Foucault: In direct response to biopolitical attempts to control our sexual lives, struggles have been waged

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


In direct response to biopolitical attempts to control our sexual lives, struggles have been waged; these invoke the “‘right’ to life, to one’s body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs”. Foucault was critical of the pernicious effects of such power: he criticized power’s subjection of individuals, along with the forms of subjectivity that subjection engenders. In particular, he was concerned that power relations today tend to produce submissive individuals who blindly obey authority figures. More generally, Foucault claims that Western history has known three types of struggle: struggles against ethnic, social and religious domination, struggles against “forms of exploitation that separate individuals from what they produce”, and struggles “against that which ties the individual to himself and subjects him to others in this way (struggles against subjection, against forms of subjectivity and submission)”. One type of struggle may appear in an isolated form during a particular historical period, but types may also be mixed. Even when mixed, however, one type often predominates, and today struggles against subjection predominate.

The primary goal of struggles against subjection is to enhance the individual’s autonomy. Foucault explicitly declared himself a champion of autonomy in the Kantian sense of self-legislation and self-determination. He also said that, to achieve autonomy, the asymmetrical relations between institutions (including the state) and individuals must be transformed. Calling the transformation of these relations “enlightenment”, Foucault argued that “what Aufklärung has to do, and is in the process of doing, is precisely to redistribute the relationships between government of self and government of others”. In his studies of resistance, Foucault detected a persistent question: “How not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of these principles, in view of such objectives and by means of such methods, not like that, not for that, not by them?” More to the point, Foucault aligned himself with those who ask this question when he said that a central question in his own work is how we can avoid being governed so much.

What forms do power relations take in order to foster submissiveness? To answer this question, one needs to take a closer look at Foucault’s genealogy of modern power relations. For Foucault traced the two types of power on which his work is primarily focused – disciplinary power and biopower – back to a form of power which he named “pastoral power”. In lectures and essays, Foucault argued that power relations in the modern age are rooted in practices and techniques that were developed by the early Christian Church in its concerted attempts to govern the souls of individuals. (Parenthetically, Foucault also sought to demonstrate that the development of capitalism itself owed a great deal to pastoral practices.)

In a process that was “absolutely unique in history”, Foucault wrote, a religious community constituted itself as a church. From its inception, the Christian Church was an institution that aimed “to govern men in their daily life on the grounds of leading them to eternal life”. Yet, apart from governing individuals, the Church sought to govern on a grander scale: not simply “on the scale of a definite group … but of the whole of humanity”. Omnes et singulatim: the Church attempted to govern both the conduct of the Christian flock as a whole and the conduct of each individual sheep. To fulfil this task of governing all and each, the Church borrowed a number of practices (including self-examination and ascetic practices) that originated in ancient Greece and Rome. Although these practices were designed to foster the autonomy of individuals, the Church transformed them as it delegated the power to govern conduct to priests.