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The Normative Immanence of Life and Death

in Foucauldian Analysis of Biopolitics

Marcos Nalli

In 2004, Roberto Esposito published a book that very likely projected

him in the international scenario. We are talking about Bos, biopolitica e
filosofia, which, according to its author, appears in a scenario partially
oriented toward the thought going from Nietzsche to Foucault1. The
term partially has to do with the fact that Esposito criticizes the Fou-
cauldian analysis of biopolitics because, according to him, it is dual and
two-folded: biopolitics may either constitute a politics in favor of life
or, on the contrary, turn into a thanatopolitics2. Rather precisely, in the
first chapter of the above-mentioned book (The biopolitics enigma),
Esposito declares that Foucault could not decide himself about this dual
trait of biopolitics when he analyzed it genealogically. The Italian phi-
losopher explicitly declares:

What is the effect of biopolitics? At this point Foucaults response seems

to diverge in directions that involve two other notions that are implicated from
the outset in the concept of bos, but which are situated on the extremes of
its semantic extension: these are subjetivization and death. With respect to life,
both constitute more than two possibilities. They are at the same time lifes form
and its background, origin, and destination; in each case, however, according to
divergence that seems not to admit any mediation; it is either one or the other.
Either biopolitics produces subjectivity or it produces death. Either it makes the
subject its own object or it decisively objectifies it. Either it is a politics of life or
a politics over life3.

R. Esposito, A democracia, no sentido clssico, acabou entrevista a Antonio Guerreiro, in
Jornal Expresso, Suplemento Actual, 19 June 2010, p. 47.
Ibidem, p. 48. See also R. Esposito, Bos: biopolitica e filosofia, Einaudi, Torino 2004,
pp. 115-157 (English translation: Bios: biopolitics and philosophy, University of Minnesota
Press, Minneapolis 2008, pp. 110-145).
Ibidem, p. 25 (ET: pp. 31-32).

materiali foucaultiani, a. III, n. 5-6, gennaio-dicembre 2014, pp. 197-218.

198 Marcos Nalli

Therefore, according to Esposito, no matter how radical and innova-

tive were the Foucauldian analyses on nature and on the ways of exerting
biopolitics, they could not solve its enigma. Espositos greatest argument
is that the biopolitics enigma consists of the undeniable fact that it engen-
ders and produces life which, sometimes, according to Esposito him-
self, can semantically correspond to subjetivization , but simultaneously
produces death. In the Italian philosophers point of view, Foucauldian
limitations lie in the contemplation of this double feature of biopolitics in
antithetical and thus contradictory terms either life or death, either subje-
tivization or subjection. According to Espositos conviction, the solution
to this problem is based on what he called immunization paradigm: just
like the immune system of an organism, political immunization is a nega-
tive protection of life4. Esposito therefore believes that the only way to
escape from what he called biopolitics enigma is to dissolve or, at least,
to neutralize the relationship between life and death, proving that it is
not dual and antithetical; rather there would be a relation of immanence
between them.

This means that the negation does not take the form of the violent subordi-
nation that power imposes on live from the outside, but rather is the intrinsically
antinomic mode by which life preserves itself through power. From this perspec-
tive, we can say that immunization is a negative [form] of the protection of life5.

Is Esposito right in his accusation? Is the interpretation of Foucaults

biopolitics really dual and therefore contradictory since its aim is to
produce and promote life and subjectivitation, but at the same time it gen-
erates death and desubjectivation? Is it true that Foucault does not eluci-
date the biopolitics enigma as a result of the difficulty of telling biopower
from biopolitics? Against Espositos criticism, our hypothesis is that the
interpretation of Foucaults biopolitics is not dual and contradictory, given
that it presents a relationship of normative immanence between life and
death. That does not mean that we are trying to show that Esposito is
wrong in his interpretation of biopolitics. That is why we will not seek to
refute his arguments. Our purpose is more undemanding: it is just to show
that there is a relationship between life and death in Foucaults analytics of

Ibidem, p. XIII (ET: p. 9).
Ibidem, p. 42 (ET: p. 46).
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 199

biopolitics that allows us to interpret it in a way that is different from the

one advocated by Esposito. Therefore, our aim is to provide an analytical
interpretation of Foucault in which the enigma of biopolitics in the
words used by the Italian philosopher resolves itself in satisfactory man-
ner. We will seek to briefly present the main aspects of Foucaults geneal-
ogy of biopolitics and then we will examine how the French philosopher
interprets the biopolitics enigma in order to confirm our hypothesis.

Foucaults Analysis on Biopolitics

The two main texts where Foucault presents his analysis on biopower
and biopolitics are the latest chapter of La volont de savoir (1976), and
Lecture on March 17, 1976, which closes his course, Il faut dfendre la
socit. The circumstances under which both texts were written the first
as a book and the second as a class are virtually the same. He starts the
course delivered by him during the 1976 school year with the intention
of giving up his investigations, which had been focusing too much on
repression6, discipline, and what he called the how of power against
Surveiller et punir (1975)7. He intended to introduce a new approach that,
through a careful analysis of the war of races8, would culminate in the
presentation of another kind of power relations the birth of biopower9.
La volont de savoir, in turn, would only be published in December of that
year10 within that new framework of research.
It is starting from the lecture delivered on March 17, 1976, that
Foucault seeks to depict the concept of biopower in a more system-
atically way. Whereas one witnesses during the late seventeenth century
and until the eighteenth century the setting up of disciplinary power,
it is possible to spot during the second half of the eighteenth century,
among these disperse technologies that discipline the individuals body,
the establishment of another technology of power that does not exclude

