontaneous movement
is that of the internal mechanics of economic processes as they bear on
and shape individual and collective interests that are allowed to be in free
play because it is through this freedom that government can exert its
hold over the desires of people and optimize their forces.In Foucault’s
view, liberalism is a technology for producing and organizing the
capacity for free behavior by establishing an equilibrium between the
natural pursuit of individual interests and the collective interest instead
of a political ideology that promotes the juridical freedom of the
individual and his basic natural rights as teleological goods. Similarly, he
regards civil society, the spontaneity of which has conventionally been
understood in terms of a sphere that has autonomy from government or
state imperatives, as the correlate of the political technology of liberalism
by which governmentality limits itself in order to respect the specificity
of economic processes.
There is undoubtedly a coercive dimension to freedom because
conditions must be established in which the free play of interests can
take place, where one is enabled to be free. As Foucault puts it,
“liberalism is not so much the imperative of freedom as the management
and organization of the conditions in which one can be free,…at the
heart of this liberal practice is an always different and mobile
problematic relationship between the production of freedom and that
which in the production of freedomrisks limiting and destroying it….
Liberalism must produce freedom, but this very act entails the
establishment of limitations, controls, forms of coercion, and obligations
relying on threats etc.” Thepervasive politicization and governmental
management of life led Foucault to be skeptical about viewing the living
being as a site of resistance to and freedom from power, that whose
rights such as the right to life, to health and the satisfaction of needs
needed to be asserted against power, since the capacities and ends of
purposive human life are precisely what bio-power produces and
optimizes. Onealso finds a related critique of socialism for failing to
address the biopolitical production of life insofar as the alternative it
envisions to the capitalist state is similarly concerned with the

STP, 353.
BB, 45, 61.
SeeBB, 295-308. Cf.STP, 248, 349-50, 355.
BB, 63-64.
SeeHS, 144-45.


management of life.Such comments can be taken as further evidence
of the pessimistic nature of Foucault’s analyses of biopolitics, where the
pervasiveness of bio-power is viewed as the capillary support of global
capitalism as a system whose rational calculations are so
allencompassing that there is no escape. But this is to miss Foucault’s point
about why the emergence of the population and the rise of political
economy undermines and renders ineffective the sovereign
representation of power.
The economy is the domain of the pursuit of self-interest byhomo
oeconomicus. This pursuit must be left alone because it is subject to two
kinds of natural events that are not foreseeable and, therefore, exceed
the reach of human control. First, individual interests depend on
accidents of nature that cannot be foreseen, for instance, climactic or
environmental changes can affect needs and interests. Second, the
convergence of individual interests in society such that positive
outcomes of the mutual advantage of all are reached are also beyond
individual control. In Foucault’s view, the economy is therefore “an
indefinite field of immanence”.
[O]n the one hand, the accidents upon which his interest depends belong
to a domain which cannot be covered or totalized and, on the other, the
benefit he produces for others by producing his own benefit is also
indefinite and cannot be totalized…. [B]ut all these involuntary,
indefinite, uncontrollable, and non-totalizable features of his situation do
no disqualify his interest or the calculation he may make to maximize it.
On the contrary, all these indefinite features of his situation found, as it
were the specifically individual calculation that he makes; they give it
consistency, effect, insert it in reality, and connect it in the best possible
way to the rest of the world.
The economy is a whole that is ‘open’ by virtue of the nature of human
life, its being subject to the aleatory. The natural opaqueness of the
economic world to human reason–the fact that it cannot be known in
the totality of its process– means,Foucault suggests in a provocative
gloss on Adam Smith’s figure of the invisible hand, that economics
demonstrates the impossibility of the sovereign gaze and the totalizing
unity it seeks to provide over the domain of government.Modern
liberal governmentality emerges precisely to deal with the non-totalizable
multiplicity of economic subjects that both constitute the essential
element of the life of a society and elude the juridical sovereign.

SMBD, 261.
BB, 277-78.
BB, 282.


The crux of the relation between bio-power and life as Foucault
envisaged it seems to be as follows. Bio-power does not seek to exclude
or repress life since it positively fosters it. Indeed, as we have seen,
biopower consists of a complex of technologies, mechanisms and rational
calculations that respond to life. No doubt, it seeks to control and
manage it, but always only by respecting what is natural to these
biological processes because human lives are the most valuable resource.
However, this does not mean that life is the non-organized, simple
ground that is worked over by bio-power into an organic or organized
life, a purposeful life. This is effectively Giorgio Agamben’s position in
his bipartite distinction betweenbios andzoe, life that is qualified as
existence within a social or political human community and the mere or
bare life that characterizes the simple fact of common living. In
Agamben’s view, bare life is excluded by being included in the polis as
sacred life, a life that can be sacrificed. As the politics of sacred life,
biopower leads to totalitarianism. But as we have seen, in Foucault’s
account, biopolitics demonstrates the impossibility of a totalitarian
sovereign viewpoint because it points to the sheer aleatoriness of life that
escapes the sovereign gaze. Accordingly, for Foucault, there is nothing
simple about life because it is not a force that inheres in a substance or
subject or even a being. It cannot be determined as “natural life, simple
zoe” to be recuperated as “a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare
life and abios thatis only its ownzoe” because it exceeds rational
calculation even as it is something that calls for rational calculation.
This living nature is thus neither a rational purposiveness nor simple,
brute aimlessness.
The power of life is therefore not simple. It cannot be determined in its
simplicity because it is not something that can be posited or set in place.
Instead, it is the vanishing limit of bio-power to the extent that the latter
is a response that attests to its existence only by controlling it. Yet, it is
also not nothing because it is the force of chance, a capability for error
from which human life’s capacity for exponential increase originates.
Hence, the nature of the human species needs to be managed and
converted into a resource instead of being an evil to be eliminated by
socio-political construction. This is why Foucault repeatedly insists that
the human species is both natural and artificial, a physical and moral
species, that the population is “woven from social and political relations,

GiorgioAgamben,Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel
HellerRoazen (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998), 1, 188.