Belonging, Politics, and the Affective Dimensions of Power: Elizabeth A. Povinelli

The work of cultural anthropologist, Elizabeth A. Povinelli (see profile:, has, since I began reading her latest book, “Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism” (2011), become a new personal favorite of mine. Both challenging and immensely productive in its complexity, Povinelli’s scholarship moves to define the significance of “late liberalism”, the term which she uses to describe the particular shape “that liberal governmentality has taken” in response to crises of legitimacy it has encountered continuously “from the 1950s onward” (Povinelli 2011:25). Particularly, she says, such legitimacy crises provoked the modern liberal state to institute an array of new “formal or informal policies of cultural recognition (or cognate policies such as multiculturalism) as a strategy for addressing the challenge of internal and external difference” (p.25). Drawing on years of engaged ethnographic fieldwork in Aboriginal Australia and in the United States, which constitutes the basis of her preoccupation with settler nationalism, Povinelli analyzes alternative potentialities of social existence through the context of late liberal governing strategies and techniques of “making live, making die, and letting die” (p.29). In many respects, I see this work as an important extension to thinking about biofallibility more fully, in terms of understanding both why and how radical alterities persist under totalizing forces of biopower.

An additional piece by Povinelli, which I have chosen to read alongside this latest book of hers, is a fairly short journal article from 2001, called “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability”. It is an Annual Review of the anthropological work on radical alterity, and is a helpful read for better understanding the academic genealogies behind the sort of social projects of life otherwise, with which Povinelli is chiefly interested. Focusing here on the linguistic, metapragmatic, and discursive fields of power in late liberal societies as the stage upon which the negotiated inconceivability of radical worlds has been theorized, this piece constitutes a useful expansion to understanding some of the key themes developed in “Economies of Abandonment” from a different angle.

The core concerns of Povinelli’s work, which are heavily biopolitical, circle—she says— around the following questions (2011:5): “How do specific arrangements of tense, eventfulness, and ethical substance make affectively and cognitively sensible and practical, late liberal distributions of life and death, of hope and harm, and of endurance and exhaustion across social difference? Given these arrangements, what are the conditions in which new forms of social life emerge? And, if we believe that all potential life is material, that it is embodied, then how does the materiality of the social otherwise matter to critical theory?”.

An important component of Povinelli’s multifold answer to these questions, which I have found to be especially pertinent and useful to thinking about my own work, is the notion of cultural recognition and the late liberal governing “modality” of what she calls the “larger triadic dynamic of recognition-espionage-camouflage” (2011:30). She argues that these modalities, which become inseparable in moments of crises of cultural recognition in late liberalism, surface visibly as a bracketing, or redlining, of the subjects of difference, and that this constitutes a fundamental form of governance by means of managing cultural Others through the power to delay the Other’s tense.

In my own research interests, racial redlining through colorblind (and consequently, content-less) interpretations of U.S. law seem, to me, to appear to offer a wide context in which I might usefully further examine and apply this framework of governmentality. Particularly, as post-racial ideologies increasingly penetrate new projects of state power, I am intrigued by the possibility of seeing this as a contingent form of bracketing that is made, through ‘public reason’, into a manageable line “between policing and politics in order to make difference intelligible” (p.43). Moreover, I am left with questions concerning what types of social divisions in tense-laden national discourses of the unfolding present such projects manifest, and the types of social projects that are left therein either to start belonging, to endure, or otherwise be an abandonment of late liberal intolerance.

For further reading on Povinelli’s work, an interesting interview with her can be read at…/2012_02_07.pdf .


Povinelli, Elizabeth A.
2001 “Radical worlds: the anthropology of incommensurability and inconceivability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30:319-334.
2011 Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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Neoliberalism, Development, and Organizing

(If interested, there is also a Part 2 of the above video, which can be accessed here: )

“Transparency is not a form of representation that fixes mistakes, deters corruption, and finally puts the state at the service of the common good. What transparency actually is…is a political negotiation between disparate points of reference that have become unmoored, between documents, people, bodies, laws, circulating stories, plotted ground, the intransigent material objects and processes littering the landscape, the habits of the past and the looming uncertainties of the future. Transparency is nothing more than a name for a negotiation that forges a momentary agreement about representations and that aims to facilitate future connections.” ~ K. Hetherington (2011:222)
Manufactured ambiguities have arguably always been a necessary modus operandi for bureaucratic liberal governments- a fact that becomes particularly salient during periods of national ‘transition’, ‘reform’, or ‘development’. Taking an increasingly global perspective on theorizing state formation in the post- Cold War neoliberal era, we see through the readings reviewed here how ambiguous and mundane bureaucratic practices may constitute the spaces through which people engage in relations with what forms their experience of the state as a real, spatialized entity. And as Kregg Hetherington shows particularly well, it is in and through these ambiguous spaces of bureaucratic practice that the state comes to be seen by some as something that is, at least at times, negotiable. This post aims to highlight the complex ambiguities of neoliberal state-making practice, with a particular end-goal of framing Hetherington’s ethnography of Paraguayan campesino organizing, to which the above video adds several multiple layers of complexity, as a highly instructive case in which to examine the type of transnational governmentality described by Ferguson and Gupta.

Co-authors Ferguson and Gupta, in a critical re-working of Taussig’s state-as-fetish theory, emphasize that the state’s actual achievement of spatialization, and subsequent encompassment of centralized powers in everyday life, is a reality that is achieved significantly through the state’s routinization of mundane practices and procedures that produce spatial and scalar hierarchies which constitute the imaginings of state powers as operating ‘up above’. That is, rather than seeing the importance of theorizing the state as an abstraction, they focus on what we can learn from using a practice theory approach about how people come to experience the state as something that is both spatially real and encompassing of institutional power in society, and over lives and bodies. In addition, they propose a re-thinking of questions of space and scale through what they term ‘transnational governmentality’, in order to account for new forms and degrees of the vertical bundling of regulatory practices that have permeated states, and particularly ‘developing’ states, in the neoliberal era of globalization.

An important articulation of neoliberalism is given through Ferguson and Gupta’s concept of transnational governmentality, which might be paraphrased as follows. While neoliberalism is typically associated with a project of state ‘decentralization’ — that is, the dispersal of control over what were formerly ‘public’ spheres of centralized power under the state into the so-called private sector — this does not necessarily (or even likely) translate as ‘less government’. Rather, it is a devolution of governmental risk into the private sphere, including the individual, as well as increasingly the collapsing of scales from the global to the local, making for what might be conceived as a horizontal apparatus of governmentality which has overlain and become embedded within the verticality of state practice.

Kregg Hetherington’s “Guerrilla Auditors”, in many senses, seems to represent the sort of “ethnography of encompassment” that Ferguson and Gupta call for, though, in arguably unexpected and telling ways. Ferguson and Gupta’s proposition, that the challenge for such an ethnography is to understand the spatiality of all forms of governance within neoliberal globalization, is surprisingly met by Hetherington in competing Paraguayan state-making realities, which he discovers to be located in and through material documents, and particularly those tied to or surrounding land reformation. These documents surrounding the titling of campesino lands have become critical stages for contesting the neoliberalism of corporate soy farming, at the state level. Using the case of Paraguay’s post Cold War transition into neoliberal democracy, for which a project of transparency-making through the production of publicly-accessible official documents was representationally of central importance, Hetherington studies the necessary ambiguity of such documents through the “undemocratic” practices of campesinos in their making of an equally-ambiguous “transparent” state.

Significantly, Paraguayan campesinos are seen as “undemocratic” in their recognition of documentary ambiguities and their attempts to act on them as such, by the new democrats, because of campesinos’ explicit oppositional challenges they make against the state, which implicitly blur the logic of the new democrats’ conception of a universalist democratic governance. Moreover, as Hetherington writes (p.189), “caudillos and campesinos are the only ones who are capable of making bureaucracies more inclusive. Transparency is a technocratic language built on the exclusion of the political from governance, which paradoxically requires excluded political actors to make it work”.

