Biopower: Joining the dots from sexual violence to genital mutilation


My current dead-tree companion is Amalendu Misra’s new book The Landscape of Silence: Sexual Violence Against Men in War. it is a fine, scholarly work that documents the gruesome extent of sexual violation of men and boys through history, but mostly in current and recent conflicts, from the Congo and the Balkans to Latin America and Abu Ghraib. More importantly Misra, a senior policics lecturer at the University of Lancaster, attempts to contextualise, theorise and (as is the current academic fashion) ‘problematise’ the phenomenon.

A key question in this area is why warring parties so often resort to sexualised torture, abuse and mutilation when objectively speaking, it would be much more quick and simple to put a bullet in the head of their victim? One central answer to that question, Misra suggests, is Foucault’s concept of biopower.

Biopower is power over life, and particularly sexuality. If individual autonomy over our decisions in love, sex and procreation is close to the pinnacle of freedom, the exercise of biopower by nation states or dominant cultures rips away control of our own bodies and situates it elsewhere, at the whim or mercy of the dominant power.

By and large, sexual war crimes are not committed by rogue soldiers, crazed with lust and violence, but they are organised, institutionalised and cynically functional. They serve a purpose, and that purpose is to subject, humiliate and ultimately pacify the enemy and the conquered. This is why such crimes are so often committed publicly in front of audiences or staged theatrically, as with the grotesque vaudeville of Abu Ghraib.

This is not entirely untrodden turf. Many feminist theorists have made similar arguments about rape and sexual assault. The classic quote from Brownmiller’s Against Our Will said “rape is a crime not of lust, but of violence and power.” I often see that quoted with the last two words missing which is a pity, because they are the most important, in my view. Rape is primarily a crime of power. Promoting that to a crime of biopower, in the Foucauldian sense, requires only that one accepts there is a prevailing oppressive culture shaping the behaviour and beliefs of individuals within it, such as patriarchy. I’ll leave that one hanging for now.

The concept of biopower was pushed to the front of my mind by another, very different story this morning. Last week in Uganda, according to local reports, 25 boys aged between 11 and 15 were taken from school and circumcised without consent, their own or that of their parents. Days later, most of the boys were still off school with the pain, bleeding and (one might reasonably presume) abject terror and trauma.

Now the details of this story are still hazy and confused. The NGO responsible for the operations, apparently conducted on grounds of HIV/Aids prevention, are claiming on Twitter to have obtained consent forms from the parents, while the parents insist they did not and would not have consented. However it is no suprise that this is happening in Uganda, where tribal cultures which eschew circumcision are facing immense pressures to comply with circumcision drives. Last year one MP offered a reward of sh500,000 [£115] to anyone informing on any Mugisu man who was trying to avoid being circumcised. Those words were spoken just weeks after the horrific incident in neighbouring Kenya in which a mob abducted 12 men from non-practising tribes and forcibly circumcised them in the street.

These horrific incidents are replicated annually across sub-Saharan Africa, and while there may appear to be scant similarity to routine circumcisions conducted in (usually though not invariably) sanitary conditions in the developed world, there is one important similarity. All cultures – religious or secular – that practise routine genital mutilation are doing so for one reason and one reason alone, biopower.

There are other explanations offered in different quarters, from hygiene and health to habit or aesthetics, but all of them are obviously tacked on rationalisations for a practise that long predates their invention. When a culture mutilates the genitals of its infants or youth, it asserts ownership of their autonomy as surely as a branding scar. If we can do this to your most deeply intimate and delicate centre, it seems to say, then nothing about your body, your self, your humanity is inviolable to us.

Undoubtedly many (most) members of cultures and religions which practice male or female genital mutilation are proud to belong in this way. They consider themselves enriched by membership of their communities and submission to ritual and tradition. I understand and respect this. I cannot respect inflicting such subjection to those who are unwilling or unable to consent of their own free will.

Comments

  1. StillGjenganger says

    I won’t re-run our standard circumcision discussion (and I am against forcible circumcision anyway).
    But to an unbiased view there would seem to be an abysmal difference between the kind of (sexual) violence inflicted to subjugate enemies, and the rather milder rituals used as transition or entry rites, with the ultimate goal of brining the ‘victim’ into the fold as an accepted member. The main common thread is that you (and others) think that both are wrong, and using a snappy word like ‘biopower’ allows you to borrow the condemnation of one to use against the other.

    No matter how far they are separated, you can always draw a line that connects two dots if you feel a need to do so.

