For Foucault, the self is discursively produced over time by being subjected to the regulatory power relations of the discourses that it is positioned within (Barker 2008; 225). The subject (the person, the self, one’s identity) is thus the product of history and power. Foucault’s concept of biopower describes the administration and regulation of human life at the level of the population and the individual body – it is a form of power that targets the population (Rogers et al 2013). This concept is helpful in that it connects identity to power and demonstrates how social categories are used to enact and allow state violence on certain subjects.
Biopower can be split into two poles that intertwine – anatamo-politics of the body (disciplinary power) and biopolitical power of the population. Disciplinary power produces ‘docile bodies’ (through disciplinary sites such as schools, prisons, and hospitals) which can be ‘subjected, used, transformed and improved’ (Foucault 1977; 136) whilst biopolitical power ‘administers life’ (Foucault 1978; 138), that is it tries to ‘optimise’ the life of populations (Foucault 1978; 139). These two poles serve to categorise people as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ in the state’s eyes.
Classical liberal theorists during the 18th century conceived that the main way power operated was juridically (Foucault 1978; 135), that is, by subtracting, prohibiting and punishing through official institutions (Ewald 1990; 1). Foucault critiques this conceptualisation of power, arguing that in the 17th century a new power emerged (Foucault 2008; 304-308), a ‘power over life’ (biopower). The emergence of biopower meant that the ‘ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death’ (Foucault 1978; 138). This is not to say that juridical power has been reduced but instead it is accompanied by biopower, they both over-lap and are intrinsically tied up with one another (Ewald 1990; 1, Majia and Nadesan 2008; 6-7). This means then, that state violence is not solely executed and legitimated through juridical strategies but also through strategies that have, at the heart of them, a preoccupation with how the population lives and how life can be optimised. This can be illustrated by the way in which states in the 18th century began to treat the population as an object of biopolitical concern, managing conditions such as birth, death, health, disease, ‘race’ and sexuality in order to ‘foster life’ (Rogers et al 2013).
Achieving biopower allows the state to produce social categories and ultimately create a society that conforms to norms which secure a ‘vital population’ (Roach 2009; 157) i.e. a community that subscribes to an ideology that maintains and legitimates the state, a population that has been shaped to the state’s desired form. Through biopower, subjects that follow the norms of society can be made to live and be invested in but those categorised as ‘abnormal’ will be ‘let to die’ through disinvestment and simultaneously through juridical power can be made to die (Foucault 1978; 144). This process of normalisation creates anomalies, which we could also call ‘the Other’. Based on the dominant discourses channelled through a society, the Other may not always be the same. In the U.K for example, we will find the Other includes those that are not categorised as: ‘white’, ‘male’, cis-gendered, ‘able-bodied’, ‘neurotypical’, ‘legal citizens’, middle class, ‘law-abiding’ and more.
It is important to note that biopower is not solely enacted through official institutions but everywhere and anywhere that there can be social relations and discourse. Biopower is threaded through the fabric of the entire social order (Anders 2013; 3-4). This means that individuals are no longer simply subjected to power, but also vehicles that produce and channel it (Rangan and Chow 2013; 401).
Foucault, M. (2008) The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Basingstoke [England] ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (1997) “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom” In: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. New York: The New Press. 281-301.
Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New York: Pantheon Books.
Rangan, P. & Chow, R. (2013) ‘Race, Racism, and Postcoloniality’, in The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 397–410.
Anders, A. (2013). Foucault and ‘the Right to Life’: from Technologies of Normalization to Societies of Control”. Disability Studies Quarterly. 33. 10.18061/dsq.v33i3.3340
Barker, C. (2008) Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 3rd edition. London: SAGE Publications.
Ewald, F. (1990) Norms, Discipline, and the Law. Representations. [Online] (30), 138–161.
Majia, N. & Nadesan, M. H. (2008) Governmentality, Biopower, and Everyday Life. New York: Routledge.
Roach, T. J. (2009) Sense and Sexuality: Foucault, Wojnarowicz, and Biopower. Nebula. 6 (3), 20.
Rogers, A., Castree, N., & Kitchin, R. (2013). biopolitics. In A Dictionary of Human Geography. Oxford University Press.
- In what way are undocumented ‘migrants’ affected by juridical power (made to die) and biopower (let to die)?
- If biopower is also produced and channelled through individuals, in what ways might anti-migrant discourses be produced and channelled, other than by the state?
- Can you think of any acts of state violence against undocumented ‘migrants’ that are enacted in the name of the optimisation of life for legal citizens? How does the state attempt to justify these actions?
Submitted by Anish Chhibber