Literary and Critical Theory Biopolitics and Biopower
by
Gregg Lambert, Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0135

Introduction

Michel Foucault introduced the concepts of biopower and biopolitics to avoid the shortcomings of a hegemonic concept of power in political theory, which defines power in terms of sovereignty and the state and does not account for how power functions outside the state in institutions like the family, physician–patient relationships, or in the workplace. Foucault argues that contrary to the notion of power as sovereignty, which manifests itself in the form of prohibition or repression, power is also productive: it produces knowledges, practices, and subjectivities. The concepts of biopower and biopolitics are part of an analytic of power that can account for the local and productive techniques of power. Nevertheless, these concepts are rather vague in Foucault’s own writings and lectures; moreover, a key challenge is that Foucault himself uses the terms inconsistently: On some occasions, he uses them virtually interchangeably, while on others he argues that biopolitics is one of two formations of biopower, the second formation being disciplinary power. The clearest account of biopower can be found in the Foucault’s 1975–1979 lectures at the Collège de France, where he discusses biopower as a new technique of power exercised over the biological life of the human species, defined both as the disciplinary control of individual bodies and subjects, and the biopolitical surveillance and administration of populations.

Primary Sources

Foucault’s effort to develop an analytic of power beyond that state and its institutions is evident across his studies of madness, disease, delinquency, and sexuality. Foucault develops his argument that the traditional exercise of sovereign power, manifest in the right to kill, begins to be supplemented in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by new technologies of power that seek to make live. Foucault 1995 shows that the first of these technologies was a disciplinary anatomo-politics of the human body that treated the body as a machine and sought to optimize its capacities. The second of these technologies was a biopolitics of the populations that operated through regulatory controls. Foucault (Foucault 1990, Foucault 2004, Foucault 2007, Foucault 2010) shows how these two technologies of biopower supported each other and intersected in a range of practices that targeted individual bodies to manage the life processes of a population. He also examines how the traditional sovereign right to kill was integrated with technologies of biopower in the form of a racism against the abnormal that serves to defend society from threats to its collective life.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990.

    Challenges the received wisdom that sex has been repressed and must be liberated. Develops a new account of power to reveal a proliferation of discourses about sex since the eighteenth century that make possible new modes of subjectivity and new ways of regulating bodies and behaviors.

  • Foucault, Michel. “The Birth of Social Medicine.” In Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984. Translated by Robert Hurley. Edited by James D. Faubion, 134–156. New York: The New Press, 1994.

    A rare example of Foucault applying his account of biopolitics to a concrete historical case.

  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1995.

    Examines how incarceration was transformed between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, and linked to broader structures of social power, the ultimate purpose of which was neither to punish inmates, nor to reduce crime, but to produce delinquency as a way of enabling the state to control criminal behavior.

  • Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

    Genealogy of the historico-political discourse of war. Examines war as a model for studying power relations and analyzing politics. Discusses the emergence of biopower in its disciplinary and regulatory forms, with racism as the hinge between the old sovereign right to kill and a new political concern with the life of individuals and populations.

  • Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978. Edited by Michel Senellart, François Ewald, Alessandro Fontana, and Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    Expansion and enrichment of Foucault’s analytics of power through a careful account of a biopolitics of the population by means of regulatory mechanisms and a dispositif of security. Development of central elements of biopolitics: the milieu, the aleatory, normalization, and government.

  • Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    Examines the emergence of 18th-century political economy as a new governmental rationality and analyzes different forms and lines of development of rationality in German ordoliberalism and US neoliberalism.

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