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Maria Muhle “A Genealogy of Biopolitics”

Muhle, Maria 2014. A Geneaology of Biopolitics: The Notion of Life in Canguilhem and Foucault. – Lemm, Vanessa; Vatter, Miguel (eds). The Government of Life. Foucault, Biopolitics and Neoliberalism. New York: Fordham University Press, 77-97.


[…] either the analysis of biopower is structurally linked to an analysis of the regime of politics as a permanent state of exception, or it is subtended with a “positive” politics of life that thwarts the negative” power over life. Roberto Esposito calls this polarity of the notion of biopolitics an “insurmountable oscillation” between a positive and productive reading of the relation between politics and life and another negative and tragic reading implied by Foucault’s writing itself. While the latter interpretation awards life with an intrinsic power that resists biopower, such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt propose, the former, proposed by Giorgio Agamben, radicalizes the thanato- political aspect in the notion of “bare life.” (78)


Foucault operates with a notion of life that he does not determine: life is a correlate of the techniques and strategies of power and knowledge. It lacks any ontological status and is itself “produced” by the power–knowledge constellation, or, to use the famous formula of The Order of Things, life emergesin the passage between natural history and biology, that is, in the epistemic break which occurs around 1800. This episteme emerges because of an archeological dislocation

that introduces the notion of “or ga niza tion” as fundamental to the study of the living and replaces the “tableau” of natural history by the constitutive opposition between the organic (the living) and the inorganic. This archeological dislocation permits to think of life as fundamentally dynamic: life is the polarity or tension between the two poles of the organic and the inorganic. It is here, Foucault explains, that a definition of life through death, that is, as “re sis tance to death”— such as the French anatomist and physiologist Xavier Bichat has proposed— becomes thinkable. Life— one could say paraphrasing and transposing Canguilhem’s definition of the normal— is a dynamic and thus a polemical notion, since it is formed in the tension between these different poles; it is a polar movement between tendencies of self- preservation and tendencies of self- transgression. (80)


The biopo liti cal body produced by the sovereign power is identified with this bare life, zoe, that according to Aristotle is distinguished from qualifi ed life, bios. Bare life, in Agamben’s understanding, would then be the transcendental origin of modern politics and there would not be any structural difference (even though there are historical differences) between the functioning of sovereign power and the biopo liti cal techniques. Bare life is the negation of any qualification, and therefore it is a transhistorical notion, an ontological category. Instead of tracing the discontinuities in the succession of the forms of power and knowledge, Agamben pretends to reveal the hidden or invisible elements that determine everyform of power latently. (83)


The articulation of power that governs the living thus supposes a knowledge of the living. In the epistemic conjuncture in which biopolitics emerges, this knowledge is articulated by medicine and biology at the beginning of the nineteenth century, both of which are related to a specific vitalist thought. Life is defined through its fundamental variability, through its possibility of deviation and error. And it is in this deviation or erring that life appears as fundamentally living, as bearing a vital dynamics. What is at play here is thus a dynamicnotion of life that nevertheless is not subsumable under a mere teleology of the organic as Kant suggests in the modus of the “as if,” nor a specific vitalist conception of the dynamics of life as an unitarian principle. At stake is the understanding of life as fundamentally dynamic anderratic, life as polarized between different dynamics of the living— the self- preservation of the organic and the self- creation of the vital that goes beyond the mere preservation of an organic equilibrium. The movement of self- creation is not to be disconnected from the self- preservative movement: life, as it becomes thematized around 1800, is neither pure transgression nor pure self- preservation, but defines itself in the tension between these two. (84)


For Canguilhem, Bichat’s major merit consists in having acknowledged the productivity of the irregularities, of the fallibilities of life, in short, of the “negative dimension”— the negative vital values such as anomaly, illness, death—for the living. (85)


Canguilhem thus adopts at once from Bichat the epistemological thesis that the knowledge of life is based on the analysis of the morbid phenomena— life is only acknowledgeable through its errors, which refer every living being to its constitutive imperfection and incompleteness, and the determination of life as a dynamic that tends to a “natural type,” to a norm. (85)


The value of life, that is, life as value, life in its inner normativity, is thus founded on its own uncertainty or precariousness (précarité). The normative dynamics of life unfold between the two poles: the preservation of the internal organic equilibrium (of the milieu intérieur in Claude Bernard’s words), and the permanent challenge to this very equilibrium. (85)


Against this background, the main hypothesis of this article is that in order to govern life, the forms of biopower imitateor mimetizethe proper dynamics of life, that is, its polarity between life and death, or between auto-transgression and auto- conservation, between the normal (one should read normative) and the pathological. Life has thus to be understood in a double sense, as the objectof post- sovereign techniques of power, and, in its dynamical dimension, as their operational model. (86)


Hence the biopolitical– governmental techniques adopt the internal logic of life as the model of their proper dynamics and establish a relation of internal exterioritywith the vital phenomena. The norms of biopower operate as ifthey were vital, that is, they adopt the vital functioning of the pro cesses of life as their model and exteriorize them in the social norms. This hypothesis can be accounted for through two main notions that Foucault introduces in his biopo liti cal analysis: the “population” and the “milieu” that both have a specific constitution since they both operate at the intersection between the natural and the artificial, the organic (living) and the inorganic (physical), the vital and the social elements. It is in the production of a population and of a milieu as natural–artificial phenomena that life becomes governable. (87)


In this sense, even the formulation “power over life” that Foucault introduces in The History of Sexuality: Volume Imay appear ambiguous since it supposes an exteriority between the processes of life and power. It is not until the lectures on governmentality that this ambiguity will be completely resolved in what I have been calling the amplified notion of biopolitics; that is, in a form of power that is always internally linked to life both as its object and its functional model: a government of life. (87)


When taking seriously the central hypothesis of the present text— that a reformulated and amplified notion of biopolitics is one whose techniques refer to life in two ways, taking it not only as its object, but also as its functional model — we can state that the biopo liti cal norms not only applyto the phenomena of life but moreover that they mimetizeits dynamics, that is, its normativity such as Canguilhem presents it. (88)


The modus operandiof the “new,” post- sovereign techniques of power is to frame the hazardous play, the vital dynamics, the aleatory of life in the general population. They do so without repression or negation of the phenomena themselves, by allowing for an apparent freedom, that nevertheless needs to remain within specific limits that even though they can be very wide, are not to be exceeded: the post- sovereign techniques of power pathologizelife’s vital normativity in the way Canguilhem has defined it, by reducing it to normality. (91)


Life is no longer perceived as fundamentally negative, insufficient, and needy, but as a positive dynamic that power mechanisms can adopt in order to govern the living more efficiently. It is not life itself that becomes the object of biopower, but the biological link of the living (the population) to the materiality within which it exists, that is, its hybrid constitution that oscillates between the biological, natural, living dimension and the permeability to an artificial, social, and material manipulation within the milieu, a manipulation through power that appears as ifit was natural. (92-93)


To conclude, it is thus possible to affirm, from an epistemic perspective, that the techniques of biopolitics participate in the very movement of redefinition of the notion of life. They do not “confront” themselves to a life that exists beyond its historical constellations of power–knowledge, but they “invade” a life that is saturated with these very techniques and constellations, a correlative life, that consequently lacks an ontological status, a life that is undetermined and open to determinations and normalizations from the outside: a hybrid, natural– artificial life. Consequently it is not only the conditions of possibility of a biologythat appear around 1800, but also the conditions of possibility of a biopolitics. (93)

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