The Waging of War

The Waging of War

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The Waging of War

“Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital.”[1]

In Foucault’s pithy explanation of a new form of warfare, in its justification, causes, and even execution, several units of logic enter a rationality of massacre. In the context of the sentence, amid a discussion of bio-politics as a population-level version of bio-power, the facet he takes issue with seems primarily to be this justification for war. He understands its logic as part and parcel of the movement of thinking that declares “we are repressed”, that liberation is the alternative, and that the truth will set you free - a romantic positivism. His move makes the slogan of sexual liberation, “make love not war”, something between naïve and cunningly sinister - perhaps the latter for the very reason of the former. However close his politics here seem to sophisticatedly anti-war, the comment is not a thesis statement or a way to collect together all political sentiment for one clear and explicit goal to which all philosophical moves can be instrumentalized and all other political objectives subordinated. That bio-political power has become dominant, and has not always been so (a genealogical reminder kept in the preface to the political statement), is instead an important consideration in discussions of which discourses and what rationalities are more or less politically appreciable, almost separately of their philosophical merits. In his juxtaposition of different ages’ wars, Foucault suggests some changes in political rationality: more clearly the name of the survival of the population as a kind of substitute for the name of the sovereign, and less obviously a shift in understanding of death.

Yet, the contrast is not so simple as wars having once been waged for the sovereign and now for the population. First, and most pressingly in this context of discussion of the population, the sovereign and the population are not necessarily characters of a similar kind. Indeed, Foucault writes early in The History of Sexuality: Volume One that

One of the great innovations in the techniques of power in the eighteenth century was the emergence of “population” as an economic and political problem: population as wealth, population as manpower or labor capacity, population balanced between its own growth and the resources it commanded.

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Governments perceived that they were not dealing simply with subjects, or even with a “people”, but with a “population,” with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables.[2]

So the population cannot be accepted as the term of power-in-action, it is not a given. While Foucault does not thoroughly explicate this, there is certainly nothing in his work to suggest that the sovereign is any less a fabrication than the population. However, while they are both constructed as kinds of subjectivities, for what is the population but a macro version of the kind of subject power creates, this need not conclude that the two are of the same kind. The sovereign is singular and fixed in discourse of sovereign power. Foucault’s insistence on power without one-in-power, “let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality”[3], might well not apply to a sovereign form of power. The risk, though, is of trying to historically uncover a past truth of an “old” model of power that could have been both discursively explicated and materially experienced. This method of history is at odds with Foucault’s attempt at a history of the present, and is only as relevant as the “truth” of a genealogy - for it does not matter so much whether there “really was” a time of sovereign power - as defined in some precise and thoroughly comprehended sense, as that we know power has not always been this way, that change is possible. Thus the sovereign is not a well-explained origin of warmongering, and the demands of the king cannot be explained as within one certain and well-understood sort of power.

For the comparative purpose, the suggestion is simply that wars were once waged in the name of a sovereign, not that the reason for the invocation of the name of the sovereign was fixed or important. Wars have been fought for the sovereign’s honor, wealth, or glory - so histories tell us. What Foucault points to here is just that the justification for the war was premised on the name of the sovereign - the reference to the sovereign’s demand need not have been “true”, and more to the point need not have been known in its detail. Yet, this suggests another difference between what he characterizes as modern reasons for war, as it is no longer in the name of the population, but for the particular “need” of it - survival. The sovereign’s death may have been a reason for war, but could also have been accepted as divine, unfortunate, or right on time.

None of these options are considered reasonable in the case of the population. In writing on nuclear war and its risk of causing human extinction, Jonathan Schell elucidates the passion of the feeling of necessity most feel towards the preservation of population.

