Biopower

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Discussion

Michael Hardt:

"By biopower I understand the potential of affective labor. Biopower is the power of the creation of life; it is the production of collective subjectivities, sociality, and society itself. The focus on affects and the networks of the production of affects reveals these processes of social constitution. What is created in the networks of affective labor is a form-of-life.

When Foucault discusses biopower he sees it only from above. It is patria potestas, the right of the father over the life and death of his children and servants. More important, biopower is the power of the emerging forces of governmentality to create, manage, and control populations—the power to manage life.[11] Other more recent studies have extended Foucault's notion, casting biopower as the rule of the sovereign over "naked life," life distinct from its various social forms.[12] In each case, what is at stake in power is life itself. This political passage towards the contemporary phase of biopower corresponds to the economic passage of capitalist postmodernization in which immaterial labor has been cast in the dominant position. Here too in the creation of value and the production of capital what is central is the production of life, that is, the creation, management, and control of populations. This Foucauldian view of biopower, however, only poses the situation from above, as the prerogative of a sovereign power. When we look at the situation from the perspective of the labor involved in biopolitical production, on the other hand, we can begin to recognize biopower from below.

The first fact we see when we adopt this perspective is that the labor of biopolitical production is strongly configured as gendered labor. Indeed various streams of feminist theory have already provided extensive analyses of the production of biopower from below. A current of ecofeminism, for example, employs the term biopolitics (in a way that might seem at first sight quite different from that of Foucault) to refer to the politics of the various forms of biotechnology that are imposed by transnational corporations on populations and environments, primarily in subordinated regions of the world.[13] The Green Revolution and other technological programs that have been cast as means of capitalist economic development actually have brought with them both devastation for the natural environment and new mechanisms for the subordination of women. These two effects, however, are really one. It is primarily the traditional role of women, these authors point out, to fulfill the tasks of reproduction that have been most severely affected by the ecological and biological interventions. From this perspective, then, women and nature are dominated together but they also work together in a cooperative relationship, against the assault of biopolitical technologies, to produce and reproduce life. Staying alive: politics has become a matter of life itself and the struggle has taken the form of a biopower from above against a biopower from below.

In a very different context numerous feminist authors in the United States have analyzed the primary role of women's labor in the production and reproduction of life. In particular, the caring labor involved in maternal work (distinguishing maternal work from the biologically specific aspects of birthing labor) has proven to be an extremely rich terrain for the analysis of biopolitical production.[14] Biopolitical production here consists primarily in the labor involved in the creation of life—not the activities of procreation, but the creation of life precisely in the production and reproduction of affects. Here we can recognize clearly how the distinction between production and reproduction breaks down, as does that between economy and culture. Labor works directly on the affects; it produces subjectivity, it produces society, it produces life. Affective labor, in this sense, is ontological—it reveals living labor constituting a form of life and thus demonstrates again the potential of biopolitical production.[15]

We should add immediately, however, that we cannot simply affirm either of these perspectives in an unqualified way, without recognizing the enormous dangers they pose. In the first case, the identification of women and nature risks naturalizing and absolutizing sexual difference, in addition to posing a spontaneous definition of nature itself. In the second case, the celebration of maternal work could easily serve to re-enforce both the gendered division of labor and the familial structures of oedipal subjection and subjectification. Even in these feminist analyses of maternal labor it is clear how difficult it can be at times to dislodge the potential of affective labor from both the patriarchal constructions of reproduction and the subjective black hole of the family. These dangers, however, important though they might be, do not negate the importance of recognizing the potential of labor as biopower, a biopower from below.

This biopolitical context is precisely the ground for an investigation of the productive relationship between affect and value. What we find here is not so much the resistance of what might be called "affectively necessary labor,"[16] but rather the potential of necessary affective labor. On one hand affective labor, the production and reproduction of life, has become firmly embedded as a necessary foundation for capitalist accumulation and patriarchal order. On the other hand, however, the production of affects, subjectivities, and forms of life present an enormous potential for autonomous circuits of valorization, and perhaps for liberation." (http://www.vinculo-a.net/english_site/text_hardt.html)


More Information

  1. Affective Labor