The IdeaLab “The Biopolitical Condition”

By Stijn De Cauwer

Foucault archiveSince Michel Foucault described how life as such became the object of political attention, planning and intervention – a phenomenon he called biopolitics – his theories have attracted a large amount of academic and non-academic interest. The  ideas Foucault developed later in his life have become much more accessible because of the recent publication and translation of his lectures at the Collège de France. Foucault argued that in the 19th century new developments in city planning, the design of institutions and health planning led to the fact that our daily existence, from our most intimate habits to our physical behavior, had become heavily regulated. The modern functioning of power – biopower, as Foucault called it – is to direct our lives in the smallest details, practices or choices. Foucault thus relocates the working of power from the law or the government to simple daily practices, such as the way we walk and talk, spaces we inhabit or the media we use on a daily basis. Such a biopolitics will always go along with increased (self-)disciplining and control. However, because of Foucault’s death, his views on biopolitics remain sparse and fragmented, but it is precisely because of this that many contemporary scholars feel the need to complement or develop Foucault’s valuable suggestions. Gilles Deleuze, for example, argued that the mechanisms Foucault described have become even more extreme and invasive in our times of complex networks and virtual technologies.

The Academische Stichting Leuven provides funding for what they call IdeaLabs: these are groups of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers from different departments and faculties who will organize research activities or public events around a cutting-edge topic. In December 2014, the proposal for an IdeaLab on “The Biopolitical Condition” was approved for a period of two years. This group consists of researchers from Cultural Studies, Literary Studies, Philosophy, Social Sciences and Art History and together we will study the impact of Foucault’s theories of biopolitics on important new scholarship in our research fields. The fact that researchers from different faculties are interested in this topic already shows how great and diverse the influence of Foucault’s theories of biopolitics is: from philosophy of medicine to disability studies, from contemporary political philosophy to sociological studies about the current situation of refugees, from gender studies to biopolitics as a topic in literature and the arts… Especially in contemporary critical theory, with influential scholars such as Giorgio Agamben or Antonio Negri, the notion of biopolitics has become increasingly important. A good selection of some of the most important theoretical texts about biopolitics has recently been published by Duke University Press, titled Biopolitics: a Reader, edited by Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze.

During the next two years we will organize readings groups in which we discuss key texts and invite relevant speakers. Anyone who is interested in this topic can always join our reading group or come to our events!

For more information about the events of the IdeaLab:

For more information about IdeaLabs and the Academische Stichting (in Dutch):