Foucault and the Two Approaches to Biopolitics

In Hannah Richter (ed.), Biopolitical Governance: Race, Gender and Economy. Global Political Economies of Gender and Sexuality. pp. 21-39 (2018)
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What is biopolitics? What kind of relationship does biopolitics establish between politics and biology? Although the etymology of the term ‘biopoli- tics’ seems to suggest a straightforward meaning resulting from the relation- ship between biological life and politics, the current literature is characterised by a wide variety of definitions. As the social theorist Thomas Lemke notes in his thoughtful introduction to this field of research, ‘[p]lural and divergent meanings are undoubtedly evoked when people refer to biopolitics’ (Lemke 2011, 2). Lemke is not the only scholar to acknowledge the difficulty in estab- lishing a satisfying definition of this term; the scale of the problem is well exemplified by the decision of the philosopher Roberto Esposito to begin his major work on the topic with a chapter entitled ‘The Enigma of Biopolitics’. In the first chapter of Bios: Philosophy and Biopolitics, Esposito traces the enigmatic character of biopolitics back to the thinker who introduced it into the Continental debate—Michel Foucault—and maintains that the proble- maticity encountered by the French philosopher concerns ‘the same logical and semantic configuration’ (Esposito 2006, 43) of biopolitics. According to Esposito, the impasse characterising this field of research depends on the fact that ‘notwithstanding the theorization of their reciprocal implication . . . politics and life remain indefinite in profile and in qualification’ (Esposito 2006, 43–44). In this chapter I focus on the work of Foucault, with the aim of explain- ing the impasse in defining the notion of biopolitics. Following Esposito, I claim that it is the lack of a correct articulation of the relationship between politics and life that lies at the core of the ‘enigma of biopolitics’. However, the enigma does not concern the lack of inquiry into the two terms compris- ing this concept; at stake is a deeper and more complicated issue. I argue that when politics and biological life meet to constitute the notion of biopolitics, their function becomes that of representing two opposing theories of the human being. In turn, these two ways of defining the human determine two mutually exclusive approaches to biopolitics: the discursive and the vitalist. The ‘enigma of biopolitics’ is the name of this fracture. The two definitions of the human being that I take into consideration in this chapter contribute, from opposite sides, to challenging his ultra- mundane origin. The reason for their conflict is the definition of the world to which the human being is returned after his fall. On the one hand, the notion of the human being of the discursive approach to biopolitics can be summed up, paraphrasing a famous Foucauldian passage, with the sentence: the human being is ‘a thing of this world’. The original Foucauldian passage reads as follows: Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint and it introduces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth—that is, the type of discourse it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances that enable one dis- tinguish true and false statements. (Foucault 2000a, 131) Paraphrasing this quotation and affirming that the human being is ‘a thing of this world’ means that every society has a general politics of the human being—that is, the mechanisms and instances that enable every society to distinguish between normal and abnormal. Assuming this mundane definition of man means affirming that there is no human being prior to the ‘dispositifs’ or historical ‘machinations’—to use a Heideggerian term—so the human being has always already been thrown into the processes of subjectification and desubjectification. Reaching a point where it is possible to say what the human being is remains structurally impossible. On the other hand, the definition of the human being proper to the vitalist approach to biopolitics entails a form of animalisation of the human being where his essence is found in the natural world of life. This definition of man can be expressed in Foucauldian terms, paraphrasing another passage on truth. The ultramundane notion of truth is no longer returned to the mecha- nisms of discourse and power but to the horizon of biological life: ‘The true\ false dichotomy and the value accorded to truth constitute the most singular way of living that has been invented by a life that, from the depths of its ori- gin, bore the potential for error within itself’ (Foucault 2000b, 477). In this case the human being is not the product of social practices but is the result of the natural evolution of life. The human being becomes an animal among other animals. Social practices and their true or false value are nothing more than an invention of a life which seems to be animated by a force aimed at its own survival and reproduction. The opposition between these two notions of man determines two approaches to biopolitics. They can be distinguished from one another pre- cisely because of the hierarchy they impose on the two terms comprising the word ‘biopolitics’: biological life and politics. Whereas the discursive approach implies the politicisation of biology, with the consequent reduc- tion of every biological definition of the human being to an epiphenomenon of political struggle, the vitalist approach involves the biologisation of politics with the consequent reduction of politics to an epiphenomenon of biological life. The failure to articulate a nonreductionist relationship between life and politics implies a teleology which inevitably informs both Foucauldian approaches to biopolitics. Beyond the antithesis between the discursive and the vitalist human being, it is, therefore, possible to find a common ground characterised by an unwanted teleological drift. This teleology is a force intended as the site of permanent openness and resignificability, an excess always overflowing its forms, which expresses a constant activity aimed at a work of contestation and metamorphosis set against fossilisation in a fixed identity. This teleology—which prescribes to be like wanderers who never belong to a place but belong to travel itself—can be defined in Foucauldian terms as an ‘impatience for liberty’ (Foucault 2000a, 319), in the case of the discursive approach and, paraphrasing Foucault, as an impatience for life, in the vitalist approach. In this chapter, I show how these two definitions of the human being and consequent approaches to biopolitics coexist in the work of Foucault. It is precisely because of this conflict secretly operating in Foucauldian thought that his definition of biopolitics remains enigmatic. This vagueness should not be interpreted as a weakness but instead as a clear sign of Foucault’s great capacity for grasping and describing the complexity of the theories involved in biopolitics. In the following pages, I do not propose a totalis- ing explanation of Foucauldian thought, but I try to reveal how his work has become the anchoring point in defining two perspectives that play a hegemonic role in the contemporary understating of the relation between biological life and politics. The fracture between these two approaches undermines the possibility offered by biopolitics to sit astride the wall that today divides naturalism and critical theory, biology and politics. The pur- pose of this chapter is not to offer a hasty alternative but rather to explore the extent of this fracture in order to lay an adequate foundation for a new biopolitical inquiry.



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