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Biopower, Sadomasochism, and Pastoral Power: Acceptance via Transgression

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Abstract

The transposition of biopower from the state to the individual has been a major preoccupation of biopower scholarship in recent decades. While some researchers have found grounds for optimism in the diminution of state control over people’s bodies, others see the change as merely a more sophisticated version of state control which has become, if anything, more invasive of individual lifestyle choices. In this paper I show how the institutionalization of hierarchical power relations does justify optimism about ways of confronting the complex mechanisms of control entailed in modern biopower. I claim that the crux of control in our information society derives from the transposition of the pastoral power described by Michel Foucault to the modern state and that the institutionalization of hierarchical power relations can constitute an effective countermeasure to that power. Hierarchical power exchanges can generate a social and cultural framework which, while operating according to the logic of biopower, expands modes of thought and practice beyond the unified thinking that contributes significantly to the modern state’s control over the individual.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    At times, Foucault refers to biopower as biopolitics, while elsewhere he includes disciplinary power under the heading of biopower. Here I use the term biopower throughout.

  2. 2.

    One cannot categorically state that discipline depends on a static subject; there is a broad and diverse debate about this in Foucault studies, including Judith Butler’s (1993) discussion of the relationship between discipline and performativity. The intention here, however, is not to deny the ethical potential in discipline but rather to contrast the precedence of the state in shaping the body with biopower, which a priori derives from the vitality of the body and its self-activation.

  3. 3.

    See in this regard the articles of Ladelle McWhorter and Shannon Winnubst in the 2012 issue of Foucault Studies, which expand effectively upon this point.

  4. 4.

    I do not mean that resistance may only be premised on contradicting the tactics that establish biopower. Many thinkers, the most prominent of whom is Judith Butler (1993), suggest a basis for action from within a field of power acting on the body rather than through resistance to it. I believe that this kind of counter-conduct is characteristic particularly of analysis of patterns of discipline and less of biopower, although the immanent connection or separation from them in the context of resistance is beyond the scope of this essay.

  5. 5.

    The centrality of genital place is controversial at the literature. In history of sexuality Foucault used the term power strategy (Foucault 1977, 1977–1978) as a comprehensive constitution to sexual identity and as Weiss presents there is an inner dispute in Foucault's literature concerning the ethical signification of sexual stimulation (Weiss 97–8). Here, I paralleled between sexual identity to hetero normativity, while I signified the way which images and behaviour established under genital determination of masculinity and heterosexuality.

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Correspondence to Ofer Parchev.

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Parchev, O. Biopower, Sadomasochism, and Pastoral Power: Acceptance via Transgression. Sexuality & Culture 23, 337–355 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-018-9563-x

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Keywords

  • Pastoral power
  • Biopower
  • Erotic power exchange
  • Sexuality