Biopolitics, For Now

In the mid-1970s, Michel Foucault outlined a program of seminars to be delivered over the following five years at the Collège de France. These seminars were all intended to address the question of biopolitics. The last lesson of his 1975-76 seminar, later published under the title Society Must Be Defended (2003), provides an introductory commentary on this new direction in his work. Like many of the turning points in Foucault’s thought, this lesson is an extremely condensed amalgam of questions, directives and propositions that both echo and rework the diverse threads of his previous work. Briefly, but by no means exhaustively, it raises such questions as the relationship between the nineteenth century life sciences, the state and liberalism; the genealogy of biological conceptions of race; and the difference between sovereignty-based and liberal accounts of political constitution, life and law. However, Foucault never followed through with this ambitious research project. The seminars of the following years retain their titles but digress from the issue of biopolitics. Nevertheless, it is this biopolitical aspect of Foucault’s work (after the belated publication of the seminar in French [1997] and its translation into English [2003]) that has insistently provoked the interest of contemporary theorists.

Some of the most exciting developments to date in the area of biopolitics have come out of Italy, particularly from a current of political and cultural theorists associated with Autonomia. In very different ways, the work of Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt revives the question of the relationship between Foucault and Marx, biopolitics and political economy. Writing in another mode and from within a very different theoretical tradition, Giorgio Agamben returns to interrogate the constitutive violence of sovereign power, which Foucault wanted to declare (almost) obsolete. Reflecting on the final work of Foucault and Deleuze, Agamben declares that ‘the concept of “life” must constitute the subject of the coming philosophy’ (1999: 238).

However interesting these variations on the theme of biopolitics, one obvious problem lies with their insensitivity to the moments of rupture and divergence that Foucault’s historiography sought to foreground. In all of these accounts, the ‘bios’ of biopolitics is in danger of becoming as expansive a term as Marx’s concept of social reproduction – a black box where everything that had previously been discarded from economic and political philosophy is conveniently recuperated. What gets lost in the process is the temporal precision of Foucault’s account and its attention to the minutiae of institutional practice. As Eugene Thacker bluntly puts it in his article for this issue, the pertinent matter then turns on what is not rather than what is biopolitical.

Is there any sense at all then in resurrecting Foucault’s term ‘biopolitics’? We have chosen to dedicate this issue of Culture Machine to the subject of biopolitics because we remain convinced that there is some value to be gained from thinking through the convergences of life and politics in the present, even if the importance of this project continues to be worked through in the form of open-ended questions or hypotheses.

One of these hypotheses is that the theoretical urgency surrounding the question of biopolitics is both a response to, and responsive to, the growing importance of the life sciences within the political and economic context of late capitalism. In this respect at least one of the post-autonomist theorists, Maurizio Lazzarato, has argued that the life science industry – from molecular and cell biology to pharmacology, public health and most recently bioweapons research – represents the key site of experimentation for the ‘new revolutions of capitalism’ (2004). And yet unlike Foucault, none of the more recent philosophers of biopolitics have engaged with the practices and theories of the life sciences and their allied disciplines in any detailed way. At the very least then, revisiting Foucault under present conditions necessitates paying more sustained attention to the transformations at work in the practices and paradigms of contemporary biology.

What such a proviso might suggest is that a ‘return’ to Foucault can only be effected at a distance. It is all too often forgotten that Foucault was interested in a very specific articulation of political power and the biological, which he glossed as ‘state biopolitics’. The 1975-76 seminar looks at the convergence of state racism, practices of public health and evolutionary biology in the late nineteenth century. But Foucault was, as always, writing a history of the present, and his ‘now’ was the novel conjunction of vital practices and state power of the mid-twentieth century welfare state, the lingering colonialisms of the post-World War II era and the invention of human rights. More specifically, Foucault was interested in interrogating the welfare state from the point of view of its anomalous but often disturbingly specular others: the Nazi eugenic state or the state racism of various nationalist socialisms (questions that have since been taken up most thoroughly by Agamben). Again, it needs to be stressed that this project was outlined by Foucault but never carried out. However, some of the theorists he most closely collaborated with did deliver on some of these lines of enquiry.