M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit. Cours au Collge de France. 1975-1976, Seuil/
Gallimard, Paris 1997, p. 36.
Ibidem, p. 21.
Ibidem, p. 51.
Ibidem, pp. 213-235.
D. Defert, Chronologie, in M. Foucault, Dits et crits, Gallimard, Paris 1994, t. I, p. 49.
200 Marcos Nalli

disciplinary authority, but rather integrates, inlays, modifies, and uses it

attaching itself into society on another level and with another target.
According to Foucault, while discipline reaches and traverses the indi-
viduals body, this new power takes man as a living being and as a spe-
cies, that is affected by overall processes characteristic of birth, death,
production, illness, and so on11.
Foucault is talking here about biopolitics. Its target is something that
was not considered either by law or discipline; rather, its aim is the popula-
tion (not to be confused either with the individual or society): Biopolitics
deals with the population, but population as a political issue, as a scientific
and political issue at the same time, as a biological problem and as a prob-
lem of power12. This assumption considers the random phenomena that
affects population in its environment (the city), which is artificial by its
very nature13, although it can be determined by statistical strategies, hence
designing preventive safety measures that is able to regulate peoples lives.
For that reason, Foucault interpreted biopolitics as a reversal of the prin-
ciple of sovereignty: if sovereignty is the power that exercised over the
right to kill and let live, along with biopolitics

it is less and less the right to die and increasingly the right of interference to
make living, and in the way of living, in lifes manner of being, from the moment
that power therefore intervenes, above all at that level, so as to increase life, to
control its events, its contingencies, its shortcomings; from that point on, death,
as the end of life, is obviously the term, the limit, the edge of power14.

As a result, biopolitics, as a regulatory technology of life, would aim

at a kind of social homeostasis, since it no longer addresses the individual
as the disciplinary technology used to do. With liberalism15 as a generic

M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 216.
Ibidem, p. 219; see also M. Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au Collge de
France. 1978-1979, Seuil/Gallimard, Paris 2004, p. 323.
M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 218.
Ibidem, p. 221.
I am aware of the importance of the latest discussion about Foucaults
interpretation of liberalism and its relevance to understand some features of biopolitics.
However, the pertinence of this correspondence focus on the wider problem of liberal
governmental reason. My concern is to examine just the relation of immanence between
life and death in the practice and dynamics of biopolitics, what does not necessarily leads
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 201

framework of governmental reason, biopolitics rather aims at population

in its collective biological essence16. Therefore, the two technologies, the
two kinds of power spotted by Foucault discipline and biopolitics are
not equivalent, but at the same time do not clash with each other; rather,
they coexist and interpenetrate each other although not in the same way.
Hence, because of them, life has become societies political goal par excel-
lence since the nineteenth century:

To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century is to say
that it has succeeded in covering the whole surface that lies between the organic
and the biological, between body and population, thanks to the play of technolo-
gies of discipline on the one hand and technologies of regulation on the other17.

Foucault resumes the discussion in the first volume of his Histoire de

la sexualit, La volont de savoir, no longer relating it to the global theme of
war of races and of State racism, but to the sexuality device. His explana-
tion in the last chapter completes his class on March 17, 1976: if death
has become the extreme boundary of power, that is not due to humanitar-
ian motivations and feelings, but as the result of the reason of being of
power and the logics of its exercise, that has made the use of the death
penalty increasingly difficult18. From the seventeenth century on, the new
power relations aims at life; and biopolitics exerts them on the species-

to the examination of the liberal framework. Although Foucault considered liberalism

as the background of his 1978-1979 classes, there is no explicit mention to this idea in
his earlier lessons. This fact suggests that, although the articulation between biopolitics
and liberalism is very important even to understand the inversion of the sovereignty
principle as an internal limitation to the governmental reason of the State by means of
another kind of governmental resources , it is possible to conceive that biopolitical
strategies are not necessarily a direct result nor an inward trait of the liberal regime. See
V. Lemm and M. Vatter (eds.), The Government of Life. Foucault, Biopolitics and Neoliberalism,
Fordham University Press, New York 2014; T. Lemke, Os riscos da segurana: Liberalismo,
biopoltica e medo, in S. Vaccaro and N. Avelino (eds.), Governamentalidade e segurana,
Intermeios, So Paulo 2014, pp. 105-127; S. Castro-Gomez, Hitoria de la Gubernamentalidad,
Siglo del Hombre Editores/Universidad Santo Toms, Bogot 2010; and C. Candiotto, A
governamentalidade poltica no pensamento de Foucault, in Filosofia Unisinos, vol. 11 (2010),
no. 1, pp. 33-43.
M. Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, pp. 24 and 323.
M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 225.
M. Foucault, Histoire de la sexualit I. La volont de savoir, Gallimard, Paris 1976, p. 181.
202 Marcos Nalli

body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as a basis
of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of
health, life expectancy and mortality, with all the conditions that can cause
these to vary19.
While since the beginning of the seventeenth century a new type of
power relationships through discipline begins to appear, it is the dawn of
the technologies of regulation in the eighteenth century that brings about
the climax of the historical event of biopower, whose discipline and regu-
lation shaped the two directions of the relations of force, one individual-
izing and other specifying, one anatomical and another biological, all of
them converging to the same purpose: life. Human life as a political pur-
pose, human life as a political fact: For millennia, 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 question20.
Based on the central thesis according to which biopolitics is as an or-
ganized set of political, institutional, and governmental strategies devoted
to the preservation of human life, both texts follow separate paths, but
in mutual interconnection: Il faut dfendre la socit focuses on the establish-
ment of the modern State racism, while La volont de savoir turns its at-
tention towards the device of sexuality. In the first one, Foucault defines
racism as the means by which a rupture is inserted into the biological con-
tinuum of the human species, fragmenting it and introducing a counterbal-
ance regarding races. Additionally, derived from this fragmentation there
has been an introduction of a kind of relationship that internalizes war in
the social environment: a war between one race and another, so that it al-
lows a biopolitical assimilation of death, producing death as an assurance
of life, according to a strictly biological point of view:

The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that
his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race,
of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will
make life in general healthier: healthier and purer21.

Ibidem, p. 183.
Ibidem, p. 188.
M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 228.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 203

Indeed, the power of bringing about death or of leaving someone to

his own devices when he is no longer biopolitically protected, but bared22,
operates as a kind of biological protection for the population as a species:

In other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results

not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological
threat and the improvement of the species or race. There is a direct connection
between the two. In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that
makes killing acceptable23.

From an extreme boundary of power, death or rather the possibil-

ity of killing someone regarded as racially inferior or dangerous is inte-
grated in the field of political action as a radical way of defending the lives
of those deemed worthy of defense and encouragement. This defense of
life by means of death is based on a system of normalization supported
by the Darwinian evolutionary model24, that is, a system of bio-regulation
of the State25. More than simply bared, this life that might be waived
life whose forced death becomes an inevitable fate is also desirable for
modern society as a whole to the point of being politically and techni-
cally implemented. It is a death perfectly assimilated to the governmental
system and to the management of the collective population. Thus, this
disposability of life is integrated and infused in the social structure: the
issue of death is no longer an external and extreme limit to the political
modern regime; rather, it becomes one of its effects and functions in the
biopolitical practices.
In La volont de savoir, Foucault focuses on presenting what he called
the device of sexuality26. Again, he insists on the idea that sex is in the
crossroads between body and population, since it is the element that
articulates the axes of the technologies of regulation and disciplinary tech-
nologies in a way that they coexist as mutually imbricated27. It is accord-
ing to this biopolitical characteristic of sex as a target and an object that

G. Agamben, Homo sacer, Seuil, Paris 1997.
M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 228. See also J. Bernauer, Par-del vie et mort:
Foucault et lthique aprs Auschwitz, in Michel Foucault philosophe, Seuil, Paris 1989, p. 320.
M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, pp. 229 and 233.
Ibidem, p. 223.
M. Foucault, La volont de savoir, pp. 99-173.
Ibidem, pp. 191ss. See also M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 224.
204 Marcos Nalli

power is exerted by means of discipline and regulations not as a threat,

but as life management28. Sex appears as a condensation par excellence of
life in the individuals bodies (which do not touch each other/themselves
in search of sensations and pleasures, but rather in search of legitimate
and natural desire) and also of life in the social body (aiming at the de-
fense of blood, purity, and racial aristogenesis) whose only truth is said
through subtle maneuvers and elusions29.
Sex was the point of contact in which disciplinary power and bio-
power joined together and also the aspect that led to this general way of
power over life. On the one hand, biopower took the body as a trainable
machine whose skills and forces can be enhanced; on the other hand, it
acted on the species body considering it a support for biological processes
such as proliferation, lifespan, birth and death. It is through sex that the
single body and the population are brought together as targets of a power
that has life as its aim and purpose30. Biopower is thus an inducement
and an investment on life31. At least since the eighteenth century, life has
become a highly esteemed subject to political techniques and, as stated
by Foucault32, death has begun to no longer lash directly on life. How-
ever, Foucault points out how the principle of sovereignty (the right of
death) has been reversed: it became no longer a signal of the sovereign
power, but rather a displaced force or, at least, a force supported by the
demands of a power that manages life33. Foucault also highlights that at
least since the nineteenth century we have been watching the astounding
power of killing in the form of holocausts and genocides, but in a new
way: as supplement to a power that is positively exerted over life. There-
fore Foucault declares:

The atomic situation is now at the end point of this process: the power to
expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an
individuals continued existence. The principle: being able to kill in order to live
that supported the tactics of fighting has become a principle of strategy between
States; but the existence under consideration is no longer legal, regarding sover-

M. Foucault, La volont de savoir, p. 193.
Ibidem, p. 76.
Ibidem, p. 193.
Ibidem, p. 183.
Ibidem, p. 187.
Ibidem, p. 179.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 205

eignty, but biological, concerning a population. If genocide is, indeed, the dream
of the modern powers, this is not because of a return of the right to kill; it is
instead because power is now situated and exercised at the level of life, species,
race, and the large-scale phenomena of population34.

Foucaults Notions of Life and Normalization

Here is certainly one of the main points of the analysis and critique
presented by Esposito against Foucault: he says that Foucaults is not
able to offer an analysis that could explain how biopolitics may produce
a thanatopolitics. However, in our point of view, it is not Foucault who is
attached to this political rupture between life and death, but it is Espositos
interpretation that intensifies this trait of contradiction. Esposito takes the
terms life and death as diametrically opposed so that he can only in-
terpret them antithetically. This idea is always tied to an antithesis between
the sovereign power and biopolitics through which, as said by Esposito,
Foucault could not determine the historical and genealogical terms of
that tension: whether they were in continuity a hypothesis according
to which Foucault would have to admit the genocide as constitutive of
the paradigm of modernity in the same terms of Agambens or they
required a break and a difference hence biopolitics would be continually
invalidated whenever death stood in the way of the life cycle35.
Esposito seems to be right about the difficulty of the historical ar-
ticulation between sovereign power and biopower proposed by Foucault.
However, we do not think that is he totally right when he calls upon it for
his criticism of the interpretation of Foucauldian biopolitics. At least in
his two most important books, Surveiller et punir (1975) and La volont de
savoir (1976), as well in the courses of this period of his theoretical work,
Foucault highlighted for several times how came to be the transition from
sovereign power to biopolitics. Sovereign power is characterized by a the-
atrical ritualization of torture that allows no possibilities of doubt about
how it deals with life and death. Biopolitics reveals other modalities of
action over the individuals and the population that are strategically more
effective and insidious. It works through disciplinarization and regulatory

