Foucault, Then and Now: On Modalities of Power and the Making of Subjects

Michel Foucault’s understanding of power shifts between his early work on “total institutions” and his later work on governmentality and sexuality. In this paper, I will attend to the transformation of power, as Foucault’s conceptualization of it changes between the earlier and later parts of his work. To do this, I will begin by discussing power as it appears in his earlier writing, in the years preceding the publication of The History of Sexuality (1978). Most notably in Discipline and Punish, the analytics of power Foucault begins to develop is bound up with the emergence of disciplinary power. Disciplinary power, according to Foucault, inheres in punishment (1977) and is put into practice with the birth of the prison.

Disciplinary Power

In Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault develops a history of the modern penal system. Before the 18th century, punishment was characterized by its visibility: In “the spectacle of the scaffold,” where criminals were publicly tortured and executed, sovereign power (the power of the king) revealed itself. Power inscribed itself on the body of the condemned person. The violent procedures of pre-modern punishment asserted “truth” – both of the power of the sovereign and the guilt of the criminal.

But the “truth” of punishment was vulnerable, even while its vulnerability was a necessary element of its functioning: The effectiveness of the sovereign’s power to punish relied on an audience, whose presence gave the ritual a meaning. Although the presence of the people was called upon to supplement and intensify the vengeance of the sovereign, there were also instances when the people could reject the punitive power and revolt against it. The visibility of punishment, which was a necessary element of its functioning, was at the heart of its dysfunction. Thus, as Foucault argues, the public execution was ultimately an ineffective use of the body, and a model of power that proved not to be very economical. Its political cost was too high.

In the latter half of the 18th century, the prison reform movement sought to establish a new economy of power to punish, “to assure its better distribution so that it should be distributed in homogenous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body” (Foucault, 1977, p. 80). Out of this movement, punishment became more “gentle,” though – as Foucault suggests – not for humanitarian reasons. The spectacle of public torture gave way to chain gangs, toward a “generalized punishment” where prisoners were forced to do work that reflected their crime and “paid back” society for their transgressions. This model of “gentle” punishment represented the initial step away from the excessive force of the sovereign. But it too, would be replaced by a third way of organizing the power to punish: Out of the development of the disciplines in the late 18th and 19th centuries emerged the disciplines, the prison, and the modern penal system.

Discipline, as Foucault explains, is a political anatomy of detail that centers on the operations and manipulations of bodies that render them useful and intelligible. This is what Foucault means by the notion of “docility” that is the project of the disciplines. “Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short, it dissociates power from the body…” (Foucault, 1977, p. 138). The “detail” to which discipline is so attentive, individualizes control by obtaining a hold on the body at the level of its most minute operations – movements, gestures, attitudes – and rearranging them in time and space.

The distribution of individuals in space is in fact the first technique through which discipline proceeds, using devices that enclose, separate, align, and serialize bodies in an organization of functional space that enables the accumulation of knowledge over individuals by means of their constant surveillance. Foucault says more about this process when he discusses panopticism, the ideal architecture that supports an economy of power. By “economy,” Foucault is referring to the techniques that enable the exercise of power in the least costly way possible. This is thanks to an integrated system of surveillance, inspections, reports, and record-keeping that control and automate activities while allowing them to be observed constantly.

While I will not spend too much time discussing the numerous and diverse instruments of disciplinary power, I want to say something how they come together in the relationship between power and knowledge: As Foucault insists, power and knowledge are never separate domains, but instead directly imply one another (1977). A power relation cannot exist without the associated production of a field of knowledge. Likewise, there is no knowledge that does not presuppose (and produce) power relations. What is important about the myriad of punitive instruments and techniques of disciplinary procedures I’ve already mentioned is that they come together in the dual-production of knowledge/power. Instruments of observation, normalization, and examination break a unified mass into its different parts – into a multiplicity of single units which can be quantified as “cases.” Disciplinary techniques, which integrate individuals into a network of power relations, also render individuals as knowable object-subjects which can be judged in relation to each other. Discipline “makes” individuals.


Foucault introduces bio-power into his later work – beginning with the History of Sexuality (1978) – in a rather exploratory way. In his quest to understand how power functions in the production of sexuality, Foucault confronts the idea that sexuality has been historically repressed. The “repressive hypothesis” is something Foucault wants to call into question, and eventually to debunk. Bio-power, then, appears initially as an “alternative hypothesis” which Foucault can use to think around the notion of a repressed sex (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982). But I do not want to say too much here about how bio-power functions in The History of Sexuality. Instead, I’d like to extract Foucault’s conceptualization of bio-power from its text and reposition it alongside power as it appears in Discipline and Punish. The relationship between disciplinary power and bio-power has been contested in a variety of academic discourses (e.g. Agamben, 1998; Hardt & Negri, 2000). I argue that there is a close relationship between disciplinary power and bio-power, but that the exact nature of this “closeness” warrants further explanation:

In the latter half of the 18th century, according to Foucault, a new technology of power began to emerge. It was not disciplinary, nor was it un-disciplinary. It penetrated disciplinary power, embedded itself in discipline’s technologies, in its techniques, where it began to modify power’s entire organization (Foucault, 1978, 2009). Disciplinary power, then, was not so much replaced, as it was complemented by and integrated into the birth of bio-power and bio-politics[1].

Indeed, the birth of bio-power would not have been possible except for the development of the disciplines (see Foucault, 1978, pp. 139-140). During the classical period, with the explosion of disciplines – schools, workshops, barracks, penitentiaries – there emerged numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies. The machinery that invested in the body’s forces, and the methods for rendering bodies both useful and governable were the seeds of bio-politics. The development of the disciplines thus ushered in an era of bio-power.

What is new about an analytics of power in bio-politics is that political power is no longer concerned primarily with “society” (as it represents a judicial body defined by law and legal contracts), nor with the (corporeal) body of the individual. With the introduction of bio-power appears the notion of a social body as the central object of government: A population takes center-stage as a political and scientific problem. What is at stake, as Foucault explains, is “power over man insofar as man is a living being,” and insofar as (s)he shares with all others a life that is affected by biological processes (birth, aging, fertility, reproduction, death, illness, and so on) (Foucault, 2003, p. 239-240).

Put another way, bio-power does not act on the individual a posteriori, as a subject of discipline in the diverse forms of rehabilitation, normalization and institutionalization. Rather, it acts on the population in a preventive fashion. Its legitimacy stems from its preoccupation with optimizing life chances, as well as with the future and all of its unknowns – the risk of scarcity, famine, epidemics, and so on. These are the dangers which it must constantly work to prevent (Foucault, 2009). In order to do so, to “optimize” life in this way, bio-power must operate through regulatory mechanisms that make it possible to account for variable phenomena on a massive scale. One of bio-power’s privileged regulatory mechanisms is statistics, which allows for the calculation of equilibriums, averages, standard deviations, and unacceptable departures from the norm.

Power over Life

Bio-power involves discipline, but is also something more: It is regulation on a global scale or, as Foucault understands it, bio-power is “the power to make live” (Foucault, 1978).

But what distinguishes the “power to make live” from sovereign power, if, as Foucault explains, the sovereign king of the 17th century was empowered with a right to have people put to death or, alternatively, to let them live? The difference is a subtle one, but with serious implications: The sovereign power’s effect on life is rarely – if ever – put into practice. When it is, it is in those instances when he is able to kill. Sovereign power privileges death more than life since, for the sovereign, the right to life is the right to the sword. “It is the right to take life or let live” (Foucault, 2003, pp. 240-241).

Slowly, the sovereign’s right to life and death began to transform until the nineteenth century, when it became made clear that the “old” right to “take” life or “let” live was permeated by a “new” right – the right to make live and let die: “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 that only 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; power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself; it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body” (Foucault, 1978, pp. 142-143). In other words, bio-power won’t make die, but instead will regulate mortality.

From Man-as-Body to Man-as-Species

Unlike discipline, which concerns itself with bodies, bio-power addresses man-as-species. That is to say, we can think of the “object” with which the technologies of power are concerned as being, in the case of discipline, the body of the man who forms part of a multiplicity (such as the inmate who is part of a prison population) and, in the case of bio-power, the body of a population made of men, whose lives are similarly affected by the overall processes associated with birth, death, illness, and so on.

Another way of putting it is that while both technologies of power are concerned with ruling multiplicities, the disciplinary technology can do so only to the extent that the multiplicity be made manageable by dividing it up into individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and punished. Here, the individual is constituted as a way of organizing a multiplicity. This stands in contrast with the technology of bio-power that concerns itself with individuals not to the extent that they are reduced to their individual bodies, but to the extent that they form a mass, which is affected by biological processes. This transformation, from man-as-body to man-as-species, characterizes a modification of disciplinary power in its individualizing mode, which transforms into bio-power in its massifying mode; from power that functions through an anatomo-politics of the human body, to power exercised through a bio-politics of the human race.

The “massifying” mode of bio-power gives rise to a “population state,” where the governing apparatus we think of as the “State” can govern less of the population by focusing instead on the administration of external devices: Money, policy, education, technology, medicine, welfare, markets, and so on, while allowing the population to govern themselves.

The Making of Subjects

Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, and of what we are, in this very moment. – Foucault, “The Subject and Power”

In “The Subject and Power,” (1983/2003) Foucault asserts, somewhat surprisingly, that “…it is not power, but the subject, that is the general theme of my research” (Foucault, 1983/2003, p. 127). Given his emphasis on the subject, it makes sense that this review of power should include some kind of discussion about how human beings are constituted (and constitute themselves) as subjects. The current section addresses briefly the problem of the self, and the subject, and the different modes by which (s)he is “made”.

The Disciplinary Subject

As noted in the earlier discussion of disciplinary power, discipline “makes” individuals. So does bio-power, in fact, although it does so rather differently. That said, let us begin with discipline, and the making of the disciplinary subject.

In Discipline and Punish (1977), as well as in Madness and Civilization (1965) and The Birth of the Clinic (1973), Foucault problematizes the constitution of subjects in terms of the coming into being of total institutions, and the disciplines that “make individuals.” Discipline makes its subjects through a process of objectification, where “dividing practices” (such as ranking, classification, and evaluation) separate individuals from themselves and others. Individuals are broken down into their basic components and transformed into a “case” that is defined against and in relation to other cases. These practices render individuals as intelligible subjects. As disciplinary subjects, however, their subjection relies primarily on their objectification: The subject is objectified within a system of binaries, where (s)he is either mad or (s)he is sane, either sick or healthy, a criminal or a saint. In discipline, the process of subjection hinges on objectification, which has as its privileged technique a normalizing strategy. Disciplinary subjects are norm-governed individuals.

The Bio-Political Subject

In bio-power, the objectivizing process through which human beings are “made” into subjects takes a backseat. Here, the bio-political subject is not so much “divided” (as is the disciplinary subject) as she “divides” herself; she turns herself into a subject.

Subjection, then, in the bio-political mode, is as much an active process as it is a passive one. That is to say, while we are subjected by disciplinary technologies that normalize and objectify us, we are also the subjects in this process, with the ability to shape our own conduct. Unlike the disciplinary subject, the bio-political subject is not straightforwardly a norm-governed individual. She is self-governed, not according not to norms cast in a binary system, but to acceptable averages, rates, and distributions – all of which relate to biological processes that affect the life of a population.

The ways in which the bio-political subject modifies, structures, and constitutes itself as a subject consist of forms of self-regulation or technologies of the self, as Foucault calls them (Foucault, 2008). These technologies can be thought of as internalized mechanisms of bio-power. They relate to bio-power in two significant ways: First, technologies of the self are geared toward the optimization of life. They belong to a system of government that increasingly calls for personal responsibility and self-care (Foucault, 1984/1986). Second, technologies of the self fit into the “massifying” mode of bio-power; both address the population through the biological individual. The individual who is responsible for taking care of herself is also responsible for social risks – illness, unemployment, poverty, etc. – which she transforms into problems of self-care.

How do bio-political subjects exercise resistance to bio-power? On the one hand, it is possible that the active participation of bio-political subjects affords them a special agency, and perhaps empowers them to define the terms of their subjection. It is also possible that this suggestion is overly optimistic for, on the other hand, the self-constitution of bio-political subjects is an application of particular strategies of power. The strategy of “responsibilizing” individual subjects is also a technique for indirectly controlling them.

Diagnosing the Present, Diagnosing the Future

Is bio-power still a relevant concept today? I contend that it is. Moreover, I suggest that we can also recognize – across a number of social relations, institutions, and the discourses they produce – that bio-power operates in tandem with (or perhaps is superimposed on) disciplinary technologies that center on the body, which individualize and objectify it according to a set of norms. To conclude this paper, I will provide an example of how disciplinary power and biopolitical modes of power function today, in the production of binge eating disorder. Here, power is applied in ways that simultaneously “responsibilize” women and objectify female bodies.

On January 30, 2015, Vyvanse, an amphetamine-based drug approved for the treatment of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), became the first (and only) medication approved for the treatment of binge eating disorder (B.E.D.). B.E.D. is defined in the DSM-5 as “recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat under similar circumstances, with episodes marked by feelings of lack of control” (American Psychological Association, 2013).

In a press release, the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, stated that they approved the drug because a pharmaceutical intervention was “necessary to prevent the serious health problems,” “social isolation,” and “difficulties with work, home, and social life” that accompany episodes of binge eating” (Mathis, 2015). Speaking on behalf of the FDA, Dr. Mitchell Mathis also encouraged women who feel they might have problems over-eating to visit the website (which is sponsored by Shire, the manufacturer of Vyvanse) and to take advantage of the free screening test and “Doctor Discussion Guide” the website provides to “help adults start the conversation with their health provider” (

What the above scenario presents us with is a rather obvious example of a medicalizing discourse that operates according to the logics of a disciplinary bio-power. It is disciplinary in that it focuses on the individual body of the (female) patient in order to constitute her as a subject.  Her subjection is achieved, in part, through a normalizing strategy that maps her conduct (her eating practices, her feelings) onto one side of a binary: She eats “normally” and is “healthy” or she eats too much and is “sick.” That said, the constitution of the B.E.D. patient subject is also bio-political: She is urged to take charge of her biological processes, for which she is ethically obliged. Here, the judgment of whether she is sick or healthy depends also on the quality of biological life which is not only hers: She also responsible for social risks – “difficulties with work, home, and social life.” This is the “massifying” mode of bio-power, which addresses the population through the biological individual. The website, the screening test, and the Doctor Discussion Guide are all technologies of the self that the patient uses, and by which she transforms social risks into problems of self-care.

The case of B.E.D. serves to illustrate how bio-power operates today. In this bio-political regime, questions about the value of life gets infused in everyday judgments, vocabularies, and techniques of what Nikolas Rose calls professionals of vitality (2007) – doctors, research scientists, FDA representatives, drug companies, etc. etc. – while entangling them all in ethics.  Bio-politics today involves a dynamic set of relations between those who diagnose, the effects of their diagnoses, and individuals who are diagnosed. In medical practice today, the processes through which individuals are constituted – and constitute themselves – as disordered subjects hinge on ethical discourses of responsibility, volunteerism, and autonomy. Perhaps, as Rose suggests, we have entered an age of biological responsibility. Or perhaps not. In any case, the concept of bio-power is worth keeping around as a tool we can use to diagnose the present, and possibly the future.



Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

American Psychological Association (APA). (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Washington, DC: (APA).

Dreyfus, H.L., & Rabinow, P. (1982). Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Federal Drug Administration (FDA). (30 January, 2015). FDA expands uses of Vyvanse to treat binge eating disorder. Silver Spring, MD: FDA New Release. Retrieved from

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, volume 1: An introduction. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1983/2003). The subject and power. In P. Rabinow & N. Rose (Eds.), The essential Foucault. (pp. 126-144). New York, NY: The New Press.

Foucault, M. (1984/1986). The care of the self: The history of sexuality, volume 3. New York, NY: Random House.

Foucault, M. (2003). Society must be defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York, NY: Picador.

Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. New York, NY: Picador/Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault, M. (2009). Security, territory, population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. New York, NY: Picador/Palgrave Macmillan.

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rose, N. (2007). The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[1] Foucault explicitly refers to the interweaving of disciplinary power and bio-power in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1978) when he suggests that they are not “antithetical”, but constitute “two poles of development liked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations” (p. 139).


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