Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ubu-Esque Sovereign, Monstrous Individual: Death in Biopolitics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Ubu-Esque Sovereign, Monstrous Individual: Death in Biopolitics

Article excerpt

Death was now something permanent, something that slips into life, perpetually gnaws at it, diminishes it and weakens it.

-Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended

Michel Foucault famously claims that, starting from the seventeenth century, power ceases to be interested in the right over life and death, but instead, invests itself with the task to "ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put life in order."1 According to his account, what is at work in modern politics is no longer a power to kill, but a power that aims to optimize life. "Death became shameful," he writes.2 However, when we examine the workings of modern politics, it becomes difficult to give full credit to this claim. After all, as Foucault himself also notes, the twentieth century has generated more systematic and mass deaths than all previous centuries of recorded history.3 With all the genocides, nuclear bombings, and systematic extermination of populations, death has never been as prevalent and as common as it was in the twentieth century.4 How, then, can we say that what we see are the workings of a power concerned with generating and optimizing life?

To answer this question, we have to consider the place of death in the technologies of biopolitics. Is death in contemporary politics a remnant of the sovereign power to kill, external to the work of biopower, working separately from it? Or, is it the case that death is indeed a fundamental aspect of biopower and its mechanisms? An attempt to answer these questions must necessarily turn towards social defense, towards threats to the life of society, towards the outsiders of society, towards monsters.

This paper is divided into three sections. The first section elaborates the modes of power developed in Foucault's corpus and situates the problem of death in relation to sovereignty and biopower by focusing on the place where Foucault situates the death-function of biopolitics: modern racism. In doing so, I will articulate racism as a mechanism of social defense and formulate the question of the object, the scope, and the technology of modern racism in Foucault's account. In order to elaborate the social defense mechanism underlying modern racism, the second section focuses on normalizing power as explained in the series of lectures titled Abnormal.5 Going through three models of monstrosity, the juridico-natural model, the criminal model and the medico-normative model, the relation between normalizing power and death will be established. Finally, the last section will elaborate the connection between normalization and death, in relation to individual death on the one hand, and death in populations on the other. At the end, I will argue that the management of death is a necessary function of biopower. In order to regulate the life of a population, biopower needs to take death not as the counterpart of life, but as an immanent and continuous condition to life. Normalization is the technique by which deadliness becomes an attribute of society, and biopower thereby takes on social defense as a central function.6

I. Life of the Sovereign, Life in Biopolitics

It is commonplace to say now that the biggest caution awaiting the reader of Foucault is in terms of his conception of power and its distinction from an ontology of power. Foucault insists repeatedly that what he deals with is not a question of "what power is," but rather an investigation of "where and how, between whom, between what points, according to what processes, and with what effects, is power applied."7 With this aim, he differentiates between three forms of power: sovereign power, disciplinary power, and biopolitics. The task of these differentiations is not to find inherent qualities of different modalities of power, but rather to investigate the methods by which forms of power are applied and analyze the mechanisms at work therein.

Sovereign power is associated with the most conventional form of power: a prohibitive and restrictive exercise of power that moves on a vertical line from the body of the sovereign to a non-individualized mass that is the 'people. …

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