The mere risk of extinction has a significance that is categorically different from and immeasurably greater than any other risk and as we make our decisions we have to take that significance into account. Up to now, every risk has been contained within the frame of life; extinction would shatter that frame. It represents not the defeat of some purpose, but an abyss in which all human purposes would be drowned for all time. We have no right to treat the possibility of this limitless, eternal defeat on the same footing as risks that we run in the ordinary conduct of our affairs in our particular moment of human history. … We are in deep ignorance. Our ignorance should dispose us to wonder, our wonder should make us humble, our humility should inspire us to reverence and caution, and our reverence and caution should lead us to act without delay to withdraw the threat we now pose to the earth and to ourselves.[4]

As Schell correctly points out, we are in deep ignorance. We do not know the real effects of a nuclear war. At the same time, this argument applies everywhere and in an uninspiring sense to demonstrate just how dedicated such a discourse is to the aversion of death and extinction. We do know what we would consider the possible menu of effects of a nuclear war - nuclear winter, fireballs, and all manner of technical explanations from the bomb’s point of view. We do know what we consider to be the terms in this “risk” - the species and the ecosphere. In none of these cases do these possibilities come from nowhere, have no history, or neutrally describe the way the world ‘really is’. The presumption that the (human) population (of earth) and “it’s” purposes is ‘the frame’ for moral thinking seems only to assure us that this logic consider extinction bad. Where Foucault’s genealogy leaves discourse, stumbling about terrified of dangers to the body and population but intensely excited about its new thoroughgoing truth and newfound verbosity about that which it considers previously suppressed, is just where Schell bravely sets out.

The idea that there is a population to be preserved is not just an innovation of the eighteenth century, but also an assurance of the likelihood of its dissatisfaction. If population must be assumed as the frame of discussion, and thus must be preserved due, literally, to a lack of ability to think beyond the terms of such a presumption, then any and all moves must be made to ensure the vitality of the species, just Foucault’s original point about wars current patterns.

Ironically, where the name of the sovereign could be invoked and further justification given, the population is defined as politically crucial only in terms of its own continuation. No one is fighting wars over the honor, wealth, or glory of the population. Indeed, if anything, this focus on the species ensures just the opposite. In the context of international law, Susanna Kapeller writes:

Affirming the life of the collective entity means to affirm the instrumentalization of individuals as reproducers, sacrificing their lives and their right to life in the interest of the collective entity’s survival. Reproduction becomes an interest on the metalevel of the collective, a positive expectation of individual members’ reproductive activity. Reproductive choice thus ceases to be the right of individuals, their choice against reproduction becomes a threat to the species’ survival. Focusing on the preservation of peoples, of species, of collective entities … is equally to advocate species survival through reproduction, at the cost not only of the lives of the individuals, but of the dignity of their living.[5]

If the population is still an economic and political problem, as Foucault outlines it, the sole focus on the preservation of the population, by its being defined in opposition to its extinction, ensures other kinds of conditions for the population that would never be tolerated for the sovereign. Beyond the conditions of degradation endemic to a character defined primarily in terms of its survival as an economic and political problem, there is the possibility that attempting to ensure its survival seals its fate: extinction. As Foucault points out, the “atomic situation is now in the endpoint of this process: the power to expose an entire population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence”[6]. This sort of tension is precisely the irony of “massacres have become vital” - this mode of assuring life has become its own biggest threat.

This first disequation between wars waged in the name of the sovereign and waged on behalf of the existence is the relation between sovereign and population: the mechanics of power for the population are biopolitical. The second is between the name of the sovereign as need and the need of survival for the population. From these two pieces alone, it would seem that the target of Foucault’s observation on shifting patterns in war is “doing things for the sake of people”. This is not quite it, as “people” and “population” are less than interchangeable. More importantly, Foucault is not offering a simple condemnation, but rather is offering an account of war’s occurrence and justifications (as causes and excuses). It’s not that it’s bad to “do things for the population”, though it might be, but that there has arisen a political logic which makes this possible, and even if were not a bad effect, it would still be revealing about the functions and dysfunctions of this rationality of power over the body, a rationality invested in the truth from the patient revealed by the listener who does not speak. Thus, aside from the politics of the statement as a whole, its contrast in description of different times and powers has been revealing of, so far, two changes. But there is a third also at play. The understanding of death as an isolating and terminal state. For the sovereign’s war, death is hardly the issue, and when it is complained of it can be explained as glorious or a gateway to a better place. War is in the name of the sovereign, not in that of his continued heartbeat. For the war of the population, the name must be that of life necessity - a sprawling land of apparatuses of and for life surrounding one hostile state of death.

The History of Sexuality: Volume One has a characteristic pattern of describing the logic from within the rationality Foucault critiques. One effect of this is to mention terms in a way other than as dedicated core of a sweeping theory. This seems to be the place to which the idea of death has largely been abandoned in the book. It isn’t that Foucault forgets about death, but rather that, for all his reference to it, he never lays out a theory of what death should mean or should be. While Foucault does not trace a genealogy of death, he situates it in terms he does not thoroughly reconsider on point. He writes, “for the first time in history … biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention… it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body” (Foucault 142-143). Power was no longer phrased in terms of killing; the power of the king had always been to kill but not to control how we let die. Thus it had been in war the duty of warriors to sacrifice their lives, and in law that of enemies to be killed. The sovereign did not bear responsibility for the air quality or life expectancy of the average subject. For Foucault, the issue has ceased to be death but has become control over life.

Yet, even here, Foucault takes death, in only the most inevitable incompleteness an introductory book on another subject must succumb to, as too determined a term. Death’s history and possibilities can be considered and it’s current forms examined. Rather than understanding that “the pressure exerted by the biological on the historical had remained very strong for thousands of years, epidemics and famines were the two great dramatic forms of this relationship that was always dominated by the menace of death”[7], we could understand that the pressures of death are not tied strictly and clearly to the biological nor were those ties uniform across thousands of years.

Death changed in the nineteenth century. The shift probably began during the Enlightenment, when, as Philippe Ariès has argued, people learned for the first time to fear their mortality—not just the terrors and uncertainties of their demise or the anguish over an eventual punishment for their sins, but extinction itself . Within the space of a few decades, death became a sheer and unredeemable absence, an unconsolable loss, and a confrontation with pure negativity. During those years, death was transformed from a nuance between different states to an absolute. It became, in itself, infinite and sublime, a nothingness whose discovery, like that of the zero, unleashed unknown and limitless powers. [8]

Regardless of how death’s history may be argued to have unfolded, “it is always useful to understand the historical contingency of things, to see why and how things got to be as they are”[9]. This brief genealogy of death provides such a demonstration of contingency.

If death is not and need not always be one thing, what is it now? As Foucault repeatedly identifies, death is used in the mobilization of the population by providing a foil for a biological, set, and progressing life. Life must move somewhere, because death is the end of that movement. Life must be a set state, because death is the other one. Life must be biological, because death is when the heart-organ stops periodically contracting. I would suggest that it is this conception of death, which Foucault implicitly identifies, but does not directly call into question, that is the necessary third change that explains the phenomenal shift in the waging of war that Foucault identifies with a bio-political arrangement of bio-power.

For the power of administered life to function, there no longer must be a threat of plural deaths if this one life is refused. However, this does not determine what death means or how death figures into power. As “one of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death”[10], so the administration of life offers an alternative so much worse than it that all it must do to keep its fabricated subjects in thrall is remain one step better than a Hobbesian war of all against all. If power once denied ‘democratic freedoms’ but to obey or die, power increasingly allows (largely meaningless) ‘lifestyle choices’ in contrast to one Known and Studied death - a truth of death extracted by the confessions of the body.

Though it might seem to, this provision for an alternative does not rely on freely choosing and consent-filled subjects, for the opposites are moved between by all parties: the sovereign can kill or the subject can kill herself. The liberal democratic subject can vote and pay taxes, or be ravaged by the outside of deportation or imprisonment. Neither pairing requires that one person choose between the alternatives for the terms mutual support and co-definition to function.

What this could mean for the administration of life is substantial. If the choice is no longer between this one life and whatever you may find in death - echoes of Braveheart[11], it has become between our administration of difference within life and this one death. As is the case in the comparison of sovereign and population, we are not in a position to comment about the function of the sovereign power and its concepts of death, only to offer possible genealogical threads about them. Yet whatever previous conceptions of death were, the possibility of administration of life as a lethal enterprise certainly does depend on the fixity of death, and the one outlined above does achieve that well.

Marcuse, for one, has argued that the elevation of death from a biological fact to a metaphysical absolute plays a key ideological role in all modern European cultures. Death, he contends, is not merely a subjectivizing limit; it "is an institution and a value: the cohesion of the social order depends to a considerable extent on the effectiveness with which individuals comply with death as more than a natural necessity". For Marcuse, the relation between actual political events and this ideological mystification of death takes particularly clear forms in the case of Heidegger, since this "tradition comes to a close in Heidegger's interpretation of human existence in terms of the anticipation of death—the latest and the most appropriate ideological exhortation to death, at the very time when the political ground was prepared for the corresponding reality of death—the gas chambers and concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen".[12]

It may be a cheap shot at Heidegger, but Marcuse’s charge well explains the possibility of a sort of cohesion so strong in the social order that it is with its blessings that wars can be waged in the name of life necessity. When death is a state, an end, a shattering of the frame of reference for the individual or the population, its edicts, as drawn out and relayed into truth by a bio-political mode of power, must be obeyed in the administration of life. Death is the only outside to a politics premised on administration of life and livelihood, this form of power has a policing relation to death, to watch over the border. Yet in this policing, it is only the inspector who has full access to the confessions of this foreign land: “the agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks (for it is he who is constrained), but in the one who listens and says nothing; not in the one who knows and answers, but in the one who questions and is not supposed to know”[13]. It is this administrative bio-politics that offers the authoritative explanation of what this death is, who is near it (sick) and who is bringing it nearer (dangerous). The type of outside that death presents is an internal one, understood and explained, plain for all to see and forget. The mechanism of power remains “you are with us or against us”, rather than “join us or die” - although the effect may often be the same.

Death is more than a philosophically complete and impartial limit of the subject or the population, it is a particular type of discursive formation, a possibility that can be thought of in different ways, and with very different political effects. The particular way that it has been characterized - or maybe that it has been - within a style of power based on administering life has not only become concerned about the occurrence of death as always an encroachment on its territory (thus every possible cause of death must be catalogued, defined as preventable, and prevented) but also as a state to be demonized and where someone who is sentenced shall meet destruction rather than exile. Where death could mean banishment, death has become not a sending off, but a well-known sentencing to a well-known place. It need not be done in public, because its function is already known. Of course, this aspect of death as punishment is addressed rather more thoroughly in Discipline and Punish, but death as an institution and a value is of interest here in the context of the waging of wars described in the theory of power native to The History of Sexuality. The particular way that death functions is then a necessary component to the understanding of the shift from wars waged in the name of the sovereign to those waged on behalf of the “existence” (life, not death) of everyone.

What is the effect of this kind of death at the level of population? While it could be phrased in terms of fear, this social psychology explanation elides the way the power produces the subject who would then be theorized as already basically terrified of its possible dissolution. Rather than a fear, Schell’s explication may prove more useful. It is not that death is scary, in such terms, but that death is the great unimaginable outside to a life defined by and spent caught up within a network of power, and thus attendant points of resistance, that understands power as its own unimaginable exterior. As with the unspeakable topic of sexuality, this does not mean no one tries to imagine, or does imagine death, but that aversion to it is premised on, and just as thoroughly true - which is to say not very deeply - as aversions to sex in an age where it was supposedly unspeakable. However, the “truth” of death’s unimaginability, a point repeated frequently in conventional philosophical, especially phenomenological, discussions of death, is a necessary implication of epistemology - or rather, epistemological presumptions that are taken as necessary. Within this rationality, points of resistance exist in the same power relations that take to describe death in supposedly negative terms. Points of resistance are not, for this, somehow trapped,

we are in this struggle, and the continuation of this situation can influence the behavior or nonbehavior of the other. So we are not trapped. We are always in this kind of situation. It means that we always have possibilities, there are always possibilities of changing the situation. We cannot jump outside the situation, and there is no point where you are free from all power relations. But you can always change it. So, what I’ve said does not mean that we are always trapped, but that we are always free - well, anyway, that there is always the possibility of changing.[14]

This is not just an argument for complacency, we are “always free”, but a reason for hope. That the reality of ourselves as foremost within a population has been produced in some way has the concrete effect embodied in Schell’s writing. Points of resistance within a mode of power administering life can be informed by this recognition. Once we accept where we are, and denying our location is unlikely to magically result in immediate exodus, we can at least tell that Schell’s acceptance of the necessity and value of our situation is unwarranted, and indeed as dangerous as the discourse of power he is working within.

Death for the individual is individuating, doesn’t let you go to heaven or hell in community, but leaves you alone in a frozen state of nonbeing. Death as a state is literally incoherent, as there is no one to inhabit the state, as an ontological possibility death cannot be described or experienced, it necessarily exceeds epistemology and thus is ritually excluded from ontology. However, for its exclusion from being, it is still theorized as a state that is other to the state of life. At the same time life need not, but can, be understood as a “state”, rather than a process or history, so too death, even in its indefinable negativity has been made static as a move to domesticate it as an object of knowledge-power that can be referenced with clinical certainty. The philosophical point, luckily, need not be proven. This is fortunate for the argument here because the slip from epistemology to ontology is less than a totally defensible one. For Foucault’s proposition, though, it is suffice to imagine that there are philosophical alternatives to imaging death as a state, and indeed pretty good reasons for them. Death as individuating is similar to death as terminal in its lack of necessity. Death could just as easily be anything else. If death cuts across the social and splices out individuals who will die alone, life may seem more necessarily a temporary arrangement of ultimately separate subjects, who can interact as just the kind of rational free agents classic liberal political philosophy calmly presumes.

If “death” is interior to life, a conclusion shared by the discourse I am here using and the one I am criticizing, it can be defined any way we can think of. Death would be, I think, interior to life in Foucault’s account because it is the limit of subjectivity, and just as subjectivity is an effect of power relations, so too must its conditions be, as they are parts of the constitution of the subject. In the same banks of knowledge where more obvious sites of power have created and stored identity and subjectivity, your birthdate may well be followed by the day you will die. The same click of a mouse that made the proof of life can take it away. The coroner’s papers and birth certificate are written by products of the same school system, and these documents are read by the same courts and hospitals. The administration of life defines death as something deep within it, a black hole in the middle of its universe.

It is in this sense of death and life of the subject, as well as in that of the flesh that present conceptions of death and modes of power have made death’s avoidance its prime assurance. In the case of death and life, the technologies of life and death develop side by side not just for the body, but also for the population.

“Breeding” is the answer of the human sciences to the threat of extinction, with a technology developed side by side with the technology for the industrial mass destruction of people and life on the planet. The two technologies are two sides of the same intent: the engineered destruction of people, other living beings and life-forms, and the artificial “production of life” under the control of the superrace, the exterminators of all else.[15]

Schell’s logic is, in this sense and in the context that Foucault sets up, intensely genocidal in its effect if not its intention. The prevailing understanding of death as terminal state ensures the value of death that makes capital punishment and genocide signify political utility. It is only if death is a terminus that death can be used to terminate. It is only if death is individuating that it can be used to cut its victim off from others. It is only if it is a state that death is understood as a place to put people, no different except in its extremity from degrees of prison security from light to super maximum.

In this sense, death is vital to the administration of life, and death is very much alive in a world of knowledge power. Death is not unspeakable, it is spoken of all the time, and most appeals to safety are phrased in terms of death: smoking cigarettes makes you die, seatbelts save lives, binge drinking kills. In all of these instances, appeals to safety could be made - and classically made to justify disciplinary mechanisms - in other terms than the risk of death. Binge drinking might also be able to be correlated with something ‘dangerous’, like hangovers, drunken violence, depression, or a stifling social reaction that pressures you at every moment to give up ‘your dangerous habit’. However, the political weight of the category of death discourages these arguments from being made, as they aren’t worth the added political debate over how bad such ‘consequences’ are, whereas almost no one will question that “death is bad”. Yet, whatever number of minutes your life is supposedly shortened (brought closer to death) by each cigarette does not matter the least if you are hit by a Volvo tomorrow. At a broader level, the threat of the vitality of the population is perhaps the most classic reason given for widespread violence - recall the headlines of immediately post September 11th American newspapers: “America Under Attack”, or the way Schell’s fear of nuclear war has justified a system of mutually assured destruction premised on the danger of the possibility of nuclear launch. Threats to the population make killing of others and controls of all absolutely vital. Arguments for disciplinary norms depend on calls for safety and order in opposition to a nebulous menace of ‘anarchy and violence’, and the appeal to a terminal and infinitely bad term of ‘death’ is just the most effective trope for such movements. This is not to suggest that death is really innocuous, or that only disciplinary norms benefit from appeals to the horror of death, but Foucault’s contrast of the wars of different eras suggests this understanding of death as a crucial part of the possible justifications of present mass slaughter. Death is alive and well in our modern bio-political society, it’s vitality assured by the way it has supposedly been revealed as something to be repressed - it cannot be understood (so there is no reason to talk about it) and cannot be allowed (so there is no reason to be risky when you can play by the games of the rules). Yet it is this vitality of death, an object of knowledge-power, that ensures the pervasiveness of death, a destructive capacity whose body count is less important than its impeccably self-enclosed and apparently influential logic. Death is vital and by its logic we are to live and die.

Foucault’s brief explanation of the changing production of war provides three crucial shifts of sovereign to population, name of the sovereign to name of survival, and finally the change to death as ultimate and crucial to avoid. The last change is the least obvious, and the three are by no means completely distinct. However the name of the sovereign was put to use, that of the population functions primarily as a demand for survival, the neglect of which is, as Schell puts so well, ‘unimaginable’. Wars are not, at least not yet, waged on the basis of the public opinion poll of the masses, although they may be conditioned upon this increasingly. They are in the name of their survival. To the extent, however, that Foucault’s assessment is or has been accurate, it is in part due to this conception of death as a terminal and knowable state within a mode of power that lets you choose anything within its sprawling horizons of life, but only one already known death. And it is that this one death “is known”, a knowledge that should never be considered separate from power, that makes its employment likely in part as a method of ‘avoiding it’ - a masking of the way power administers life wherein it is said simply to preserve it as if in an unmodified fashion. Just as the repressive account of power and liberal conceptions of power as a negative relation conditioned upon rights of a free subject masks the actual function of power, the administration of life masquerades as the prevention of death. But like a wagon wheel putting all pressure towards that around which it is centered, this form of power teaches a supposed inability to comprehend the center which it has demarcated and defended rigorously, and structures an entire living around the death that it will define but will not admit to preserving with precisely the same vigor it saves for life.

Works Cited

[1] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One (New York: Vintage Books,
1978), p. 137

[2] Ibid, p. 25

[3] Ibid, p. 95

[4] Schell, Jonathan. The Fate of the Earth. (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 96

[5] Kappeler, Susanna. “Speciesism, Racism, Nationalism . . . or the Power of Scientific
Subjectivity.” Ed. Carol Adams et al. Animals and Women. (Durham: Duke University
Press, 1995), p. 348

[6] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One (New York: Vintage Books,
1978), p. 137

[7] Ibid, p. 142

[8] Strauss, Jonathan. “Preface: The State of Death.” Diacritics 30.3 (2000): 3-11. p. 3

[9] Foucault, Michel. “Sexual Choice, Sexual Act.” Ed. Paul Rabinow. Ethics:
Subjectivity, and Truth. (New York: New Press, 1997), p. 154

[10] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One (New York: Vintage Books,
1978), p. 135

[11] Mel Gibson, 1995

[12] Strauss, Jonathan. “After Death.” Diacritics 30.3 (2000): 90-104. p. 99

[13] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One (New York: Vintage Books,
1978), p. 62

[14] Foucault, Michel. “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity.” Ed. Paul Rabinow.
Ethic: Subjectivity and Truth. (New York: New Press, 1997), p. 167

[15] Kappeler, Susanna. “Speciesism, Racism, Nationalism . . . or the Power of
Scientific Subjectivity.” Ed. Carol Adams et al. Animals and Women. (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1995), p. 349
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