What is Biopolitics and Why Should Anyone Care?

What is Biopolitics? It’s the hottest sub-field of philosophy that you’ve never heard of until just now, probably! Of course, it is also a number of other things, and some of these other things are nestled in obscure philosophy journals and pages of French postmodernism. So not exactly the clearest or most common topic in the world, but I believe everyone would be a bit more independent and skeptical (in the right way) and better able to protect themselves against being manipulated if they started thinking in biopolitical terms. I also have a series of posts in mind focused around biopolitics in famous literature (Plato) and popular film (Divergent) so I should take time to define my terms.
It’s best to think of biopolitics as a development of the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, in the beginning of his “Genealogy of Morality” claims that humans seek power, and nothing else. If it appears that someone is seeking something else, like a priest or monk seeking “to be moral and loving” (to take Nietzsche’s extreme example), it’s actually the case that these people are also seeking power themselves, it’s just that they were too weak to attain it in the normal ways, and have crafted entire illusionary worldviews to convince powerful people to submit to their authority and follow them. So, according to Nietzsche, Christian priests and monks are actually driven by hatred and repression, and all their practices can be explained in these terms.
Everything in the world, according to Nietzsche, is self-serving power, or a manifestation of that power. This explains Nietzsche’s infamous claim at the end of the book when he exclaims “there is no truth!” Many people (and my younger self) think Nietzsche lapses into absurdity here, because at first glance that statement is obviously self-defeating: if there was no truth, then the statement itself would not be true either, and then we would have no reason to think that truth does not exist.
But Nietzsche (in typical sassy postmodernist fashion) is proclaiming a deep, cogent statement underneath pages of hyperbolic aphorisms: Nietzsche is announcing that if he is correct, then there is no such thing as the kind of “Truth” that religions are looking for. There are no big-T “Truths” only the ones we see in the physical world around us: no God, no heaven, no metaphysical realm where the Platonic Forms float around and play all day, etc. All there is, is power. Power is the only Truth, in the sense that the power of physical forces vomited up everything in the universe, and the power of the human will is going to eventually be strong enough (through technology) to manipulate everything according to its own selfish will.
For those who care and for context, there are a few different names for the picture of the universe that Nietzsche paints. Most people consider it the “postmodern” or “nihilistic” worldview, Heidegger called it the “enframing” metaphysic, nowadays it might be called the “transhumanist” metaphysic. And if someone in Ancient Greek or Roman literature mentions a dance of “fortune and necessity” then this is the view of the world they have in mind. (If that seems like a weird coincidence, it is not; Nietzsche very consciously borrowed ideas from pagan Greece, which is why he calls himself a “Dionysian”; after the Greek god of drunken revelry)
Nietzsche starts simple, then pretty soon he’s deconstructed the entire human world and the universe. Worth pointing out here is that Nietzsche does not ever prove his axiom that all of humanity is only out for selfish power; that does not get much, if any, argument in Genealogy of Morality, nor (I think) elsewhere. The proof, we’re led to believe throughout the course of the book, takes the form of “this must be true, because look at how much I can explain about human behavior and religion with it!” The proof is in how far reaching and (brutally) elegant the theory as a whole is, and this is not necessarily invalid; scientists do the same thing all the time when debating how to best interpret data.
Moreover, Nietzsche could make this an axiom because all of Modernity had been making that same assumption. We see it in Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. We see it in how Hobbes views human nature and the social contract. We even see it as far back in Plato’s Republic when Thrasymachus tries to convince Socrates that justice is “nothing more than the advantage of the stronger”. So, in a way, Nietzsche’s axiom doesn’t need proving to most people; it’s merely known fact, and a fact known for centuries.

