Annotation: Michel Foucault’s “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” (1990)

Peer-Review: 0

Foucault, Michel. “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 135-159. Print.

In this essay Foucault discusses the historical changes in sovereign power as the absolute “right to decide life and death” eventually came to be conditioned by exceptional circumstances where the sovereign’s life was threatened (135). In these instances, he would be able to “legitimately wage war, and require his subjects to take part in the defense of the state; without ‘directly proposing their death’” (135). Foucault asserts that in modern times sovereign power “as the ‘power of life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live” (136). The sovereign exercises his power over life through the deaths that he can command and exercises his power over death by the lives he can spare. Foucault accentuates that in this framework power is exerted according to the model of “deduction, a subtraction mechanism,” that “culminate[s] in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it” (136). He notes, however, that since then power in the West has undergone a radical transformation.

No longer a deductive force that attempts to “suppress” life with the threat of death, now “power…exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (137). Foucault calls attention to how wars have ceased to be waged in the name of an individual sovereign but rather for the defense and survival of whole populations. He emphasizes that modern states exercise power in this manner, stressing life even as they expose their subjects to death. Foucault asserts “that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death (138). He notes that because power can only exerts its influence over life, “death is power’s limit” (138). Foucault explains that suicide, as an individual, private act, subverts power, and classifying it as a crime is power’s grasping attempt to manage life.

He goes on to describe how “power over life evolved in two basic forms” since the 17th century (139). Foucault describes how the first form is “centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities…the parallel increases of its usefulness and its docility, [and] its integration into systems of efficient and economic control” (139). He groups all of these mechanisms of power under the heading of “disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body” (139). Foucault asserts that the second form is “focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality…life expectancy and longevity” (139). These mechanism he groups under the heading of “regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population” (139). Foucault emphasizes that power mobilizes to discipline the human body and regulate populations, giving rise to a “great bipolar technology—anatomic and biological” that works towards “invest[ing] life through and through” (139).

He further notes how this “bio-power” has been instrumental to the rise and expansion of capitalism. Foucault insists that the success of this economic system “would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (141). Capitalism, which demands growth—the creation of new markets, the production of more goods and capital, etc—ultimately relies on a power capable of fostering, optimizing, and regulating life rather than death (141).

Foucault argues that modernity is marked by mankind’s development of political measures to specifically maintain and perpetuate its own existence. But he suggests that one important consequence of “bio-power” is the normalization of power beyond the formal legal system. He asserts that “law operates more and more as a norm, and that the juridical institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, and so on) whose functions are for the most part regulatory” (144). Foucault further notes how the right to life has become the underlining demand of most political struggles.

He finally concludes his essay with a discussion of how sex has gained so much political significance within this schema of power because it is tied to both “the disciplines of the body” and “the regulation of population,” a “means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species (145, 146). Foucault goes on to offer a fascinating argument about the management of sexuality and deployment of sex, which I have chosen not to go into detail about here.

Annotation: Tamaka K. Nopper’s “The 1992 Los Angeles Riots and the Asian American Abandonment Narrative as Political Fiction” (2007)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “The Productive, Political Power of Love in Nina Revoyr’s Southland.”

Nopper, Tamara K. “The 1992 Los Angeles Riots and the Asian American Abandonment Narrative as Political Fiction.” CR: The New Centennial Review 6.2 (2007): 73-110. Print.

In this essay Nopper asserts that the popular abandonment narrative, which presents Korean Americans as victims of state neglect during the 1992 LA riots is a political fiction manufactured to accentuate the particularity of this minority group’s experience. She emphasizes that this narrative is more emotionally charged rather than supported by historical fact and has been often employed by activists as evidence of how Asian Americans were abandoned because of their racialization as outsiders in the US nation-state, “unwittingly caught in the cross hairs of black-white antagonism” of which they bear no direct relation or responsibility (73). Nopper suggests that the abandonment narrative can potentially perpetuate a harmful evasion of how Asian Americans do in fact possess complex relations with whiteness and blackness. She further asserts that the popularity of a narrative focused on Korean American trauma and victimization as simply a continuation of the historical legacy of anti-Asian racism in the United States ignores important historical divergences, where the government response to the 1992 LA riots was much speedier and more efficient compared to the earlier 1965 Watts riots. Nopper further discusses how the abandonment narrative problematically obscures the state’s actual fixation with containing blacks and the violence and destruction they are often accused of and associated with. She essentially calls for a shift from the conventional Asian-centric perspective of the 1992 LA riots to one that focuses on the treatment of blacks. Nopper ultimately argues that Asian Americans and their personal property were collateral damage to vigorous state efforts to “control and contain black people” (93). While I appreciate Nopper’s attempt to recover and expose the “forgotten” history of anti-black racism during the 1992 LA riots, as she deconstructs one “grand narrative” she runs the risk of re-instituting another in its place.

She essentially suggests that rather than a misguided privileging of the Asian American experience we should privilege the treatment and experience of blacks. Rather than asserting which minority group bears greater historical relevance to the 1992 LA riots, I believe that it is more productive to examine how the histories of these two groups intersect and overlap as they are subjected to and struggle to resist oppression. Nina Revoyr’s 2002 novel Southland is particularly successful in this respect as if offers a nuanced, palimpsest account of history through three generations of the Ishida family as these people live through the Japanese internment during WWII, the 1965 Watts riots, the 1992 LA riots straight into the contemporary 21st century America. Revoyr depicts the story of Jackie Ishida, a Japanese American law student, who is initially disinterested in and disconnected from her family history, but eventually uncovers the complex origins of her roots and how she is deeply tied to members of the black LA community.