In this lecture, “17 March 1976,” Michel Foucault outlines and explores the shift in the “strange right” of life and death. According to the classical theory of sovereignty, the sovereignty has the right of life and death, but the “balance is always tipped in favor of death,” so the sovereign’s power can only be exercised by killing or executing a subject, it becomes “the right to kill” (240). In the 19th century, however, there is a major change in the right of life and death, causing the power to change from “the right to take life or let live” to “the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die” (241). Foucault terms this biopolitics, which “derive(s) its knowledge from, and define its power’s field of intervention in terms of, the birth rate, the mortality rate, various biological disabilities, and the effects of the environment… Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem” (245). Under this regime, death becomes privatized as life becomes public (247-8). The “excess of biopower” emerges through its modern paradox- that, in order to support life, it must suppress some life (253). This, for Foucault, is where racism becomes important to biopower- racism’s two major objectives are defined as (1) fragmenting life (separating races into separate populations) and (2) to allow “the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race” not only to allow more lives of the “good race” to live, but also to “make life in general healthier: healthier and purer” (255). The second objective is especially powerful in biopower, as one of biopower’s main objectives is to support life through the development of health in the population. Racism is also “the precondition for exercising the right to kill”- if by killing a member or members of a threatening race is viewed as an action to support human life, then it is an allowable action within the field of biopower.

Notes & Quotes

  • Foucault asks “why did sexuality become a field of vital strategic importance in the nineteenth century” and answers that “Sexuality exists at the point where body and population meet. And so it is a matter for discipline, but also a matter for regularization” (251-2). He adds that undisciplined sexuality has effects not only on the individual body, but also on the population “as anyone who has been sexually debauched is assumed to have a hereditary” (252). This seems to be a major driving force in the composition and popularity of early American seduction narratives, as well as the sermons at the funerals of so-called fallen women in early America that included clear warnings against what Foucault terms “debauched sexuality.” In early America, this must have been a particularly important form of biopower, as they were working to create a new nation with a new population. In order to ensure that future generations of Americans would not be degenerated (though Hawthorne’s introduction to The Scarlet Letter points to this), sexual discipline was vital. In the seduction narrative, American women were instructed not only to marry white men who were healthy and financially secure, but also to look for men with morals and values that fit with the larger American project.
  • Foucault’s discussion of the role that racism plays in allowing biopower to murder is a great entrance to Patrick Bateman’s role within neoliberal NYC in American Psycho. The first kill that the audience sees/reads in both the film and the novel is the brutal murder of a black homeless man. This is where his crime begins before he moves on to white and rich victims. During this kill, Bateman views himself as disciplining and punishing the man for failing to get a job. I also am reminded of the current Trump administration and the child immigrants who are dying and/or disappearing after being taken into federal custody. The racism that the Trump administration and the far-right have fueled against South and Central Americans helped to allow these deaths to not damage his reputation amongst supporters.


“Violence and the Biopolitics of Modernity” (2010), Johanna Oksala

I decided to include my notes for this article within my larger notes for Foucault’s “17 March 1976” lecture because Oksala larger adds to his ideas from this exact lecture in her article.

  • She ties Foucault to Georgio Agamben in that both “claim that we live in a society in which the power of the law has subsided” (38). Foucault believes that “sovereignty itself has been undermined” (ibid.). Oksala therefore states that biopower is not political power “in the traditional sense” due to the fact that it does not need to be implemented by those elected to political power; rather, “It penetrates political power, but it is essentially the power of life’s experts, interpreters and administrators. The key problem with biopower is thus…the depoliticized violence of expert knowledge” (ibid.). She concludes her article by stating that “Political power in biopolitical societies has evaporated and has been replaced by purely administrative and economic power” (43).

Society Must Be Defended (1992): “Chapter 11” by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.