On the origins of biopolitics

From an essay on the Critical Animal blog there is a passage on the origins of the term biopolitics and the circumstances in which it was used. As is pointed out, it was not original with Foucault, but with Rudolf Kjellén (who is also often credited with the term geopolitics). (The essay is rather ornately written in that post-postmodern style but interesting nonetheless as a justification for vegetarianism and veganism.)

As a “pescy” myself I operate on two simple principles, that eating meat is not sustainable (resource and environmentally) and second that there are just too many other ways of eating now to justify it–and this includes the modern production techniques of mass-produced animal farming which certainly involves cruelty.

Anyway, back to the essay:

biopolitics has come to be one of those words that seems to have lost specific meaning through a proliferation of often contradictory use, much like the words modernity and postmodernity. And yet, I, and it seems those on this panel, insist upon this word, and the thought of this word. So let us take a moment to hear this word, biopolitical.
Often accredited to Foucault, the word biopolitics was actually coined by the Swede, Rudolf Kjellén, in his 1916 book The State as Form of Life (Staten som Lifsform).[7] This is the same man that coined the term geopolitics. Kjellén’s was one of the more prominent thinkers of a group of German language political theorists; including Friedrich Ratzel, Karl Haushofer, Karl Binding, Eberhard Dennert, and Edward Hahn. What ties these theorists together is first a belief in the organicist nature of the state (the state was a living entity for these thinkers) and the belief in lebensraum (living space). The term lebensraum, originally coined by biologist would get one of its most sustained treatments under Ratzel, who argued that the German people (the Volk) needed a living space. To acquire this living space the German state needed to be responsible for expansion, and also for cutting away the parasitic parts inside the state. Lebensraum is cited by Hitler directly in Mein Kampf, and forms the basis of much of National Socialism. Within this notion of Lebensraum we see the connection between Nazi’s imperial ambition tied to its internal fascisms. Indeed, Lebensraum is a borderline concept, bringing inside and outside into a zone of indetermination. Kjellén radicalizes all of this, bringing geopolitics as being on the same level and totally co-terminus with ethnopolitics. One cannot have a geopolitical vision that is not simultaneously a vision of a particular people.

5 Responses

  1. Roberto Esposito’s _Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy_ has a helpful discussion of the origins of the term biopolitics in the chapter “The Enigma of Biopolitics.” He situates Foucault and Agamben in a lineage that includes Rodolph Kjellen, Jakob von Uexkull, Aaron Starobinski, and Edgar Morin. A very interesting discussion for those interested in theories of biopolitics…

  2. Interestingly, the website http://www.generation-online.org/c/cbiopolitics.htm points to an even earlier example of the use of the term ‘biopolitics’ in a very short article by G.W. Harris in a British publication The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, and Art, 1911, 10(9), p. 197. In this article, Harris expressed ideas of biopolitical purification of the nation as a way to address ‘social degeneracy’. His ideas, however shocking, are familiar, as some of them were implemented. Harris used the term ‘bio-politics’ to refer to “a policy which should consider two aspects of the nation : in the first place, the increase of population and competition; in the second place, the individual attributes of the men who are available for filling places of responsibility in the State”. In his view, all countries should address the population growth and, in doing so, they should pay particular attention to the “places and classes in which increase is most pronounced”. He indentified ‘hysterical women’, illegitimate children (‘bastards’), mentally ill (‘lunatics’ and ‘criminal lunatics’) as the categories the nation needed to get rid of. The measures he recommended included diminishing the number of female births by law leaving just “enough women to go round without superfluity”; expelling ‘superfluous’ women from the country by a process of lot-drawing; legalising and promoting abortions as a means of reducing the number of illegitimate children, “who for want of something better to do, turn their hands to crime and other ignoble pursuits”; and, most importantly, a State lethal chamber for mentally ill who were no longer useful for experiments and research into their condition. All these measures, for Harris, would facilitate the search for ‘good men’ who could be entrusted with governing the nation. This can serve as a good illustration of the fact that lethal chambers were suggested in a liberal context well before Nazis put them into operation.

  3. New Generation’s link to that issue is dead. Here is the new link:

    “Bio-Politics” by G.W. Harris, The New Age, 1911

  4. […] Comments Jeremy on On the origins of biopoli…Volha Piotukh on On the origins of biopoli…hy on Full text: Gutting: Foucault a…Sarah Hansen on On the origins […]

  5. Wow, I read this blog but somehow missed this whole discussion till doing some google searches turned up this post.

    Uhm, thanks. Though I keep laughing at the characterization “The essay is rather ornately written in that post-postmodern style.” I have no clue what that means, but I am sure I am guilty of it. My conference papers tend to be inspired more from my past as a competitive public speaker, and that always had a sense of the baroque voice to it I can never lose when I know I am going to speaking in front of an audience.

    But still, thanks.

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