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Power over life from Agamben to Foucault: an examination of the question of sovereignty

Lallement, Maxime Thadee Rene (2015) Power over life from Agamben to Foucault: an examination of the question of sovereignty. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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This thesis starts by studying the specificity of Michel Foucault’s account of the emergence of bio-power in contrast to that developed by Giorgio Agamben. It focuses on the mutation of jurisdiction Foucault describes in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, which corresponds to the shift from the law of the sovereign to that of the norm. Challenging the idea that the concept of biological life can be spontaneously used to understand the type of relationship which links modern political power and life, this thesis questions the epistemological implications of this concept by inscribing it within Foucault’s wider description of the emergence of anthropological knowledge. Instead of understanding biopolitical modernity as the expression of the power of the sovereign, this thesis demonstrates that it is not the persistence of sovereign power but its transformation which allows to think the meaning of the concept of life targeted by human sciences. This thesis inscribes the historical emergence of anthropological knowledge within Foucault’s wider study of the Western history of subjectivity. It claims that it is the postulate of anthropological truth which provides a basis to the concept of norm. It demonstrates that anthropological knowledge is itself based upon an epistemological concept of truth which Foucault historicizes. This thesis argues that the concept of sovereignty can be used to problematize the relationship between the lives of individuals and their emergence as objects of knowledge. It shows that Foucault’s account of life as bios and aesthetics of existence provides a sense of the ethical sovereignty of the self which gets obliterated within the logic of the modern episteme.

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