To some degree, the above quote can be read as suggesting that governance and governmentality, as a spatial issue, takes place specifically within, through, and because of the presence of “the undemocratic”- the campesino. Nowhere in Hetherington’s book does this appear more manifestly visible, on and through bodies, than in his chapter, “lll-Gotten Land”, where the physical dichotomy between campesino protesters and state police marching along the highway “not only reinforced the law as the only legitimate terrain of struggle, but also revealed the law as subject to the dictate of violence” (p.90). That campesinos are included as members of a democracy through a status of citizenship, yet are continuously marked in practice as representing the “undemocratic” other of Paraguay’s nationhood, and are therefore excluded by necessity for making the transparent bureaucracy function “democratically”, represents the sort of red-lining that increasingly seems to be appearing in scholarly studies of neoliberal globalizing states and state-making. I would even speculate as to whether this may be seen as a tacit, foundational property of neoliberal global capitalism today, both in developing states and developed states. It is, in other words- the “subprime inclusion” of particular marked groups at the margin into democratizing spaces of “transparency making”, by means of a necessary process of redlining already historically marginal groups, ultimately as a way of marking- through bodies- “the limits of democratization” (see Ananya Roy 2010:218-19).

What is truly remarkable about the campesinos in Hetherington’s ethnography, is not only that their redlining as the ‘necessary undemocratic other’ is based less on the marking of their bodies than on their identification through certain practices, but also the fact that the logic of “their reality” (“orerealidad”) turns the logic of transparency-making from the new democrats’ point of view on its head. The campesinos do this, specifically by undermining the logic of universality, and acting on the ambiguous spaces of a neoliberal democracy, for which they themselves have been made to constitute a bodily/physical border between ‘the knowable’ (democratic) and ‘the inscrutable’ (the undemocratic/campesino). What is more, they consciously act on these borders as the spatio-temporal terrain of struggle over what they see as a certain open-ended space of sovereignty-in-the-making.

To this end, the case of Paraguayan campesino political organization provides an excellent representation of how transnational governmentality is an integral project of the biopolitical era, and how deeply and necessarily ambiguous this project is. As the video at the top of this post suggests, transnational neoliberal governmentality in Paraguay is seen being played out at a level in which the transnational apparatus of Brazilian soy farming, along with the global corporate power of Monsanto, has been visibly collapsed into very localized spaces and practices. That this has provoked campesino organizing around official documents surrounding land reform constitutes, for them, the terrain in which state-making and sovereignty are produced by means of their “undemocratic” relations with state bureaucracy, exemplifies the new modes of neoliberal bundling of governance that ties together vertical notions of state making and encompassment, and specifically through new hierarchies of both space and scale.


Ferguson, James, and Akhil Gupta
2005 Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality. In Anthropologies of Modernity: Foucault, Governmentality, and Life Politics. Ed. Jonathan Xavier Inda. Pp. 105-134. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Hetherington, Kregg
2011 Guerilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Roy, Ananya
2010 Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development. New York and London: Routledge.

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The State: Biopower and Biofallibility

“In states that are racially conceived, ordered, administered, and regulated, the racial state could be said to be everywhere. And simultaneously seen nowhere. It (invisibly) defines almost every relation, shapes all but every interaction, contours virtually all intercourse. It fashions not just the said and the sayable, the done and doable, possibilities and impermissibilities, but penetrates equally the scope and quality, content and character of social silences and presumptions. The state in its racial reach and expression is thus at once super-visible in form and force and thoroughly invisible in its osmotic infusion into the everyday (Essed 1991), its penetration into common sense, its pervasion (not to mention perversion) of the warp and weave of the social fabric.”
~Goldberg (2001:98)

Conceptualizing ‘the state’ in socio-cultural and political theory has occupied the projects of multiple different theoretical standpoints, and in the group of reading selections overviewed here (James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”; D.T. Goldberg’s “The Racial State”; and M. Taussig’s “The Nervous System”), three such approaches emerge. In what follows, I attempt to differentiate the three approaches along their apparent lines of tension, by which I mean to say, how the power relations that exist between a notion of ‘the state’ and ‘the subject’ (or, ‘a population’), are taken up to constitute different understandings of governmentality, as well as different understandings of the ability, or power, of life to operate outside of disciplinary practices and institutions. Each of them underscoring the notion of the state as a necessarily always-incomplete process, the theorizations of Scott, Goldberg, and Taussig nevertheless range from discussing the state as an unproblematic entity that is real in every sense, to arguing that the state is nothing more than an abstract fetishization of power by the marginalized. In light of these varying positions on the subject, an important question, for an anthropology of biopolitics, ultimately becomes, what does it mean to talk about life when the state is said to fail?

Political scientist, James Scott, easily provides the most palatable explanation of state powers over life under liberalism. For Scott, who claims to be writing from a substantially anarchist point of view, the state is uncritically understood as an authoritarian power structure of governance that operates above society, significantly in collaboration with capitalist elite interests, for the purpose of a legibility-making social engineering project imposed on populations, nature, knowledge, etc. He argues that the state’s aim is to create a strictly-ordered, simplified and easily-governable logic underriding all things, making previously locally-ordered and known landscapes and life ways into landscapes and social relations that are legible and controllable by the state, as a foreign and authoritative power. A secondary point he makes to this, which I would argue is perhaps the most useful point of all, is that between the official (state) ordering of things from an outside-and-above standpoint, and the localized manifestations of life forces, exists a gap, in which the on-the-ground reality of things is not captured by the state-determined knowledges produced. Within this gap, life carries on through new/adaptive forces of its own, thereby requiring a continuous revising of official ways of knowing by the state. This continual self-generated need of the state for new ways of managing is, in turn, how the state is able to continue justifying its ongoing existence under liberalism (a similar argument to this last point we have seen before, from Foucault).

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Taussig, who is hardly interested in the existence of any real, primordially substantial, autonomous entity called the state. For Taussig, the powerful existence of ‘the state’ in relation to human life lies entirely in the power ascribed to a fetishized abstraction of a fictional idea. As he says, “what the notion of State fetishism directs us to is precisely the existence and reality of the political power of this fiction, its powerful insubstantiality” (1992:113). Put simply, Taussig seems to be arguing that the State is fetishized and made powerful as an abstraction, in the same way that Marx argued commodities are fetishized, so that their value is not based in any material significance, other than what is generated by the abstracted fetishistic value imbued by and through human relational ideas. A critical force enabling this abstraction to be experienced as a material reality, he argues, emerges from the institutional bringing-together of reason and violence.

Finally, we might situate Goldberg somewhere in between Scott and Taussig, for Goldberg is neither positing the uncritical existence of the state, nor its non-existence, but rather the co-articulation of the modern state and raciality. Rather than taking a classical Marxist stance on theorizing either, Goldberg offers a theorization that, while assuming some centralization of power in terms of governmental structures and strategies of management, he places stronger emphasis on the state as a certain quality or condition enabling certain practices, wherein racial and gendered forms of exclusion constitute the seams of its “social fabric”. Drawing from Foucault, he argues that no clear-cut distinction between ‘the state’ and the individual in society exists, and therefore, by extension, no such distinction between the public and private spheres does either. He takes an intersectional approach to the state’s role in the formation of bodies, in which racism historically precedes the state’s ability to implement projects which do so. In a somewhat uncomfortable way, Goldberg takes for granted an assumption of postcoloniality to advance his argument, that race and the ability to segregate and exclude on such terms both preceded colonial projects and made them possible. That race is what serves to simultaneously divide the socio-political spheres of life in a modern state, as well as cohere them, becomes, for Goldberg, the mediating force that perpetuates the racial rule of modern states and the continuous and necessary always-incompleteness of such rule.

To summarize the above, I have argued that Scott, Taussig, and Goldberg differ in their conceptions of the state, insofar as its origins, its materiality, and its productive relations with individuals and populations are concerned. Where Scott remains uncritical and unquestioning of an entity called the state existing, and where Taussig argues that such an entity is materially experienced only insofar as it has been fetishized as a powerfully fictive abstraction, Goldberg believes that what we know to be the modern state- as a centralized entity of power- is not clearly differentiated from what we conceive as ‘society’, in large part, because it is so intertwined with the power to racialize as a form of state rule. It is worth pointing out, none of these authors conceptualize the state as something that is static, but rather as something that is always necessarily incomplete, and fraught with tension between itself as an idea and the lived social reality of individuals and populations. As such, to begin one path towards discussing life and power in spaces of state failure, it seems useful to consider the always-incoherent or fragmented logic of state governance as a critical force in perpetuating new manifestations of governmentality and its self-made justifications.

1. J. Scott. 1998. Seeing Like A State. New Haven. Yale. Selections.
2. D.T. Goldberg. 2001. “Chapter 5: Racial States.” In The Racial State. London: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
3. M. Taussig. 1992. “Maleficium: State Fetishism.” In The Nervous System. New York: Routledge.

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Borders and Bodies



“The ability to respond is what is meant by responsibility, yet our cultures take away our ability to act— shackle us in the name of protection. Blocked, immobilized, we can’t move forward, can’t move backwards. That writhing serpent movement, the very movement of life, swifter than lightening, frozen…We do not engage fully. We do not make full use of our faculties. We abnegate. And there in front of us is the crossroads and choice: to feel a victim where someone else is in control and therefore responsible and to blame (being a victim and transferring the blame on culture, mother, father, ex-lover, friend, absolves me of responsibility), or to feel strong, and, for the most part, in control.” ~ G. Anzaldúa (1987:20-21)


“In poisoning themselves by breathing toxic, mind-numbing fumes, the inhabitants of Barrio Libre defy sovereign powers and material forms of subjugation of living normal lives, submitting to power and its ends…[It is] an embrace of imminent death as a political act, a pathological, delinquent refusal, a refusal to live life as a normal subject of neoliberalism. Barrio Libre captures one avenue where the grossly dispossessed and grossly marginalized retain some power in conditions of neoliberal governmentality and the accompanying new exercises of sovereignty.” ~G. Rosas (2012:119)


(Image of Nogales sewer lines,


The concept of borders, approached as a biopolitical technology for the management of bodies in the era of global neoliberalism, is a powerfully generative one. That is, the notion of a border, and the lived experience of a borderland as a real and productive spatial entity, constitutes a life and death-defining field of power that is generative of profoundly “Othered” subjectivities, which themselves are made to embody the always-incomplete state of being— what Gloria Anzaldua calls being “the forbidden” (p.3). In the pairing of readings reviewed here (Gilberto Rosas’ 2012 Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier and Anzaldua’s 1987 Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), the violently militarized and policed US-Mexico borderland is examined as a space in which the sovereignty of the neoliberal state, as well as of the individual subject, is necessarily always in a process of producing its own ongoing incompleteness, and in which the ability to exercise power over life and death is a power that is highly contested for.

While the charcter of the two readings are quite different, both ultimately make the same critical interjection through their reflective studies: That the borderland production of forbidden, delinquent, deviant, and criminalized subjectivities, and the subsequent self-conscious embracing of such subjectivities by the very bodies upon which they are imposed, must not be read as pure subjugation, in which the racialized, sexualized, impoverished and brutalized subjects of the border can only be seen as victims— that is, as the necessary price that must be paid for the maintenance of national security. On the contrary, they argue that many subjective embodiments of delinquency, or deviancy, found within the US-Mexico borderlands, must instead be seen as enactments of an explicit refusal of victimhood. While not quite the same as “agency” in its fullest sense, this refusal is nevertheless a product of individuals defying the limits placed upon them by an oppressive neoliberal territorial strategy, insofar as they ascribe new meanings to their deviancy, thereby removing their bodies and lives (even if by means of death) from the totalizing control apparatuses of organized state violence.

More specifically, the deviancy of subjects at the border constitutes what Rosas describes as a political discourse, in which the pathologizing practices of criminality and the bodily practices of self-destruction (exemplified by the delinquent youths of Barrio Libre, who brutally victimize indigenous border-crossers as their “others”, while expediting their own early deaths by recreationally inhaling the toxic fumes of paint or glue products) are neither strictly coping mechanisms nor violent practices of survival. They are, instead, political acts of refusing to be victimized as constructed neoliberal subjects. In other words, the youth of Barrio Libre choose to be criminals, as the alternative to being wrongfully constructed as such through the “nightmarish” white American discourses of terrorism; likewise, these youth also self-consciously deny a militaristic border police the biopolitical power of making them live/letting them die, by taking their own deaths into their own hands. The scenario poses the question of, to what extent “death-producing technologies” are strictly exercised as unchallenged, powerful only from the top-down. What power relations are transformed or generated by subjects’ refusal of state power at the border in this way?

Determining which discourses, and whose discourses dominate, must also be considered in this regard. That increasing militarization and use of advanced surveillence and warfare technologies at the border is seen as successful by policing personnel, while death rates at the border continue to grow, underscores the point that Rosas, in particular, repeatedly draws us to: that sovereignty-making at the border is a violently racist and sexist normalizing biopolitical project at its core, and the nightmarish fears used to justify it cannot precede this fact.

As a final note, it is worth discussing how visual imagery is heavily deployed throughout both texts, as the literary device of choice for evoking the problematic character of the borderlands, or “new frontier” (as Rosas calls it). Terms like “shit”, “oozing”, “nightmarish”, “mongrel”, “naked”, “invisible”, “deformity” are interwoven throughout Rosas’ and Andalzua’s analyses of those who are racialized, gendered, and altogether othered at the border, conveying the powerful imposition of violent discourses on the body, and on the spaces through which the body is disciplined and subjectivity produced. As Rosas writes, “neoliberal sovereignty is forged on people deemed to be on the margins of the state, in the [every-day] practices of policing as sovereignty making” (p.11). Underpinning this are both new and historical discourses of racism and gender, which violently operate in silence, as Mestizaje’s imagined fantasy of anti-racism ideologically “prohibits public discussion of how nightmares about other bodies haunt everyday social relations in Mexico” (Rosas 2012:79). Similarly, as male-dominated “culture…professes to protect” women, “woman” is thus categorically made into, always and unquestionably, “the stranger, the other. She is man’s recognized nightmarish pieces, his Shadow-Beast” (Andalzua 1987:17). That such categorical referents of otherness are constructed and reproduced on and through bodies at the borderland is, in fact, the very nexus through which any meaning of state sovereignty today continues to be sustained as generative.

1. G. Rosas. 2012. “Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier”. Durham. Duke University Press.
2. G. Anzaldua. 1987. “The Homeland, Aztlan” & “Movimientos de rebeldia y las cultural que traicionan”, pp.1-23, In “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”. San Fransisco: Aunt Lute Books.

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Biopolitics: An Overview

        “To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century, or to say that power at least takes life under its care in the nineteenth century, is to say that it has, thanks to the play of technologies of discipline on the one hand and technologies of regulation on the other, succeeded in covering the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between body and population. We are, then, in a power that has taken control of both the body and life or that has, if you like, taken control of life in general – with the body as one pole and the population as the other.” ~ M. Foucault (1976:252-3)

        “What we are dealing with in this new technology of power is not exactly society (or at least not the social body, as defined by the jurists), nor is it the individual body. It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted. Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem.” ~M. Foucault (1976:245)


            Biopolitics is a complicated concept that has been used and developed in social theory since Michel Foucault, to examine the strategies and mechanisms through which human life processes are managed under regimes of authority over knowledge, power, and the processes of subjectivation. As Thomas Lemke points out, a great deal of the inconsistency with which the concept of biopolitics has been deployed in more recent decades results depending upon whether one takes as their starting point the notion that life is the determining basis of politics, or alternatively, that the object of politics is life. Meanwhile, as Nikolas Rose and Paul Rabinow point out, the original interests in and conceptions of biopower drawn out by Foucault, quite usefully, do not grapple with these opposing positions- something that has remained underappreciated by many theorists who have worked to develop alternative conceptions of biopower to match more contemporary phenomena. As Lemke states most clearly, Foucault avoids this conflict by taking as his starting point the assumption that “life denotes neither the basis nor the object of politics. Instead, it presents a border to politics- a border that should be simultaneously respected and overcome, one that seems to be both natural and given but also artificial and transformable” (2011:4-5). In what follows within this post, I attempt to pull out the foundational underpinnings upon which Foucault began to develop a theory of biopolitics. Paying attention to the historicizing treatment Foucault gives to a notion of power in relation to the rise of biopolitics, I ultimately reflect upon present-day phenomena which have been taken by scholars as signalling the movement and transformation of biopolitics into new forms and trajectories.

