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Catherine Mills “Biopolitical Life”

Mills, Catherine 2013. Biopolitical Life. Södertöm Philosophical Studies 14: 73–90.

I use Esposito’s discussion as a springboard for reconsidering the role of norms in Foucault’s own work on biopolitics—especially in light of his essay on Canguilhem, in which he emphasises the productive capacity for error internal to life. I conclude that it is in the relationship of error and norms that the connection between life and politics may be made apparent. (75)

The reciprocal production of social and vital norms in the human as living being, and their specific conjunction in concerns such as population health, eugenics and new genetics, precipitates a biological politics that then extends into other domains of living. This point of view suggests that biopower is less a matter of controlling life that it is a matter of managing error—or rather, it is the former by virtue of the latter. It also highlights the way in which the biopolitical state is fundamentally reactive in relation to life. (75)

This correction to emphasise the relationship between the organism and its environment may seem like a relatively minor interpretive point; but I want to suggest that it actually has important implications, two of which I will mention here. The first point goes to the fact that the environment that human beings are located in is necessarily social, and as such, cross-cut with the force of social norms. (83)

This locatedness means that the “normal” is always an effect of a complex co-mingling and expression of vital norms in the midst of socially defined ways of living. Human life is never simply biological; and nor, for that matter, is it ever simply social or political. (83)

The second point to make derives from this, for while the existence of human beings is fundamentally conditioned by social norms, it cannot be assumed that vital and social norms are conceptually equivalent. Rather, what needs to be taken into account is the disjuncture between vital and social norms, and consequently, what requires explanation is the means by which they intermingle. In other words, vital and social norms may well be empirically inseparable, but they are nevertheless analytically distinguishable. (84)

In the postscript to The Normal and the Pathological, Canguilhem argues that while physiological norms are immanent to the organism, social norms have no equivalent immanence. In a living organism, norms are “presented without being represented, acting without deliberation or calculation,” such that there is “no divergence, no delay between rule and regulation.” In contrast, rules in a social organization must be “represented, learned, remembered, applied.”34 Further, while biological norms are geared toward a functional end, social norms are not— speaking of the “health” of a society is metaphoric in a way that speaking of the health of a living body is not. The point of this is that forms of social organisation cannot be understood as analogous to organisms; nor, then, can social norms be simply derived from organic norms. (84)

Foucault suggests that normalisation works in opposing ways in discipline and a biopolitics of population. In the former, infractions of the norm are produced as a consequence of the prior application of the norm, insofar as the phenomenal particularity of an individual is itself identified and calibrated through the application of a norm. Normalisation produces individuals as the necessary mode and counterpart of the operation of norms, that is, as a material artefact of power.43 In a biopolitics of population, Foucault suggests that norms are mobilised in exactly the opposite way, insofar as “the normal comes first and the norm is deduced from it.” (87)

Thus, it is through the notion of error that life is placed in a relation of contiguity and contingency with truth and structures within which it is told. “Error,” or the inherent capacity of life to “err” both establishes the relation of life to truth and undermines that relation by disentangling man from the structures of truth and power that respond to the potential for error. Hence, “with man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to ‘err’ and to be ‘wrong.’”49 From this point of view, the biopolitical state appears as simply the modern response to the possibility of error. (89)

If this is so, the potential for error in life directs us to an important point about the operation of biopower, specifically, that the biopolitical state is necessarily and systematically reactive. The errancy internal to life constantly provokes the biopolitical state, forcing it to respond to the contingencies of the living and the phenomena of life. (89)

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