Link to What's New This Week Paradgim Shift in Power to Social Control

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Shared Reading: Power and Democracy

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: August 2, 2004
Latest Update: August 2, 2004

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Index of Topics on Site Paradigm Shift to Biopolitical Power?

  1. Introduction Why I chose to share this reading.
  2. Focus: Main point of this reading.
  3. Reading Full identification of source for reading AND excerpt.
  4. Concepts: Concepts and Key Words.
  5. Discussion Discussion questions.
  6. Conceptual Linking to Substantive Courses What this has to do with our class.

* * *


  • I chose to share this reading with you because we're sharing a panel in San Francisco with someone who will be speaking on Agamben's theoretical work.I had never heard of him, and neither had any of my colleagues. So much for blaming Michael Moore when he speaks of American lack of sophistication. Canadian sociologists are basing their research on him, and I haven't heard of him! I have been watching home security from within the US, and worrying about constitutional protections. When I read this piece by Professor Agamben, I realized how little we know of how others are interpreting our local activities. Then I went on to further readings, trying to define "biolpolitics."


  • I would like you to come away from this reading with a sense of how Others fear the aggressive hostility we are exhibiting to our own citizens and to foreigners. There can no longer be the excuse of not knowing. We must make the effort to know, or be complicit in our own undoing. And I'd like you to notice that we are beginning to hear about paradigm shifts in power and dissent.

Concepts and Key Words:

  • biopolitical power: Agamben uses it in place of legal-political. As near as I can understand, it is that point at which the constraints and disciplinary control of administrative power begin to be internalized by those comprising the system, so that they enforce the system themselves and reproduce it. As the system thinking becomes dominant, it becomes harder to counteract. This moves the society from disciplinary power to control power, controlling bodies and minds, as well as enforcing rules of prescription and constraint. What i think Hardt and Negri are saying is that empire as it is creating its identity in the 21st century has extended control to bodies. Hence the introduction of the term "bio" in place of the term "legal."

    If this is not clear, don't worry. It's not completely clear for me either, but I'm working on it. According to Negri and Hardt in Empire, this is another turn in power inter-relations: one in which the capitalist administrative mechanism (there really is presently no other competing administrative mechanism, except perhaps terror and chaos) has sufficient power in enough of the critical domains of everyday existence that the dominant discourse and values of the imperial system permeate bodies and minds, and the population held in power begins to internalize and adopt for itself those controls of the administrative system. How close is this to what Weber warned of in bureaucracy with the "iron cage?" Biopolitics, as I understand Empire, leads to deepened control, reproduced and enforced by the controlled bodies themselves. Now we geth "bio" to add to political and to power. Hardt and Negri see this as the new society of control. But then, they introduce a new wrinkle, that whereas resistance was once excluded to "outsiders" or "the rejected" against the central disciplinary control, now, with the deeper biocontrol, the peripheral resistance is wiped out. Leading to totalitarian capitalist control? No. Now the system of control discovers that affect can't be completely control and that the resistance to freedom and creativity has been shifted to the whole population, including those in the inner core. So once again revolution and resistance become possible, perhaps to larger groups and perhaps in more effective ways. Like I said, I'm working on understanding it. Any comments and help welcome. jeanne

  • sovereign power - associated with the old feudal, hierarchical power. You are controlled by direct orders from the guy with the power in the hierarchy to do so. This kind of power is easy to see, and so fairly easy to resist, if that is your choice. There's a perpetrator. From here on out, power gets more complex. Covaleski also speaks of sovereign power as I recall. jeanne

  • disciplinary power: power that is not directed at an individaul, but that results from the set of administrative rules governing "everyone." This power is typical of the 200th Century enlightenment approach. It's much harder to see and to defy than sovereign power. There are connections here to institutional racism and to the old saw : give me an open racist I can see and deal with rather than one who isn't racist, just enforces the rules that have racist consequences. Power Goes to School: Teachers, Students, and Discipline, by John Covaleski - external site
    Discusses the difference between sovereign power and disciplinary power.


Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the stages of power that we're discussing here?

    • Sovereign power - used to go with kings and sovereigns. Direct power. If I tell you to do something, you have to do it because I can somehow force you to do it. This was the kind of power that came from early rulers, post feudal times. In feudal times, there was a hierarchy of allegiance, each owing allegiance to the next highest level. Then it changed to everyone owing allegiance to the king or sovereign.

    • Disciplinary power - power based on reason and a rational use of hierarchy This was the power of the enlightenment, when the 19th and 20th centuries believed that science and reason would permit humans to rule over nature and believed in the progress of history. The Frankfurt School (Horkheimer and Adorno, particularly) despaired over the enlightenment, in the face of Nazism and the Holocaust and the evil that humans were willing to inflict on other humans. Whether you accept the Holocaust or WWII or not, the continuing terror of war that obliterates whole countries and peoples supports the despair voiced by Horkheimer and Adorno.