  2. Marduk says

    I always used to like the Brownmiller soundbite until I realised all the doors it closes to reducing the problem and all the evidence it contradicts. I’ve now come to think that she is a bit unhelpful. Some crimes are to do with power, some crimes are just facilitated or enabled by the use of power.

    I agree with the argument and I agree with invocation of Foucault who, wobbly on several topics, is always right on issues of social control to my mind. He really did generate some relevant insights, it isn’t his fault that his emulators since haven’t. To address StillGjenganger’s point, you either buy it or you don’t, there is no need to argue it really, but for Foucault the war vs. tribal thing is just a difference of degree (keep in mind he draws a line from digging up a king only to chop his head off to modern advertising practices so has no problem with very wide continua). We’ll say he has an answer to the point anyway.

    I’d be interested in the reactions you’d get to this argument (aside from boring whataboutery from the zero sum funding seekers). Compulsory circumcision is not beyond the pale even in moderate feminist circles (the hygiene/HIV argument) and you need to remember you’ve got a powerful group of American feminists who did that to their sons – I feel without really thinking about it quite honestly, its cultural – and are going to fight the cognitive dissonance like it were the defence of Stalingrad (down to the last and expect anyone who veers from confronting the enemy to get shot in the back by a commissar). Bodily integrity and autonomy, zero tolerance…apart from er…

  3. StillGjenganger says

    @Marduk 2
    I am fighting temptation really hard to avoid rehashing past debates, but let me say that I did not make myself clear. AFAIAC circumcision is just one more thing that parents should decide for their children, like schooling language teaching, or tennis training. I am only against ‘compulsory circumcision’ if it means that people are circumcised by force against their will (if adult) or the will of their guardians (if minors).
    As for Foucault, his continua sound so wide that they seem pretty useless. I would judge circumcision on the suffering, distress and mental scars it actually causes (or rather: does not cause), not on whether it could be said to represent the same abstract principle as other things that are indeed damaging.

  4. Carnation says

    Foucault’s theories fit neatly into the subjugation and brutalisation of men by men, very often sexual on nature, in prisons, schools, the military and approved schools.

    The phenomena of hetero males raping other males (often in homophobic hate crimes) is rarely reported on and affects the most vulnerable in society.

  5. David S says

    I must admit I am struggling to see how biopower differs from ordinary power. Surely when we use the term “power” we normally mean “power over life”. Power over non-living things is just engineering.

  6. Holms says

    #1 StillG
    But to an unbiased view there would seem to be an abysmal difference between the kind of (sexual) violence inflicted to subjugate enemies, and the rather milder rituals used as transition or entry rites, with the ultimate goal of brining the ‘victim’ into the fold as an accepted member. The main common thread is that you (and others) think that both are wrong, and using a snappy word like ‘biopower’ allows you to borrow the condemnation of one to use against the other.

    – They are both wrong in that they involve surgery on a person that has not given consent, with no need to bring in the concept of biopower. The difference is that the circumcision-for-subjugation event piles additional wrongs on top, such as beatings and public humiliation.
    – Who do you consider to have an ‘unbiased’ view? Why is it the unbiased view, and not those that differ?

  7. avern says

    I believe this to be a misunderstanding of how biopower operates. People often take the “let live, give death” vs. “give life, let die” dichotomy too literally. Abu Ghraib and what’s happening in the Congo are examples of old-world power, not biopower.

    What separates biopower from pre-Enlightenment, sovereign forms of power is that biopower is invisible AS POWER. That’s what makes it so insidious; instead of controlling behavior through fear and violence, biopower controls behavior by macro-engineering the concepts of health, happiness, and morality. Thus, citizens believe they are autonomous and acting in their own self-interest when in fact they’re acting in accordance to the state’s wishes.

    Sovereign power uses death and violence as controlling mechanism.

    Biopower uses iPhones, Google, Monsanto, and pharmaceuticals.

  8. David S says

    Sovereign power uses death and violence as controlling mechanism.

    Biopower uses iPhones, Google, Monsanto, and pharmaceuticals.

    If you wanted to be strictly accurate then sovereign power also uses or has used radio, TV, taxation, control of agricultural production, and a whole load of other things that probably include or intersect with iPhones, Google, Monsanto and pharmaceuticals. But that makes for a rather less striking soundbite.

  9. StillGjenganger says

    @Holms 6
    Is there such a thing as ‘circumcision as subjugation’? If so what are we talking about.?

    Nobody in particular has an ‘unbiased view’. But it would seem that in motivation, effects, and even in the things done, there are some rather important differences between circumcision as an initiation rite and rape and mutilation as a tool for subjugating enemies. If you think those difference are not worth noticing, maybe that shows that your opinions are determined by more than the most immediate facts?

  10. avern says

    “If you wanted to be strictly accurate then sovereign power also uses or has used radio, TV, taxation, control of agricultural production, and a whole load of other things that probably include or intersect with iPhones, Google, Monsanto and pharmaceuticals. But that makes for a rather less striking soundbite.”

    Lol, I love how, in a failed attempt to look perceptive, you end up missing the point entirely.

    Are you actually familiar with Foucault’s writing about biopower? If you were, you would have known that I choose those four examples since they’re quite representative of capitalist enterprise (which is a result and agent of biopower) and the fruits capitalism delivers the populace are what citizens have been trained to accept as necessary for life. Google and iPhones were not advertised and introduced to the populace as instruments of state violence that they must fear. Your call for “accuracy” is equivalent to generally categorizing paperweights as a weapons since a murderer can use one to bash open a person’s skull.

  11. David S says

    Are you actually familiar with Foucault’s writing about biopower? If you were, you would have known that I choose those four examples since they’re quite representative of capitalist enterprise (which is a result and agent of biopower) and the fruits capitalism delivers the populace are what citizens have been trained to accept as necessary for life.

    I am aware of the distinction Foucault makes. I just think that if it means anything at all then it is just bollocks. Sovereign states have always maintained power by providing citizens with things that they have been trained to accept as necessary for life. State sponsored, or adopted, religious beliefs, for example have always been a way of training up the citizenry in that way. I was, by coincidence reading a book about the development of Japan in the seventh century this morning, and you can see such processes clearly at work even then. The processes that Foucault describes do take place, but they are not, in any meaningful sense, distinct from “sovereign” power, and there is no period in history at which they were not practised.

  12. avern says

    I’m also much more of a critic than admirer of Foucault, but I feel that biopower (despite its awful name) is one of his more instructive ideas.

    Firstly, I don’t believe his usage of “sovereign” requires that kind of purity. No, sovereign powers aren’t totally draconian, sentencing all offenders to immediate death. Yes, sovereign powers do sometimes advertise the benefits they provide the populace. What marks a sovereign power is the perception they wish to create in the minds of their subjects. They want their subjects to fear their power, specifically their power to cause death. They also, when they use violence, parade that violence in the open to amplify their fearfulness.

    Biopower works in the opposite fashion. Biopower appears endlessly benevolent and caring. It creates the illusion that it’s a servant rather than a master (sound familiar?). When biopower commits violence, it does it in secret.

  13. David S says

    Biopower appears endlessly benevolent and caring. It creates the illusion that it’s a servant rather than a master (sound familiar?).

    It sounds very familiar. That’s the problem. If Foucault is simply observing that one way of exerting power is to give the impression that you are providing some benevolent service at great personal cost to yourself (while perhaps performing acts of violence in secret) then what saying is true, but it is neither new nor original. If he was saying that sovereign states don’t use that means of exerting power (and I agree he isn’t) then he would be saying something new, but it would not be true.

  14. Inger Hellstrom says

    I’m glad you introduce the word biopower in the discussion. If extended it might, I think, be a fit description of patriarchy’s historic hijacking of women’s autonomy in matters of love, sex and procreation. But there may be yet another meaning to the word, as I suggest in the blog I’ve started. It outlines my upcoming book, a new take on the war of the sexes with emphasis on women’s responsibility for our sexist society. I’d appreciate if you check it out and would welcome your comments.
    Here is the URL: http://originofsexism.blogspot.com
    If you want to be notified of my latest posts, feel free to subscribe by submitting your email address in the right margin.
    Thank you very much, Inger

  15. David S says

    @Inger (14)

    Hello Inger and welcome to our man-cave. I read your blog with interest. The second paragraph expresses an idea that I’ve seen kicked around before: namely the hypothesis that, at some time in the past, humans (in general) believed that women created new life without any intervention from men. This is an intriguing premise for an argument, but I’ve never seen any convincing reason to believe that it is actually true. On the surface, it seems implausible that such a misconception would ever had any sticking power as a conscious belief, even in prehistoric societies. After all the physical similarities between children and their fathers are often quite striking and, even in a prehistoric society, men would have been perfectly capable of observing that someone they remembered having sex with had given birth to someone who looked very similar to themselves, and then putting two and two together. It seems even more implausible that this idea would stick at an unconscious level. You don’t have to be some bonkers evolutionary psychologist to suspect that evolution is likely to have equipped us with a fairly powerful unconscious urge to recognise our own progeny and to help them to have progeny of their own.

    I see that you claim that research proves that people took a long time to cotton on to men’s role in reproduction. However whenever I have seen such research explained, it just sounds like hand-waving on the part of people who have decided what they want to believe and are looking around for anything that might, however tenuously, support it. For example you get pointed to paleolithic figurines that seem to emphasise women’s fertility, which would just demonstrate that paleolithic humans thought that women’s fertility was important (which of course it is). Or you might be told that some supposedly “primitive” and isolated group of people appear to be unaware of the facts of life (the Trobriand Islanders are often mentioned if I recall collectly) but this is not particularly convincing either – looking at some particular group of “primitive” people in the present day is not the same as looking back at the general beliefs that humanity held at some time in past.

    I will readily admit that my scepticism about the premise of your argument is based on a very superficial evidence, and I’d be more than happy to change my mind if someone such as yourself can provide better and more convincing evidence.

  16. H.E. Pennypacker says

    Very worrying story from Uganda, Ally. It seems NGO meddling is seriously exacerbating problems caused by differences in practices between ethnic groups.

    However, I have to agree with Avern that this article seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of biopower (although admittedly my understanding of the concept is fairly superficial so I may be wrong). For example:

    When a culture mutilates the genitals of its infants or youth, it asserts ownership of their autonomy as surely as a branding scar.

    Leaving aside the problematic reification of ‘a culture’ as something that does things and owns people this seems to fit much more closely with earlier forms of power that Foucault saw as preceding biopower. Visible manifestations of power that aim to show the dominance of those carrying them out are sovereign power, not biopower. It’s reminiscent of the public punishments Foucault points to as characteristics of earlier forms of control rather than the self-regulation of the panopticon.

    Moving on from misunderstandings of Foucault, the idea that all circumcision is only about demonstrating the collectives power over the life and sexuality of the individual seems at best horribly reductionist. If I was to make a generalisation I would say that it is about producing certain sorts of people which in my opinion is a rather different thing.

    One last question on your concluding paragraph Ally.

    Undoubtedly many (most) members of cultures and religions which practice male or female genital mutilation are proud to belong in this way. They consider themselves enriched by membership of their communities and submission to ritual and tradition. I understand and respect this. I cannot respect inflicting such subjection to those who are unwilling or unable to consent of their own free will.

    Would you include being underage in the category ‘unable to consent of their own free will’. I ask because I think you’ve expressed that opinion before. If so I can’t really see how you’re respecting people’s pride in their tradition.

  17. StillGjenganger says

    @ H.E.P. 17

    Would you include being underage in the category ‘unable to consent of their own free will’. I ask because I think you’ve expressed that opinion before. If so I can’t really see how you’re respecting people’s pride in their tradition.

    Interesting point. Looking forward to the answer.

  18. Thil says

    I can’t help but feel trying to say that rape is motivated by any one thing is unhelpful. Rape, like most crimes, is defined by the act not the motive. Saying it’s motivated by a desire to exert power over another person, only serves to delegitimize all the times it’s motivated by other things.

    Rape is non-consensual sex, it’s unhelpful to be any more specific

  19. Marduk says

    #19

    I don’t want to be a pedant but rape is not non-consensual sex. Its a form of sexual assault that involves penetration.
    Some activities, if carried out consensually would be ‘sex’, others basically aren’t without getting too graphic.

  20. Dark Jaguar says

    Marduk, I think I’m going to have to disagree there. The laws about the definition of rape get really stupid sometimes, and that’s a rather narrow view. There’s plenty of sexual assault that doesn’t involve actual penetration, though I loathe to actually try and imagine it right now, and it isn’t helpful to come along and say “that wasn’t rape” to a victim of those things.

  21. Dark Jaguar says

    Thil, I think I’m going to pretty much agree on that point. Power is a huge part. Another part of it could be basic psychopathy. “I want this, so I’m going to get it” is a common psychopathic attitude, in which case sex drive actually is the motive, but who cares? The important thing is they did something terrible because they didn’t care about what the other person wanted or the harm they were doing.

    So power is a part, maybe sometimes sex drive and a lack of basic empathy also play a part, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Someone doesn’t rape someone else because they were JUST horny, there’s a fundamental lack of care about the other person at play. Either, they WANT to hurt them, making it a power play, or they don’t care if they hurt them so long as they get what they want, in which case it’s a psychopath we’re dealing with. The important thing to understand is someone not getting sex isn’t enough to explain it, and as I’ve said before, sex drive may be a basic part of human nature, but I refuse to call it a “fundamental human need”.

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