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Foucault and the Concept of "Biopower"

… take, for example, the concept of biopower. So much had been written on health and illness, on statistics, the census, epidemiology and demography, on the science of race, eugenics, population, abortion and dilemmas over new reproductive technology. Yet, strangely, no-one had grouped these diverse domains under a common term. Biopower names and groups together these concerns with the management of the phenomena that characterize groups of living human beings. It relates the exercise of this form of power to varying conceptions of the nature of human individuals and collectivities, their apparently biological variability – race, fertility, gender, constitution - and the ways in which these characteristics can be shaped, managed and selected in order to achieve political objectives. It shows how this problem of the government of living populations produces specific dilemmas for liberalism as a principle for the rationalization and exercise of government based on a conception of autonomous legal subjects endowed with rights, and free enterprise of individuals. And it casts new light on the relations between the liberal government of the metropolitan territories and the exercise of colonial government over populations conceived of as naturally, racially, biologically, constitutionally, morally and ethically distinct. Reframed in the context of biopolitics, each of these issues – the government of racial difference in the colonies, the management of public health, the design of hospitals and sewage systems, concerns about the falling birth rate, female fecundity or the location of cemeteries - morphs. While the empirical detail concerning each stays recognizably the same, the configurations amongst them becomes oddly different. New relations, dangers, promises, apparatuses, stakes, quandaries come into view and we can see how our present took shape through successive attempts to resolve them. Looking back, how could we not have seen that life itself has been fundamentally at stake in our politics and in our ethics? How could we have avoided recognizing the political consequences of the fact that we humans have come to understand ourselves as living beings whose very vitality, longevity, morbidity, mortality can be managed, administered, reformed, improved, transformed, and has a political value? From this point on, it will be impossible to pose the question of our existence as political creatures without simultaneously having to think about the ways in which our politics has become a matter of life itself. And, reciprocally, it will be impossible to understand the politics of life without addressing the way in which life itself has entered into knowledge, and the changing ways in which its specificity – as vitality, as organic machine, as code… – has been understood.

— Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose in the introduction to Foucault Today. New York: New Press. 2003