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Biopower Today


In this article we undertake some conceptual clarification of the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, and argue for their utility in contemporary analysis. We consider Foucault's development of these concepts, and differentiate his view, which is close to ours, from the philosophical take-up of the terms by Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri. Biopower, we suggest, entails one or more truth discourses about the ‘vital’ character of living human beings; an array of authorities considered competent to speak that truth; strategies for intervention upon collective existence in the name of life and health; and modes of subjectification, in which individuals work on themselves in the name of individual or collective life or health. We argue that, while exceptional forms of biopower, especially in conditions of absolutist dictatorship, and when combined with certain technical resources, can lead to a murderous ‘thanatopolitics’—a politics of death—biopower in contemporary states takes a different form. It characteristically entails a relation between ‘letting die’ (laissez mourir) and making live (faire vivre)—that is to say strategies for the governing of life. Using examples from our own current research, we consider recent developments in biopower around three themes: race, population and reproduction, and genomic medicine.

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Correspondence to Nikolas Rose.

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aPaul Rabinow is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley. His work focuses on modernity as a problem, to be understood by means of an anthropology of reason. His current research focuses on developments in post-genomics and molecular diagnostics. It seeks to invent an analytic framework to understand the issues of biopolitics and bio-security. A related research interest is the contemporary moral terrain, with special attention to ‘affect’. His most recent books are Anthropos today: Reflections on modern equipment (Princeton University Press, 2003) and A machine to make a future: Biotech chronicles, with Talia Dan-Cohen (Princeton University Press, 2004, 2nd edn, 2006).

bNikolas Rose is Martin White Professor of Sociology and Director of the BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His most recent book is Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought (Cambridge University Press, 1999); his new book The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century will be published by Princeton University Press in November 2006.

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Rabinow, P., Rose, N. Biopower Today. BioSocieties 1, 195–217 (2006).

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  • Biopolitics
  • Biopower
  • Genomics
  • Population
  • race
  • reproduction