Welcome to the last blog-and-comment session of the semester. We’re almost there people; we can do it!
For my blog post, first I am going to clarify some key terms from this week’s reading, and then second, I will use Rose’s account of the five changes that our societies are undergoing as an illustration of these key terms.
First of all, what is “biopolitics?”
Biopolitics refers to a theory about a unique transition that many modern societies are arguably undergoing. The transition concerns the “politicization of bare life as such,” to use Agamben’s terms.
To understand what he means here, recall his point about the word “life.” For our one word “life,” the ancient Greeks had two distinct words—zoe and bios—and each of these words entailed distinct meanings. Zoe referred to “the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods)” (ST 627); bios referred to “the form or way of living proper to an individual or group” (627). Thus, when Plato or Aristotle mentioned different kinds of lives (the philosophical life, the political life, and so on), they used the term bios, which entailed a specific sense of telos. Zoe, on the other hand, more closely concerned “natural life,” and, as Agamben points out, this “simple natural life [zoe] is excluded from the polis, and [it] remains confined—as merely reproductive life—to the sphere of oikos, ‘home’” (ST 674). Zoe was apolitical.
So going back to the transition: Agamben suggests that the transition to biopolitics in our societies concerns a transition in which zoe (natural life or biology as we think of it) has now entered the “sphere of the polis” (676). That is, Agamben argues (following Foucault) that “natural life begins to be included in the mechanisms and calculations of State power, and politics turns into biopolitics” (676). In other words, not only is “life”—life which is concerned with certain goods and ends (bios)—implicated in politics, but now natural life as such (zoe) is a political matter. We can understand this move as a transition to “biopolitics.” According to Agamben, this transition to biopolitics “constitutes the decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of classical thought” (676).
When natural life (biological life as we think of it) enters the political field—when the transition to biopolitics happens—one can see a new dimension of power: “biopower.”
What is “biopower?”
Biopower, according to Hardt and Negri, “is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it. Power can achieve an effective command over the entire life of population only when it becomes an integral, vital function that
every individual embraces and reactivates of his or her own accord. […] Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself.” (Empire 23-24).
Biopower, in other words, refers to the way in which power operates through our material, bodily lives. If power is a productive, organizing force, as Foucault has argued, then biopower (in this Foucaultian sense) refers to the way in which power organizes not only our individual, material lives (e.g. how we use our bodies), but also the way power now organizes the bodies of everyone in the entire society.
At this point, you (or someone else) might be saying: “What?! There is no power exercised over my body. I am the arbiter of what I do with my body.” But the advocates of the biopower concept might reply: “This is precisely the point. Biopower operates such that you think you are choosing what you want to do with your body, but in fact, the choices you make are evidence of the biopower itself. Biopower is a power that we have internalized so that the choices and actions that we perform with our bodies are directed from within. That is, it’s not some outside force making the choice for us; it’s something you choose for yourself because the power is something you have internalized through socialization and so on.”
Thus, if you are skeptical about all this “biopower” talk, I understand. Such a reading of power does seem like it incorporates a radical “hermeneutic of suspicion” to borrow Paul Ricouer’s term. But the point here is to try to understand the ideas on their own terms, as best we can.
So, to wrap up this question, biopower is the force that organizes, coordinates, and controls bodies. But we can also think of biopower as a power that is exercised in, through, and over not just our bodies in general but also over the biology of our bodies--the make up of our bodies. Biopower becomes exercised on life “itself.”
What’s up with the “itself” qualifier? Why do both Hardt/Negri and Rose refer to something they call “life itself?”
I think that this qualifier “itself” helps emphasize what the authors are talking about. To understand why Hardt and Negri use this word, we need to understand the context of its usage. They use the term “life itself” to highlight the contrast in how power operates within two different kinds of societies: Foucault’s notion of a disciplinary society and his notion of a control society. In the disciplinary society, formal structures (like official institutions such as the prison, the hospital) limit what the citizen can and cannot do externally—that is, the power is exercised “from without” (in contrast to “from within”) the citizen. In the control society, by contrast, power operates from within; it is “distributed throughout the brains and bodies of citizens” (Empire 23). As Hardt and Negri put it, “the behaviors of social integration and exclusion proper to rule are thus increasingly interiorized within the subjects themselves” (23). In this sense, the formal disciplinary structures are no longer necessary because the “control extends well outside the structured sites of social institutions,” and instead, it operates “through flexible and fluctuating networks” (23). Within these informal networks, then, power operates from within “brains and bodies,” as they put it (hence the concept of biopower, as discussed above), and the import of this new location of power is that the field of politics begins to operate more and more within the zones of our biological and material life. Politics descends to the level of “life itself.”
