Michel Foucault – The Birth of Biopolitics (1978-1979)

This post focuses mostly on the final four or five lectures, which focus most persistently on the concept of homo oeconomicus–the subject as producer. The lecture series as a whole was meant to be about biopolitics, but ends up being only an introduction: the final lectures, therefore, mark out the grids of governmentality and power that become foundational to biopolitical activity.

He develops the notion of liberalism (American and otherwise), which sees the basic unit of society as the enterprise. The individual is an enterprise (241). The juridical sphere needed to adjust the penal code to fit new terms: actions are judged according to low and high-risk, etc. The punishment of crime is enforced or withheld according to relative economic outputs. This is one instance of what Foucault sees as the penetration of economic models into non-economic terrain. Now classic neo-liberalism demands that analysis begin from the standpoint of the individual making decisions–the choices they are faced with, rather than the mechanisms that determine those choices–and they are only intelligible within the grid of economics. Indeed, power takes hold of the subject in so far as it is homo oeconomicus. But control and government intervention happens at the environmental level–not internal subjugation, but external management.

The economic subject, unlike the political subject, is not split. The political subject must relinquish certain rights in return for security, etc. The economic subject has interests that spontaneously converge with other peoples’ interests (270). This the heritage of the British Empiricist subject: where interest is foundational to subjective will. [In fact, Hume hollows out the subject such that he becomes a conglomeration of choices made in one’s interest.] The pursuit of interest overrides the logic of “self-renunciation” we see in Adorno, for example. Capital moves by persistent pursuit of interest (275). One might calls this the immanence of the market, as opposed to the former transcendence of the law. I say former, because law becomes subject the the mechanism of the market (quantity, profit, risk, etc.).

Smith’s hidden hand is the master image of this formation. The overall design eludes all actors, but a design (which could be seen if we could only get out of the system) is nevertheless assumed. [One could say the same of classical Marxism, with regard to history, freedom, etc.] Economic rationality, in fact, is based on the unknowability of the totality of the system. This disallows an economic sovereign. The only stable locus of meaning is homo oeconomicus itself. “Evidence,” associated with data management, etc. emerges as the stuff of rule…the economic ruler is he who can manage data.

If juridical and economic spheres are separated, than civil society is that which attempts to being them together. Civil society is the concrete network within which homo oeconomicus can function. it is what assures the spontaneous synthesis of individual interests. The economic bon happens within civil society, but it also dissolves the civil bond. In an Agamben-esque move, it does both on the condition of both.

[Interesting to imagine a conversation between Kant and Adorno on one side, and Hume and Foucault on the other. The latter have more capacious concepts of both the subject and the modes by which the subject can be integrated into broader systems of power, desire, interest, etc. The former are more optimistic…have stronger sense of the “split” subject à la Lacan. Curious to cut Deleuze across all this….combine capaciousness and optimism…]

[Stage debate between Foucault, Agamben and Esposito]

[Think about Foucault’s civil society in terms of Hegel’s ethical community.]

[Focus on the terms: interest, self-preservation. How do these cut across economic and aesthetic discourse?]


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