Postmodern Theories of Human Nature: Totally More Depraved than Calvinism

I bring this up because this axiom about human nature is where Christians and Nietzsche will diverge dramatically, and it is at the very beginning of the entire tradition that biopolitical criticism grows from. From the Christian perspective, this is simply an incomplete explanation of humanity; while a Christian would be willing to admit (because of original sin) that some or most human activity is motivated by selfishness, it could not be admitted that every human action by every person ever was pure selfishness.
Even a TULIP Calvinist who believes in Total Depravity could not accept such an idea, because if it was true, then it would mean that 1) Christ Himself did everything out of self-serving power 2) no one has ever been redeemed 3) If a Christian made this claim, they’d be admitting that they themselves are only motivated by selfish power. But that would also be an admission that they are not really redeemed, or truly a Christian, since redemption involves rising above selfishness and learning charity.
So having said all this, and given what I’m about to say (that biopolitics is founded on Nietzsche’s axiom, but still very useful for Christians) where do I get off? How can I, as a Christian, encourage using biopolitical modes of thinking? Am I not just compromising with the 6th head of the Beast of the Apocalypse AKA postmodern deconstruction? No, I’m not, at least as long as I realize that Nietzsche’s axiom has to be qualified (or in other words, toned down).
As I said above, it’d be fine for a Christian to admit that some or most human action works like Nietzsche says it does, just not all action. So, when Nietzsche claims that all Christians are driven by suppressed hatred, we are at liberty, to a point, to agree with him. After all, who hasn’t met Christians who aren’t very Christ-like? We see them all the time! Yet, we would also respond that Nietzsche hasn’t captured the whole picture; he’s captured something I call “pop-christianity” or “cultural-christianity” very perfectly, but there’s a genuine Christianity that is far superior and much different from cultural christianity, and thus that evades his criticisms.
Thus, if we keep Nietzsche’s mindset and method, yet tone down his axioms about human nature and metaphysics, it enables us to keep the good aspects of Nietzsche’s thought (revealing all the different ways that people oppress each other, and bringing human selfishness into the forefront of our minds) while leaving behind the nihilistic aspects (everything is power, there is no Truth) what we are left with is something like the Hebrew Prophets as they decry the ruling powers. I will pick this up further in a moment.

 

Foucault: Primary Heir of Nietzsche

Notice how Nietzsche’s axiom is very broad and general, and he applies it in sweeping brushstrokes. The exact manifestations of power, and how power structures society, is left to our imaginations. That is, until Michel Foucault starts philosophizing in France about a half-century after Nietzsche. Foucault essentially assumes Nietzsche’s axiom (all human action is motivated by self-serving power) is true, then proceeds to discover how power has shaped the institutions of our societies, and how power oppresses and molds us without us even realizing it. After all, if people are driven by power in everything they do, and people have created institutions and structures within society, then there ought to be power relationships built into the institutions, and they ought to seek after power themselves.
And indeed, Foucault finds power relationships and oppression pretty much everywhere he looks. He finds that the modern clinic and hospital exert power over patients through the power-relationship doctors have with them, changing how they think about themselves and the world (This is basically the premise for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). He finds that prisons, simply by being structured the way they are, and the power that guards and wardens have, affect the prisoners and warp their personal identities to the point that physical torture, in Foucault’s opinion, would probably be a more humane punishment.
Foucault even looks at the history of sexuality in the West and concludes that basic labels for gender and sexuality (like “heterosexual” and “homosexual”) were actually created to marginalize certain people, so power-relationships have created the labels that we now build into our personal identities, which is obviously problematic. Using these labels would be like a prisoner of war who was captured by the enemy and, after years of brainwashing, concluded that “docile servant” was simply part of their very self.

Enter “Biopolitics”, Stage Right

So we get a very bleak picture from Foucault, to say the least. Not only is the external world and society forcing us in certain directions, but we probably internalized some labels from society and convinced ourselves that “that’s who I really am” when in fact it’s just a label. And this is where “biopolitics” takes off; “biopolitics” is a label designating certain ways that society, medical institutions, and politics come to exert power on our bodies and medicine. Here are a few examples of biopolitics, and the kind of deconstructive questions someone in the Nietzsche/Foucault tradition might launch against them:

Plato’s Republic: Plato infamously declares that rulers must sometimes lie to citizens in a perfect city to make sure that they won’t do anything to jeopardize the city. But does Plato command this out of commitment to the truth, or because preservation of the city has become its own goal and Plato is engaging in methods of coercion and tyrannical force?

Designer Babies: It is possible now, using assisted reproduction technologies, to change the appearance and traits of your baby before it is born. Yet, why exactly would one what to do this? Is it truly in the best interest of the future child? Or is it more selfishly motivated by the parents? Moreover, where did the parents get their ideal of “beautiful child”? Is it a label that society sold them? And if so, is it really worth messing with a child’s DNA so that they will look more agreeable to the weird standards of beauty that strangers hold?

Eugenics: Eugenics is when a society decides that there is a certain group of inferior or undesirable people, and the population should be coerced away from breeding more people of that group. But how did that society come to hold those ideals? Are they really attempting to engineer human perfection, or are they simply worshipping idols of humanity crafted from their selfish imaginations?

Definitions of “Living”: In an Intensive Care Unit, let’s say we have a comatose patient. Are they living, or are they dead? In a sense, they are living, but only insofar as machines are helping their body go through mechanical motions. In any sense, they are dead, because there is no sign that the person is there anymore. So who gets to decide what should be done: the doctors, the family, the government? And how is that final judge defining key terms like “living” and “dying” and how did they reach those definitions? Are they qualified to be making such a huge decision, or are they basically just using their authority to force their values and opinions onto the comatose patient and the family?