M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 180 (emphasis added).
R. Esposito, Bos: biopolitica e filosofia, p. 38.
206 Marcos Nalli

actions that have as focus and target the living body and the species life of
a populational group.
What is very hard to determine in the historical and genealogical nar-
ratives produced by Foucault at that time are the reasons that would have
led to this shift. However, in Naissance de la biopolitique Foucault reveals
the hypothesis that led him to this inversion: it happened because of the
necessity to create internal mechanisms that would limit the Police State in
its internal governmental politics. This is the Foucauldian analysis of the
rise of liberalism as a way to contend the government power of the State
and as a new form of governing. Therefore, it is possible to presume that
the inversion of the sovereignty principle took its course mainly because
of the limitation and contention of the sovereign power rooted in the
State and in its governmental reason.
At any rate, if we assume consistently with Foucaults ideas that biopol-
itics performs a reversal of political primacy between life and death, it
is necessary to think about how Foucault articulates these two terms; after
all, inversion does not necessarily imply replacement or removal, as Es-
positos interpretation seems to entail. Some clues have already been given
in the final chapter of La volont de savoir: life is the object and purpose of
a whole array of actions and strategies; also, life is in some respects one
of the effects of biopolitics, what is acknowledged by Esposito himself.
The answer to the challenge presented by this articulation can be found
in another notion, which is highly prized by Foucault; namely, that of
standardization, especially considering the utmost challenge that racism
inflicts upon the biopolitical governments of modern societies36.
But what is a normalizing society? Foucault defines it explicitly in Il
faut dfendre la socit37: it is a society where discipline and regulation are
organized around norms, making possible a set of planned actions that
aims to society as a whole from a fundamental unifying exponent, which
is life taken as its purpose, its object, and its effect. At any rate, it is clear
that norm prevails in the whole set of forces and technological relations
that regulates social life. A hegemony of the norm is not therein war-
ranted; rather, a situation of constant tension remains between the forces
of normalization and the events of resistance, questioning, and confron-
tation that disarticulate or at least prevent the full success of regulatory

M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 228.
Ibidem, p. 225.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 207

and disciplinary strategies38. The question still persists: what characterizes

a normalizing society? Firstly, according to Foucault, norm should not
be confused with law, which is a legislating system based on the principle
of equalitarian citizenship. This does not mean that law and norm do
not coexist. On the contrary, as Foucault himself endeavored to demon-
strate in Surveiller et punir39, modern society is distinguished precisely by a
relationship between law and norm where law is compelled, explained,
justified, and determined in line with a normative system40, at first taken
as disciplinary41.
Foucault then promptly generalizes his interpretation of norm sepa-
rating it from the one directly linked to disciplinary power, noticeably indi-
vidualistic, in order to apply it also to the regulatory and biopolitical strat-
egies of modern society. In Les anormaux, Foucault devoted himself to
describe norm as a bearer and a vector of power by which it qualifies and
corrects itself, thereby establishing the connection to a positive technique
of intervention and transformation, to a sort of normative power42. As
always, Foucault remains sustaining the positivity of power, its function
and its major characteristic, from which its other traits stem, coalescing
with them at the same time. Power is productive, it produces knowledge
and regimens of truth43; it produces individualities, either through the
compliance of bodies, or through the feasibility statistically established,
and biologically and medically regulated44.
This certainly does not explain how Foucault conceives of the no-
tions of life and norm in his genealogical analysis of biopolitics. Pierre
Macherey give us clues to better understand them; he based himself on
the concepts of norm and tried to analyze both Canguilhems and Fou-
caults philosophical ideas in a series of studies. In an article entitled De
Canguilhem Canguilhem en passant par Foucault, Macherey states that the

E. Castro, El vocabulario de Michel Foucault, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes,
Bernal 2004, p. 250.
M. Foucault, Surveiller et punir, Gallimard, Paris 1975, p. 216.
See also M. Foucault, Scurit, territoire, population. Cours au Collge de France. 1977-
1978, Seuil/Gallimard, Paris 2004, p. 58.
M. Foucault, Surveiller et punir, pp. 259ss.
M. Foucault, Les anormaux. Cours au Collge de France. 1974-1975, Seuil/Gallimard,
Paris 1999, p. 46.
M. Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique, p. 22.
M. Foucault, Surveiller et punir, p. 227.
208 Marcos Nalli