            In “The Birth of Biopolitics”, Foucault begins to theorize liberalism as a practice and as a critique of government, the rise of which he argues is inseparable from the rise of biopolitical technologies of governance, which have extended political control and power over all major processes of life itself, through a transferral of sovereign power into “biopower”- that is, technologies and techniques which govern human social and biological processes. Pointing to the fact that liberal thought takes society, and not the state, as its starting point; it follows, consequently, the critique of state governing institutions that is internal to liberalism must always, in practice, be negotiating its legitimacy of governance in a relationship between changing internalities and externalities foregrounded in the state, between self-governing “liberal” individuals and the population. This results in liberalism’s necessary ability to take many forms and strategies for self-rationalization. For example- the neoliberalism of the U.S., in which the logic of a free market economy has been extended over non-economic domains of human social and biological existence, so that we now conceive of a number of life processes, such as family and reproduction, in economic terms.

            The 17th-century historical rupture in the flow of power over life and death that occurred with liberalism should be seen as more of an integration of sovereign power (the “right of the sword”) into what Foucault calls “biopower”, as opposed to seeing the process as a moment of disjuncture in which biopower came to replace the classical notion of sovereign power. As he writes in “Society Must Be Defended” (1976:241),

“I think that one of the greatest transformations political right underwent in the nineteenth century was precisely that, I wouldn’t say exactly sovereignty’s old right- to take life or let live- was replaced, but it came to be complemented by a new right which does not erase the old right but which does penetrate it, permeate it. This is the right, or rather precisely the opposite right. It is the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die. The right of sovereignty was the right to take life or let live. And then this new right is established: the right to make live and to let die.”

            The effects of the process through which these mutations in the exercise of power occurred can be characterized as having formed two opposite poles of a continuum. The first of these occurred through the development of techniques that operated in and on the individual body as apparatuses of discipline: and “that discipline tries to rule a multiplicity of men to the extent that their multiplicity can and must be dissolved into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and…punished” (Foucault 1976:242). This pole is referred to as “anatamo-politics”, and it is chiefly concerned with the atomization of a collectivity for the purpose of governance and productivity to a certain end. The second pole is of explicitly biopolitics, concerning the whole of a population, with the ultimate effect being characterizable as “massifying, that is directed not at man-as-body but as man-as-species” (1976:243). Said otherwise, biopolitics takes population as its problematic, making it both scientific and political, “as a biological problem and as power’s problem”.

            What does all this mean in less-theoretical terms? To begin, it means that the contemporary historical era in which we exist and have come to know in very particular ways, is governed over by means of particular mechanisms that simultaneously operate on our bodies and subjective selves, and on our collective relations taken as a whole- as a global human race. “Biopower” can be understood as a social field of power and struggle, in which the vital aspects of human life are intervened upon for the purpose of rationalizing regimes of authority over knowledge, the generation of truth discourses about life, and the modes through which individuals construct and interpellate subjectivities between a sense of self and the collective.

             With respect to populations and governance in the present day, scholars such as Lemke, Rose and Rabinow emphasize the viability of Foucauldian biopolitics in understanding the operability of truth discourses, or regimes of truth, when approaching the study of mutating biopolitical spaces in the contemporary. These spaces, such as genomics and reproductive choice, represent profound biopolitical efforts to exercise the power “to make live” and “let die”. As such, questions concerning choice and every day modes of practice surface as the most critical issues when theorizing the border that, according to Foucault, is posed by life, to politics, as it continues to transform within both new and old biopolitical spaces like race, reproduction, medicine, health, science, technology, and so on.


1. M. Foucault. 1997. “The Birth of Biopolitics,” 73-79 in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth: P. Rabinow and J.D. Faubion eds. New Press.

2. M. Foucault. 2003. Lecture 11, 17 March 1976, 239-264 in Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France. Picador Press.

3. T. Lemke. 2011. Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. New York University Press.

4. P. Rabinow & N. Rose. 2006. “Biopower Today,” Biosciences 1(2):195-217.

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