Biopower and Security

In The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (L’histoire de la sexualité, La volonté de savoir), Michel Foucault defines biopower as the practices engaged by the modern state to effect an “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (184). Developing his notion of biopower through the many exegeses of disciplinary power he studies throughout his career, Foucault focuses his interpretations of biopower on various styles of governments which have historically devised myriad controls of the body—be it in the areas of public health creation and regulation, heath crises and quarantine, military education, the creation of the mental hospital, the structure of the modern prison or the public policies which evolve discourses of the body and discourses of power onto the body:

[I]t is focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. (1976, 183)

Foucault suggests that the somatic, the individual body, is controlled as a means to dominating the general population. Maintaining that biopolitics were developed in the second half of the 18th century and were centered entirely on the body—its health, mortality and continuance—Foucault details this newly born power which has not replaced disciplinary power, but that was instead simply grafted onto disciplinary power, as he writes in “Society Must Be Defended” (Il faut défendre la société):

These are the phenomena that begin to be taken into account at the end of the eighteenth century, and they result in the development of a medicine whose main function will now be public hygiene, with institutions to coordinate medical care, centralize power, and normalize knowledge. And which also takes the form of campaigns to teach hygiene and to medicalize the population (1997, 217).

This distinction between biopower and disciplinary power is imperative to understand in moving forward through his various readings of power: Foucault reads disciplinary power as that which focusses upon people as individuals—subjects to train, teach, punish, surveil and utilize—whereas bio-power focuses on individuals as people—as a “species” to conglomerate, regulate, characterize, and ultimately forecast. Where disciplinary power focuses on particular individuals, Foucault sees biopower as that which focuses upon an extrapolated individual who can be serialized to the point of being interchangeable, repeatable and disappearable.9780141037646

How does biopower function pragmatically and historically then? In an effort to bring Foucault to the everyday, which I strongly believe is a moral imperative inherent within his writings and life practices, I will mention briefly how biopower has manifested itself in recent history. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities outlines how in colonial Asia was literally amassed through the census: health programs which were established to regulate the population as a mass; the installation prenatal programs to influence birth rates; creation of the census to know the colonial population, and so forth. One of the effects of the British colonial census in Malaysia, for instance, was that the categories became more overtly and “exclusively racial” while religious identity was disappeared after the between the census of 1871 and 1901 while nationalities became “pseudoethnic subcategories,” such as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and so forth (164-165). Anderson notes the reifying violences of bio-power in the colonizer’s will to homogenize identity:

These “identities,” imagined by the (confusedly) classifying mind of the colonial state, still awaited a reification which imperial administrative penetration would soon make possible. One notices in addition, the census makers’ passion for completeness and unambiguity. Hence their intolerance of multiple, politically “transvestite,” blurred, or changing identifications. Hence the weird subcategory, under each racial group, of “Others”—who, nonetheless, are absolutely not to be confused with other “Others.” The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one—and only one—extremely clear place. No fractions. (165-166)

Similarly, these mechanisms of governmentality were deployed in the 19th and 20th centuries by imperialists in many African nation from the creation of the census, health programs, maps, to the “preservation” of the “African past” through the building of museums. Indeed, we see this kind of polemic cast upon the people who are inserted and removed from discourses of nationhood in Canada whereby people paradoxically called “First Nations,” the Inuit and Métis are conveniently inserted or made invisible within the greater playing field biopolitics such as the special dates when independence and nationhood are “celebrated”—be it Canada Day or La Fête “nationale” du Québec. Such celebrations of nationalism are en masse artificial consolidations of identity which conterminously elide those voices and bodies which challenge these quite fictional constructions of national identity which are replete with historical ellipses and devoid of any autochthonous or immigrant presence within its historiography.

Though Foucault did not dedicate much time to studies of Empire or to discourses of nationalism and the body, his writing nonetheless lays the groundwork for studies of biopower in these contexts. For instance, the “testing” zones of various systems of organization were to be found in the colonies of the 19th and early 20th centuries as “French modernity” was displaced upon colonized bodies, architectural spaces and urban sites of modernity as discussed in Paul Rabinow’s French Modern; or the relationship between colonizer and colonized which “was fundamental to the colonial order of things” such that sexuality and race are not separable, nor are theoretical and historical insights to sexuality and the body as detailed in Ann Stoler’s Race and the Education of Desire (4); and of course the techno-politics of the modern state created by the interactions of sugar cane, malaria and discourses of nationalism in Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts. The epistemology and practices of biopower have retained their traces throughout the twentieth century through the present day and the violences of biopower cannot be overstated either domestically or abroad.

