A Changing Biopower: The Impact on Social Constructs and Medicine

My dissertation combines biopower with intersectionality theory to better understand the potential impacts of behavior genetics research on education outcomes on the ways in which teachers understand student ability and achievement. But what is biopower? I set out to try and explain it by focusing on the seminal work of Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose. Biopower was originally developed by French theorist Michel Foucault.

Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose’s piece “Biopower Today” defines and examines the role biopower plays in contemporary society. Drawing on philosophical thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Antonio Negri, Rabinow and Rose argue that biopower in current society “entails a relation between ‘letting die’ and ‘making live,” or “strategies for the governing of life” (Rabinow, 2006: 195). Rabinow and Rose further discuses biopower in terms of three fundamental themes: race, population and reproduction, and genomic medicine.

In defining biopower, Rabinow and Rose outline meanings for sovereign power and sovereignty. Sovereign power, or “the right to decide life and death,” is a way to “generate, incite reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it” (Rabinow, 2006: 196). However, as Foucault argues, sovereign power, in today’s world, is only one part of a larger working mechanism to control and monitor. With this in mind, Rabinow and Rose define ‘biopolitics’ “to embrace all the specific strategies and contestations over problematizations of collective human vitality, morbidity and mortality; over the forms of knowledge, regimes of authority and practices of intervention that are desirable, legitimate and efficacious” (Rabinow, 2006: 197). While the terms ‘biopolitics’ and ‘biopower’ may more likely refer to biological material today, Foucault’s definitions of these terms remains useful in formulating critical analysis. Additionally, the idea of biopower, as defined by Rabinow and Rose (with the help of Foucault) ought to include “one or more truth discourses about the ‘vital’ character of living human beings, strategies for intervention upon collective existence in the name of life and health, and modes of subjectification by means of practices of the self” (Rabinow, 2006: 197). In particular, modes of subjectification relate to Foucault’s piece “The Subject and Power,” in which individuals are not only subjectified by society or an outside influence, but also by themselves.

One of these outside subjectifying influences is the Empire, which is defined through the works of Hardt and Negri and Rabinow and Rose’s critique of them. Here too, definitions of the Empire change in relation to time. The power associated with the Empire is one which “regulates social life from its interior” but which has changed with the move from “societies of discipline’ to ‘societies of control” (Rabinow, 2006: 198). Agamben argues that “all power rests ultimately on the ability of one to take the life of another” (a statement that Rabinow and Rose find problematic) (Rabinow, 2006: 200). Rabinow and Rose argue that pervasiveness of biopower is such that it is “expressed as a control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousness and bodies of the population” (Rabinow, 2006: 198). In doing so, biopower does not “emerge from, or serve to support, a single power bloc, dominant group or set of interests” (Rabinow, 2006: 199); its all-encompassing nature prevents such a development from occurring.

With these definitions, Rabinow and Rose open up a discussion of race. In the context of the Holocaust, Rabinow and Rose examine the interplay between biopower and racism. They argue that “racism allows power to subdivide a population into subspecies, to designate these in terms of a biological substrate and to initiate and sustain an array of dynamic relations in which the exclusion, incarceration or death of those who are inferior can be seen as something that will make life in general healthier and purer”  (Rabinow, 2006: 200). Building on Foucault’s belief that “racism justifies the death-functions in the economy of biopower,” Rabinow and Rose later argue that “conceptions of race formed a prism not just for the imagination of the nation, but also for the political management of national health and vitality and of international competitiveness”  (Rabinow, 2006: 205). This again relates back to our previous discussions of how race subjectifies an individual, a community, and a nation (or, to use terminology Rabinow and Rose employ, the Empire). Like many of the terms explored in this paper, time plays an important role in the ways in which definitions are created or altered. Race can be defined as a “marker of belonging and the basis of a claim to disadvantage,” but “a new molecular deployment of race has emerged seemingly almost inevitably out of genomic thinking”  (Rabinow, 2006: 206). The relationship between the field of medicine or biology and race is another way to look at the term biopower. Medicine, as a field that prides its self on subjectivity, is creating a definition for a term very much rooted in subjectivity. It is as if two different processes are being umbrellaed under a single term, and Robinson and Rose’s focus on biopower today is a testament to how differently terms are understood today in relation to a more distant past.

Reproduction and sexuality are also changing in contemporary society. Robinson and Rose argue that in the last 50 years “sexuality has been disengaged…from the symbolics and practices of reproduction, and reproduction itself has become the object of a series of forms of knowledge, technologies, and political strategies that have little to do with sexuality”  (Rabinow, 2006: 208). The biological knowledge of reproduction and reproductive technologies discussed today “inform our ways of governing others and ourselves,” but “are no longer those of the survival of the fittest”  (Rabinow, 2006: 210). Rabinow and Rose use the term eugenics, which personally is a term that always seems to carry a negative connotation. Rabinow and Rose, however, show that eugenics “is a strategy aimed at reducing the levels of inherited morbidity and pathology in a population considered as a whole by acting on the individual reproductive choices of each citizen…” and is primarily about “the improvement of the biological stock of the population” (Rabinow, 2006: 210). With current technology, there is the threat for “large-scale genetic management of the population,” and while it has not taken place “the possibilities of genomic management of the population…have a powerful symbolic presence in contemporary biopolitics”  (Rabinow, 2006: 211). The link between genomic medicine and reproduction and sexuality is strong as much of genomic medicine is being applied to “designer babies” and other reproductive technologies. Because of this, it was difficult for me to distinguish clearly the differences between biopolitical influence on reproduction and on genomic medicine.

Rabinow and Rose begin their section of genomic medicine by raising the question of “whether or not a new regime of biopower will take shape… or form a qualitative new configuration of knowledge, power, and subjectivity”  (Rabinow, 2006: 212). Although the path of genomic medicine in the context of biopower depends on developments in genomic research, “many others depend on contingencies external to genomics and biomedicine”  (Rabinow, 2006: 212). Genomic medicine is a field with considerable power. It has the capability “to form a new ‘know how’ that will enable medicine to transform its basic logic from one in based upon restoring the organic normativity lost in illness to one engaged in the molecular re-engineering of life itself”  (Rabinow, 2006: 212); that is to say, that the very definition of what life is, can and will change.

Biopower and the politics surrounding it have critical implications for race, reproduction, and genomic medicine. Rabinow and Rose present our world as one “where today is becoming a different yesterday”  (Rabinow, 2006: 212). This sense of the unknown, or dramatic change can be confusing. Rabinow and Rose acknowledge that by stating that it is difficult to tell “whether we are at the early stages of a momentous shift, in the middle of a process that is well under was towards stabilizing new forms, or in a conjuncture that will prove to be a dead end or at least marginal to other changes that we cannot envisage today”  (Rabinow, 2006: 215). Biopolitics can subjectify an individual in a figurative sense, but also in a physical and biological sense. It is a form of power which can and has taken root in medicine, a field that is respected as objective and logical. It makes me wonder how race, a term which has many social and illogical underpinnings, will change in relation to a modern or even future form of biopower. I think perhaps, a recognition of the totality of biopower is necessary when understanding its impact on fundamental constructions of race, reproduction, and genomic medicine. After all, though definitions of biopower have changed significantly, its influence remains.

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