The politics of birth, death and reproduction (yup, good old Foucault)

“If genocide is indeed the dream of the modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill,” wrote Foucault in The History of Sexuality. Rather, it is because bio-power, part of a new type of political control “situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race,” constructed and imposed biological standards for “the large scale phenomena of population” (p. 137). To reinforce their power, pre- 17th century governments could and often did literally sever subjects’ ties to the human race through a common and largely unchallenged death penalty. Currently, though, an alleged goal of preserving citizens’ lives — the object of bio-politics — has replaced sovereign policies of deciding who is to live or die.  Though modern powers, like ancient ones, have a right to destruction in necessitating circumstances, this right is not given in the name of deterring threats to an absolute ruler.  It is exercised in the name of protecting a nation by ensuring the life of what is considered its constituent population.

Ancient and modern power structures in the West, such as governments, religious leadership, and other institutions, have exerted different types of control over their populations’ survival and death.  They also have justified these controls differently.  Specifically, a shift occurred from fatal punishment by the legal system under the alibi and rhetoric of eye-for-an-eye logic to death in the military based on an agenda of national defense.  This difference is relative; both forms of institutional death have been exercised during both periods.  However, the dominant form has changed, as has the justification for both.  Ancient powers exerted the right of death over subjects, through capital punishment or war, “in the name of a sovereign who must be defended.”  When Foucault was writing in 1978, to the contrary, war was waged “in the name of life necessity; massacres have become vital,” whether against other populations or within one’s own in the form of ethnic cleansing (137).

With this construction of a unified nation, whose citizens’ lives must be ensured, came the emergence of bio-power, which Foucault theorizes as the entitlement to “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (140). Whereas sovereign power was subtractive and focused on the elimination and suppression of lives, bio-power is additive and productive, working to “incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize forces under it,” (136).  Instead of obedience to the sovereign, modern discursive apparatuses encourage conformity to biologized norms to “foster life or disallow it to the point of death.”  Governments’ focus is no longer on killing, but on control of life through public monitoring of bodies — a power that only can be exercised over the living, and from which death is the only escape for those considered exterior to the nation (138).

The ideology enabling such manipulations of bodies assumes two forms: the view of the human body as a machine built for production to meet the state’s needs, and the concern with discipline over physical urges and processes.  Foucault coined the term “bio-politics” to describe manifestations of the latter, including medical and political scrutiny of “propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary” (139).

Examples of bio-politics include laws limiting particular sexual acts such as homosexual ones, clamping down on children’s sexual behavior, medical reinforcement of the gender binary by rigorously defining “male” and “female,” eugenics, phrenology, and scientific studies on corporeal differences based on gender, race, and sexuality.  Most of these developments were most prominent beginning in the 19th century.  Rather than seeing sexual acts as mere acts, the circulating discourse — particularly psychoanalytic discourse — began to regard them as signs of a person’s inner nature.  Through this epistemophilic process of classification, normalization also could occur: There was the natural sexual act, the true sex underlying ambiguous bodies, the race that represented a national identity.  Political controls on bodies did not cease, but grew within the increasing influence of scientifically normalized, bio-political discourses (144).

Though bio-power has “brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life,” possession of this knowledge and power has not been monolithic (143).  Power over what is revealed, what stays secret, and how these two types of information interact circulates throughout social strata. The proliferation of identities, one of modern power’s most common tools, is a cooperative among many people of many different social spheres.  As parties  — social institutions and the government as well as individuals — assert their control, they also perpetuate their position of being controlled.  Powerful institutions produce identities, individuals perform or resist these identities, and to complete these “spirals of power and pleasure,” those in power respond to these reactions (45).

This desire for control of a race is to resist slippery distinctions between the interests of “us” and of “them.”  Modern powers want to make it clear that, as former U.S. president George W. Bush revealingly put it in an address to a joint congressional session after 9-11, “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” — or some other enemy that is external to the state in the collective national imagination.  Bio-power has altered the signification of blood, which formerly symbolized the punitive bloodshed of transgressors of the political or religious sovereign ruler.  On the one hand, restriction of some sexual expressions combined with proliferation of others replaced bloodshed with reproduction as a way of controlling the population.  On the other hand, blood now is associated with purity or lack thereof in relation to race.  It would be misleading to think that the ancient right to kill has not left its mark on modern civilization, for the desire for power over a population’s blood has assumed internal racism, fascism, and genocide.  The reason a race is wiped out is that there is a race to be preserved (149-150).


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