The Biological Threshold of Modern Politics: Nietzsche, Foucault and the Question of Animal Life By Vanessa Lemm Forthcoming in Nietzsche, Power and Politics: Nietzsche’s Legacy as a Political Thinker, Herman W. Siemens and Vasti Rodt (eds), Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008/9. Introduction While it has been widely accepted that Foucault’s notions of sovereign and disciplinary power have theirconceptual origin in Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, the relation between Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and Nietzsche’s political thought has only recently entered the scholarly debate1. In this essay I approach Foucault’s notion of biopolitics through Nietzsche’s treatment of the question of animal life2. Nietzsche rediscovers the centrality of animal life to the self-understanding of the humanbeing, its culture and its politics. This essay examines how this recovery of animality in Nietzsche’s philosophy contributes to an understanding of what Foucault calls the ‘biological threshold of modernity’ (Foucault 1990 142). I begin by introducing Foucault’s notion of biopolitics in order to then present the contemporary discussion of Nietzsche’s philosophy from the perspective of biopolitics. Isuggest that Nietzsche provides a way to understand the relationship between animality and humanity which can be given a new and productive interpretation by seeing it as developing an affirmative biopolitics3. Continuing my argument, I propose that an affirmative biopolitics sees in the continuity between human and animal life a source of resistance to the project of dominating and controllinglife-processes. Whereas the project of dominating and controlling life-processes is based on the division of life into opposing
forms of species life, the affirmative biopolitics I lay out subverts such a division and replaces it with the idea of cultivating a plurality of singular forms of animal life. On my hypothesis, Nietzsche’s vision of a future ‘great politics’ provides an exampleof how cultivation and care for animal life has the potential to overcome the biopolitical domination of life.
Biopolitics: a New Paradigm of Political Power. Foucault distinguishes among three different senses of the term biopolitics4. In The History of Sexuality, he uses the term ‘biopolitics’ primarily to define a turning point in the history of Western political thought which manifestsitself as a radical transformation of the traditional concept of sovereign power beginning in the seventeenth century. In his lectures on One Must Defend Society, he uses the term biopolitics to speak of technologies and discourses that play a central role in the emergence of modern racism. Lastly, in his lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics and on Security, Territory, Population, he uses the term todescribe the kind of political rationality at stake in the liberal mode of governmentality. These different uses of the term biopolitics overlap insofar as they all describe the historical discontinuity through which, as Foucault says,
for the first time in history, no doubt, biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate thatonly emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention (Foucault 1990 142).
The Foucaultian idea that biological existence is ‘reflected’ in political existence should not be confused with the view that biopolitics means understanding the state as an organism or with the view thatbiopolitics simply designates the entrance of issues
concerning biological life into the sphere of political discussion and decision-making5. Both views presuppose an external and hierarchical relationship between life and politics6. In contrast, Foucault holds that biopolitics constitutes a transformation in the nature of political power itself: ‘For millennia, man remained what he was for...