idea of norm should be denaturalized and deprived of all its alleged

objectivity, thus revealing that, according to Foucault, norm must be un-
derstood in dynamic terms of a normativity: for Foucault, this normativity
is set by socio-political arrangements45. For this reason, even in Les anor-
maux, Foucault refers to norm as a political concept: The norm is not at
all defined as a natural law but rather by the exacting and coercive role it
can perform in the domains in which it is applied46.
Hence, what one can infer from the political connotation of norm in
Foucaults perspective it is that the vital does not constitute the starting
point for the establishment of norm; rather, its foundation is the so-
cial. What changes and regulates life as a pursuable value are the coercive
forces of the norm role, its enforcement and implementation as prescrip-
tion. Life only becomes an aim to be well protected and nurtured when,
through norm, it is turned into a value, into a virtue, into a referential prin-
ciple. According to Macherey, the issue that worried Foucault the most
was to understand how the action of norms in human life determines the
kind of society they belong to as subjects47.
Norms are productive by definition. They produce life and subjectivi-
ties. As said by Foucault48, being a subject means to belong to the present
and, therefore, being subjected to norm. But in this case subjected does
not exactly mean being inhibited, constrained, forced by the norms, since
they are not the same as laws, which are universalizable and general pre-
cepts that coerce individuals and their behavior or more generally, their
thoughts. As opposed to the coercion by laws, which always derives from
an external factor, the coercive power of the norm towards the subject
is not defined by a principle of exteriority. The norm is immanent to the
subject, and its coercive force toward the subject comes from within49.
This means that there is a kind of coexistence and interdependence be-
tween the norm and the subject, between norm and life. That is why one
can comprehend that norm does not limit the individuals reality; rather,
norm amplifies it. Because of the relation of immanence between norm

P. Macherey, De Canguilhem Canguilhem en passant par Foucault, in Georges Canguilhem:
philosophe, historien des sciences, Albin Michel, Paris 1993, pp. 288 and 292-293.
M. Foucault, Les anormaux, p. 46.
P. Macherey, Pour une histoire naturelle des normes, in Michel Foucault philosophe, p. 203.
M. Foucault, Quest-ce que les Lumires?, in Dits et crits, t. IV, p. 680.
P. Macherey, Pour une histoire naturelle des normes, p. 215.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 209

and life, we can better understand its productive trait, since what deter-
mines and establishes norm is the regularity of its actions on life.
Therefore, norm is not equal to a rule or a law, but to a process which
is historically and socially situated; a process that is different from a mere
accident or deviation because of its steadiness and regularity. More than
that, norms are similar to the regularities of power relationships hence
implying even the possibility of exerting counterpowers and resistance.
Unlike law and its pretension to universality, norm is inherently change-
able, because it only occurs in the effectiveness of its action and only
grasps it through the regularity of the effects caused by it.
If the relationship between life and norm, i.e. between subjectivity
and norm, is a mutual relation of immanence, then the idea that norm as
a political force produces life and subjectivity implies that life and subjec-
tivity are as dynamic and flexible as norm. This dynamism and this flex-
ibility manifest themselves in the form of diversity and differentiations of
the subject and of the living beings that we all are. However, due to their
reciprocity, life and subjectivity compel normalization apparatus and the
statistically normal curves to modulate themselves, to adapt themselves
to the occurrences of differentiation and deviations from these curves.
Consequently, it is possible to assert that norms precede life and subjec-
tivity in its constraint over them, since the multiplicities of forms that life
and subjectivity take on as experiences can be arranged, classified, hierar-
chized, and eventually valued on the basis of a regulatory pattern previ-
ously established. This is what Foucault, referring to the disciplines, called
normation, where people, their behaviors, their gestures in a word,
their whole lives in their very little details are conformed to standards
taken as value, a value built up pursuing a determined result50.
Foucault probably used the above-mentioned expression to describe
the devices of normalization which perform the inversion of the rela-
tionship between normality and norm. By means of this inversion, the
standard norm is opposed to differentiations and variations in order to
enable a more detailed analysis of the phenomena; in this analysis, the dif-
ferential individualities are acknowledge and, at the same time, considered
along one and same line, without ruptures, while simultaneously dismem-
bering the different normalities in relation one to another51. As a result,

M. Foucault, Scurit, territoire, population, p. 59.
Ibidem, p. 64.
210 Marcos Nalli

the differential individualities are taken within a statistical frame as dif-

ferential normalities which, considered according to their differentiations
within an identical statistical representation of normality, can be techni-
cally operated to minimize the harmful and negative aspects of some sort
of normality, forcing it to get close to those reckoned favorable. This is
the ultimate goal of biopolitics taken as a complex set of normative and
regulatory strategies through which lives and subjectivities are managed
and supported those lives that, if not deemed excellent and ideal, at least
are considered more favorable for the social group: The norm lies within
the differential normalities. The normal is first; the norm is deduced from
it; the norm is fixed and performs its operational role from the study of
normalities. Therefore, I would say that it is no more a normation but,
strictly speaking, a normalization52.
These differential normalities points to what Canguilhem means with
the idea that life is the result of differential responses and procedures that
several organisms produce and create in the face of threats and challenges
that environment imposes on them. These responses are self-regulatory
and self-creators53. Foucault therefore shares this same general conception
of life, but in a different way: he seeks to consider it in a more specific
frame regarding strategies and regulations in modern biopolitics. In any
case, based on this conception of life as self-regulating, life becomes itself
value and norm. Therefore, by identifying life and differential normality,
Foucault could claim that life has become no longer an effect and a mere
result of biopolitical strategies, but its own aim and ultimate value. This is
the background in which biopolitics has to be taken as normative. Hence,
one must take biopolitics as a producer of life, since it is by means of this
process of normalizing that the individuals lives (the differential normali-
ties reckoned advantageous within a statistical frame of an analysis of the
population) may be lifted up to a standard norm status, so as to be desired,
intensified, motivated, and ultimately produced. But how to interpret the
apparently paradoxical fact that biopolitical strategies can also incite death
in this biopolitical scenario?

