- The Birth of the Concept of Biopolitics – A Critical Notice of Lemke’s Biopolitics
The past four decades of political and social theory have been witness to an explosion of neologisms offered as part of efforts at restructuring the conceptual domain of contemporary critical inquiry. Conceptual vocabulary that was practically unthinkable only a few decades ago is now practically obligatory for anyone hoping to understand the contemporary landscapes of political and social theory. Twenty-five years ago someone who was deaf to the diverging resonances of terms such as “neoliberalism”, “postcoloniality”, or even “gender” could have been regarded as merely uninitiated. Today, anyone proposing to work in political or social theory who cannot demonstrate adeptness with these terms is likely to be forthrightly dismissed as uninformed.
The introduction of significant new conceptual material raises the question, for each new generation, of what terms we take to be practically obligatory for traveling through the landscapes of contemporary critique. The facility to debate the meaning and ramifications of conflicting conceptions of “gender” is almost undeniably obligatory in this sense. But what about concepts that once had a power which they no longer seem to have? Must everyone be fluent in debates over “alienation” or “industrialism”? And what about conceptual constellations which are newly emergent? How should we specify their status as among the lingua franca (or not) of contemporary political and social theory?
The most central explicit thesis of Thomas Lemke’s Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction is that the concept of “biopolitics” (and presumably also that of “biopower”) has over the past few decades gained a theoretical stability and coherence that make it worthy as an object of critical concern. The book also forwards, albeit largely implicitly, another key thesis to the effect that this concept is a crucial object of contemporary critical inquiry, and indeed so crucial that perhaps we might now treat it as obligatory.
In this brief critical notice we shall: §I) summarize Lemke’s attempt to “provide a systematic overview of the history of the notion of biopolitics and explore its relevance in contemporary theoretical debates” (xi), §II) interrogate the main argument that Lemke himself advances about the concept of biopolitics, and §III) assess Lemke’s delineation of current debates over this concept with an eye toward a methodological question, raised by Lemke himself, of how we might set about studying biopolitics today.
After briefly discussing naturalistic-biologistic (Chapter 1) and politicist (Chapter 2) conceptions of biopolitics (further discussed below in §II), Lemke turns to an extensive discussion of the philosopher he proposes as the founding thinker of contemporary work on biopolitics, namely Michel Foucault (Chapter 3). For Lemke, Foucault departs from the dichotomy of life and politics since he neither traces the political back to biological determinants nor renders life the very object of political action. In contrast, Foucault provides us with a thorough analysis of the specific historical processes that made possible the emergence of both life as a political question and the accretion of life around the heart of the political.
After proposing Foucault as the founding thinker of biopolitics, Lemke details a wide range of contemporary contributions to its subsequent conceptualization. His presentation in these central chapters can be divided into two parts, though Lemke himself does not offer the implicit taxonomy we detect (a point to which we will return again in §III). The central contrast in these chapters is, in our terms, that between the ontologizers of biopower on the one hand and the empiricist inquirers into biopolitics on the other. Lemke offers helpful overviews of the contributions of Giorgio Agamben (Chapter 4) and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Chapter 5), showing in each case how a more ontological approach to biopolitics yields transformations of Foucault’s project that bring into clear focus the essentiality of biopolitics for our times at the same time that they risk a dedifferentiation of biopolitics vis-à-vis other modes of governance that appear in the history of Western politics. Agamben is the clearest example, for his...