Being the angel that I am, I was proof reading a friends essay the other day and stumbled across that oh so quoted theory – bio-politics. The slickest term in the book. Slip bio-politics into a causal conversation round the IDS and its high fives all round! Well maybe not… We’re not that sad, but you get what I mean. Still, when I found myself reading the brief summary of the term, I was instantly thrown back into that same feeling of academic discomfort I remember from when we fumbled our way through the thick stuff in that seminar on ‘The Body’ and Unruliness.
“This is an example of Foucault’s well-cited concept of Bio-politics. His model describes the power that governments exert over individual bodies. This form of control is highly instrumental and oblivious to individual rights that are forfeited in favour of the government’s interests. Bio-politics draws Foucault’s earlier work on bio-power which describes the governance over social and biological processes through technologies of power. The main difference of the concepts in how they are used in this paper is that bio-power is exerted by a state onto a population while bio-politics is directed at a specific individual and body…”
Put succinctly, my feeling of discomfort stemmed from one thing – the feeling that this super sexy term was, in fact, just a super sexy term void of any meaning. ‘What is this that I hear?! Foucault? Vacuous?! Sacrilege!’ Yeah that’s right, I said it – so hear me out. To me, the notion that governments use ‘technologies of power’ over individuals body’s seems so blindingly obvious, it seems strange to even feel the need to say it. Of course state power is about influencing bodies. The question I ask myself is, when does the exercise of state power not influence an individual’s body? Questions over abortion laws are very explicit examples, but we should also recognise that economic policies regarding the allocation resources often manifests itself in a grumbling of bellies from those worse off. Is this too not a form of bio-politics? Even policies that don’t necessarily lead to a ‘grumbling of bellies’, questions regarding dignity and self-respect, policies that undermine ‘decent and secure work’ for example, these take its toll on something slightly more ethereal – the human mind. But who says such a thing does not belong to the human body? To distinguish between matters that affect our psychological well-being and those that affect our physical well-being rests on a dualist distinction between the mind and body, one that I sincerely reject. All state power, all of politics, is bio-politics. If bio-politics is everything, then it is nothing.
I remember discussing these frustrations with a friend at the time and she said that as a woman and a feminist, she can see the undoubted value in the term bio-politics. It visibilises issues, and reminds us that our bodies are in fact the subjects of state power. She pointed to the American elections and noted that if all those middle class women that voted Trump were reminded or made aware that it was their bodies that will be coerced and constrained by anti-abortion measures, then maybe they would have voted a different way. I see this point. Maybe with the armchair nature of political participation, with politicians seeming like nothing more than contestants on reality TV show, biopolitics is a useful reminder that it is our bodies that are the recipients of state power.
However, there remains a danger in accepting this distinction, one that can reinforce armchair participation. If we accept the dualist distinction that underpins biopolitics, we are then encouraged to be concerned with politics only when we feel that our bodies are the subjects, as in obvious examples like abortion law, or regulations relating to medicinal practices. Would it not be better to recognise that all politics is bio-politics, that state power always manifests itself on an individual’s body in some manner and that we would be wise to use our bodies, our bare life, to change it?
I was watching a little video on Foucault by Alain de Botton where he mentions Foucault held scorn for the medical profession because of the ‘medical gaze’ held by doctors. A doctor looks at a person and sees a set of organs, as opposed to a person that should be considered at a full entity. My reading of bio-politics feeds into this scorn as in distinguishing between state power directed at our bodies, and state power that does not, we reinforce the notion that we are not our bodies, that we are not complete entities.
Then again, maybe I completely misread Foucault?