A more sustained attempt to think through the vitalist politics of the mid-twentieth century welfare state can be found in François Ewald’s L’État-Providence (1986), largely overlooked in the fanfare of current work on biopolitics. Ewald demonstrated that the protective and preventative measures exercised by the welfare state ushered in a polis and temporality of managed life. In his account of these vital politics, life’s rhythms are organized around predictive, normalizing strategies (public health, Keynesian cycles of boom and bust, the juridical structuring of natality, longevity and morbidity) and ‘the technics of chance and accident’. Here we encounter a temporality in which the accident is both recognized in its absolute contingency (as virtual), but exorcized as such, subject to all kinds of strategies of prevention and control.

However we might want to take up Foucault’s legacy, it seems clear that the dominant politics of our time, ‘neo-liberalism’, singularly reworks the state biopolitics of mid-twentieth century paternalism. And it does so precisely by targeting its foundational articulation of life, law and time. All this suggests another hypothesis: that the terms of articulation between biology and politics – their exercise and operation at micro and macro levels – need to be reformulated. Even more urgently, it is the question of resistance to the singularity of the vital politics of the present that requires novel analysis.

As it happens, the problematic that is insistently raised by the essays collected in this issue is that of current relationships between time, life and the constitution of the political or the biological. In Julian Reid’s essay, which engages most directly with the philosophical corpus on biopolitics, this problem is foregrounded precisely in order to renew Foucault’s theoretical legacy. And, complementing this, Maria Hynes looks at contemporary theoretical developments in the life sciences, arguing for a philosophical concept of ‘reductionism’ that would posit the ‘untimely’ or the ‘unpredictable’ as its condition.

The question of emergence and its temporality – a question which one might say has been the defining feature of the conflict-ridden debates about bios ever since molecular biology sought to align itself with the explanatory strategies of physics and chemistry – currently presents an interesting ‘test case’ for the issue of the articulation between biology and politics. As Hynes points out, complexity theory and the vision which non-linear dynamics articulates have provided a tempting starting point for re-uniting the life and human sciences. Yet it is not at all clear whether the new holistic vision of systems which evolve on the edge of chaos can constitute an understanding of life which would be less prone to work against the stratifications of knowledge and the hierarchisation of practice characteristic of particular relations of power. On the one hand, complexity theory may well exemplify the affinity scientific endeavours have for the untimely quality of the virtual (in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari accord to this in What is Philosophy?) and for the risky unpredictability of chaos. However, at the same time it may lend itself very easily to the strategies of reductionism because – as Isabelle Stengers has suggested – ‘it maintains the thesis of a mise en scene of all the relations relevant to the determination of the behaviour of the system’ (2003: 203), which are characteristic of the most classically deterministic systems of physics. To the extent that such research can be understood in this way, the power of the exact sciences to determine in advance what is worthy of questioning and so to mitigate against the risks of the untimely makes theoretical biology a thoroughly ambivalent force.

In another vein altogether, time also emerges as a key concern in Hannah Landecker’s piece, with its finely tuned focus on the micro-innovations in technical procedures that have enabled biologists to modulate the processes of cellular growth throughout the 20th century, using various methods of disruption, suspension and synchronization. Distancing herself from the ‘revolution-a-minute’ rhetoric of the life sciences that emanates from the science press, Landecker proposes an alternative method that looks to the common technics of time underlying very different biological entities. As in so many of the articles collected here, it is the disruption of sequential time – the pervasiveness instead of indeterminacy, unpredictability, hiatus – that Landecker identifies as a defining gesture of the contemporary life sciences.