Rose uses the term “life itself” for similar emphatic reasons. As a sociologist, Rose is interested in the changing contours of “life” (our understanding of biological, material, and/or human life) and also in the political dramas that this “emergent form of life” entails (Rose 3). Thus, to understand why Rose uses the qualifier "itself," we need to understand the change he is trying to capture. One can notice this change by first looking at how the “vital politics” (political issues concerning human life) of the 18th and 19th centuries revolved around health: “rates of birth and death, of diseases and epidemics, of the policing of water sewage, foodstuffs, graveyards, and of the vitality of those agglomerated in towns and cities” (3). Then in the early 20th century, this politics of health morphed such that it now incorporated a specific understanding of biological inheritance. Hence, one can see how this understanding “seemed to oblige politicians in so many countries to try to manage the quality of the population, often coercively and sometimes murderously, in the name of the future of the race” (3). But here in the 21st century, the “vital politics” has changed: “it is neither delimited by the poles of illness and health, nor focused on eliminating pathology to protect the destiny of the nation. Rather, it is concerned with our growing capacities to control, manage, engineer, reshape, and modulate the very vital capacities of human beings as living creatures” (3). This last sentence captures the transition that Rose is trying to emphasize with the qualifier in his title—“the politics of life itself.” In our vital politics, we are now no longer focused on the “superstructural” manifestations of our biological lives—manifestations like disease or Mendelian inheritance; we are now focused on what we understand to be the “base” of our lives: the manipulation of molecules and chemicals. Hence, politics is being played out at a new level—the level of “life itself”—the core of what we understand our biological selves to be.
Rose offers some clear examples of how these concepts—biopolitics and biopower and their interaction with life “itself”—play out in five different realms of today's 21st-century world.
In the 21st century, we have moved from understanding life on a molar level—limbs, organs, etc.—to the molecular level. As Rose puts it, “the clinical gaze has been supplemented, if not supplanted, by this molecular gaze” (12). This new understanding has enabled what he calls the “mobilization of vitality,” or the way in which the building blocks of life are now much more manipulable and movable (15). That is, “molecularization is conferring a new mobility on the elements of life, enabling them to enter new circuits—organic, interpersonal geographical, and financial. […] At this molecular level, that is to say, life itself has become open to politics” (15).
With this epistemological change opening up a new space for politics, we are witnessing the development of new “technologies of optimization” that are changing the traditional roles of medicine: “Contemporary medial technologies do not seek merely to cure diseases once they have manifested themselves, but to control the vital processes of the body and mind” (16). Rose suggests that this move manifests itself in contemporary concerns over the susceptibility and enhancement of bodies. No longer is modern medicine just worried about disease when it manifests itself; it is now concerned with understanding our health (and the medical measures we need to take to maintain it) in terms of our susceptibility to disease. Concerning enhancement: while the human desire to enhance biological life is not new (think of glasses, contacts, hearing aids, etc.), more and more one can see a move “reshape vitality from the inside” with the goal of optimizing what it means to be human.
Subjectification and Ethopolitics
In the 21st century, new notions of what it means to be a responsible citizen have emerged that revolve around our biology. We are responsible in new ways for our corporeal and psychological being: “Exercise, diet, vitamins, tattoos, body piercing, drugs, cosmetic surgery, gender reassignment, organ transplantation: the corporeal existence and vitality of the self has become the privileged site of experiments with the self” (26). In the process of this change, Rose suggests that we can see a shift to what he calls “ethopolitics”: “If ‘discipline’ individualizes and normalizes, and ‘biopolitics’ collectivizes and socializes, ‘ethopolitics’ concerns itself with the self-techniques by which human beings should judge and act upon themselves to make themselves better than they are” (27).
With all these changes, new authorities over the body are emerging, and these authorities are no longer just clinicians and doctors: “There are nutritionists, dieticians, health promotion experts, remedial gymnasts, experts on exercise and fitness,” and so on (28). And what is unique about all this forms of expertise is that they contain certain “pastoral powers”: the expertise proposes to offer counsel. For example, consider not only the “addiction counselors, sex counselors, family and relationship counselors” and so on, but also consider the new realm of expertise in bioethics. Bioethicists play a significant role in our health institutions and corporations of the 21st century.
Bioeconomics or Economies of Vitality
The biotech industry now inhabits a huge sector of our economic markets, and the industry is continuing to grow. As Rose points out, “U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said, ‘biotechnology is the next wave of the knowledge economy and I want Britain to become its European hub” (35). Blair’s comment points to a growing trend in “novel alliances between political authorities and promissory capitalism” (34). That is to say, “the hope [Blair] expresses for a virtuous alliance of state, science, and commerce in the pursuit of health and wealth is one that is shared by many other political authorities” (35)
All of these examples point to the way in which politics has entered the realm of zoe. Biopolitics entails a power (biopower) exercised over and through life “itself.”
Questions for discussion:
Another key term remains in this week’s reading that I did not define: “biopolitical production.” What do Hardt and Negri mean by this term and why do they use it as the title for the second chapter of Empire?
Compare and contrast Althusser’s “Thesis II” (ideology has a material existence) to the concept of biopower as advanced in this week’s readings. What are the differences; what are the similarities? What are the connections, and what are the disjunctions between these two ideas?
Imagine you are talking to a skeptic about this week’s reading material, and this person suggests the following: “I don’t know. All this talk of Empire, biopower, and biopolitics sounds an awful lot like conspiracy discourse, except it’s all dressed up as fancy academic-intellectual chic.” How would you defend the credibility, productivity, and/or fruitfulness of these theories and concepts for academic (or communication studies) inquiry? In other words, how would you talk with a skeptic about these construals of the ways that power operates within capitalism, politics, and “life itself?”
(Feel free to engage these questions or take up your own line of inquiry for your comments. See you Monday.)