Biopower, death, and normative biopolitical genocide

Written for a sociology paper at University of Auckland, April 2015


“In a normalising society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.” (Foucault, 1976, pg.256)

Judith Butler believes that certain acts of violence are justified while others are ignored. In ‘Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear,’ she discusses the response to the attacks on September 11th, 2001, and the resulting “war on terror” in the Middle East. When she talks about how violence perpetrated by the United States is justified or ignored, Butler (2004) is talking about Foucault’s concepts of biopower and state racism – concepts relevant across different nations, states, and populations.

Biopower, defined by Foucault in The Will to Knowledge and Society Must Be Defended, both in 1976, is a mode of power over life that focusses on the body as a living entity, as part of a species – as opposed to discipline, the mode of power that views the body as a machine, something to be integrated into economic systems in the most efficient means. Biopower exists alongside and in opposition to the sovereign right to kill – instead, biopower focusses on life; extending it, keeping it and the population healthy. These two concepts exist in tandem only via the means of what Foucault (1976) calls state racism, that is, the defining by the state of a privileged population, and consequently also an Other, a foreign population, whether inside the state’s borders or out, that poses a threat to the integrity of the state’s privileged population. Stemming from the combination of biopower and state racism is a normative biopolitical genocide; that is, the killing – or more often, the letting die – of the Other in order to protect the integrity, health, and life of the privileged population. As Foucault says in The Will to Knowledge, “one might say that the ancient [sovereign] right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (Foucault, 1976, pg.138).

In ‘Explanation and Exoneration’ Butler talks about acts of violence and war committed by the United States justified by both foreign policy decisions and through the reasoning of self-defence (Butler, 2004, pg.4). These foreign policy decisions are made, naturally, by the state, and are part of the process of defining the Other that threatens the integrity of their population. So, too, is the self-defence rationalisation a state-defined one, as it stems from the Bush administration declaring the attacks of September 11 as declarations of war. Even the usage of the term “terrorist” becomes a way to define an Other – it is never used by the state to refer to violence committed by its own power. As Butler exemplifies it: “The term ‘terrorist’ is used… by the Israeli state to describe any and all Palestinian acts of resistance, but none of its own practices of state violence” (pg.4). Another means of justification of state violence is indeed the intentional overlooking or dismissal of those events – in particular if they are not committed against the state’s privileged population. Again, from Butler herself: “Our own acts of violence do not receive graphic coverage in the press, and so they remain acts that are justified in the name of self-defence” (pg.6).

Biopower is used to create and justify this normative biopolitical genocide in essentially every Western state. In neoliberal and colonial societies like Aotearoa, the indigenous population is, more often than not, part of the Other that threatens the privileged population, and the violence against them that both kills and lets them die comes in the form of incarceration rates, low access to healthcare, and institutionalised racism. The privileged population can essentially be characterised as Audre Lorde’s “mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’ In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is within this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside” (Lorde, 1984). The privileged population extends further than this norm and is not an even field of power distribution; it is useful to think of what this population is centred around: white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people – that is, those with privilege and power in society.

Transmisogyny as normative biopolitical genocide

Perverted sexuality has effects at the level of the population, as anyone who has been sexually debauched is assumed to have a heredity. Their descendants also will be affected for generations, unto the seventh generation and unto the seventh of the seventh and so on. This is the theory of degeneracy: given that it is the source of individual diseases and that it is the nucleus of degeneracy, sexuality represents the precise point where the disciplinary and the regulatory, the body and the population, are articulated. (Foucault, 1976, p.232)

Applying an intersectional framework to the concept of a privileged population, as a disabled, queer, neuroatypical trans woman, I am not wholly part of this population. As Pākehā, I need less protection as I am less exposed to more systems of violence as the trans women of colour I know; and as the privileged population is an uneven field rather than a definitive category, I gain certain memberships and protections for being white, but I am nonetheless a target of the normative biopolitical genocide in our society. I am a target for being disabled, and for being queer, and for being mentally ill, but the most powerful experience of it, for me, is for being all three of those as well as being trans. I mention this because I feel it is important to situate myself and my lived experience before the following discussion of how biopower is utilised in this normative genocide that leads to an overall life expectancy of around 32 – lower for trans women of colour.

Biopower is necessarily interested in demography and its control, as it is focussed around the control of life – as such, statistics around death and birth rates, life expectancies, etc, are relevant to its domain. We have a little data on trans death rates and life expectancies – done mostly within the community, for as the state-defined Other, we are a threat to the protected population rather than contributing to it. Additionally, according to normative views, transgender people do not reproduce, and so would not contribute to the life of the nation even if the state wanted us to – which it categorically does not. In the early stages of Western trans medicalisation – that is, the pathologisation of being transgender that led to it being something to be treated with medicine – sterilisation was an implicit required outcome of treatment. In fact, Sweden, for example, only recently removed enforced sterilisation from the requirements to legally change one’s sex (Nelson, 2013). In The Will to Knowledge, Foucault (1976) talks about biopower as “the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (p.138); the forced sterilisation of trans people is one of these rights. It enforces our sterility, our inability to contribute ‘inferior’ or dangerous genetic material to the privileged population of the state, and is an integral tool to the normative biopolitical genocide that is attempting to eradicate us.

“It was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body” (Foucault, 1976, p.143)

While discourse within the trans community has shifted, popular external and ‘professional’ opinion is still a heavily medicalised one that has shifted little since the 1960s – that is, to be trans one must experience dysphoria and one must desire full medical transition (both hormone treatment and all the appropriate surgeries). This discourse is one that requires trans people to submit themselves to the medical system and thus to state surveillance and violence. We are judged on our identities and our ‘transness’ – whether we meet the very strict, very Western colonial-imperialist criteria for being trans (that is, binary, presenting extremely feminine, with no room for androgyny or genders beyond male or female). Many of us are unable to gain access to this system, and many more are immediately diagnosed with borderline personality disorder as a ‘reason’ for our discomfort with our assigned genders. In short, the healthcare system neglects us, was designed to exclude us and pathologise us. This links to Foucault’s idea of ‘indirect murder’ (1976, p.256) – Mark Kelly (2004) defines it as exposing some to “greater risks to which the body of the population would not normally be exposed” (pg.60) and applies it to contemporary societies in Racism, Nationalism and Biopolitics: “Every state does still need to make a distinction between those it keeps alive (and every state does have a welfare system and health service which work towards these ends) and those it kills (foreign enemies in war, executed criminals), together with those it merely allows to be exposed to greater risk of death (the victims of Third World famines, its own poor and elderly citizens)” (pg. 61)(emphasis mine). By simultaneously forcing us to engage with a violently exclusionary medical system as well as excluding us from that system, the state is preventing us from receiving the care it provides to its privileged population, and is engaging in indirect murder.

In the same way that acts of violence perpetrated in the Middle East by the United States do not receive coverage and thus remain glossed over and justified, so too are acts of violence perpetrated by the privileged population justified and/or ignored. In fourty-nine out of fifty American states, it is legal to argue that you were justified in killing a woman because you were about to sleep with her, then discovered she was trans. It was only in September 2014 that California banned the ‘trans panic’ defence in murder cases (Molloy, 2014). The panic defence was used successfully as recently as 2010 in Aotearoa, to downgrade a murder charge to one of manslaughter (The Dominion Post, 2010). Butler (2004) says that the acts of violence in the Middle East are “justified in the name of self-defence, but by a noble cause, namely, the rooting out of terrorism” (pg.6). Just as those acts are noble in the defence against terrorism, violence against trans women is justified by the state and its legislation, and considered noble by many in society – Galloway, one of the men who murdered Diksy Jones, told police she “did not deserve to be in the world” (The Dominion Post, 2010).

We are at risk of higher rates of substance abuse and suicide (Clark, me ētahi atu, 2013). Trans women of colour in particular are at higher risk of violent attacks and deaths – in the first seven weeks of 2015, seven trans women were murdered, six of them trans women of colour (Kellaway, 2015). We’re at higher risk of domestic violence and abuse. We have significantly lower access to state services, such as healthcare, police, and welfare. In Aotearoa trans women are imprisoned in men’s prisons where they are subject to rape and abuse (Department of Corrections) (Shields, 2015). Both the state and their privileged population have little to no interest in improving these conditions – as a member of a group who protested these very conditions at Auckland Pride Parade this year, we received very little support and a lot of abuse.

Foucault (1976) states that state racism “does make the relationship of war – ‘if you want to live, the other must die’ – function in a way that is completely new and that is quite compatible with the exercive of biopower” (pg.255). The ‘completely new’ way he references is normative biopolitical genocide. To put it simply: normative biopolitical genocide turns existing in a society in which you are not a part of the state’s privileged population into existing in a warzone.


Bibliography

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London/New York: Verso.

Clark, T. C., Lucassen, M. F., Bullen, P., Denny, S. J., Fleming, T. M., Robinson, E. M., & Rossen, F. V. (2013). The Health and Well-Being of Transgender High School Students: Results From the New Zealand Adolescent Health Survey (Youth’12). Journal of Adolescent Health.

Department of Corrections. (n.d.). Transgender and Intersex Prisoner. Retrieved April 2, 2015, from Department of Corrections: http://www.corrections.govt.nz/resources/Prison-Operations-Manual/Movement/M.03-Specified-gender-and-age-movements/M.03-4.html

Foucault, M. (1976). Society Must Be Defended. (D. Macey, Trans.)

Foucault, M. (1976). The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. (R. Hurley, Trans.) Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Penguin.

Kellaway, M. (2015, February 20). Miami: Seventh Trans Woman Murdered in U.S. in 2015. Retrieved from Advocate.com: http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/02/20/miami-seventh-trans-woman-murdered-us-2015

Kelly, M. (2004). Racism, Nationalism and Biopower: Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. Contretemps, 58-69.

Lorde, A. (1984). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. In M. Marable, & L. Mullings, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resitance, Reform, and Renewal; An African American Anthology (pp. 538-544). New York: Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Molloy, P. (2014, September 29). California Becomes First State to Ban Gay, Trans ‘Panic’ Defenses. Retrieved from Advocate.com: http://www.advocate.com/crime/2014/09/29/california-becomes-first-state-ban-gay-trans-panic-defenses

Nelson, R. (2013, January 14). Swedish Law Requiring Transgender People to be Sterilised Repealed. Retrieved from TIME.com: http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/01/14/transgender-people-in-sweden-no-longer-face-forced-sterilization/

Shields, J. K. (2015, February 12). What Do We Have to Be Proud Of? Corrections Officers at Pride and Trans Women in our Prison System. Retrieved from Jennifer Katherine Shields: https://jenniferkateshields.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/what-do-we-have-to-be-proud-of-corrections-officers-at-pride-and-trans-women-in-our-prison-system/

The Dominion Post. (2010, November 05). Men guilty of Manslaughter in Diksy case . Retrieved from Stuff.co.nz: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/4312904/Men-guilty-of-Manslaughter-in-Diksy-case

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