Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From Death to Life: The Transformation of The Mechanisms of Sovereignty

Précis on "Right of Death and Power Over Life" by Michael Foucault 

     The demonstration of power, the authoritative force that a person yields to control or influence others, is often associated with a number of various mediums including fame, political connections, and perhaps one of the most powerful of all, money. However, Michel Foucault associates power to a different level, focusing on the historical and biological aspect of the ultimate form of power: the power over life itself. The transformation of this form, through the transition of the historical form of power to the biological form of power, that Foucault describes in his work “Right of Death and Power Over Life” fairly accurately represents the effects of such transformation that we see in the present society.
     According to Foucault, the original definition of the historical form of power is quite simple in regards to the control of life: to allow life to continue or to prevent its continuation. To have control over life is to decide whose life must end and whose life should be spared. In ancient times, this form was ultimate: the sovereign, a single individual could dictate who lives and who dies “in an absolute and unconditional way.” He mentions the Latin word patria potestas, a Roman form of authority that bestows the male head of the household the right of this absolute jurisidictive force. At the sole decision of the male person, the life of another that is within the domain of the household can be extinguished. No trial was involved and because patria potestas was respectably recognized by the general Roman population, no man, woman, or child can challenge the head household member who invoked patria potestas in his own domain. This power was especially so ingrained within Roman society that even the emperors themselves, the most authoritative men of the world in that epoch of history, could be and were sometimes subdued by their living fathers who invoked this right. Eventually, this form of power was modeled in the systems of administration by a number of different heads of state, sovereigns who control the economic, military, social, and political institutions of a particular society. War was implemented to represent the reaction of an attack to the sovereign's own; the death penalty was created to symbolize this extreme power that a ruler possessed; the sword, an image connoting blood and death, was defined to represent this special right and privilege of the sovereign. Historically, the ultimate power in life was the power of life, which, essentially, was the power to unleash death.
     However, as Foucault pointed  "[s]ince the classical age the West has undergone a very profound transformation of these mechanisms of power.” Especially with the 18th century, the circumstances of the world at that time allowed for and called for the redefinition of the constructs of power.  Before the Classical Period of the Greeks, Foucault argues that as a result of the development of technology, techniques, and knowledge, mankind was able to have a greater control of life. Consequentially, those that posed a continuous threat to life, the imminent risks of death such as disease, famine, constant war, etc. was displaced by the desire and opportunities to live life as it should be lived. In this transformative world, so too did the ultimate power of life redefined itself. Because of the extra time, space, knowledge, and resources available to mankind as a result of society’s institution of various disciplines, the sovereignty evolved to a form of power that no longer repressed life with the threat of death but rather enforced it both individually as a machine, such as “extending its capabilities,” and generally, as with “propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity.” As a result, society no longer fears the ruling government with the intimidation of fear but rather expects the government to function as a propagator of life. 
     The present example of the United States government an excellent example of how much the sovereign power has, indeed, changed. Regarded as the most powerful government in the world, the United States government is endowed with various powers to uphold its foremost and highest power: that is, to serve the people, a government created of the people, for the people, and by the people. Currently, the people expect the government to provide basic needs and rights to the general population of the country: social welfare, social security, universal insurance, and universal education, among many other things. In their expectancy and dependency on the government to provide the rights and life to propagate life, the people and their relationship with the government exemplify the transformative nature of the ruling institution that yields the sovereign power that Foucault identifies in his work. The current system of sovereignty in various societies around the world is expected to carry the responsibility to enforce life. In fact, for many of these governments, the ancient form of power that once solidified the ruler's control is no longer afforded to these institutions. Take, for instance, the death penalty, a practice that historically symbolized the power of life through death, is quickly disappearing among the many progressive changes due to the shift in the nature of power. Historically, governments that were bestowed sovereign authority, especially one that was invested in one individual or a select few, were often feared because their power was based on their singular choice to cause death. Now, however, we find a situation that is quite opposite of what it was like a few centuries past. Now, we find various governments who utilize their power to enforce and expand life and are deprived of mechanisms such as the death penalty to prevent the discontinuation of life.
     Foucault defines the historical, and biological context, of the sovereign power and its evolutionary reconstruction to spell out his more complex arguments in which he contends that, as a result of this transformation, life itself became a political issue and in the variances of life, sex and gender now possesses a complex role in the subsequent political struggle. His description of this change of the ultimate power of life, one that was once premised on death but is now expediting and enforcing life, the bio-power of the government, was particularly interesting to read and stood out the most over the course of the reading. This précis was, thus, written to focus specifically on that passage of the text and how his argument rings truth in light of the present day manifestations of power.


Angela Jiang said...

