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From Power to Biopower
Maître de Conférences HDR à l’Université de Nice.
Laboratoire CEPERC, UMR CNRS, 6059, Université de Provence.
The concept of « power » plays an important role in Michel Foucault’s critic of the classical model of sovereignty. This paper shows how “power” is related to “normalisation” in Surveiller et punir and in La volonté de savoir. Power is not only the way by which somebody acts on the action of somebody, but also a systemic property emerging in a social network. It emerges as a collective strategy, without any strategist, and without any subject. One could call this a “constructive” property.
However, “biopower” is not simply “power”. It is an “extension” of it. In La volonté de Savoir, Foucault tries to understand how biopower will organise a human social network, in which biological constraints are “reflected” by political ones. Human species is not simply the expression of a natural kind, but also the result of a social and of a political construction. This paper analyses this important change in Foucault’s philosophy of power.
Power ; Biopower ; Normalisation ; Relation ; Ecology.
The question of power in Foucault’s work will be asked by us between 1975 and 1976. In this period, Foucault examines general punishment and sexuality “systems” as social and technological devices: the so called “Dispositif” (Foucault, 1976, Ch. IV). “Dispositifs” are not “Disciplines”. Disciplines are fitted to individuals. They are tactical tools. A “Dispositif” is a strategic social and technical device. It concerns the organisation of a human society at a certain period of its history.
It expresses a big evolution in Foucault’s vocabulary, since a “Dispositif” is also not a simple “Episteme” (Foucault, 1966). An “Episteme” is a truth regulation system (“Un régime de vérité”), like the one in which the human being becomes to be analysed and studied through various and differentiated human and social sciences. In such a system, what is true and false is constructed by it. It doesn’t mean that truth is only a name; it better reveals that truth is nothing but an event constructed by the system of truth. That is the first level of nominalism: truth is nothing but a constructive discursive property present in a discursive system. Yet there is now a second one: the truth regulation system is also an event in a more complex social, historical and political system of norms, a “Dispositif” characterized as such through the so-called “relation of power”.
We will insist on two points in this essay. Firstly, we will show that “Power” is nothing for Foucault but a “relational” and systemic “strategic situation” (1976, p 123). And we will show that such a description of the relation of power is in continuity with a certain French tradition, coming from Gilbert Simondon, Georges Canguilhem, and in dialog with the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser that published “Lire le capital” in 1965. Like Canguilhem insists on “normativity” and Simondon on “individuation”, Foucault will insist on “normalisation”.
Yet “normalisation” is not a simple repressive regulation, like in the judiciary system. A norm is not a law, and prison is not simply a punishment. Normalisation deals with “information” and “control”: “Notre société n’est pas celle du spectacle, mais de la surveillance » (Foucault, 1975, p 219).
In a « Dispositif » there is a specific systemic tool: “a transformation matrix” (1976, p 131) through which Power switches into Knowledge and Knowledge also switches into Power. Such a device doesn’t exist in physics and in biology. It expresses a specificity of human societies. It explains why the relation of power cannot be reduced to economic exchanges, or to communication.
Secondly, normalisation is the result of a first strategy. It is an answer to this first question: how to build a complex structure with living human machines, or how to put human souls and autonomy in a complex structure? It can also be considered in a way as an economic question: how to produce a new human capital that will work better in the future. Yet, a new transformation matrix operates in La Volonté de Savoir. It switches Power into Biopower. What is controlled here, is not only our individual body (“l’âme prison du corps”), or the human society understood as a “population”1. It is nothing but “natural life” or “biological traits”. Through, demography, insurances, but also medicine, the strategy is now to make a better human species, and not only a better society. In this new normalisation process, “biology is reflected in politics” (1976, p 187). In Foucault’s perspective, the sexual technological and social device is at the centre of this new strategy, which is a strategy without any strategist, like in every normalisation process. This strategy involves what he calls “le droit de faire vivre”. It means that this new form of sovereignty acts as a control device on the birth of future generations, on the existence of humanity as a natural kind, and not only as a social entity.
It is of no doubt that the “microphysical” analysis of the contemporary human society, as a society of information and control, is permitted by a big historical change coming form the Modern period in Occident. The political sovereignty is a democratic one, with a state of law and democratic institutions. It is not an absolute Monarchy anymore. Foucault never argues that the relation of power vanishes at this macrolevel. He just tries to understand, why we are not only equals in front of the law, but also unequal in front of various “microrelations” of power, like the relation between parent’s and children, or between the physician and the patient. Microphysics of social forces doesn’t erase macrophysics of Power. And the political sovereignty understood as a relation of representation works in the occidental society. Yet the efficiency of the power is not at this level, for Foucault. It is at the level of a strategy without any strategist. Finally, we will ask a simple question: would it be also the case with biopower. Can we accept the idea that the relation with future generations can only be a relation of information and control? We will show finally that it is not the case today. And we will take two examples: the qualification of reproductive cloning as a crime against human species in the last revisions of the French laws of Bioethics (2004), and the version of the Precautionary Principle now integrated in the French Constitution.
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