Biopolitics, Discipline and Governmentality

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Technology, Urban Space and the Networked Community


In 2020 as the global COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, no concept in the cultural theory arsenal was more prominent or more widely deployed in the various attempts that were made to write about the many issues the pandemic raised than Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics. In large part, though, this owed more to later interpretations of Foucault, particularly Agamben and Esposito, than it did to his own work (for this reason I will discuss their work separately). In many ways the various governmental responses (locally, nationally, and internationally) to the pandemic were a perfect illustration of what Foucault wanted to draw our attention to when he first conceived of the concept of biopolitics, but very often too the concept was used by commentators to name a situation that would have been more accurately accounted for by Foucault’s earlier work on discipline. Biopolitics is often treated as a continuation of discipline by other means, but it is clear that Foucault himself did not see it this way. Biopolitics represents something new in the way power is both defined and administered, as Foucault demonstrates at great length. Biopolitics does not necessarily supersede discipline, or render it obsolete, but it does add a new layer or strata to the operation of power that demands separate analysis because it brings to bear new functions and yields new types of knowledge. However, in spite of its obvious relevance and applicability to the analysis of the global COVID-19 pandemic I do not believe the prominence of Foucault’s concept in 2020 was due solely to the exigencies of the pandemic or the apparent ready-to-handness of the concept itself. Rather, I think it had more to do with the fact that there is growing recognition in cultural theory today that biopolitics is the concept for our time; more so than any other available concept it provides a model to explain the operations of the largely invisible but nevertheless potent essential working parts of power of the present historical era, which Deleuze with characteristic boldness called ‘control society’ (a phrase he poached from William Burroughs). An abundance of new critical work on such diverse topics as algorithms, asylum seekers, eating disorders, sexuality, and so on points to this conclusion.

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