One of the most commonplaces manifestations of biopower from the latter half of the twentieth century through the present day is the production of virtual appearances and disappearances on the contemporary object of power—life and the body. Biopower, in its colonial and neocolonial exercises, has focussed upon the corporeal and the collective masses, bodies as populations, rendering the somatic visible or invisible depending upon the political circumstances or logistical feat. For instance biopower is manifested through seemingly innocuous acts such as the commonplace practice in which media underreports the numbers of counter-institutional protestors at political demonstrations or when the mediatization of these events render the visible bodies participating in such demonstrations as “misbehaving,” coding these bodies as dangerous, marginalizing these people from a possible legitimation within more centralized political discourses and praxis. Where Foucault sees biopower as a technology of control, the exercise of various techniques (and technologies) of authority onto the body, Negri and Hardt see biopower as that which implies resistance, that which “threatens us with death but also rules over life, producing and reproducing all aspects of society” (2004, 94) within “immaterial goods” such as knowledge and relationships:

Biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it—every individual embraces and reactivates this power of his or her own accord. Its primary task is to administer life. Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself. (2000, 24)

Hardt and Negri view a direct link between global capital and biopower which creates wealth and power for a few while individual control of the body is lost. Ultimately for Hardt and Negri biopower is the biological life and labor of the body, produced by the body, as exercised by the citizenry through manual labour and affective exercises (emotional, family, community). What I find essential in Hardt’s and Negri’s approach is their inclusion of “work” and “production” as factors in the quotidian practices of biopower, whereas for Foucault the somatic is immediate, always present and is often a product of biopower and the institutions that oversee its exercise.

I would suggest that both definitions of biopower are correct inasmuch as Negri and Hardt emphasize the productive value of the biological, emitted from the body outward, and Foucault stresses the institution as ontology in his many analyses of systems of power that effect the somatic: from the welfare state to Fordist controls of the body. It is this conterminous effective and affective body that contributes to biopower today such as the sequencing of the Human Genome and recombinant genetics, the pharmaceutical industry which has turned the female body into a laboratory for Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the male body into one continual and necessary erection, or biometrics which is quickly becoming a procedure that is adopted across governments and private industry. Foucault cites this control of biopolitics in “The Mesh of Power” (“Les mailles du pouvoir”):

Life has now become, from the 18th century onwards, an object of power. Life and the body. Once, there were only subjects, juridical subjects from whom one could take goods, life too, moreover. Now, there are bodies and populations. Power has become materialist. It ceases to be essentially juridical. It must deal with these real things that are bodies and life. Life enters into the domain of power. (2001, 1013)

Foucault views biopower quite differently than the classical vision of sovereignty in which juridical forms of power dominate — biopower is not a version of juridical power, though it is often based upon law or laws are made to reflect its force. Instead, biopower is a set of practices that politicize life by rendering life an object of science and of political intervention whereby power is exercised onto her body carrying a specifically anatomical and biological effect. To this extent, Foucault views biopower as the knowledge that can impact the species through organization and modification such that life can be conceived as both inside and outside human history. Ultimately Foucault opposes biopower to law in The History of Sexuality and “Society Must Be Defended” since his view is that life, not law, is the central issue of all political struggle even if the legal arena might seem to dominate: that the rights to happiness, freedom and so forth all derive from the body and not the juridical structures of sovereignty. Most interesting, however, is that for Foucault biopower continues to produce all forces that resist it, which in turn only extend its reach, like the function of subversion for Judith Butler, biopower is self-producing and self-contesting.

Yet, from the late 1970’s through the end of his life, beginning with The Birth of Biopolitics (Naissance de la bioplitique), Foucault makes another shift in his evaluation of power and in his strategic analysis of security through governmentality, specifically his critique of the liberal government and its power over life. Where Foucault views sovereign power as having the ability enforce power over life or death, exercising its power uniquely through violence. Yet, Foucault points out that since the 17th century, there has been a radical shift in how power is exercised as sovereign power was slowly replaced by bio-power. Biopower gradually replaced the sovereign right to take life, for instance, and instead this absolute control over life was obscured by the normalization of biological life and social technologies. Liberal governmentality aided this concern for biological life by engaging in the fiction of “nature” in order to shift its governmental practices towards newly emergent processes:
What matters is not whether or not this is legitimate in terms of law, but what its effects are and whether they are negative. It is then that the tax in question will be said to be illegitimate or, at any rate, to have no raison d’être. The economic question is always to be posed from within the field of governmental practice, not in terms of what may found it by right, but in terms of its effects… (17)

Here Foucault reflects upon how the government can be effective in terms of understanding these “natural” processes which it seeks to normalize while attempting to comprehend an entire range of relations within the social body (ie. between man and woman, tax officer and tax payer, doctor and patient, and so forth). These sorts of recognizable structural relations employ power in the everyday, yet Foucault’s notion of biopower takes such relations even further. He maintains that how we live within and outside these institutions has become an object of power and knowledge, something that needed to be controlled, even regulated, where the “power over life” upholds relationships of power today. Following from this relationship of power through various state institutions, Foucault recognizes that “nature” itself can be be manipulated by governmental practices putting into question the “natural” that political power disturbs: “What makes a government, despite its objectives, disrupt the naturalness specific to the objects it deals with and the operations it carries out?” (19). Foucault analyzes the relationship between “nature” and “governmentality” locating the governing force to turn subjects into free, neo-liberal individuals. It is here where see the birth of biopolitics as nature cannot be reconciled in terms of governmentality with each valence retaining its relative separation to the other, posing future questions of how juridical power might and can effect change in nature and how nature can affect juridical discourse.

And we see this type of contestation as Foucault attacks liberalism since its “jurisdiction” necessarily encroaches upon the “nature” of individual freedoms: “That is to say, the liberal art of government, is forced to determine the precise extent which and up to what point individual interest, that is to say individual interests insofar as they are different and possibly opposed to each other, constitute a danger for the interest of all” (67). Foucault continues to maintain, however, that liberalism’s danger is not so much univocally poised against the individual or the collective, but rather that liberalism must first and foremost respond to the “security strategies” that actually go against the very condition of liberalism itself:

The game of freedom and security is at the very heart of this new governmental reason whose general characteristics I have tried to describe. The problems of what I shall call the economy of power peculiar to liberalism are internally sustained, as it were, by this interplay of freedom and security.’ (67)

When individual will endangers mass markets or private enterprise, where factories must not pose dangers to its workers, the economy of power to which Foucault here refers, marks this juncture where the states right/obligation to “protect” threatens the freedoms of the individual. What is “natural” to this social order, once threatened, can unleash a series of arbitrations that actually provoke a confrontation between juridical power and biopower.

Certainly there are many instances when we see the absence of the juridic agencies and where power effects the body directly. Yet, there are so many instances today whereby we are not seeing a gradual dissolution of the role of the state, the institution, in the continuance of biopower, and instead we are seeing an increased interest in the production of biopower through the role of the state and private institutions often stepping in for the state. We see many historical instances where biopower is attempts to normalize or order as mentioned early and in recent years: Halliburton’s contractualization of war-torn Iraq to bring back “order;” the United States’ use of mercenaries in Iraq basically surrogating war through the security firm Blackwater; Bechtel’s unsuccessful attempt to dispossess Bolivians of their water resources in the late 1990’s; a series of right to die cases from the United States, to Switzerland, to Italy; and the long distance, video game-like manner of fighting “wars” through computers, drones and the more recent trend of outsourcing war through local, darker-skinned bodies (our future potential “enemies”). And at other times, biopower has historically rested within the realm of the legal as the disappeared body is absent and its past presence or its present absence could only be authenticated by the very legal frameworks of documents, testimonies and recorded data, such as the processes which have attempted to bring back the dead, the missing, the desaparecidos. What we notice more and more in recent years, however, is that in the name of security, nothing is sacred, not even the life that security ostensibly sets out to protect. And as a result today, even the legal references of biopower are changing and being overshadowed by other discourses (more on this below).

