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Biopolitics and the Afterlife of Michel Foucault’s Concept of Life

Brooke Holmes

Princeton University

In The Order of Things, first published in French in 1966, Michel Foucault declared that life as the object of biology does not exist prior to the nineteenth century; only, rather “living beings,” viewed as objects of natural history (1970: 139). Twelve years later, the concept of life became again important to Foucault’s understanding of modernity in its difference from the premodern as he began to develop the concept of “biopower.” In the first volume of the History of Sexuality, he writes that a society’s “threshold of modernity” has been reached “when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies. For millennia,” Foucault continues, “man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (1978: 143). Foucault’s work on biopower thus drew a deep wedge between antiquity and modernity on the terrain of life.

The first volume of the History of Sexuality has been a highly consequential text in the field of classics. It shaped the study of ancient Greco-Roman sexuality in the 1990s, due to the work of David Halperin, Jack Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin (Halperin 1990, 2000; Winkler 1990; Halperin, Winkler, Zeitlin 1990). But its impact via the history of ancient sexuality went beyond that subfield. “Foucauldian” arguments about sexuality in antiquity shaped the history of sexuality in its relationship with queer theory more broadly while also transforming the anthropological legacy bequeathed to classics in the 1960s and 1970s by redefining arguments made by classicists for the alterity of the past. But whereas Foucault’s arguments about sexuality and sex itself as a historical construct powerfully affected the study of the ancient world, his arguments about life and biopower in the last section of the History of Sexuality (Volume 1) have had almost no impact among classicists.

The lack of engagement with biopolitics among classicists can be contrasted with the hyperbolic rise of biopolitics as an interdisciplinary field among contemporary theorists. Its expansion is due not only to Foucault’s legacy but also to Giorgio Agamben’s work on bios and ē, which he explicitly positions in Homo Sacer as a continuation of Foucault’s work (as well as Hannah Arendt’s). As Agamben’s choice of Greek lexemes suggests—he adopts them as specifically Aristotelian terms (1998: 6-8)—his contributions have focused even more attention on a divide between antiquity and modernity in the definition of life, especially in its relationship to politics. At the same time, Agamben describes a “biopolitical” situation that goes back to Greco-Roman antiquity itself and thus founds both “Western” metaphysics and “Western” politics. Agamben’s periodization of biopolitics as ancient is thus in tension with Foucault’s and more broadly challenges a reading of antiquity or premodernity as fundamentally different from the modern.

Both the transformative work of historians of ancient sexuality and the rise of biopolitics make it clear that classicists cannot simply take up “life” as an object analogous to “sexuality” and perform a Foucauldian reading of the differences between ancient and modern “life”—or, for that matter, an “anti-Foucauldian” reading premised on the Foucault of 1990. In this paper, I build on both the history of the History of Sexuality in classics and the formation of biopolitics as a contemporary field of inquiry to lay out a series of proposals for what an engagement with bios and ē might look like today—that is, an engagement in which those terms are understood as at once ancient and highly charged within contemporary debates about the history, philosophy, and politics of life. I argue that we must grapple with the unruly terrain of “life” in Greek antiquity but also the complicated and impure reception of a life idealized as Greek within the history of biopolitics itself, from the late nineteenth century through the rise and fall of fascism.

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Foucault and Antiquity Beyond Sexuality

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