Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

88: Michel Foucault X:
Right of Death and Power Over Life

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

One of the traditional rights of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death. The sovereign could threaten one’s life as the source of compulsion or when his existence was threatened. As the technologies of power (hierarchal observation, normalizing judgment and examination) have expanded the sovereign’s power to decide life and death has also been modified. No longer is the sovereign’s power just the willingness and right to kill; now it expands to ensure, maintain and/or develop life. “This formidable power of death…now presents itself as the counterpart of 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.”

Ironically, wars have become more bloody and destructive with this new life affirming power. As the sovereign becomes a “…manager of life and survival, of bodies and the race….the existence in question is no longer the juridical existence of sovereignty; at stake is the biological existence of a population.” Therefore, foreign threats to the population must be expunged with as extreme a prejudice as possible.

Consider also suicide and the death penalty debate. In the case of suicide it used to be illegal because it represented a cheating of the sovereign’s right to dispose of his subject’s life; immoral because it thwarted God’s plan for your life. When power is exercised to administer life then suicide becomes easier to justify based on quality of life and “free” choice. Similarly in the case of the death penalty: once power concerned itself with administering life it became harder to justify the death penalty. Today, the most accepted reason for proceeding with an execution has less to do with the severity of the crime than with the monstrosity of the criminal: if the criminal represents something like a biological threat to the population then the death penalty becomes “reluctantly” acceptable.

Starting in the 17th century the sovereign’s power over life changed as did the conception of the body. First the body began to be thought of as a machine (the results of this were the disciplined society that made people more docile and more productive). The second and later development considered the body as the basic element of a population. With the new concept of “society” many particular new concerns arose such as propagation, public health, longevity, etc. that required the regulation of the population and the “good” management of life. It was not coincidental that the science of demography came into its own at this time. But the most important new knowledge discipline was the advent of sexuality (sexuality is different from sex in that sexuality is talking about sex: sexuality is a discourse, a subject of study, a soul inducing power relation; sex is merely an action).

Foucault coined the term “Bio-Power” to “designate what bought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life.” Prior to the 17th century humanity was a “living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics place his existence as a living being in question.” When this became true we as a species passed through the threshold of modernity. There were two major consequences to passing the threshold of modernity: The first was the disciplining of society as has been described in earlier sessions; the second was an outgrowth of the first: “the growing importance assumed by the action of the norm, at the expense of the juridical system of law.” The technology of power identified earlier as a “normalizing judgment” had as an effect the relative reduction of the need for and use of the juridical system of law because “a power whose task is to take charge of life needs continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms….[it’s a matter of] distributing the living in the domain of value and utility. Such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendor,”

Given this back ground, sex as a political issue tied the new disciplines of the body with the positive regulation of populations; it fit into both agendas: “Sex was the means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species.” These agendas were advanced along four paths over the last two and half centuries. 1) The sexualization of children: “precocious sexuality was presented form the 18th century to the end of the 19th century as an epidemic menace that risked compromising not only the future health of adults but the future of the entire society and species.” 2) The Hysterization of women: “which involved a thorough medicalization of their bodies and their sex, was carried out in the name of the responsibility they owed to the health of their children, the solidity of the family institution and the safe guarding of society.” 3) Birth controls: so that the lower classes don’t endanger themselves and society with too many children. And 4) the psychiatrization of perversions: again for the benefit of the whole (i.e. their docility and utility).

A dramatic shift also need to occurred between two sub-ideologies. As the focus of power changed and as its technologies developed a movement from the symbolics of blood to an analytics of sexuality occurred. The older sub-ideology referred to as a symbolics of blood had to do with the generally accepted place of blood as a symbol of power and legitimacy in society. Notions such as a blood bond, blood relations, of the same blood, the sovereign with his sword ready to spill blood. Blood was a symbol of power and authority and held high symbolic meaning which was used to maintain a particular world order. “We, on the other hand, are in a society… ‘with a sexuality’: the mechanisms of power are addressed to the body, to life, to what causes it to proliferate….Through the themes of health, progeny, race, the future of the species, the vitality of the social body, power spoke of sexuality and to sexuality; the latter was not a mark or a symbol it was an object and a target.” A new object and target of power also needed a new symbol of legitimation.

While this shift is dramatic it was not swift. At the intersection of the symbolics of blood and the anaylics of sex modern racism and eugenics took shape. The Nazi regime was the last “successful” marriage of the two sub-ideologies. “Successful” is used from the perspective of power in that it created such high fanaticism (docility and utility) in the German people. I suspect Foucault was not aware of the successful creation of this kind of fanaticism in North Korea.

To understand this deployment of sexuality at the service of power we must consider it on its own terms not on the terms it came from…

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren