Re-thinking the History of Biopower

Re-thinking the History of Biopower

Maurizio Meloni

Michel Foucault has left us a number of memorable sentences, many of which are known literally by heart by at least two generations of social scientists. One of the most repeated is his passage on the emergence of biopower as a distinctive trait and a “threshold” of modern politics. In the last chapter of the first volume of his History of Sexuality (original 1976), Foucault famously wrote: “for millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (1978: 143, my emphasis). According to Foucault, modernity is unique in its incorporation of life processes into its strategies, at the level of both body and population. This was done mainly through introducing new technologies of knowledge/power such as sex and race. Were political and ethical strategies really “for millennia” devoid of any interest in the merely physiological aspects of life? Did we need to wait for the emergence of modernity to see “the entry of life into history”  (1978: 141) as an object of calculation and a target of biopolitical control? Other totems of European social theory have contributed to this this view. One is Hannah Arendt with her argument that modernity is dominated by what she called “the unnatural growth of the natural”. Only with modernity, Arendt claims, did “the liberation of the life process” reach the point of transforming the entire society into ‘the public organization of the life process itself’ (1958: 46-47, 101). Another is Giorgio Agamben with his hard dichotomy between bare and qualified life, zoē and bíos. According to Agamben, for the Greeks and the Romans, “simple natural life is excluded from the polis in the strict sense, and remains confined as merely reproductive life, to the ambit of the oikos”, that is the home and the private sphere (1998: 2).

In spite of Foucault’s repeated caveats that his analyses should not be taken “as a gospel truth” (2007: 186), social scientists have often mechanically repeated these arguments in a way that has not always contributed to alternative readings of the history of biopower. In my recent book, Impressionable Biologies (2019), I have tried to problematize some of these taken for granted assumptions about the supposed uniqueness of modern biopolitics. I investigate a longue durée history of biopower by focusing on the concept of corporeal plasticity in ancient and the early modern traditions of medicine, especially humoralism. Plasticity is a new catchword in molecular biology, and particularly in social neuroscience and epigenetics. It describes how, rather than being hardwired, brain structures, biological bodies, and gene expression are alterable and capable of modifying themselves in response to pressures from both inside and outside of the body. However even if the mechanisms of plasticity are new this is far from being the case for the phenomenological experience of a body in an ongoing interaction with the surrounding environment, exposed to its influences, and hence always at risk of change. Humoralism, the doctrine that the body is composed of elementary fluids (humours) whose balance was altered by changes in the surrounding environment, is a good example of plasticity before plasticity. Humoralism implied a view of the body  “characterized by a constant exchange between inside and outside, by fluxes and flows” (Nash, 2006: 32). This led to an anxious attention and careful vigilance about what could get inside the body (food, waters, excretions: waste, sweat, urine, vomit, stools and the emission of sexual semen) thus the body was constantly targeted in ancient and early modern times as part of a daily routine of corporeal governmentality. This phenomenon was not only the practice of a privileged elite and extended well beyond the West through the Arabic incorporation of humoralist medicine and in Ayurveda.

While Arendt and Agamben are simply wrong in their binary reading of bare and qualified life, the interpretative mystery is why Foucault was so strangely blind to this early form of biopower. Foucault after all wrote on the economy of pleasure in Greek and Roman antiquity and was obviously well aware of the humoralist literature on dietetics and the regime of living. Perhaps for Foucault, in the absence of the disciplinary mechanisms of modernity (statistics, insurance, welfare), the concept of biopower could not apply to these softer, but nonetheless, capillary technologies of body control. Or possibly the point is more profound and has to do with a bias that targeted mostly Christian pastoral power as the predecessor for modern governmentality and its technologies of power (Foucault 2007). However this desire to have the Classical (non-Christian) world immune from biopolitical effects led Foucault to an aesthetic reading of Greco-Roman techniques of life that made their normalizing but also collective (i.e. sexist and racist) dimension mostly disappear. My argument is that techniques of the permeable body in ancient plasticity were not only directed to individual but also to collective bodies – populations whose traits were seen as plastically shaped by the environment. Moreover, if all bodies were penetrable by external influences, some were more malleable and leaky than others and therefore required extra attention and vigilance, such as was the case for women and races not belonging to the Greco-Roman centre.

