Technologies of power.

This is my response to readings for the class Mediating The Bio-Political Body.

“Power has no control over death,” said Foucault in his Biopolitics lectures, “but it can control mortality.” Tracing the emergence of techniques of power in the 17th century, Foucault observes that these forms of power were centered on the individual body rather than the collective body. In effect, sovereign power amounted to the simple fact that the leader could kill his subject at any moment. With the emergence of new power mechanisms in the 18th century, power was applied not to “man-as-body” but to “man-as-living-being.” In other words, biopolitics deals with the population as a political and biological problem. Under these new power structures, the sovereign possesses the power of regularization, the power of making life and letting die.

Foucault argues that our current society is essentially a superimposing of these two technologies of power: power over the individual body and power over a mass of bodies. The first power is disciplinary and manipulates the body as “a source of forces that have to be rendered useful,” while the second power “brings together the mass effects characteristic of a population and tries to control the random events that can occur in a living mass.”

In modern society, the pairing of these technologies of power has distinct implications. We see governments increasingly controlling the reproduction rate, fertility rate, birth/death rate, resulting in the development of medicine whose main function is public hygiene, sex education, and medical care. As the intersection of body and population, sexuality falls under the domain of both techniques of power and is therefore subject to both discipline and regularization.

The “stigmata of past experience”: Foucault on how power relations are inscribed on our bodies.

This is my response to readings for the class Mediating The Bio-Political Body.

The task of genealogy, writes Michel Foucault in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” is to “expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.” Foucault’s investigation into genealogy examines concepts present in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, a text that interrogates our ideas about the origins of knowledge.

The three German words Foucault references when he talks about the idea of origins are Ursprung, Entstehung, and Herkunft. Herkunft is suggestive of a type of descent or lineage, sustained by the bonds of tradition. Historical meaning, argues Foucault, is generated through a process by which humans inherit the countless logical inaccuracies, hasty conclusions, and ideas of previous generations. Our bodies give rise to the same errors, manifesting “the stigmata of past experience.” Herkunft, or descent, “attaches itself to the body,” rendering the body “the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas)…a volume in perpetual disintegration.”

The body, according to Foucault, thus becomes the site of endless conflict. Our nervous systems, our moods, and our minds are vulnerable to the destructive capabilities of history that is the product of the “endlessly repeated play of dominations.” Domination, like history, creates marks of its power and engraves memories on our bodies.