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Thomas Nail “Biopower and Control”

Nail, Thomas 2016. Biopower and Control. – Nail, Thomas; Morar, Nicolae (eds). Between Deleuze and Foucault. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 247-263.


The first argument for the difference between biopower and control is that they refer to different types of content. Biopower, it is argued, is defined by “the political control over life and living beings,” while control is defined by explicitly economic and informational content. (249)


Control is defined as non-biopower. Despite their shared agreement on the content-based difference between biopower and  control,  Shaviro  and  Hardt  and  Negri  draw  opposite conclusions  from  this difference.  For  Shaviro,  this  difference  renders  biopower  outmoded and  useless, whereas for Hardt and Negri this is precisely what makes them complementary. “The society of control,” they say, “is able to adopt the biopolitical context as its exclusive terrain of reference.”Thus, in this first definition biopower and control are different because biopower is the government over the living and control is the government over the non-living. (250)


The second argument for the difference between biopower and control is that they have different formal characteristics. Biopower, it is argued, is defined by “the managementof living beings,” while control is defined by “a modulation, indifferent to life.” Joshua Kurz, for example, argues in his essay “(Dis)locating Control: Transmigration,  Precarity  and  the  Governmentality  of  Control,”  that “what we are seeing [in contemporary politics] is not a ‘population management’ paradigm (i.e. bio-politics), but one of ‘population modulation’ (i.e. control).” “Management,” according to Kurz, „is  teleological,  outcome-oriented;  it  is  about  accomplishing  goals  set along  a predetermined  path  toward  a  predetermined  end.  Modulation,  however,  is about speed, the amplification or sublimation of turbulence, rhythm; it is about amplifying and redirecting flows whose cause exists outside of the purview of modulation. In short, modulation has no goals, no plan . . . Management and modulation are qualitatively different.“ (250)


Thus, the third argument for the difference between biopower and control is that they  are  both  similar  and  different. This  position  is  equivocal  because  its  proponents are not clear as to what these particular similarities and differences are exactly. The first proponents of this position are Michel Hardt and Antonio Negri. They write together in their book Empire, that biopower is the “context,” “terrain of reference,” or “realm” in which the new paradigm of control societies take place. “The society of control,” they say, “is able to adopt the biopolitical context as its exclusive terrain of reference.” “In the passage from disciplinary society to the society of control,” they say, “a new paradigm of power is realized which is defined by the technologies that reorganize society as a realm of biopower.” Finally, they say, “these concepts of the society of control and biopower both describe central aspects of the concept of Empire.” (252)


“A biopolitics of populations,” Deleuze says in his 8 April lecture on Foucault, „what can we call this third [type of power]? We call it, following the American author, Burroughs, a formation of control power. We have therefore: sovereign power, disciplinary power, and control power . . . I am authorized to say this because of Foucault’s admiration and familiarity with Burroughs, even though, to my knowledge, he never spoke of him in his writings, his [influence] on him was  great,  notably  the  analyses  Burroughs  made  of  social  control  in  modern societies after the war [WWII]. After the war this had really struck Foucault.“ (254)


Before the publication of La Volonté de Savoir(1976), Burroughs had also published an essay called “The Limits of Control” (1975) that described an idea of control power as a supple and non-totalizing power that works directly on life. “All control systems,” Burroughs says, “try to make control as tight as possible, but at the same time, if they succeeded completely there would be nothing left to control . . . Life is will(motivation) and the workers would no longer be alive, perhaps literally.” Thus control, for Burroughs, is always a limited and flexible control of life without totalizing or destroying it. “Control,” he says, “needs opposition or acquiescence; otherwise, it ceases to be control.” “In fact, the more completely hermetic and seemingly successful a control system is, the more vulnerable it becomes.” Such a system, Burroughs continues, “would be completely disoriented and shattered by even one person who tampered with the control [system].” (254)


Following Burroughs analysis of the flexible  social control over life, Deleuze can then make the following claim about Foucault: „it seems to me that it’s truly a misinterpretation to make Foucault into a thinker who  privileges  confinement.  On  the  contrary:  sometimes  he subordinates confinement  to  a  more  profound  function  of  exteriority,  and  sometimes  he announces the end of confinement in favor of another kind of function of control altogether, defined by open and not closed functions.“ (255)


Biopower, Deleuze says, is defined by the “management of life and populations distributed in an open [i.e. non-totalized, or smooth (lisse)] space.” But what is a population? A population, Deleuze says, is “a large multiplicity without assignable limits.” “We are in the age of the biopolitics of populations,” Deleuze says,  “where the population can just as easily be the population of grains, sheep, vineyards, as of men; all of them can be taken as populations.” While the subject of sovereign power, according to Deleuze is in the end, the sovereign, (i.e. God) and the subject of discipline is man, the subject of biopower is the living within man. (255)


Control power, according to Deleuze, is what comes after disciplinary power and is  defined  by  the  calculus  of  probabilities  in  Foucault’s  work.  Deleuze  defines biopower in exactly the same way. “Biopolitics,” Deleuze says, “never stops rendering probable, it aims to render probable the rise in birth rates, for example; it aims to oversee [surveiller], it is a management . . . implies a management of probable phenomena, births, deaths, marriages, etc.” “We see here,” Deleuze  continues, „the  importance  of  the  difference  between  discipline  and  biopolitics. Biopolitics takes place in an open space of great multiplicities whose limits cannot be assigned. They are only manageable according to the calculus of probabilities, by the development of a calculus of probabilities in the sense of the social control of probabilities, probabilities of marriage in a nation, probabilities of death, probabilities of birth, etc.“ (256)


In  conclusion,  we  can  locate  for  the  first  time,  in  Deleuze’s  lectures  on Foucault,  a  clear  equivalence  between  biopower  and  control  in  both  content and form. Both take the life of populations as their object and the management of probabilities as their defining formal characteristic. (257)


Whether Deleuze makes explicit the idea of control implicit in Foucault’s concept of biopower, or Foucault makes explicit the idea of biopower in Burroughs’ concept of control, the best supported textual conclusion we can make at this point in the debate is that biopower and control are synonymous in both content and form. Both take the life of populations as their content and the management of probability as their form. But the statistical control over the life of populations should not be understood in the limited sense of biological beings alone. There is also a life of the city, a life of crime, political life, economic life, etc. Foucault and Deleuze are both quite clear in their examples of biopolitics that it includes the management of city-planning, money, transportation, crime, information, communication, water, sheep, grain and the climate, just as much as it is the statistical management of human births, deaths, marriages and illness. These are all living forces insofar as they  are  ultimately  uncertain  and  non-totalizable phenomena.  Accordingly,  they cannot  be  managed  as  individuals,  but  only  as  populations  with  non-assignable limits: as multiplicities, as zones of frequency. (261)

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