If it involves suspicion that political power or arbitrary value-judgments have tainted something that claims to be “scientific” or “objective” and that something has an effect on our bodies or self-identity, then it falls under “biopolitics”. And any criticism of such a something would technically be called “biopolitical deconstruction”, although use of jargon is not necessarily required.

How to Not Lose Your Soul through Deconstruction

On the one hand, this kind of deconstruction is obviously important and very useful; if there truly is oppression and political power shaping the medical industry, anyone should want to know about it, and expose it. Foucault’s and Nietzsche’s mindsets and methods are very useful for this kind of thing. What bothers people (especially Christians) is that it seems like the only way to have access to such criticisms and revelations is to bite the bullet and give in to postmodernity entirely; nihilism, relativism and all. But let’s return to what I said above about toning down Nietzsche’s axiom.
Foucault, remember, accepts Nietzsche’s axiom (everything everyone does is for self-serving power) and makes it the departure point of his philosophical endeavors. It is what encouraged him to start looking for systems of oppression and biopolitics in the first place. But his discoveries are no less valid if instead of saying “everything is power” we only say “quite a lot (but not everything) is power”. Doing such a change doesn’t do anything to make the endeavor any less potent, or make the conclusions any more cutting. But it does make it suddenly a completely acceptable method for a Christian to use, and suddenly requires no compromises with nihilism.
Christianity does have to qualify Foucault just like it has to qualify Nietzsche: “Yes, most (or maybe even everything) in the society around us is oppressive. BUT there is hope for something non-oppressive to develop if radical changes are made.”
This is an important toning-down to make even for purely philosophical reasons that have nothing explicitly to do with Christianity. Without toning it down, we essentially trap ourselves in a postmodern circle; in the same way that Descartes and modernity could never dig themselves out of the “how do we know anything without a doubt?” hole, Nietzsche, Foucault and the postmodern tradition they founded cannot seem to dig itself out of the “we can never stop oppressing each other” hole. Because if it’s true that all human actions are attempts to gain selfish power, then deconstructing the current forms of oppression either means one of the following:

1) the person doing the deconstructing is making a back-door power grab – Like how the French Revolution overthrew Louis XVI, only to let the guillotine-crazy Maximilien de Robespierre gain political control.
(2) The vacuum created by the collapse of the current power structure is just going to be filled by another form of manipulation by someone else, and it could very well be more oppressive or more subtle and sinister, like when Egyptian protestors in 2011 overthrew their old, tyrannical President, Mubarak, and a new leader, Morsi was placed into power, who was just as oppressive, yet supposedly “better” because he was elected democratically (spoiler alert: he was not. Watch the film “The Square” to find out why)

So without toning down Foucault, nihilism seems to be the attitude one would take away from biopolitics and deconstruction. Who wouldn’t give up hope if we’re destined the live in a never-ending cycle of French and Egyptian Revolutions? (This is, by the way, the kind of existence that Hegel calls the “material dialectic”; the idea that there is nothing more to reality but the rise and fall of empires.)
But if we tone it down, what attitude would we take away from it then? I think we would be much more optimistic about what we’re doing, obviously, because the deconstruction and scrutiny would be done in the hope of clearing the path for genuine change. Consequently, I think what we would end up doing is prophetic justice; I think we’d be doing what the Hebrew prophets did when they went into cities teeming with evil and called it all out and stuck everybody’s complacent nose right into it. And we’d have their attitudes as well. After all, isn’t Isaiah chapter 3 or 5 basically just deconstructing ancient power structures, tailored in language that the ancient religious would understand?
The attitude of biopolitical deconstruction is often zealous and righteously furious. Don’t we hear that same tone in prophecy after prophecy of Isaiah? Yet, here’s the best way to summarize what I view as the critical difference between full-blooded postmodern deconstruction, and the toned down variety that I’ve been encouraging for half this post: Isaiah, after literally condemning the entire world as one massive, decadent, oppressive obscenity against God, spends the last 17 chapters (chapters 49-66) claiming that something beautiful and transcendent will grow out of the rise and fall of oppressive power structures, even in spite of humanity’s lack of cooperation.
Isaiah thus agrees with Nietzsche and Foucault; oppression and power structures are all around us. Where they part ways though, is how much hope there is for change. Is there nothing more than the constant flux of human selfishness, or is there a Truth that can bring about hope even in spite of humanity’s horrendous lack of compassion?
This is why I think Christians really ought to be more interested in things like deconstruction and biopolitics; deconstruction of oppression (done with a certain attitude and qualification) is nothing new to Christianity, and if the best deconstruction is now being done by a tradition of nihilists, then perhaps we have some new unlikely friends in our pursuit of prophetic justice.

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