Grinding Us Into an Essence II: WTF Is Biopolitics Anyway? A History Boy, 15/04/2016

Continued from last post . . . I have a history of being able to explain pretty well terms that people tend to find impenetrable. Biopolitics has been one of those terms. I have a pretty good history of making sense of that idea for people who openly admit that it mystifies the fuck out of them. 

Michel Foucault developed the concept of biopolitics as
it's understood today. But its problem is that it's used in
disciplinary contexts, where if you don't already know
what it means, you shouldn't expect it to be explained.
And unless you’ve already spent a lot of time reading the relevant philosophy, you probably are pretty mystified. This isn’t because the idea is complicated. It isn’t at all.

Biopolitics is simply about understanding that every aspect of material human life is a legitimate area of politics. And concept has a mirror image – politics is about managing the needs, desires, powers, and productivity of material human bodies. The manager can be an authority, a community, or an individual.

So having some particular form or list of rights in your constitution becomes, as far as you need to understand your political situation, a list of your powers that your government officially steps back from standing against. Claims to property or private spheres are only a limited subset of all these powers. 

The concept of biopolitics is a response to understanding that the liberal tradition of political thought – with its focus on rights and claims to privacy and property from government interference – isn’t adequate to all the politically relevant relations of power.

The problem with the language of biopolitics, at least as I’ve heard it spoken about over my old academic career and continued conversations in that world, is that nobody bothers to explain it. The term becomes dogma. 

Questions about what it means are answered with non-explanations. For example, politics as the domain of bare life, which is one thing I’ve heard in conversations that left most everyone more confused. 

Foucault wrote plenty of technical, heavily detailed books,
but he was always at heart about reaching the wider
population. He pitched his books to a general audience
interested in the history of Western institutions. And he
wrote journalism and popular criticism all his life
alongside his more stereotypically intellectual work.
This is a gatekeeping function of academic culture – it shuts people out of the conversation that haven’t wanted to devote themselves to it. It’s a way of making sure that a conversation is dominated only by experts. That’s fine when your goal is to discuss technical refinements and theoretical experiments or explorations. 

But not every conversation about philosophy, theory, and conceptual engineering should be like that. Instead, you have to explain it. 

A concept like biopolitics can have real power in the world, because it can radically change the way you see the world. And so it can change how you act in it. To me, this is the most important power of philosophy, and its essence. Think about the process like this. 

Say you’ve grown up all your life exposed to ordinary liberal sort-of-wishy-washy ideas about the proper subjects of political discussions and activism. The stable management of government. Legal adjudication. Administering property and privacy claims according to particular sets of rights. Arguing over which of those privacy and property rights are most important. 

All this stuff matters, but it leaves you thinking about politics in a very limited way. For one, all politics is about the relationship of people to the institutions that protect their rights and administer their claims and suits. It’s all about the role of people under their state’s regime and its laws.

Fine enough. But that actually sidelines and ignores a lot of what makes people powerful and weak. It ignores a lot of what makes people themselves. What builds their subjectivities.

Foucault and his books could be quite dense, but he was
always fundamentally about encouraging people to live
their own lives and rebel against values that held
themselves universal for their own sake, if your own
desires led you in a different direction.
Remember what I said yesterday about fundamentalisms. Each of them has an intense focus in their practical political programs of controlling what people do with their bodies. Religious observance, ethnic purity in reproduction, production and consumption. 

But none of that is focussed on the body in itself. Controlling what people do with their bodies is more about a means to an end – purifying their souls, purifying their nation, the pure vision of homo economicus. 

The kind of utopia that Antonio Negri thinks we should build using our biopolitical ideas isn’t a literally perfect society. He doesn’t know what that would look like. Neither do I and neither do you. 

We’re talking instead about a utopia of people in charge of creating their own subjectivities. Free from any value system that would use the force of authority and its institutions to impose itself in the name of some ideal that transcends all the messiness of life. 

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