TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Biopolitics in a Neurobiological Era

This text was presented in January at the 2010 Telos Conference, “From Lifeworld to Biopolitics: Empire in the Age of Obama.”

Scientific naturalism represents one of the “two countervailing trends that mark the intellectual tenor of our age,” the other being religious worldviews, to follow here Jürgen Habermas’s diagnostic of our present.[1] In a broader intellectual landscape dominated by research programs in neuro- and cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics and so on, contemporary naturalism symbolizes not only the philosophical framework of these leading intellectual enterprises, but more fundamentally a sort of zeitgeist for our epoch.

This is true not only at an epistemological level, characterized today by the efforts of an entire generation of philosophers, particularly analytic and post-analytic, English-speaking philosophers, to “naturalize” knowledge, the mind, consciousness, and whatever else can be objects of “naturalization” but also, and probably more crucially, at the anthropological level. If one can revive here the Foucauldian distinction between “the two great critical traditions” in which modern philosophy has been divided—that is, philosophy as an “analytic of truth” (epistemology), and philosophy as an “ontology of the present” and “an ontology of ourselves”[2]—contemporary naturalism, in spite of its increasing importance as an epistemological issue, appears even more relevant today at the level of an ontology of ourselves, of what we take ourselves to be. It is here that we witness today the growing “penetration of an objective scientific self-understanding of persons into everyday life”[3] and accordingly, as recent studies in the social sciences have focused on, the emergence of new forms of subjectivity and new social figures intensively shaped by the vocabulary of leading sciences such as genetics and neurobiology.[4] It is here, that a naturalistic rhetoric has increasingly occupied the domain of what we once were so proud to consider supremely cultural, historical, and social matters—all the phenomena for which the German Idealists coined the expression Geist. It is again at this anthropological level that we can witness a global redefinition of the profile of our humanness in terms of an increasing weight of biological arguments. This is spectacularly true in a vast range of disciplinary fields, from psychiatry (the current hegemony of the so called “second biological psychiatry,” with its focus on the biochemistry of the brain as the crucial site for mental disorders, and its emphasis on a molecular diagnostic style [5], that, along with the advent of psychopharmacology, has resulted in the emergence of that critical biopolitical figure of our present called the “neurochemical self” who maps “desires, moods, and discontents” onto the brain itself and its chemical imbalances [6]), to political theory (with its own “life-sciences boom”  [7], that has caused a renewed plausibility of “biological facts”  [8] for the understanding of politics, from the right to the left of the political spectrum, and increased references to genetics and neuroscience to explain political behaviours), finally to anthropology and the social sciences with various attempts to naturalize and darwinize culture and society, and a general decline of the culturalist, “semiotic” (Marconi) and disembodied picture of human beings that had its heyday in the seventies. All of this constitutes an impressive confirmation of what philosopher Roberto Esposito has pointed out as one of the crucial philosophical event of our epoch, namely that fact that “the idea of humanitas . . . presumed for centuries as what places human beings above the simple common life of other living . . .  increasingly comes to adhere to its own biological material” and is more and more “reduced to its pure vital substance.”[9] This flattening “into the purely biological” is symptomatically revealed in the many disciplinary shifts I have before very quickly mentioned in my cartography.

It is in my view the unprecedented intertwinement of the human condition and cutting edge scientific programs, molecular biology and neuroscience firstly, that mainly produces today this absorption of our ontology into its natural layer, life itself at the level of its genes, molecules and neurones. Such a deep reassessment of the symbolic structure of being human does indeed prove extremely traumatic for much of the European, post-Kantian tradition (with its deep-rooted antinaturalism[10]), but this is something we have to leave aside in this paper. This focus on the role of the sciences in provoking the collapse of the symbolic dimension of the human onto its biological layer, and its reduction to “mere living matter” (Esposito) is in my view the crucial heuristic point to address the original features of biopolitics and biopower today, in what it seems not inappropriate to call “a neurobiological era.” But this focus on the importance of the life-sciences is exactly what is missed in some of the most influential philosophical analysis of biopolitics today. What a curious paradox! In an age intensely marked by the life-sciences, in which scientific naturalism seems to be the only great narrative originating from the Enlightenment that is still alive and well (and rather, that has filled the void produced by the collapse of other narratives like Marxism); in an age where biological concepts such as the gene and the brain have acquired an unprecedented iconic force, a public dimension, and a metonymic power to signify what is more intimate in ourselves, it remains difficult to understand how philosophers who are critically engaged in the task of addressing biopolitics “as an ontology of the present” can achieve that by completely ignoring the way leading sciences really work today, and concretely set the tone of the biopolitical discourse. Can we really have any in-depth analysis of biopower out of any reference to the epistemological dimension of its prefix, that bios which is continuously remade and reconfigured in the history of life-sciences?

Making a point of principle not to care about science and its history, and therefore not to show any interest in the “historical epistemology” of concepts like “biology” (a lack of which, certainly Michel Foucault could not be blamed) constitutes a real failure in two influential philosophical readings of contemporary biopower: the works of Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito. In Agamben for instance, biopolitics and biopower fall more or less directly from the sky of metaphysical events, they have no histories and discontinuities or nuances to show. Their relations to the advent of modernity as the age when life itself has been for the first time addressed as such, that is as an “object of knowledge among others,”—a crucial point in Foucault’s The Order of Things [11], is completely missed. Not to mention here that in Agamben’s philosophical take-up of the term, biopower is defined solely by its capacity to kill, its deadly aspects, and not by its being a much more intricate and subtle “political economy of life,” a way of remaking people, as Foucaldians would say today.

Esposito’s work, and particularly his recent important book Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, is historically more accurate than Agamben’s in many respects, but his project to read our biopolitical present solely through the lens of the murderous Nazi past (which Esposito considers the culmination of modern biopolitics), and therefore to address contemporary biopower as a projection and a generalization of Nazi biopolitics, or better thanatopolitics, seems utterly misguided[12]. Is really the biology of today neoliberal regimes of governmentality the same as that of the Nazi period, that is a biology of “inevitability,” “destiny,” “essence,” and “degeneration”? Is the biology of today a “biology of ‘depth’,” like in the Nazi time, that “tried to discover the underlying organic laws that lay behind and determined the functioning of closed living systems,” or rather, to say it with Nikolas Rose, a new biological thought-style that operates “in a ‘flattened’ field of open circuits” and sustain a biopolitical discourse where at stake is less “destiny,” and more “risk,” “vulnerability,” “intervention,” and “optimization,” with each of these concepts elaborated at a “molecular level”?[13]

An intellectual historian, I guess, would be surprised to notice how anti-Foucauldian is the style of inquiry of philosophers who today aim to expand on Foucault’s analysis of biopower. As Rabinow and Rose have put it: “when Foucault introduced the term [of biopolitics] in the last of his College de France lectures of 1975–6, Society must be defended (2002), he is precise about the historical phenomena which he is seeking to grasp. He enumerates them: issues of the birth rate, and the beginnings of policies to intervene upon it; issues of morbidity, not so much epidemics but the illnesses that are routinely prevalent in a particular population and sap its strength, requiring interventions in the name of public hygiene and new measures to coordinate medical care; the problems of old age and accidents to be addressed through insurantial mechanisms; the problem of the race and the impact upon it of geographic, climatic and environmental conditions, notably in the town. The concept of biopower is proposed after ten years of collective and individual research on the genealogy of power over life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[14]

One might say that in contemporary philosophical theorizations on biopolitics à la Agamben or à la Esposito there is a detrimental split between Foucault as political thinker, the Foucault who saw Modernity as as the epoch of an immediate reflection of “biological existence . . . in political existence”[15], a Foucault who is taken very seriously (as it should be), and Foucault as historian of the sciences, who addressed Modernity as the threshold of a new epistemic spatialization, where life was first conceived as “a regional and autonomous discourse,” a latter Foucault who is completely overlooked. (By the way the opposite is true for historians of science, who know well the Foucault of The Order of Things but disconnect him from the political implications of his late elaboration on of biopower).

Is there scope for reconciliation between a historical epistemology of the concept of bios and its political implications? Hopefully there is, a cross-fertilization of the two perspectives is much needed if we want to entirely understand the intricacies of biopower today, whose structure lies exactly at the crossroads of these two dimensions. Let me conclude in this direction by hinting just very preliminarily at one possible way of gathering these two viewpoints. I refer to a possible application of the Agambenian bare life to that specific figure of life that is produced in contemporary scientific endeavour, especially by genetics and neuroscience. My suggestion is to see how productive it would be to address Agamben’s idea of the emergence of a bare, cultureless and formless dimension of the living, not as a consequence of its exposure to the sovereign power that manifested itself paradigmatically in the concentration camps or in the figure of the refugee, but because of life’s subjection to the objectifying scientific gaze at work today in the scientific labs all over the world. One can paraphrase Agamben by saying that production of bare life is not only the originary activity of sovereignty but, in its own way, also the originary activity of modern technoscience. What else has been the impact on the idea of humanness of molecular biology first and neuroscience afterwards if not the emergence of a bare dimension of life (life itself at the level of its genes, molecules and neurones) that becomes for these disciplines an immediate site of truth about of ourselves? What else comes to light through the remaking of the idea of the living provoked by genetics and neuroscience if not a formless and cultureless dimension of the living no longer contaminated by society, culture, and reason, all intellectual values greatly discredited after the end of great narratives, in favor of natural and scientific ones?[16]

Such a transformation, of bios into zoe, or at least such widespread effort to reshape our form of life putting at its center “the sheer vital dimensions of existence” can, suggests Paul Rabinow, be noticed everywhere: from “the obsession with health, fitness, pre-natal diagnosis, life-sustaining systems, living wills, plastic surgery, evolutionary moralism—altruism—aggression, male bonding, gay genes, female relational capacities, Prozac . . . , cloning, diet, nutrition, etc., etc., etc.”[17] All are indicators of this shift in which le vivant increasingly absorbs le vécu, to recall Canguilhem’s famous distinction (as Rabinow does). That are no longer coercive State apparatuses with their early twenty century dream to “control the political make-up of populations” and manage the “health of the body politic”[18] but the irresistible intertwinement of the imperatives of “a market economy of health” and cutting edge techno-scientific programs to nourish all of this, should speak of the radical discontinuities of the current state of biopower in a neurobiological era, and the necessity for a renewed, empirically grounded, analysis of its contemporary dimension.

Since I am speaking at a Telos conference let me conclude by saying that this reference to the empirical level and this urgency for political theory to focus on the latest developments coming from the sciences was, after all, the original program of Critical Theory, and in particular Horkheimer’s ambition of a social philosophy “enriched and supplemented by empirical work in the same way that natural philosophy was dialectically related to individual scientific disciplines”[19], a point further re-elaborated in his inaugural address “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research” (1931), where Horkheimer invoked “the idea of a continuous, dialectical penetration . . . of philosophical theory and specialized scientific praxis” and hoped “to organize investigations stimulated by contemporary philosophical problems in which philosophers, sociologists, economists, historians, and psychologists are brought together in permanent collaboration.”[20] This is the task that an in-depth analysis of biopower today should require of scholars from different disciplines.[21]


1. Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), p. 1.

2. Michel Foucault, “Kant on Enlightenment and Revolution”, Economy and Society 15 (1986): 88-96, here pp. 95-96.

3. Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, p.1, translation slightly modified.

4. Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007).

5. Nancy Andreasen, Schizofrenia: from Mind to Molecule (New York: Am. Psychiatric Group, 1994); Eric Kandel & Larry Squire, Memory: From Mind to Molecules (New York: Freeman, 1999); Abraham Rudnick, “The Molecular Turn in Psychiatry: A Philosophical Analysis,” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 27 (2002): 287-96

6. Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, p. 188.

7. Mika La Vaque-Manty, “Nature’s New Constraints? Political Theory and the Life Sciences Boom,” unpublished (2006) (accessed at, June 2007).

8. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 299.

9. Roberto Esposito, Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008).

10. See my “Naturalism as an Ontology of Ourselves,” forthcoming in Telos.

11. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970) pp. 274ff.

12. I have further elaborated these points in my review of Esposito’s book that is forthcoming in Economy and Society, 2010.

13. All quotations in this paragraph from Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, pp. 15, and 204-205; see on this Meloni 2010, forthcoming.

14. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, “Biopower Today,” BioSocieties 1 (2006): 195–217, here p. 199.

15. Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978), p. 142.

16. It is exactly this political mechanism of substitution of values (from culture and politics to science and nature) that makes contemporary naturalism so attractive today, especially for moral and political philosophers. This is the subject of a project of a book I am currently working on about Naturalism and Modernity.

17. Paul Rabinow, “French Enlightenment: truth and life,” Economy and Society 27 (1998):193-201, here p. 200.

18. Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, especially chapter 2.

19. Quoted in Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973) p. 25.

20. Max Horkheimer, “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. 9.

21. This transcription of my talk at the Telos conference 2010 draws in part from an article forthcoming in Telos (“Naturalism as an Ontology of Ourselves”) and, in some passages, from a second one in press for Economy and Society (“Biopolitics Today”). The colloquial style of the intervention has been conserved in the text. Maurizio Meloni is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute for Science and Society, School of Sociology and Social Policy, the Univ. of Nottingham, UK. Email:

Comments are closed.