The Biopolitics of Pleasure

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This essay reconsiders biopolitical theory in relation to Michel Foucault's pursuit of the problematic of pleasure during the final decade of his work. The question of pleasure straddles the temporal and methodological gulf that separates the first volume of his History of Sexuality from the second and third volumes eight years later. In seeking to retrieve the full complexity of Foucault's account of pleasure, my essay offers a critique of Giorgio Agamben's elision of pleasure from biopolitical theory, on one hand, and queer theoretical reductions of pleasure to sexual pleasure, on the other. Arguing that the category of pleasure is recruited to heterogeneous positions in Foucault's work, I trace the various purposes that it is enlisted to serve in his thinking, as well as the topological structure he evokes to conceptualize pleasure—that of the spiral. His famous "spirals of power and pleasure" provide an image of the inseparability of power not only from knowledge but also from pleasure. By way of Georges Canguilhem's reading of James Watson and Francis Crick, I contend that Foucault borrowed the model of those spirals from the double helix of DNA—and that the iconography of the life sciences thus provided the philosopher of biopower with a model for conceptualizing how power takes hold of life even at the "subindividual" level. The double helix gave Foucault not only a model for the imbrication of pleasure with power but also a biopolitical intuition about the molecularization of life. What Nikolas Rose calls the "molecularization of vitality" has displaced the human body as the principal unit of biopolitical interest, in favor less of the macro-effects characteristic of populations than of the micro-processes of subindividual life. Yet, in multiplying the sites of power's penetration, this biopolitical disaggregation of human anatomy has multiplied sites of possible pleasure too. I suggest that his preoccupation with rendering bodies "infinitely more susceptible to pleasure" derived from Foucault's conviction that the qualitative instability of pleasure makes it difficult for systems of knowledge to capture. Precisely insofar as pleasure thus may appear incompatible with philosophical or political seriousness, it remained a vital concern in Foucault's thinking.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)477-496
Number of pages20
JournalSouth Atlantic Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2012


  • FOUCAULT, Michel, 1926-1984
  • HISTORY of Sexuality, The (Book)
  • AGAMBEN, Giorgio, 1942-
  • BIOPOLITICS (Sociobiology)
  • SEXUAL excitement
  • DOUBLE helix structure


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