How to subvert biopower? (on Foucault, Butler, and subversive repetition)
Monday night in my Critical Race Theory class, we were discussing the second half of Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. Here, he argues that 20th (and, I think there are good reasons for also claiming 21st) century State racism/racist discourse proceeds significantly by means of biopower. Biopower is normative power applied to populations: it is interested in controlling deviations and accounting for/eliminating random instances, in maintaining a “normal” population. In some senses, biopower is the use of demography to identify, maintain, and reinforce norms. Biopower differs from discipline in two main ways: first, discipline is applied to individual bodies, and biopower is applied to populations; second, discipline is more temporal (we must repeat the same gendered behaviors every day, every time we choose what to wear, how to gesture, etc.), and I think biopower is more spatial—it’s demo-graphy, a sort of charting or mapping of trends across groups. Or, as my brother the geographer says, geography is the study of relationships you can express on a map; insofar as demography is a branch of geography, and biopower works via demography, then biopower seems significantly—if not necessarily or completely—spatial.
As I mentioned last night in class, biopower may be considered the “return” of geography to race(ist) discourse. Kant and Hegel, in developing the European concept of “race,” relied heavily on physical geography; 19th c race science was less explicitly about geography and more about heredity, cephalic indices, and the “human sciences” generally. 20th c racist discourse, to the extent that it relies overtly on demography, could thus be seen as more overtly “geographic.”
However, we ended class with the following question/concern—and, b/c we couldn’t resolve it, I’d appreciate any thoughts you readers may have. SO: we have a pretty clear Foucaultian framework for resisting discipline. Foucault calls it “critique” or “not being governed quite so much” (see his essay, “What is Critique?”), and Butler has extensively theorized her Foucault-inspired idea of subversive repetition. For Butler (who is following and expanding on Foucault), discipline compels us to repeatedly perform normative behaviors at every moment of every day: we have to sit, stand, gesture, speak, eat, dress, you name it, in a manner appropriate to our assigned/identified gender. However, repetitions often fail to perfectly conform to the norms that inspire/require them. How many of us fail to perform ideal (hetero, white, able-bodied, middle-class) masculinity or femininity? Even most hetero white able-bodied middle-class women fail to perform ideal femininity (this seems to be one of Sandra Bartky’s points). It’s in the fact of repetition, and in the potential for (intentionally or unintentionally) imperfect repetitions, that disciplinary power produces its own resistances.
But this model of subversive repetition is primarily temporal: next time I get dressed, I’ll wear more butch clothes; at each of my 3 daily meals today, I’ll eat “girly” foods like salad or yogurt, etc. The unfolding of time brings new instances that demand my performance of a gendered behavior—that’s what makes discipline and subversive repetition temporal phenomena. If biopower is spatial rather than temporal, I’m not sure that subversive repetition—which is temporal—applies to biopower. What is a spatial model for resisting demographic norms? How does one subvert the SAT, the infant mortality rate, the crime rate, the HIV infection rate, etc.?
There must be someone out there who’s thought about and written on this. I’m sure this is not an original insight. Heck, I may be totally wrong with this spatial biopower vs. temporal discipline model. Who should I be reading/talking to?