Sovereign Power and Bio-Power

One crucially important feature of Foucault’s analysis of modern powers is his discussion of the relationships between repressive legal-sovereign power, on the one hand, and the modern descendents of productive normalizing-pastoral power, on the other. Sovereign powers are essentially repressive and pastoral powers are essentially productive. If in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (aka The Will to Knowledge) Foucault views sovereign power as representing itself as negating, legislative, prohibitive, censoring, and homogenous (1976, 83-85), he views bio-power as always productive, immanent, exercised, capillary, and resisted (1976, 94-95). These five qualifications of each conception of power are not necessarily opposed to one another point-to-point, but one clearly gets the drift that there is a deep rift between sovereign power and pastoral power.

A difficult ambiguity, however, remains in Foucault’s models of power as presented in The Will to Knowledge. This deep ambiguity, in my view, continued to plague Foucault’s work over the years to come. Given their heterogeneity, do both forms of power (repressive sovereign power and productive biological power) continue to characterize the exercise of power in our own times? Or has bio-power gradually colonized sovereign power thus displacing it? Foucault was unfortunately never clear on this question. But a great deal rides on it, both historically in reference to the past and philosophically in reference to the future. There is in Foucault’s writings evidence for both interpretations.

First, the interpretation emphasizing their continued simultaneous practice. In “Two Lectures” (from the 1976 course lectures), Foucault clearly views the operation of sovereign and pastoral power as depending on the continuing simultaneous employment of both: “The powers of modern society are exercised through, on the basis of, and by virtue of, this very heterogeneity between a public right of sovereignty and a polymorphous disciplinary mechanism” (106). Similarly in “Omnes et Singulatim” (the 1979 Tanner lectures) Foucault proposed this reciprocal heterogeneity once again in claiming that “pastorship happened to combine with its opposite, the state” (1979, 300). Elsewhere, in “Governmentality” (from the 1978 course lectures), Foucault sounds very explicit: “We need to see things not in terms of the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality one has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government” (1978, 219). On this first interpretation, modern power essentially functions such that both sovereign power and bio-power (etc.) are simultaneously deployed. In this way, modern power can be understood as deriving its effectiveness through a double conditioning or reciprocal enhancement of both: each form of power augments, or lends credit to, the other, but only insofar as they are cleanly purified of one another. The first interpretation might seem to better account for many of Foucault’s claims. For example, Foucault’s claims in The Will to Knowledge that the passage from “the symbolics of blood” to “the analytics of sexuality” was not sudden but occurred with “overlappings, interactions, and echoes” such that “the preoccupation with blood and the law has for nearly two centuries haunted the administration of sexuality” (1976, 149). Foucault notes racism and psychoanalysis as two very different domains in which this preoccupation with blood, law, and sovereignty persists. Taking another example from the same text, there are Foucault’s strong claims to the effect that sovereign and pastoral power are “utterly incongruous” with one another (1976, 89). Such utter incongruity might be taken to suggest that bio-power could not have colonized sovereign power even if it had wanted to: colonization requires at least some degree of minimal continuity in order to establish the relations through which the colonization could take place. Of course, the view that bio-power simply displaced rather than colonized sovereign power remains conceptually consistent with such incongruity.

There is also evidence for reading Foucault another way, as plenty of commentators and critics have noticed. Here one would focus more attention on Foucault’s earlier work on power/knowledge such as “Truth and Juridical Forms” (the 1973 Rio lectures). One could also take many choice quotes from The Will to Knowledge. Part V (“Right of Death and Power over Life”) of the book is a study of “a very profound transformation of these mechanisms of power” in the modern era (1976, 136). The transformation is one which shifts the level of the exercise of power from “the juridical existence of sovereignty” to “the biological existence of the population” (1976, 137). Foucault here clearly claims that “the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (1976, 138). Sovereign power was “replaced” by the disciplinary and regulatory functions of bio-power. Foucault later refers to this as the “threshold of modernity”: “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (1976, 143). According to Foucault, the most important consequence of the shift to modern power has been “the growing importance assumed by the action of the norm, at the expense of the juridical system of the law” (1976, 144). Here we have a picture, then, where sovereign law does not totally disappear under the inwashing tide of bio-political normalization, but where law certainly recedes as normalization becomes increasingly important. This is evidence for a second interpretation, where modern power does not persist as the heterogeneity of sovereignty and bio-power, but where it takes the form of a modern bio-power that increasingly colonizes and then displaces sovereign power. Foucault is almost this explicit just a little later: “[T]he judicial institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, and so on) whose functions are for the most part regulatory” (1976, 144). Law and sovereignty persist, but are increasingly put to the service of norm and biology. We are a “normalizing society” experiencing “juridical regression” such that our history is one in which “[i]t was life more than the law that became the issue of political struggles” (1976, 144, 145).


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