The paradoxical liberty of bio-power: Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault on modern politics

Philosophy and Social Criticism 31 (3):369-380 (2005)
For Hannah Arendt, spontaneous, ‘initiatory’ human action and interaction are suppressed by the normalizing pressures of society once ‘life’ - that is, sheer life - becomes the primary concern of politics, as it does, she finds, in the modern age. Arendt’s concept of the social is indebted to Martin Heidegger’s analysis of everyday Dasein in Being and Time , and contemporary political philosophers inspired by Heidegger, such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Giorgio Agamben, tend to reproduce her account of the withdrawal of the political in modernity. In this article, I complicate Arendt’s theory by turning to Michel Foucault’s parallel but diverging understanding of the nature of power in modern society to show, surprisingly, that Foucault’s narrative of the emergence of modern power pictures a society that is more, not less, politicized. Key Words: Hannah Arendt • bio-power • Michel Foucault • Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe • modernity • Jean-Luc Nancy • pastoral power • the social • rulership.
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DOI 10.1177/0191453705051710
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