Ibidem, p. 65.
See G. Le Blanc, Canguilhem et les normes, PUF, Paris 1998, pp. 52-56; see also
M. Muhle, Sobre la vitalidad del poder. Uma genealogia de la biopoltica a partir de Foucault y
Canguilhem, in Revista de Cincia Poltica, vol. 29 (2009), no. 1, p. 157.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 211

Death and Biopolitics

Death as a question has always been present one way or another in

Michel Foucaults analytical framework at least since Naissance de la clinique
(1963), text in which Foucault produces an important theoretical inflec-
tion regarding Canguilhem, as he identifies death as the heuristic key to
understand both life mechanism and the morbid process that constrains
any and every life:

It is from the height of death that one can see and analyze organic depen-
dences and pathological sequences. [] The privilege of its intemporality, which
is no doubt as old as the consciousness of its imminence, is turned for the first
time into a technical instrument that provides a grasp on the truth of life and the
nature of illness54.

Although life might be raised to the condition of value and norm, it

is through its contraposition to death, albeit extreme, that one becomes
able to know it and formulate about it all kinds of knowings and speeches.
Looking at a dead body is the key to interpret the positivity of life rather
than looking at an inert body taken as the total negativity of life. This
means that life is now understood as the very processes of differentiation
and susceptibilities that any living creature appeals to in order to survive
and overcome the limitations, threats, and challenges that the environment
imposes on it, even if it has to pay the price of being subject to some
limitations or diseases. Within this frame of thought, death is its more
differentiated depiction55.
In the nineteenth century, the perception of death and its relation
of total and extreme negativity towards life shifted to another concept in
which life and death are understood within a processual continuum. This
allows a trained look on a dying body to reveal the story of its extinguish-
ing life, its reactions and overcomings regarding the etiological frames
until the process of death is triggered in a irrevocably way. Death is no
longer taken as the negative external side of life, but rather as the culmi-
nation of a vital process. If life was raised to the condition of a value,

M. Foucault, Naissance de la clinique, PUF, Paris 1963, pp. 146-147.
Ibidem, p. 176. See also M. Nalli, Foucault: curar os outros e cuidar de si, in D.O. Perez
(ed.), Filsofos e terapeutas em torno da questo da cura, Escuta, So Paulo 2007, pp. 180-182.
212 Marcos Nalli

this is because it is from death as a problem that it can be scientifically

Some years later, already in the context of the efforts for analyzing the
biopolitical relationships, Foucault takes up again this idea in general terms.
He is worried again about the circumstances in which death ceases to be
an end, a refusal, an obstacle to political action and the extreme edge of
power57 in order to become also an object and a political issue concerning
the devices and technologies of power that emerged historically in the late
eighteenth century. The general aim of these devices became man as a spe-
cies affected by collective processes pertaining to life, such as birth, death,
procreation, production, longevity, health, and disease. The concern was
not about a particular individual, but regarded an entire population taken
as endowed with the nature of human species. In the early nineteenth cen-
tury, the concept of human nature was historically introduced because of
an apparent insertion of new privileged biological knowledge. Hence, what
begins to prevail is a notion of population not as a subject of juridical na-
ture that opposes itself to the royal power. Within the framework of the
sovereign power, population was understood as another body; now, within
the framework of biopower, it is taken as a species: It is the entry, in the
field of techniques of power, of a kind of nature58.
Population is finally raised to the condition of biopolitical object par
excellence. The political issue was completely reversed by means of the biol-
ogization of the social body: the matters of management and normalizing
government of populational most characteristic phenomena and determi-
nants freed itself from its juridical-institutional settings (mainly represent-
ed by the State and the sovereign figure) and turned into a more complex
political structure which surpasses but does not necessarily eliminate
the objects, themes, and the classical boundaries of politics. This is why
the life of the population as a species should be also understood as the en-
tire production of knowledge about all the inevitable phenomena of life,
from birth to death. Considering death in this way, Foucault points out
that the biopolitical attention no more lies upon epidemies although that
does not mean that these facts and dangers were ignored; they were rather
considered according to some kind of strategical-functional (or, in some

M. Foucault, Naissance de la clinique, p. 202.
M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 221.
M. Foucault, Scurit, territoire, population, pp. 76-77.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 213

respects, utilitarian) hierarchy. The biopolitical attention is focused now

on diseases that are recurrent and difficult to eradicate, those that can
bring about death and makes casualties a constant, a proper phenomenon
of population59. Consequently, there has been a production of means that
would assimilate the incidence of death, making its feasibility acceptable
within a framework of protection and biopolitical promotion of the life
of the population60.
This is what occurs in vaccination and immunization operations that
evidently aim at the protection of most of the population even aware
of the possibility of post-vaccination adverse effects. Obviously, I am
not assuming that there are no governmental political actions in order
to diminish these paradoxal effects that are manageable, although unwel-
come. It is sufficient to take a look on the Information System of the
National Immunization Program of the Health Ministry and its System of
Post-Vaccination Adverse Effects (EAPV), in Brazil, or on the Manual
of Epidemiological Vigilance of Post-Vaccination Adverse Effects, by the Brazilian
Health Ministry, which emphasizes the word event in order to deny a
casual relation between vaccination and its possible adverse reactions (a
term emphatically denied in this document):

No vaccine is totally free of provoking adverse events, although the risks

of critical complications caused by the immunization from the vaccine calendar
are lower than the ones caused by the diseases that they fight against. Take for
instance polio, whose chance of chronical paralysis in the case of infection by the
savage virus is of 1 for every 250, while in the case of the vaccinal virus it comes
down to 1 for every 3.2 million doses (WHO). Even in the case of reatogenic
vaccines like DTP, the analysis of the comparative risks between the vaccine and
the correspondent diseases clearly shows the benefits of vaccination. A great
concern about the contraindication of vaccines is still required because of the
occurrence of adverse effects. The non-immunized individual is at risk of getting
sick and also represents a risk to the community61.

We can realize that effective actions are stipulated in order to prevent

these cases or, at least, in order to minimize the number of losses. Be-

M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 217.
Ibidem, p. 228.
Ministry of Health (Brazil), Manual de Vigilncia Epidemiolgica de Eventos Adversos
Ps-Vacinao, p. 15.
214 Marcos Nalli

tween 2002 and 2008 the immunization against the yellow fever is one of
the most critical of these situations: 19 occurrences of the disease were
registered in several countries, costing the life of 11 people (5 of them in
Brazil); all of them became sick after taking the first dose of the vaccine.
Governmental statistics reveals one death for every 450 thousand vac-
cine shots as the worst scenario62. Theoretically, these are acceptable losses
and, from a governmental point of view, it is a risk to take a viable and
even justifiable risk if we consider the number of lives saved every year
by means of immunization strategies, although we will never find this ex-
planation so evidently (or cynically) verbalized in any document or official
websites of any government.
Foucault shows how death so ceases to be an external limit, an out-
side of power relations, to become an important issue concerning the
maintenance of regulated and under control series of vital phenomena.
Death has become the vital phenomenon par excellence, since it is a threat to
be avoided; at the same time it is a threat that can also be imposed, lead-
ing to varied political strategies of management and control concerning
whether individuals or populations. It has been by scientifically scrutiniz-
ing population in extreme situations and pushing it towards the limits of
its existence as a biological species (endemics and epidemics, natural and
human-caused disasters, such as famine, scarcity or war) who forged bio-
political strategies of control and governmental measures whose aim was
to firmly avoid those extreme situations of annihilation and death, as well
as any reactions of rebellion and insurrection motivated by the unbearable
threat of death. Therefore, if life becomes a value and a political end, it
is because of its foundation on an entropic relationship with death; and
maybe that is the reason why, besides its intention to promote and protect
life, biopolitics ends up allowing the substance of life to escape, as said
by Didier Fassin63.
This is certainly the most controversial tone of the whole Foucaul-
dian interpretation of biopolitics. However, it is important to highlight
that the polemical tone of those pages in Il faut dfendre la socit is due to
the Foucauldian effort to offer an assertive interpretation of both State

Ibidem, p. 79. See I. Lwy, Vrus, Mosquito e Modernidade. A febre amarela no Brasil entre
cincia e poltica, Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro 2006, pp. 317-379.
D. Fassin, La biopolitique nest pas une politique de la vie, in Sociologie et socits,
vol. 38 (2006), no. 2, p. 36.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 215

racism and, more particularly, of Nazism itself. Through the lens of his
interpretation of biopolitics, Foucault shows that Nazism is not a kind of
excrescence of the history of modern Western societies, which strive to
label themselves as democratic and advocate of human rights. Certainly, it
is by means of a similar strategy that Agamben was able to interpret Wal-
ter Benjamins famous saying, according to which the State of exception
is the rule: so as to exterminate bare life (liable to be killed, but not to be
sacrificed, in Agambens words), there is in modern capitalist societies a
sort of co-substantiality between the juridical-institutional model and the
biopolitical pattern, which allows one to take the state of exception as a
paradigm of the political structures of modern societies64. Or, following
Espositos interpretation, the biopolitical paroxysm produced by Nazism
culminates in a lack of distinction between sovereign power and biopoli-
tics itself, in such a way that in the biopolitical regime, sovereign law isnt
so much the capacity to put to death as it is to mollify life in advance65.
In turn, Foucault also refers to paroxysm. Above all, he declares that
Nazism revealed a complex type of relationship between sovereign power
and biopolitics, identified by him as coextensive or concurrent. But prob-
ably the play between the sovereignty principle and the biopolitical prin-
ciple also occurs in all other States, either socialist or capitalist66. Nazism
was not an extemporaneous incident; again according to Foucault, the
very possibility of the Nazi State to become an assassin State is not given
by its racist trait, which justifies and legitimizes it, but by its own biopo-
litical functioning67. Genocide are justified by racism, but their functional
and technological economy follow the pattern of biopower: it is the bio-
political strategies and relationships that determine how and under what
conditions life can become a normative value a desirable life and, at the
same time, how it settles which deviations and anomalies are undesirable
or even noxious an expendable life.
If all these approaches seem to present the paradoxical framework
of biopolitics whose purpose is to promote life, but ultimately also
produces death , it is because of the immanent relationship between
life and death that is evidenced in an undeniable way as a value for bio-