Views of corporeal plasticity and direct environmental biopower also entered the military machines of ancient empires. Roman officers such as Vegetius (De re militari, I/ 2) suggested avoiding troops from cold climates (too much blood and, hence, inadequate intelligence) preferring instead, those from temperate climates more suitable to camp discipline (Irby, 2016). Similar propositions based on the special porosity of human groups offered the conceptual framework for early modern racialism at the time of the first colonial expansions (Earle, 2012).

By looking at the long durée history of corporeal plasticity as the site for a continuous articulation of zoē and bíos, nature and nurture, I aim to offer a less moderno-centric view of biopower. My suggestion is that the ethical problem of how to live with a permeable body, and the political problem of how to control populations shaped by different geographical influences has a much deeper history and a wider geography to excavate, well beyond Western European modernity and the Christian pastorate that so obsessed Foucault. Of this deeper history, contemporary arguments about the permeability of the brain and genome and the reflexive techniques of life associated with this awareness are just the latest episode. This approach, I believe, offers a strong corrective to the present over-identification with tropes and rhetoric of innovation, from personalized medicine to neuroplasticity, which deny the appropriation and resurfacing of past body-world configurations. It offers also a corrective to the cherished mythology held by posthumanities authors, that Western thought is a monolith based on notions of stability and insuperable human/nature dualism. Looked at from the viewpoint of humoralism the idea of human exceptionalism in the West is very questionable, given that the term humour (ikmas or chumos in Greek) refers to a plant’s soil nutrients or moisture, thus establishing a botanic analogy by which humans (and whole racial groups) could, just like plants, change with a change of place.

Also, because of the mechanical repetition of Foucault’s, Arendt’s and Agamben’s arguments, alongside the fact that many bioethical ideas were shaped by the post-Holocaust perception of racism and eugenics as driven only by genetic fixedness, we have forgotten a deeper history of environmental biopower and plasticity. This forgotten biopolitics is more horizontal and reflexive, less authoritarian and dualistic, but nonetheless meticulous and productive, always ready to turn the different degree of physiological malleability between gender and ethnic groups into rigid social hierarchies. This older framework and its constant oscillation between individual and collective bodies is more than of philological interest. It may offer an interesting theoretical key to reading the present biopolitical complexity associated with emerging notions of neuro- and epigenetic plasticity, especially when they involve vulnerable minority groups exposed to long histories of dispossession or pathogenic environments. (Warin et al., 2019).

Agamben G (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Arendt H (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Earle R (2012) The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492– 1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Foucault M (1978) History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. An Introduction. New York: Random House.
Foucault M (2007) Security, territory, population: lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. Springer.
Irby G (2016) Climate and courage. In RF Kennedy and M Jones- Lewis (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Medieval Worlds. London: Routledge.
Meloni M (2019) Impressionable Biologies: From the Archaeology of Plasticity to the Sociology of Epigenetics. New York: Routledge.
Nash L (2006) Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Warin M, Kowal, E and Meloni M (2019) Indigenous Knowledge in a Postgenomic Landscape: The Politics of Epigenetic Hope and Reparation in Australia. Science, Technology, &Human Values online first


Maurizio Meloni is a social theorist and a science and technology studies scholar. He is the author of L’Orecchio di Freud (Dedalo, 2005), Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics (Palgrave 2016), Impressionable Biologies: From the Archaeology of Plasticity to the Sociology of Epigenetics (Routledge, 2019), coeditor of Biosocial Matters (Wiley 2016), and chief editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Biology and Society (2018). He is currently ARC Future Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia. Email: