Biopolitics 9/8 – the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty and brutish?

Summary and reflection – Second week writing assignment
Society must be defended (part 1)

In this chapter, Foucault not only refined and clarified many of his ideas mentioned in the previous text “Right to death and the power over life”, he also makes the claim that the whole of 18th century, is in actuality, a war between the races. In the following text, Foucault explained with greater depth – the historical trajectory and evolution of the bio-political state we have in the 21st century, mostly by delineating the bio-political context of the 18th and 19th century, investigating the contract between the individual and the social body, and illustrating the extent of bio-political power, the level of mechanism, techniques and technology it engages.

First of all, I want to start with the clarifications Foucault made in “Society must be defended”. During my first encounter with Foucault’s writing, I was particularly puzzled by one of his statements regarding the nature of “ the right of death and power over life.”

In one of the passages, Foucault emphasized how the right of life and death is a dissymmetrical one. Initially I thought the dissymmetry he noticed was a reference to how the right of death and power over life is executed and conceptualized in ways distinctive to each historical period. Or, I thought to myself, Foucault might be stressing the imbalance within the survival formula – one person’s life at the expense of another. These two interpretations to my belief isn’t entirely incorrect, but it was made clear in this article that the ancient right (of death and power over life) has always been tipped in favor of death, which over-shadows the living aspect of this right, thus making the right dissymmetrical.

Throughout the essay, Foucault has commented extensively on the many facets of birth/death including its link with the development a bio-political state. For instance, at page 64 to page 65 of Chapter 2, he expounded on the changing perspectives people have (regarding birth/death) at the end of the 18th century.

Firstly Foucault noticed the shift in scale and methods of processing “ It is at any rate at this moment, the first demographers begin to measure the phenomena in statistical terms.” The quantitative measurement of births and deaths, in my opinion contributes to the idea of “Body as a machine”, as it discourages individuality and encourages mass oriented holistic thinking. In other words, I think it becomes clear at this stage, that“ human life” has taken up a new identity – it has become equivalent to numbers that are easily modified.

Secondly, Foucault brings up the practice of birth control, along with the sprouting of natalist policy. This mission to calculate the beginnings and ends to a human body truthfully reflects what political entities were trying to achieve – That is to maintain the society through efficient chains of production, for when population ages, falls ill or dies, all the benefits a living human body will disappear, and unproductive bodies will conversely burden the state. Thus, according to Foucault, the kind of death that permeated the end of 18th century became an especially problematic one.

Death in the late 18th Century turns problematic as soon as it begins to take the form of chronic illnesses.“ It was no longer something that suddenly swooped down on life…it was now something that slips into life, perpetually gnaws it, diminishes it and weakens it.” The appearance of endemics in that period, spurs the development of medicine, and stimulated the birth of public-health institutions. And ever since the discovery of ways to quantitatively prolong life and postpone death, the power of Bio-politics has increased considerably, expanding into the fields of accidents, infirmities and various anomalies. Which portends the subtler, more rational mechanisms we will see in the early 19th century. (These mechanisms are insurance, individual and collective savings.)

In line with the paragraphs above, we can perceive how the varying forms of birth and death have directly/indirectly steered the development of a bio-political state, along with the forces of social, economic and technological changes during the 18th and 19th century. From my point of view, it is extremely intriguing to see how the notion of birth and death can have such a huge impact on the construction of the bio-political system. I maintain that the heightened notion of birth and deaths is strongly related to the survival of the species, however, this also makes me wonder whether there are other viable paths human beings can take in order to maximize the chances of living.

Being born into a bio-political state makes me feel as if I’m unable to think otherwise, for I find myself enjoying too much – the benefits numerous institution provides. What would it really be like to live in a non bio-political state? Will it appear to be as what Thomas Hobbes has depicted: “ where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry… no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”?

I am fully aware that in the later part of “Society must be defended”, Foucault is going to argue against the bio-political state being an intrinsically binding one, he is going to stress its built in disconnections and inherent racism proliferated by its hierarchical composition, which in turn group people into inner and outer, superior and inferior groups. Nevertheless, In my wishful thinking, I consider the current state of our society an evolving one, and therefore salvageable. The question to how power can still find its place in a society where no single person is oppressed is a question that I have yet found an answer too (also Incapable of answering at this point).

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