Kacey Hillebrand, Fall 2021
Derived from Michel Foucault’s idea of biopower, biopolitics emerged as a new, modern way to conceptualize people, or life, as a population consisting of statistics (1978). Biopolitics is an abstract idea reified through everyday, systemic actions and interactions between a population and a power structure encompassing that population.
The power-holding apparatus, traditionally a state or institution, introduces biopolitics as a way to control and maintain the lives of its constituents. Foucault conceives of this control not as the threat of death but as the administration of life: the deciding power to “take life or let live.” (Braverman, 2015, p. 78; Foucault, 1978). In this sense, power is exerted over a population through means such as surveillance, displacement, or regulation of bodies.
For example, during the mid-twentieth century tuberculosis epidemic in the Canadian Arctic, the Canadian state employed biopolitical methods through the forced removal of infected Inuit people from their homes to be treated in southern hospitals. Through these actions, the Canadian state aimed to control lifeby attempting to treat patients (to “save” their lives) and, in the process, dictate where and under what conditions life was allowed to exist. While this instance may seem to evoke care, this operation produced harm, too, since many tuberculosis patients did not want to go far away for treatment, or to a greater extent, did not want to be “saved” from their illness.
More recently, biopower and biopolitics have grown to encompass more than the state-citizen relationship. Nicole Shukin (2009), in her book Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, pushes the concept of biopolitics further, beyond the management of human life into the realm of non-humans. She challenges the assumption that “the social flesh… at stake in the logic of biopower is predominantly human” (p. 10). Likewise, Irus Braverman (2015) engages in this framework to critique the conservation efforts put forth to protect and preserve the Puerto Rican Parrot. She argues that the IUCN Red List, a list of endangered species, is a biopolitical toolused to distinguish between species “worth” protecting and species unworthy of protection. Lists such as these serve to “affirm – and justify – which [life] is… most important to save,” a politically-charged and inherently-flawed application of conservation (p. 77).
Biopolitics in conservation legitimizes species-specific, population “protection” (or control) and provides a lens through which conservationists can parse through the let-live or make-die model. Critiques of these methods allow us to assess and re-assess which lives are actively protected and which lives are passively ignored. Understanding the power structures that determine the life-worth and the mechanisms of life-maintenance for populations, human or non-human, can help to inform conservation efforts in the future. Biopolitics and its implications encourage skepticism regarding who or what is in “need” of “saving.” These concepts ultimately force the discipline and its agents to ask the question: Is conservation possible without the controlling of species? (478)
Braverman, I. (2015). Is the Puerto Rican Parrot Worth Saving? The Biopolitics of Endangerment and Grievability. Contributions to Books. https://digitalcommons.law.buffalo.edu/book_sections/84
Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction Pantheon Books.
Shukin, N. (2009). Animal capital : rendering life in biopolitical times.
Stevenson, L. (2014). Life beside itself : imagining care in the Canadian Arctic. In University of California Press.