Your précis demonstrated an informative close reading on Foucault and triggered my memory of his thought-provoking theories. To say that the essence of power transformed from control over death to control over life is a fine point, but I hoped to see more of a personal argument come into play that extends past a summary of Foucault's work.

One objection that came to mind concerns the nature of the present day American government. Since an early age, we are conditioned to trust that our government is created of the people, for the people and by the people. But even the Declaration of Independence is merely a work of rhetoric; underneath the fantastic moral gestures laid down by our founding fathers and practiced by current politicians, there still exists a general fear of the law. It is common for everyday citizens to skip a heartbeat when they past a police car on the highway, and let's not forget that the US has the highest rate of incarcerated individuals in the world. Has the form of power really shifted fully from a control over life? Or are we merely functioning as always before, only under a red, white, and blue euphemism?

Joshua Park said...


Thanks for commenting! I wasn't sure how to approach the precis, as this is my first rhetoric class, so I based what I wrote in a generalization of how others approached their concentrated texts and the guide on how to write a precis. But yes, I will definitely try to incorporate a more personal argument into my next precis if possible.

As to your objection, that is a very interesting question to think about. I think this "general fear of the law" is not due to the fear of the ultimate power of the government. This general fear of the law is, in my opinion, appropriate to enforce all laws to create a society of order, because without this general fear, no one will follow these laws that the government created to establish such order. So in the case of the driver on the road, it is appropriate for the driver to feel a little uneasy at the sight of the police car ONLY if that driver is breaking the law and going beyond the speed limit. I mean when you think about it, this general fear usually causes people to slow down to within the speed limit (which I've noticed from my own driving is usually very different compared to how they were driving just a few seconds before) and obey the stated law. In the case where the government (or government institutions such as the police) does create a fear for the law that goes beyond the general fear, I think it is not because the government inherently possesses the sovereign power, which you argue contains some semblances to the ancient, pre-evolution form of the power of life, but because of the abuse of the transformed power to forfeit life... if that makes sense. I can clarify if needed~

Allyn Benintendi said...

This was excellent to read. Your language is very well articulated, to the point, and eloquent. It is interesting to explore how the differences between the past and the present have evolved to redefine sovereignty and as you said, "the power to unleash death."

I feel as though your argument, not at all your fault, but merely as a result of Foucault's argument, is very first-world. (I apologize if that is not the politically correct term). While we may be both blessed and cursed to have sovereignty over our life and death, there are still parts of this world that are hindered by their inability to "master life." There are gross contrasts globally. I don't mean to be cliche, but according to a 2013 World Health Organization report, Sierra Leone in Western Africa has an average lifespan of 47.5 years, while the United States and countries alike expect their residents to survive some 80 or so years. History Today hypothesizes that the average life expectancy for a civilian in the Roman Empire was 25-30 years.

While we as global generation have come a long way since then in mastering life, I would argue with Foucault's suggestion that development of technology, techniques, and knowledge have ultimately led to the sustainability of life. While these have undoubtedly led to longer life with advances in medicine and practices, the retention of life is political. Therefore, I may return to your opening sentence and argue that fame, political connections and money are all in fact the authoritative forces that yield access to greater life.

Joshua Park said...

@ Allyn

Thanks for your comment! Yes I guess this precis was intended more to explore the concept, thank you for putting it into words.

Actually you bring up a very good point. As I was reading your comment, I also saw how narrow Foucault's argument is in the global scope of power relations. But in his description of the transformative nature of sovereignty, I don' think he confines the present by the past. As in, I don't think his argument is too narrow to generalize the world in the first-world sense where societies have mastered life, or gained a greater control of life. So his description was not just a description or an analysis of the historical past but instead, I thought it more of as a description of the process. As societies become more advanced, the people within those societies have more opportunities to live life as it is and discover themselves and the universe around them. So, yes, we do have many countries who have not progressed to the standards of the 21st Century, and in those countries the sovereignty is still the ancient form of power. However, once these countries do advance, based on Foucault's argument, so too will their definition of sovereignty advance to the standards that the first-world countries have today.

As to your contention, it is a very interesting proposal but I would have to disagree. Money, fame, and connections are ultimately different forms of power that people use to extend or progress their lives. But for whom? Usually it is either for themselves as individuals or for a select few (close friends, family, etc). Sovereignty in the sense that Foucault argues, I think, is in the national or global sense in which sovereignty reflects the influence on a particular society, and thus, I labeled this the "ultimate" form of power. So although fame and everything may yield access to greater life, that would narrowly define sovereignty to their own individual lives and own individual bodies whereas I am here more focused on the more societal level or perspective. I hope this makes sense.