From Biopower to Technopower

3 April 2014


Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Among the many theoretical innovations for which Michel Foucault is remembered is the idea of biopower. We can think of biopower as a reformulation of perennial Foucauldian themes of the exercise of power through institutions that do not explicitly present themselves as being about power. That is to say, the subjugation of populations is brought about not through the traditional institutions of state power, but by way of new institutions purposefully constituted for the reason of monitoring and administrating the unruly bodies of the individuals who collectively constitute the body politic.

Foucault introduced the idea of biopower in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, in the chapter, “Right of Death and Power over Life.” Like his predecessor in France, Descartes, Foucault writes in long sentences and long paragraphs, so that it is difficult to quote him accurately without quoting him at great length. His original exposition of biopower needs to be read in full in its context to appreciate it, but I will try to pick out a few manageable quotes to give a sense of Foucault’s exposition.

Here is something like a definition of biopower from Foucault:

“…a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, translated from the French by Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon, 1978, p. 137

Later Foucault names specific institutions and practices implicated in the emergence of biopower:

“During the classical period, there was a rapid development of various disciplines — universities, secondary schools, barracks, workshops; there was also the emergence, in the field of political practices and economic observation, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration. Hence there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of ‘biopower’.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, translated from the French by Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon, 1978, p. 140

Prior to the above quotes, Foucault begins his exposition of biopower with an examination of the transition from the traditional “power of life and death” held by sovereigns, which Foucault says was in fact restricted to the power of death, i.e., the right of a sovereign to deprive subjects of their life, to a fundamental change in emphasis so that the “power of life and death” became the power of life, i.e., biopower. The shift from right of death to power over life is what marks the emergence of biopower. Foucault, however, explicitly acknowledged that,

“…wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, translated from the French by Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon, 1978, pp. 136-137

This thanatogenous phenomenon is what Edith Wyschogrod called “The Death Event” (which I wrote about in Existential Risk and the Death Event), but if Foucault is right, it is not the Death Event that defines the social milieu of industrial-technological civilization, but rather a “Life Event” that we must postulate parallel to the Death Event.

What is the Life Event parallel to the Death Event? This is nothing other than the loss of belief in an otherworldly reward after death (which defined social institutions from the Axial Age to the Death of God, and which may be the source of the relation between agriculture and the macabre), and the response to this lost possibility of eternal bliss by the quest for health and felicity in this world and in this life.

A key idea in Foucault’s exposition of biopower hinges upon how the contemporary power over life that has replaced the arbitrary right of death on the part of the sovereign has been seamlessly integrated into state institutions, so that state institutions are the mechanism by which biopower is applied, enforced, expanded, and preserved over time. From this perspective, biopower becomes the unifying theme of Foucault’s series of earlier books on asylums for the insane, prisons for the criminal, and clinics for the diseased, all of which institutions had the character of the, “subjugation of bodies and the control of populations” through “precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” (At this point Foucault could have profited from the work of Erving Goffman, who identified a particular subset of “total institutions” that completely regulated the life of the individual.)

What we are seeing today is that the “success” of the imperative of biopower has resulted in longer and healthier lives among docile populations, who dutifully report to their mind-numbing labor of choice and rarely riot. To step outside the confines of acceptable social behavior is to find oneself committed to a total institution such as an asylum or a prison, so that that individual self-censors and self-restrains in order to preempt state action that would bring his behavior into conformity with the norm. With the imperative of biopower largely established and largely uncontested, the next frontier is the imperative of extending biopower to the mind, and rendering the population intellectually docile in the way that bodies have been regulated and rendered docile.

The extension of biopower to the life of the mind might be called psychopower. This extension presumably involves parallel regimes of psychic hygiene that will give the individual mind a longer, healthier life, as biopower has bequeathed a longer, heathier life to the body, but the healthy and hygienic mind is also a mind that has subjugated to precise controls and comprehensive regulation. Cognitive pathology here becomes a pretext for state intervention into the private consciousness of the individual.

The proliferating regimes of therapy, counseling, psychiatric services, so-called “social” services that today almost invariably have a psychiatric component, not to mention the bewildering range of psychotropic medications available to the public — and apparently prescribed as widely as they are known and available — are formulated with an eye to regimenting the intellectual life of the body politic. And this “eye” is none other than the medical gaze now trained upon the individual’s introspection.

The mechanism by which psychopower is obtained has, to date, been the same state institutions that have overseen biopower, but this is already changing. The emergence of biopower in the period of European history that Foucault called “The Classical Age” (“l’âge classique”) was a product of agricultural civilization (specifically, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization) at its most mature and sophisticated stage of development, shortly before all that agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization had built in terms of social institutions would be swept away by the unprecedented social change resulting from the industrial revolution, which would eventually begin to converge upon a new civilizational paradigm, that of industrial-technological civilization.

Thus biopower at its inception was the ultimate regulation of a biocentric civilization. As civilization makes a transition from being biocentric to technocentric, new instrumentalities of power will be required to implement a regime of docility under radically changed socioeconomic conditions, i.e., technocentric socioeconomic conditions, and this will require technopower, which will take up where biopower leaves off. Biopower conceived after the manner of biocentric civilization, of which agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is an expression, cannot answer to the regulatory needs of a technocentric civilization, which thus will require a regime of technopower.

Already this process has begun, though the transition from biocentric civilization is likely to be as slow and as gradual as the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to the discipline of settled civilization, in which the institutions of biopower first begin to assume their inchoate forms. What we are beginning to see is the transition from state power being embodied in and exercised through social institutions to state power being embodied in and exercised through technological infrastructure. Central to this development is the emergence of the universal surveillance state, in which the structures of power are identical to the structures of electronic surveillance.

The individual participates in social media for the presumptive opportunities for self-expression and self-development, which are believed to have many of the positive social effects that the regulation of docile bodies has had upon longevity and physical comfort. The structure of these networks, however, serves only to reinforce the distribution of power within society. The more alternatives we have for media, the more we hear only of celebrities (in what is coming to be called a “winner take all” economic model). At the same time that the masses are encouraged to occlude their identity through the iteration of celebrity culture that renders the individual invisible and powerless, the individual self is relentlessly marginalized. In Is the decontextualized photograph the privileged semiotic marker of our time? I argued that the proliferating “selfies” that populate social media, as a self-objectification of the self, are nothing but the “death of the self” prognosticated by post-modernists.

It is unlikely in the extreme that most or even many individuals have any kind of ideological commitment to the emerging universal surveillance state or to the death of the subject, but the technological institutions that are increasingly the mediators of all expression and commerce are becoming inescapable, and as they converge upon totality they will effect a reconstruction of society that will consolidate technopower in the hands of the systems administrators of the technocentric state. These structures are already being constituted, and the channeling of power through apparently benign networks will be the triumph of technopower as it replaces biopower.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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