Home > biopoliitika, Giorgio Agamben, Katia Genel, Michel Foucault > Katia Genel “The Question of Biopower”

Katia Genel “The Question of Biopower”

Genel, Katia 2006. The Question of Biopower: Foucault and Agamben. Rethinking Marxism Vol. 18 No. 1: 43-62

In short, the object of biopolitics is the population, conceived as a scientific and political problem; biopolitics therefore focuses on collective phenom-ena that have long-term political effects and strives to regulate them. It is a question of ‘‘security mechanisms’’ which ‘‘have to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings’’ (Foucault 2003, 246). (45)

The new technologies of power are situated in effect below the power of sovereignty: power is increasingly less the power to put to death, and increasingly more the right to intervene in order to make live. (47)

The normalizing mechanisms are not, however, the ‘‘enlarged forms’’ of discipline. It is a question rather, as Foucault writes, of covering a larger surface of the body of the population by means of the bilateral interplay of normalizing and disciplinary mechanisms. (47)

It is a question, therefore, of Foucault’s departure from a juridical-discursive interrogation of power, which preserves power in its negative form as repression or prohibition. Instead, power is in fact a positive mechanism aiming at the multiplicity, the intensification, and the increase of life. (48)

Through the emergence of biopower, racism is inscribed within mechanisms of the state according to a double logic. On the one hand, racism introduces caesuras between what must live and what must die within the life of which power has taken control. […]On the other hand, racism establishes a positive relation between the life of some and the death of others which is no longer bellicose or militaristic, but biological. Not merely the security of one race, the death of the other is the death of a pernicious race that will make the life of the race healthier and more pure. Enemies are not political adversaries but biological threats. (49)

In order to understand how Agamben intends ‘‘to correct, or at least, to complete’’ Foucault’s analysis, it is necessary to separate out the content that Agamben adds to the notion of biopower. The resulting displacement of this concept*/the apparent corrective*/is essentially a result of the notion of power that is implied: Agamben extracts a biopolitical structure from sovereign power. (50)

Sovereignty does not emerge from a contract or a general will nor is it derived from interests. It not concerned with legal subjects but, in a hidden manner, with bare life which it detaches from the forms of life to which this life is habitually attached. (50-51)

As a result, the relation between power and life is called a ‘‘relation of exception,’’ designating a relation in which something is included by its exclusion; the sphere of bare life is produced by this very exclusion. Production of bare life, therefore, is the originary activity of power. The notion of bare life is thereby distinguished from natural life: it is life inasmuch as it is exposed to power and its force, inasmuch therefore as it is exposed to death. (51)

It is the exception that makes the juridical order possible. […]sovereign power functions according to a logic of exception or a logic of the exposure of bare life. It is a power which is established beginning from this violence. (52)

The state of exception is not therefore the chaos that precedes order, but rather the situation that results from its suspension. It can be considered a principle immanent to sovereignty which structures the political state without ever appearing within it. (53)

Starting from the biopolitical structure of sovereignty, a history of biopower takes shape the aim of which is to elucidate both contemporary politics and its continuity with the enigmas of the twentieth century. The crucial moment of this history is not, as it is for Foucault, the intensification of the diverse processes that ‘‘make live,’’ but the moment in which bare life ‘‘frees itself.’’ (53)

The fiction of sovereignty is the fictional bond between nativity and nation, etymologically related. Life, the actual sovereign subject, is the ultimate and opaque bearer of sovereignty. […] But this is an ambivalent inscription: men inscribe their demands for rights and liberties in the very place of their subjection to power. (54)

Two traits characterize totalitarianism: on the one hand, power becomes the immediate decision on life, which is to say the decision on its value or nonvalue. […]On the other hand, a second trait characterizes totalitarianism: biological facts become political objectives, and politics is then understood in terms of the police. (55)

Power is above all a decision on life in the form of a qualification of life, a decision on its value and therefore also its nonvalue. (56)

The transforma-tion of the analysis of the camp into a figure of political space appears to result in a rather reductive paradigm. Political space, normalized by the camp, is reduced to a specific mode of the exercise of power: the decision on the value of life. (57)

Sovereign power functions according to a logic of thresholds and caesuras, which are concerned not only with biological processes of populations, but with mere survival. Agamben’s inquiry is therefore an inquiry into the originary fiction of sovereignty, one that can be expressed in Foucauldian terms: his inquiry concerns the manner in which power presents itself within the legal code and the way in which it ‘‘prescribes that we conceive of it,’’ bringing to light the complex procedures*/behind their reductive assimilation*/of thresholds and divisions. (57)

Sovereignty is exercised through the sovereign decision in the paradoxical gesture of the exception. Constructed through a relation of the ban, it establishes and maintains itself through a gesture which is reproduced by each citizen in relation to his or her own life, by which each individual ‘‘becomes subject and object .. . of the political order.’’ The logic of power is a logic of exclusion and inclusion which designates the thresholds which continually redefine life, its value, and, as a result, the human. (57-58)

In Agamben’s conception of the term, biopower is nothing other than the deployment of the structure of sovereignty in the form of the crisis. Agamben constitutes it as a paradigm rather than locating, as Foucault has done, the discontinuities and historical transformations of the way in which power is exercised. (58)

It is Agamben’s intention to think possibility outside any ban, outside any actuality, and even outside any relation with political organization, thereby entering into an irremediable disjunction with it. […]In The Open, Agamben designates ‘‘the taking on of biological life itself as the supreme political (or rather impolitical) task’’ (2004, 76). (59)

The definition given by Foucault is intended to be comparatively more localized, while Agamben carries out an extension of the field of biopower which calls into question its relevance. Agamben’s analysis of the mode of exercising power is coherent to the extent that it successfully updates both the facade behind which power makes its advances within the juridico-institutional code and on the plane of sovereignty, as well as the manner in which sovereignty includes bare life in its calculations. In this minimal way, it is possible to understand the analysis of Agamben as a complement to Foucault’s project: both below and above the processes of normalization and control which manage the individual and collective bodies, a separation is operative at the level of bare life, which is the very survival of individuals. It takes the form of an exclusion, discriminating between the living subjects and others who are considered destined to die with utter impunity, the life of which has not been made an object of protection. Bare life itself, rather than existence or the bodies of men, is a juridico-political construction, not something given or a ‘‘natural, extrapolitical fact.’’ (60)

In fact, a slippage in the sense of the term [life] becomes apparent to the extent that it functions both within the mechanisms of the problem and in the positive resolution. (61)

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