Foucault makes reference to this intersection of law and life detailed in “Society Must Be Defended” wherein he distinguishes the “juridical rule derived from sovereignty” from what he terms “natural rule.” For Foucault the idea of emancipation is displaced by another ideal of preserving sovereignty wherein juridical and medical discourses function to create a “society of normalization” (34-36). Certainly the twentieth century has already marked itself as an era where jurisprudence has become somewhat demoted by the current favor of media consensus and medical discourse regarding the “normalization” of the individual, whereby now the subject more commonly seeks affirmation and legitimation from the larger blogosphere or medical community. No longer is it the institution seeking out individuals to normalize, for there is neoliberal social nexus where individuals voluntarily seek out their legitimacy within the structures of various institutions. The body, part of this panorama of securitization, is now procured by the subject who seeks to consolidate her identity through institutional narratives of legitimation. In his study of biopolitics as well as The History of Sexuality, Foucault documents how power shifted in western society throughout modern history: from the Hobbesian theory of the sovereign right to kill to a new regime of biopower in which biological life became the object of political power and surveillance during the eighteenth century, where power implicated the control and the promotion of life. The state of security evidenced in the early twenty-first century, however, demonstrates a biopolitical structure which turns the surveillance of the body both inwards and outwards, from the subject to herself and towards others, where individual will and the good of society are not necessarily antithetical.

Later in the 1980’s Foucault maintains this dichotomization between individual will and the good of society wherein he summons the reader to dispense with the antediluvian dichotomies of domination and emancipation in favor of a subject who can function despite her limits simply because “historical ontology” enables this subject to constitute herself, to question herself, and ultimately to change in the face of power relations:

[T]he historical ontology of ourselves has to answer an open series of questions; it has to make an indefinite number of inquiries which may be multiplied and specified as much as we like, but which will all address the questions systematized as follows: How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions? (“What is Enlightenment,” 576)

Reading Foucault’s conceptualization of the individual responsibility for herself requires the subject to adopt a posture of active engagement rather than one of passivity or of objectification in order to understand how “we constitute ourselves,” lending the active voice to traditionally passive manoeuvres in addressing power. This sort of challenge that Foucault offers, specifically his notion of critical ontology of ourselves, extends a Kantian critique of actualité within a philosophy that is neither concerned with telos nor origin, but one that is invested in locating the subject in the here and now. The ontology of ourselves, Foucault advocates, must disavow all projects that claim to be “global or radical,” adding: “In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality…has led to the return of the most dangerous traditions” (284). So while offering a voice to power, a maneuver that does not reify the subject at the very least, Foucault nonetheless acknowledges the problems of emancipatory narratives through which the subject can ostensibly liberate herself, while in fact such narratives, just like the homeomorphic surface of the Möbius strip, seemingly lead one back to the subject’s foundations of oppression.

So what is the factor which mediates between the individual’s freedom and the security of the people in an age when the body is produced by the techniques of power and likewise where this body reproduces or simulates these very techniques? Foucault continues this distinction between these two interests:

What, then, will be the principle of calculation for this cost of manufacturing freedom? The principle of calculation is what is called security. That is to say, liberalism, the liberal art of government, is forced to determine the precise extent to which and up to what point individual interest, that is to say individual interests insofar as they are different and possibly opposed to each other, constitute a danger for the interest of all (2004, 65-66).

Since the turn of this century, international political economies have focused upon questions of security, especially in the wake of September 11, 2001. More directly, the body has become the immediate focus being targeted by the liberal juridical powers in the United States among many countries in attempting to, as their political rhetoric states, “target terror.” In proclaiming a “war” against terror, the US government has created, more overtly than any other government—although many governments do participate in the Global War on Terror—a tactical agenda completely in line with Foucault’s notion of “security devices” (dispositifs sécuritaires) and biopolitics whereby the body becomes the tactical line of evidence and division as well the conterminous object and subject of his own atonement or redemption. The security strategies utilized throughout the Global War on Terror—and the Obama-rebranded “Overseas Contingency Operation”— hold the subject hostage because his body, once private, is now rendered public: his potential as a security “threat” is scrutinized against itself and the orbiting juridic, medical and mediatized discourses which judge it either more innocent, or more guilty. Inevitably, the body occupies this space of dédoublement wherein it is enciphered with the signs of race, citizenship, ethnicity, and even humanity, from within and from without—the subject is doubly inscribed through the mediatization of his “identity.” Distinguishing fictions from truths to include those of race or citizenship, for instance, do not concern the systems of biopower. Rather biopower effects a recreation of the recreated truth, albeit temporal, which generally suit the political climate of the moment.