    • Corporate power and globalism - this is just a brief aside by jeanne. Most of the theorists I've managed to read don't set this aside as a separate phase of power; instead they're still groping with how to understand it, like Empire, by Hardt and Negri. Meanwhile, everyone is feeling a paradigm shift. From what to what, we're not so sure. But a shift, and we need to understand it. It's this shift and the discomfort many of us feel with it, that led me to this attempt to understand what some theorists are calling the "control society."

      My first response was to figure that it would include euthanasia, a kind of antiseptic genocide of some sort. I hope that's still paranoid science fiction, but it gives some sense of our unease about what's happening in our world. There is no question that there exists corporate power, with lots of money which gives it control of the economic sphere. There's not too much question that governments of nation-states, even developed ones, have less financial power than international corporations, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say less financial power that they can mobilize effectively and with fewer barriers to the manipulation of that control.

    • Biopolitical power and control - In this shared reading, I offer my best attempt sofar at understanding what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri explained as biopolitical power and control in their explanation of a shifting paradigm in empires and colonialism. Their concept, as I understand it, is that disciplinary control has gone beyond externality, or controlling individuals by the rules of societal interaction, and moved to controlling bodies and minds. I think that means that we've begun to internalize the dominant discourse we are fed so regularly by the media and commodification, so that we ourselves begin to enforce and reproduce that dominant discourse. Yikes!

  2. Do I want you to accept my definitions of power and societal governance as ones you can trust and depend on?

    Good Heavens, no! No one has the answers to all this stuff. Sovereign power and disciplinary power, and even institutional discrimination, are pretty thoroughly researched, though here I was pulling them from my own apperceptive mass. This is what people on the leading edge of theory, from many perspectives, are saying about power and society. If these issues matter to you as much as they do to me, you should follow our links and read more deeply.

    If you can clarify some of my definitions, please do so. This is the stuff of answerability. Thinking out loud. Thinking on the edge. Reading others who think on the edge. Misunderstanding Others. Enough illocutionary discourse to correct some of those misunderstandings. This is how we gain the skills to make our voices heard over the administrative authority, be it sovereign, disciplinary, or control based.

  3. Are there answers to all this colonization and attempt to control us?

    YES! Somewhere out there, in the unity of our many voices, there are at least tentative paths that we can find to follow. It's just that there is no single place or single person or single belief system we can go to at present and ask for right answers. That is not the human condition. But we can through our awareness, through our willingness to search reflexively, discover more humane ways to treat each other and our communities.

Conceptual Linking to Substantive Courses:

  • Agencies:
    Sample linking: Really important to know where the power is and how it's enforced. Also important to recognize that some of the effects of power are very hard to see, and important not to lay your own alternatives for dealing with power on agency clients, for whom that power may not even be visible.

  • Criminal Justice:
    Sample linking: Because the criminal justice system is founded on power and the kinds of power exercised by our societal systems, you gotta know this stuff if your going to work without being complicit in some of our dominant discourse prejudices and misinformation.

  • Law:
    Sample linking: Law is the legitimate face we give to whatever power our decision-makers wield. Important that you recognize the many guises of power that underly that legitimate face. Refer to Minow's unstated assumptions.

  • Moot Court:
    Sample linking: Power is an integral component of every social and political issue. So in acquiring the skills of governance discourse, we must be able to assess the power relationships involved and take them into account in the governance process. This fundamental analysis of the kinds of power and the ways in which they are presently operating is essential to work in this area.

  • Women in Poverty:
    Sample linking: Poverty is the result of a lack of power in the ruling power relationships. Consequently power permeates policy issues in this context.

  • Race, Gender, Class:
    Sample linking: Race, class, and gender, like poverty, are associated with power and its interrelationships. The origin of discrimination, oppression, colonization is a lesser power in face of the imperial forces that would colonize, exploit, or terrorize and kill.

  • Religion:
    Sample linking: Religion brings in the moral aspect of the use and abuse of power. Religion also invokes "knowingness," which results in power over the Other who must not know if he/she differs from what you "know. Here we find all the issues of terror, retribution, damnation, salvation, and knowingness. How do we inter-relate in the face of such absolute "knowingness?"

  • Love 1A:
    Sample linking: Love 1A is the spiritual context with the hate removed. We are making the unstated assumption that love is superior to hate. That is a belief. And we're pretty arrogant in insisting that we're right about it. But truth is, "knowingness" like that is not the privilege of humans. We hope that love is superior to hate. We'll do our best to make it so. But we have no direct ontological line to "knowing that that is so."

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, August 2004.
"Fair use" encouraged.