Embodying Japan: Cultures of Sport, Beauty, and Medicine 2017

Origin Story of Biopower: History

                 So theoretically, it is important to understand the origin story of Foucault’s term, ‘biopower’. What exact observations about asylums lead him to these grandiose conclusions about the pervasive nature of the nation-state over populace bodies? Referencing his text ‘Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason’ provides the history necessary to understand his theory.
                Asylums were not created overnight. The first institutions were called ‘correction houses’ and were opened in England during a time of great recession. Those who joined these houses were members of the populace who found themselves unable to join the workforce. These houses were designed to aid these individuals in learning how to become productive members of society. After the economy recovered in 1651, “what had been a moral requirement became an economic tactic” and these houses’ incentive transitioned from humanitarianism to considering that “all able-bodied manpower [should] be used to the best advantage, that is, as cheaply as possible” (52). In France, hospitals were created in order to house beggars and operated under the motto that “all the poor who [were] capable of working must, upon work days, do what is necessary to avoid idleness, which is the mother of all evils…to earn some part of their sustenance” (53). In both countries, and elsewhere in the industrialized world, those who did not aid in economic productivity were sent to these institutions in order to be altered… or used. Individuals who sought aid in these houses and hospitals gradually adopted the term ‘interees’ and ‘inmates’, reflecting their demarcation from the rest of society, and the labor they executed while incarcerated was exploited by their ‘caregivers’. An actually attempt was even made in France in 1781, to substitute horses with teams of prisoners to transport water in the cities (53). The bodies that did not or could not enact the economically productive interests of the nation-state were forced into embodying the nation-state’s power. Ultimately, these institutions became known as asylums, and their inmates were no longer simply struggling workers seeking aid, but deemed ‘insane’.
                Incentive for economic productivity caused human nature to be conflated with mental sanity. To re-state even more macro, the nation-state’s interests shaped the psychology of being human and how that is expressed by bodies. The power dynamic is inescapable; both satiating and defying the interests of the nation-state condemns a citizenry to a pre-described state of human existence.
                The pervasive tendrils of nation-state influence are theoretically inescapable, but this does not mean resistance does not occur. Relevant to class material, attempts at defiance to ‘biopower’ are observed plentifully in the culture of Japan. From tattoos, to beauty standards, spiritual beliefs, and physical isolation, strides are taken by the Japanese citizenry that highlight unconscious and/or conscious protest to their shaping. By understanding the theoretical and historical background of ‘biopower’, a much richer understanding to what exactly is being defied is provided. 

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