Biopower is the bastard child of neoliberal societies which have created elaborate systems of surveillance to control the body in pursuit of securitizing culture. As we witnessed the involvement of medical, psychiatric and anthropological professionals during the last fourteen years of the United States’ War on Terror, the use of jurisprudence, medicine and social science has helped to create the body as political object, the body that necessitated being acted upon, being controlled, and even being locked away. The discourses of race and religion since 2001 quickly became conflated by various state apparati whereby the body as affect became part of the larger scope of racial, ethnic and religious profiling throughout the west. The barometer of tolerance was lowered and the biopolitical techniques used against the subject were excused in the name of the “greater good,” the securitization of the state and the protection of “our freedoms” against those who are, in the words of George W. Bush, “jealous of our freedoms.” The tautology is clear: “we” are an ideological threat to “them” because they covet our freedoms. This is a complete reversal of what is exercised in the War on Terror (ie. “they” are a physical/security threat to “us”). Yet this Manichean terrain of freedom/terrorism and security/threat functions on a purely facile and blind acceptance of racial profiling, religious allegiances, and xenophobia. Never was it put into question what these freedoms are (or even if “they” actually exist) nor if these ostensible freedoms to disciplinary and regulatory power might actually have real effects on the lives of others. Very rarely did our media and juridic structures analyze the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), also known as Special Registration, which focussed its surveillance on twenty-four predominantly Muslim nationalities requiring certain male non-citizens over the age of sixteen to register with Homeland Security. Everything down to the Muslim male body was re-naturalized and repositioned in the biopolitical theater where the recreated truth of the Muslim male was that of jealousy, danger, savagery, and inferiority. We have returned full circle to Edward Said’s orientalist analysis of Mohammadism, a purely western construct whose meaning had no resonance to Muslims. Fertilizer, a copy of the Qur’an, an accent, a video camera, or a prayer mat suddenly all became motives to search, sequester and detain, whilst the liberal citizens in whose name such racial profiling is carried out can be secured that indeed they are freer. The War on Terror evidences the most perverse and cynical of all possible self-fulfilling prophecies.

The extra-legal spaces created to control life—from myriad black sites, to Guantanamo Bay, to Abu Ghraib, to various prisons within the United States—all maintain the narrative of security, albeit unlawfully circumspect as arenas of political exception. The Muslim male body is made the surrogate for unlawful behavior, all in the name of security: his skin tone, his accent, his dress and manners, even when resembling that of the westerner, all render him immediately and always guilty. The suspension of the law in the name of “exception” has now become the norm and the body of the accused functions as a cultural synecdoche for the larger social body of Muslims. It is not at all surprising that the nude, duct taped body of John Walker Lindh, also known as “The American Taliban” or “Detainee 001″ in the War on Terror, became the object of a mediatized vivisection, the terrorist body laid bare to demonstrate that terror can come from within, even from a nice, “all-American” boy from California. Is it in the least shocking that John Walker Lindh did not take part in terrorist activities as he remains locked up in an Indiana prison for another seven years while the government which actually did aid the Taliban, United States, to the tune of at least $43 million has through the present day remained conspicuously uninvestigated?

It is axiomatic that this War on Terror, almost in its fifteenth year, has nothing to do with investigating or stopping “terror.” Instead the Global War on Terror thrives upon constructing and disseminating innumerable fictions of perceived terrorist acts and terrorist bodies whilst abstracting a panorama of violence that will unceasingly be impossible to defeat both domestically and abroad. Ultimately, the War on Terror can never end. The nature of biopower in the context of state security today is two-fold: first, to de-personify the object of western violence while humanizing the western pathos of the Global War on Terror; second, to re-create the enemy, re-embodied and pre-packaged as the Muslim “terrorist.” In this way, biopower functions to place focus on the body of the individual over the act, such as Foucault’s discussion of capital punishment which invokes less “the enormity of the crime itself than the monstrosity of the criminal…One had the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (1976, 138). Given the focus on the Muslim male body in contemporary western politics and the various behavioral typologies set up through the discourses of biopower today, it is not at all surprising that David Bruck is basing the defense of his client, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, upon convincing the jury through photos of the “unrelenting punishment” of the ADX Supermax facility (known as a “clean version of hell”) while leaning heavily on western stereotypes of the Muslim male who, once executed, would necessarily become shahid (a martyr). In order for Tsarnaev to escape death, he must paradoxically be proven to be the stereotypical Muslim terrorist who will suffer more and achieve less fame in life than in death, rather than be shown as yet another angry man whose acts of murder might just speak to the larger issues of male violence the world over.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2014). She can be reached at:

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: