In Lecture 17 March 1976, Michel Foucault introduces the notion of biopolitics within the framework of classical theory of sovereignty. At the very beginning of the lecture (1997; 239), he argues: “It seems to me that one of the basic phenomena of the nineteenth century was what might be called power’s hold over life” . By saying this, the French philosopher wanted to claim that the State had gained power over man insofar as man is a living being, which means it had taken control over what he calls "the biological". It is not by chance that the 19th century saw one of the greatest transformations regarding political rights: the old power of sovereignty –“the right to take life or let live” (Foucault, 1997; 241)– came to be complemented by a new right that penetrated it instead of replacing it: this new right consists in the power “to make live and to let die”(Foucault, 1997; 241).
During the 17th and 18th century, new techniques of power emerged which, being centered on the individual body, made use of all the available and useful devices in order to take control over these bodies, both in order to improve their productivity -for instance through the promotion of physical exercise- and to rationalize and economize a power that "has to be used in the least costly ways" through "a whole system of surveillance, hierarchies, inspections, bookkeeping, and reports" (Foucault, 1997; 242). Foucault calls these techniques “disciplinary technologies of labor”, and this form of power “disciplinary power”. "They included all devices that were used to ensure the spatial distribution of individual bodies (their separation, their alignment, their serialization, and their surveillance) and the organization, around those individuals, of a whole field of visibility" (Foucault, 1997; 242). However, later in the second half of the 18th century, another technology of power began to take shape. As the previous one with the sovereign power, this new technology did not erase the disciplinary one, rather it integrated it while continuing to exist at a different level and using various instruments. If the disciplinary power was addressed to bodies, this new form of "bio-power" is applied to the living man, to man-as-species (Foucault, 1997; 242). There has thus been a shift from an anatomo-politics of the human body in an individualizing mode (disciplinary power) to a "biopolitics" of the human race in a massifying mode. Biopolitics thus deals with the population as a political and scientific problem, but also as a biological and a power-related problem. As explained by Foucault (1997):
The new technology that is being established is addressed to a multiplicity of men, not to the extent that they are nothing more than their individual bodies, but to the extent that they form, on the contrary, a global mass that is affected by overall processes characteristic of birth, death, production, illness, and so on. (p. 242-243)
Biopolitics aims at establishing "a set of processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on" (Foucault, 1997; 243). It is indeed in the 18th century that, together with the birth of a natalist policy [natalism in public policy typically seeks to create financial and social incentives for populations to reproduce, such as providing tax incentives that reward having and supporting children], we see the beginning of the interest in the problem of morbidity, so that illnesses came to be regarded as expensive phenomena affecting a population that reduce its productivity (Foucault, 1997; 243-244). This increasing worry resulted in the development of a medicine whose main function is to teach public hygiene and to medicalize the population under centralized State power. In the same period, we also assist to the introduction of more subtle and rational mechanisms such as insurances, individual and collective savings, safety measures and others (Foucault, 1997; 244). Furthermore, biopolitcs’ last domain is “control over relations between the human race, or human beings insofar as they are a species, insofar as they are living beings, and their environment”(Foucault, 1997; 245).
All these targets are collective phenomena which have their economic and political effects on the population as a whole, and that thus have become pertinent at the mass level. Citing Foucault (1997; 246): “The phenomena addressed by biopolitics are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a population that exists over a period of time”. The final goal of biopolitics is to make these otherwise unpredictable phenomena as much constant as possible, and to intervene at the level of their generality in order to stabilize them and “to establish an equilibrium, maintain an average, establish a sort of homeostasis, and compensate for variations within this general population and its aleatory field” (Foucault, 1997; 246). In order to do so, the mechanisms adopted include forecasts, statistical estimates and overall measures. All these security mechanisms aim at optimizing a state of life: it is “a matter of taking control of life and the biological processes as man-as-species and of ensuring that they are not disciplined, but regularized” (Foucault, 1997; 246-247).
On the one hand we have disciplinary technology, and on the other hand the regulatory technology. Both of them are technologies of the body, but if in the former, the body is individualized as an organism with certain capacities, in the latter one singular bodies are replaced by general biological processes. Disciplinary power focuses on manipulating the body as a source of different forces which have to be both useful and docile. Regulatory power focuses upon life: it has to bring together the mass effects characteristics of a population by trying to control the series of random events that can occur in a living mass and to predict those events or, at least, to compensate for their effects (Foucault, 1997; 249-250). These two mechanisms do not exclude one another: they coexist and operate on different levels. There are many examples of how these two forms of powers can be articulated and cooperate with each other at the same time; one of these is sexuality. According to Foucault (1997), the example of sexuality clearly shows how disciplinary and regulatory power can coexist and work together but at different levels.
On the one hand, sexuality, being an eminently corporeal mode of behaviour, is a matter for individualizing disciplinary controls that take the form of permanent surveillance […]. But because it also has procreative effects, sexuality is also inscribed, takes effect, in broad biological processes that concern not the bodies of individuals but the element, the multiple unity of the population (p. 251).
"Sex is a key site of biopower because sexuality is the point where the disciplining of individual bodies and the regulation of the multiplicity of bodies in a population converge" (Amadi, Benson, and others, 2019; 4). In other words, “sexuality exists at the point where body and population meet” (Foucault, 1997; 251-252). Due to this "double nature", sexuality is therefore a matter of both discipline and regularization, and this is the reason why it drew massive attention during the 19th century. "Through discourses such as medicine, science, and law, power produces subjects" (Amadi, Benson, etc., 2019; 5) and categorized them as "normal" or "perverted" based on their sexuality or gender identity.
The concrete institutional forms of sexuality have always been –and still are– the product of human activity. As Gayle Rubin claims in her Thinking Sex. Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality (1984; 138), “sex is always political”, but there are historical periods in which sexuality is more politicized and thus the erotic domain is renegotiated and overly regulated. The 19th century –at least in the Western world– is one of these, and its “moral paroxysms" (Rubin, 1984; 138) have left a deep imprint on our attitudes about sex, medical practice, child-rearing, parental anxieties, police conduct and sex law. According to Rubin (1984; 149), “sexuality in Western societies has been structured within an extremely punitive social framework, and has been subjected to very real formal and informal controls”.
If biopolitcs aims at establishing a homeostasis and regularizing as much as possible all the targeted phenomena and their effects over the population, when applied to sexuality it means that “small differences in value or behaviour are often experienced as cosmic threats” (Rubin, 1984; 149). Modern Western societies established a hierarchical system of sexual values through which they judge and evaluate sex acts (Rubin, 1984; 149). At the top of this pyramid we find marital and reproductive heterosexuals, followed by unmarried monogamous heterosexuals couples and most of other heterosexuals. Solitary sex is quite ambiguous due to the 19th century’s powerful stigma on masturbation, especially among the youths (Rubin, 1984; 149. Foucault, 1997; 251-252). Gay people owe respectability only if they are in stable, long-term relationships, while promiscuous gays are placed just above the most despised sexual categories at the bottom of the pyramid, which include transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists, sadomasochists and sex workers. People's position on this hierarchy has serious consequences on the viability of their life under many different aspects. As Rubin explains (1984):
Individuals whose behaviour stands high in this hierarchy are rewarded with certified mental health, respectability, legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material benefits. As sexual behaviours or occupations fall lower on the scale, the individuals who practice them are subjected to a presumption of mental illness, disreputability, criminality, restricted social and physical mobility, loss of institutional support, economic sanctions, and criminal prosecution. (p. 149)
However, what was previously considered as simple sexual practices, during the 19th century became identities and conditions that “must be studied, recorded, hounded, hunted, punished, cured” (Preciado, 2013; 75). This is the moment in which laws criminalizing sodomy were spreading throughout Europe and “sexual difference” was codified as an anatomical truth. The encyclopedia named Psychopathia Sexualis created by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886 to define normal and perverse sexualities is one example of how sexual identities were becoming objects of knowledge, surveillance, and judicial repression.
Paul B. Preciado refers to this dominant form of biopolitical action –which emerged with and within disciplinary capitalism– as sexopolitics: “Sex has become such a part of plans for power that the discourse on masculinity and femininity, as well as techniques of normalizing sexual identity, have turned into governmental agents of the control and standardization of life” (Preciado, 2013; 69). Preciado's notion of "sexual empire” describes the biopolitical regime that uses sex, sexuality, and sexual identity as the somato-political [the politics of the body and experienced in the body] centres for producing and governing subjectivity. According to Preciado (2013), for 19th century Western sexopolitics, "the heterosexual is the artifact that will rake in the most success for government" (p. 71), while “any corporal divergence from the norm will be considered a monstrosity, a violation of the laws of nature or a perversion, a violation of moral law” (p. 74-75). Consequently, each body became an individual to correct in order to homogenize –and control– the population.
Nonetheless, the concept of biopolitics alone might be insufficient to account for the contemporary ways in which the political "makes the murder of the enemy its primary and absolute objective” (Mbembe, 2003; 12). Achille Mbembe posed a similar question when he started imagining politics as a form of war: “What place is given to life, death, and the human body? How are they inscribed in the order of power?” (Mbembe, 2003; 12). According to Mbembe, if biopolitics is the power to control and normalize people’s lives and behaviour in order to homogenize it, whoever behave in a different way or who does not fit into the canons of biopolitics for some reason, is seen as “the enemy” (Mbembe, 2003; 12). Foucault (1997; 249-253) presents biopower as a mechanism for "protecting", but he also acknowledges that this protection often manifests itself as subjugation of non-normative populations in order to maintain the homeostasis. Usually, the normalization of population control has been reached through the foundation of institutions that prioritize certain groups of people and their lives as more valuable than others.
In Mbembe's opinion (2003), these institutions operate in order to rationalize the well-being of the privileged ones and the adversity of “the others”. These are the people whose lives are considered expendable, less important or even dangerous for the maintenance of the status quo. These people are thus exposed to danger and even to death instead of being protected: as stated by Mbembe (2003), in some cases “sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” (p. 27). In order to better address this issue, Mbembe has coined the term necropolitics in relation to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics: they are the two sides of the same coin. Necropolitics is not simply the right to kill: it is also the right to expose other people to death. This includes the right to impose social or civil death, or the right to enslave others and expose them to other forms of political violence (Mbembe, 2003; 21). The notion of necropolitics helps us understanding how "contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death" (Mbembe, 2003; 39) forces some bodies to remain in different states of being located between life and death.
Mbembe shows how governments assign differential value to human life –the closer you are to dominant power, the more your life is worthy– and identifies racism as a prime driver of necropolitics (Mbembe, 2003; 17). However, there are many other examples of how necropolitics –together with biopolitics– operate within society. One of these is through sexual politics. In her work, Rubin shows how biopolitics regulate sexual behaviours and police sexual desires by dividing them into the category of “good” or “bad” sexuality. Ideally, “good” –and thus also “normal” and “natural”– sexuality should be “heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, and noncommercial. It should be coupled, related, within the same generation, and occur at home"; moreover, "it should not involve pornography, fetish objects, sex toys of any sort, or roles other than male and female” (Rubin, 2003; 151). Any sexual act that violates these rules is thus considered “bad,” “abnormal,” or “unnatural.” As Rubin states (1984):
Bad sex may be homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, or commercial. It may be masturbatory or take place at orgies, may be casual, may cross generational lines, and may take place in “public,” or at least in the bushes or the baths. It may involve the use of pornography, fetish objects, sex toys, or unusual roles. (p. 151)
This kind of sexual politics delimit a very small portion of human sexual capacity as safe, healthy, mature, legal, or politically correct. On the other side, there are all other erotic behaviours which are understood to be dangerous, psychopathological, infantile, or politically reprehensible. Within sexual politics, “arguments are then conducted over 'where to draw the line', and to determine what other activities, if any, may be permitted to cross over into acceptability” (Rubin, 2003; 151). This kind of sexual morality has more in common with racist ideologies than with true ethics: it grants virtue and value to the dominant groups, while at the same time relegating vice and depravation to the underprivileged, the diverse and the "deviants". However, if bad reputation and social stigma are the consequences of the work of biopolitics on these groups of people, we must also take into consideration the stronger and more dangerous effects that necropolitics have on them, such as the lack of civil rights and, most of all, the frequent and violent micro and macro aggressions –verbal, psychological and physical– perpetrated against queer people all over the world. Since the lives of these people are put in constant danger and sometimes literally expose to death threats, sexual politics –or, following Preciado, sexopolitics– have thus to be treated as a form of necropolitics.
Amadi, L., Benson, K., Bruns, R., Bunch, M., Chukwu, H., Ihunna, O. I., Korytova, S., (2019), Sexuality, Human Rights, and Public Policy, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Foucault, M., (1997), Lecture 17 March 1976, in: Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976, New York: Picador, 2003.
Mbembe, A., (2003), Necropolitics, in: Public Culture, Vol. 15, No. 1.
Preciado, P., (2013), History of Technosexuality, in: Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, New York: The Feminist Press.
Rubin, G., (1984), Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, in: Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, Durham: Duke university press.
Cover image: Disgruntled Ape, Biopolitics Collage Series, 2016, https://rampages.us/rubyoh/2016/12/13/296/
Fig. 1: Ingberg, T., (2012), Army, https://devonandexeterinstitution.org/the-frontispiece-as-a-threshold-of-interpretation-thomas-hobbes-leviathan-1651/
Fig. 2: Ahmadi, S., (2020), Illustration, https://www.ntnu.edu/kult/research/health-medicine-biotech
Fig. 3: Disgruntled Ape, (2016), Biopolitics Collage Series, https://rampages.us/rubyoh/2016/12/13/296/
Fig. 4: Man on all fours in red jacket, woman riding him, photo from Richard von Kfrafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, Wellcome Library, London, https://allthatsinteresting.com/psychopathia-sexualis#3
Fig. 5: Merchant, R., (2014),| The Intruder, http://www.rithikamerchant.com/magical-thinking.html
Fig. 6: Musser, R., (2017), Illustration, https://www.talkdeath.com/necropolitics-and-the-erasure-of-trans-and-non-binary-bodies-in-death/