The papers of Bifo, Andrew Murphie and Kane Race also zoom in on the question of time and its technical modulation and, like Landecker, demonstrate – albeit in very different ways – that speculative questions about life and its temporalities are equally and indissociably problems in concrete practices. Here we begin to comprehend that the technics of life are not simply a way of producing and managing life but of engaging and experiencing it. These three articles variously call attention to this engagement of life by honing in on the concrete technical practices embodied in human-computer interaction, new media and information technologies, and the affective psychopharmacologies of late capitalism. In his article on the shifting politics of drug consumption, Kane Race argues that Foucault’s ‘care of the self’ is increasingly reformulated as ‘care of the future self’ – a forward-looking venture that converts personal ethics into a kind of entrepreneurialism. Bifo’s article looks at the mutations (and pathologies) of time and affect, which characterize the ‘video-electronic generation’. For Murphie, what is in question in interactive technologies is not simply the rationalization of time’s indeterminacy (though this is indeed evident in the more reductive strands of genetics and cognitivism) but rather the putting to work of virtuality itself. Time at its most creative then – the ontological creativity celebrated by Whitehead and Bergson – is increasingly that which both animates and outruns the productive machines of late capitalism. The problem, as identified in different ways by almost all the authors here, is that of understanding the points of collusion between such productive operations of time and the new temporalities of capital accumulation. The artists from the Tissue Culture and Art Project, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, who work with precisely the kinds of cell and tissue culture technique analysed by Landecker, offer an all too familiar account of the tensions that arise when the creative labour of the artist/biologist is summonsed to work under commission to the life science industry.

It is interesting in this respect that so many of the articles here have ended up addressing this problem of collusion by taking the question and contemporary context of war as primary. Drawing inspiration from Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended, Julian Reid interrogates the long-standing complicities between war, politics and liberal forms of peace. Eugene Thacker investigates the increasingly tight convergence between public health and biodefence research in the US, where massive amounts of federal money have recently been invested in the war against bioterrorism. What is at stake here, Thacker argues, is an ontological redefinition of war as biology, compelling us to think anew the relationship between war, politics and public health posed by Foucault.

Along these lines, and in ways that connect closely with Andrew Murphie, Anna Munster explores the contemporary intersections and tensions between information and bio-technologies, network warfare and various kinds of contestational creative practices. For Munster, the strategic yet diffuse hubs of information warfare are emphatically not to be confused with the paranoid ideological politics played out through the McCarthy era. An entirely different temporality of affect is now at work. Pursuing this intuition, and taking up Thacker’s redefinition of war as life, Parisi and Goodman seek to explore the specific affective tonalities of nanotechnological warfare. We are living through a time marked by dread/anguish; a temporality of experience that functions according to pre-emptive warfare rather than the familiar paranoia inflecting the Cold War era.

Despite the temptation (which is perhaps inherent in every concept) to turn ‘biopolitics’ into a catch-all generality, the diversity of knowedges and practices with which the articles in this issue engage is indicative of the questioning force the biopolitical problematic possesses. And whilst the histories that they offer of our present give us no cause for complacency, the manner in which they all underline contingency and the play of power where one might have been tempted to perceive continuity and the irenic security of knowledge introduces the kind of hesitation needed to ensure that the future can never be fully pre-empted.


We would like to extend our thanks to Gary Hall and the other editors at Culture Machine for their patience whilst we battled to pull this issue of Culture Machine together, to Tiziana Terranova for pointing us toward and then translating the article by Bifo and of course to all the contributors for giving us so much food for thought.


Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Agamben, G. (1999) Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ewald, F. (1986) L’Etat Providence. Paris: Grasset et Fasquelle.

Foucault, M. (1979) History of Sexuality, Volume 1. London: Allen Lane.

Foucault, M. (1997) “Il faut défendre la société”: Cours au Collège de France. Paris: Hautes Etudes, Gallimard (Seuil).

Foucault, M. (2003) “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France,1975-76. Trans. D. Macey. London : Allen Lane.

Lazzarato, M. (2004) Les Révolutions du Capitalisme. Paris: Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.

Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2001) Empire. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: The Penguin Press.

Stengers, I. (2003) Cosmopolitiques II, 2ème tome. Paris: La Découverte.

Virno, P. (2004) A Grammar of the Multitude. Trans. I. Bertoletti, J. Cascaito & A. Casson. New York: Semiotext(e).

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