G. Agamben, Homo sacer, p. 14.
R. Esposito, Bos: biopolitica e filosofia, p. 157 (ET: p. 145), emphasis added.
M. Foucault, Il faut dfendre la socit, p. 232.
Ibidem, p. 228.
216 Marcos Nalli

politics. This paradox always bases itself over a framework of institute or

to-be-instituted knowledge. See for example the Brazilian eugenics from
the early twentieth century, which promoted healthiness contests and cre-
ated the neighborhood of Higienpolis, in So Paulo. Or lets take France,
where thousands of people who suffered from mental illness were aban-
doned to die of starvation, cold and all kinds of diseases during World
War II what has become known as soft extermination, something
that had its equivalent in Brazil around the first half of the twentieth cen-
tury when approximately 60 thousand people died in the countrys largest
asylum, in Barbacena, Minas Gerais68. There are of course some recent
examples of these occurrences, like the African outburst of Ebola that
spread fear and led to preventive or rather immunitarian actions69. In
this case, it was constituted a kind of biological citizenship that reveals
how biopolitical management incites biologically grounded inequalities (in
terms of healthiness). Justified by what is considered to be a humanitar-
ian reason70 these biological distinctions have demanded actions of con-
tention, eradication, and normalization71 in which some government had

See M. Nalli, Antropologia e racismo no discurso eugnico de Renato Kehl, in Teoria &
Pesquisa, no. 47 (2005), pp. 119-156, and Reflexes sobe o eugenismo francesa: Alexis Carrel,
in M.L. Boarini (ed.), Raa, higiene social e nao forte: mitos de uma poca, EDUEM, Maring
2011, pp. 21-48. See also D. Arbex, Holocausto Brasileiro, Gerao Editorial, So Paulo
2013; I. Michine, LExterminatio n douce en France, in Le Patriote Rsistant, September
1998 (<>); A. Pichot, La socit pure. De
Darwin Hitler, Flammarion, Paris 2000.
See R. Esposito, Immunitas. Protezione e negazione della vita, Einaudi, Torino 2002;
A. Brossat, La dmocratie immunitaire, La Dispute, Paris 2003; M. Nalli, Communitas/Immunitas:
a releitura de Roberto Esposito da biopoltica, in Aurora, vol. 25 (2013), no. 37, pp. 79-105.
R. Esposito, Immunitas, p. 44. See also D. Fassin, Humanitarian Reason. A Moral
History of the Present, University of California Press, Berkeley 2012.
See D. Fassin, When Bodies Remember. Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa,
University of California Press, Berkeley 2007, p. 268: The affirmation that all lives have
the same value on which, taking off from very different premises, both the activists
seeking to save those who can be saved and the government trying to defend an ideal
of social justice may agree is belied by the biological evidence of premature deaths
(young adults and their children as AIDS victims, but also as victims of other illnesses,
homicides, and accidents); it is also contradicted by the political evidence of lives that
have never really counted (for a long time, even their deaths went unrecorded under the
apartheid regime). The inequality of lives, biological and political, local and global, is
perhaps the greatest violence with which anthropologists are confronted in the field, as
they daily prove the truly existential and vital distance that separates them from the men
and women whose histories and lives they encounter.
The Normative Immanence of Life and Death 217

to move an enormous apparatus in order to save a single of its citizens

life regardless of the demand of saving an entire village that lies in the
countries where Ebola arouse.
Therefore, there are basically two ways to biopolitically incite and pro-
duce death: (a) By means of a non-sacrificial strategy through which indi-
viduals whose life had been deemed harmful, thereby liable to be discard-
ed such as the lives of the French mentally ill in the Vichy government
which were abandoned to their own fate in such a way that thousands
desperately died of hunger; others, under the same condition committed
suicide (Walter Benjamin for instance); there had been also those deaths
administratively acceptable in the face of a statistically salutary frame
aiming at the protection of the majority of the population, as it happens
in vaccination campaigns. (b) By way of clear and direct genocidal strate-
gies, as happened in the concentration camps or in the Gulags, which in-
troduced techniques of death either through forced work or in gas cham-
bers. But to what degree State murder performed by several states in the
USA supported by capital punishment law belongs to a different political
economy? Is it not also a way of eliminating a pernicious life in order to
safeguard the lives of the qualitatively most desirable and good ones?
For sure, the death of a large number of people by direct means or
by simply relinquishing them is loathsome; but this is actually not differ-
ent at all from a single life that is eliminated because its fortuitous death is
considered statistically acceptable, since the purpose that had led this life
to death is the same: the protection of most of the species-populations
lives and health. It is all a matter of the economy and the functional tech-
nology of biopolitics. In these situations, no scandal or shame seems to
mess with our good conscience... And, therefore, neglect and indifference
themselves may be sufficiently and dreadfully deadly72.

Marcos Nalli
Universidade Estadual de Londrina

This article is the result of a Research Project supported by the National Council
for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq, Brazil) and the Foundation
Araucaria of the State of Paran, Brazil. My thanks to Gabriel Pinezi and Tiaraju Dal
Pozzo for their readings and suggestions. This essay was translated from Portuguese by
Simone Vlio and Gabriel Pinezi.
218 Marcos Nalli

The Normative Immanence of Life and Death in Foucauldian Analysis of Biopolitics

According to Roberto Esposito, the Foucauldian interpretation is divided and

dual, and it does not solve what he calls the biopolitics enigma, that is to say:
how can biopolitics, which aims at protecting and promoting life, lead also to
death? In this article I demonstrate that biopolitics is not paradoxical as it may
seem, since it is characterized by relations of reciprocal immanence between bi-
opolitics and life, on account of the way it rules the relations between norm and
normality. Thus, life is the ultimate object and aim of biopolitics: transformed
into a value, life turns itself into norm, making it possible to take actions and
strategies of broad range even in a paradoxical way. Taking this scenario of re-
ciprocal immanence, death may be understood as a phenomenon innate to life; in
the same manner, its direct or indirect occurrence may be taken as a consequence
inherent to lifes biopolitical exercise.

Keywords: Foucault, Esposito, Canguilhem, Biopolitics, Life, Death, Norm.