Foucault in the Slaughterhouse

The following is the draft of a paper I gave at the recent ‘Radical Foucault’ conference at UEL.

The disciplinary underbelly in the margins of control


I think it is fair to say that the importance accruing to the publication of Foucault’s lectures cannot be overstated. Three in particular, Society Must be Defended; Security, Territory, Population; and The Birth of Biopolitics, insofar as the content of these lectures did not directly result in works published during Foucault’s lifetime, necessitate a rigorous reappraisal of the ongoing relevance of his thought. In particular, they offer a detailed rejoinder to many subsequent critiques regarding the limitations of biopolitics when understood solely as an order of disciplinarity. Donna Haraway’s influential “Manifesto for Cyborgs” from 1985, in which she describes Foucault’s biopolitics as “a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics,” offers a good example of what will become a fairly standard criticism. [i] With the publication of the lectures, however, it becomes clear that, under the notions of “security” and “governmentality,” Foucault had already offered an in-depth engagement with what for Haraway characterises a more “erect,” post-Foucauldian informatics of domination, which she describes as being constituted and differentiated by control strategies which concentrate on rates of flow enabling an unlimited circulation, on reproductive capacities in terms of population control, and on the effective management of stress points or blockages; probabilistic and statistical, she continues, such control strategies are formulated in terms of the costs of constraints and degrees of freedom.

A few years later, Gilles Deleuze, despite having previously made the point that for Foucault there is no abrupt discontinuity between the various historical orderings of power, but rather an always uneven topography of transition with each new formation emerging “with gaps, traces and reactivations of former elements,”[ii] he will nevertheless suggest that, even while Foucault was writing, his time was in fact already past: “a disciplinary society,” writes Deleuze, “was what we already no longer were.”[iii] Again, however, the lectures make clear that not only was Foucault already aware that the disciplinary order had seceded its primacy to the generalised mechanisms of security, but also that fragmentary orderings of disciplinarity and sovereignty not only remain with us, but are vital to our understanding both of history and of practices of resistance. For example, in locating the invocation of right as “taking place on the front where the heterogeneous layers of discipline and sovereignty meet,” it becomes all too clear that not only can the contemporary reactivation of bourgeois right in no way limit the effects of disciplinary power, but also that an entirely new resistance politics is required once we begin to attend to the generalised order of security.[iv]

Taking the multiply-penetrated bodies of nonhuman animals as an example, I aim to suggest that a Foucauldian analysis remains essential if we are to understand the apparent conflict or conflation of orders which today both organises and produces nonhuman bodies, and at the same time to demonstrate some of the ways our society of security remains both supported and constrained by an increasingly marginalised disciplinary mode of production. This is because it is within the windowless walls of Western slaughter-factories that all those apparently outmoded forms of a capitalism of enclosure are perhaps most explicitly maintained right alongside, and meshing with, the most futural informatic and control networks, exemplified both by the working practices of agribusiness transnationals and by the genetically engineered animals of biotechnology, be they oversized blind hens or so-called “pharm” animals biologically modified so as to produce helpful pharmaceuticals along with their more usual bodily fluids. To understand the combined discipline and security of slaughter, however, requires that we follow Foucault and analyse how infinitesimal mechanisms of disciplinary power come to be invested, transformed, displaced, and re-used by the increasingly general mechanism of security in such a way as to disclose how, at this given moment and in this specific formation, such technologies of power become once again economically profitable and politically useful.[v]

In other words, it is only at the intersection of security’s reactivation of disciplinarity that it becomes possible to track the various transformations—of which I can obviously only offer a rough sketch here—which, since the decline of Western meat consumption as a result of increasing health concerns, have led both to the “immigrantisation” of meat production in the West and to the export of an apparently Western “life-style” of meat consumption by agribusiness giants like Smithfield and Tyson, aided and abetted by the World Bank, to various developing nations. This double shift has been achieved in part by way of framing notions of “progress” and “modernity” in conjunction with “status,” “virility” and, somewhat ironically, “health” on the one hand and, on the other, by the targeted construction of enormous institutions of disciplined death and disarticulation on the outskirts of Western towns already devastated by poverty and racial tensions: a geopolitical development which, as Foucault has already shown in his discussion of town-planning, “organizes elements that are justified by their poly-functionality.”[vi] In place of the nineteenth-century spectacle of disciplinary slaughter, however, today the blank walls and blank-faced guards defending the slaughter-factories of the ghettoised North serve in part to mark the fact that such a degree of concentrated, enclosed exploitation is no longer acceptable in the “clean” disembodied information age of postindustrial governmentality—at least, that is, for the “civilised” citizens of the North.


Another way to say this would be that, insofar as the marks of the colonial-imperial order are necessarily retained by the disciplinary apparatuses despite their reutilisation, they must therefore be hidden. As Foucault insists, the new technology of power emerging in the second half of the eighteenth century does not exclude disciplinary technologies, but rather dovetails into them, transforming their uses as it embeds itself within them.[vii] Thus disciplinary techniques are thereafter put to work instead upon material givens, upon natural processes and upon flows of people and resources, solely in order to maximise those elements which provide the best possible circulation whilst minimising the chances of blockage—blockages which include not only theft and illness, but also worker solidarity, empathy, unionising, capitalist-worker polarisation, and so on.[viii] In Foucault’s words, the essential function of security is to “respond to a reality in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds,” a function which makes use of instruments of discipline where necessary.[ix] Central to this process is that of ensuring that everything is constantly moving around, continually going from one point to another—a circulation which paradoxically cancels the very dangers of circulation.”[x] In this way, certain types of “risky” communities and shared knowledges are blocked, while other empty forms, such as those employed by agribusinesses based upon native-foreigner, legal-illegal, and men’s work-women’s work binaries, with all their concomitant animalisation, are naturalised through this constant movement, thus guaranteeing that nothing blocks the smooth functioning of the economic mechanism and ensuring therefore the security of processes intrinsic to production.[xi]

Here, we begin to perceive that, while the archetypal Taylorist and Fordist techniques of disciplinary control remain clearly visible within the slaughter-factory, a new order of power has nonetheless embedded itself within them. While the same unstoppable disassembly lines continue to neutralise the violence of killing and to transform tens of thousands of workers into animate organs of its machine, compelled by its relentless speed to cut out a set number of kidneys every minute, to slice off so many feet and empty out so many stomachs, a major and widespread mechanism of contemporary security is nonetheless explicitly revealed, one which displaces, extends, and works over the figures and spaces of colonialism by organising multiple so-called “natural” ethnic divisions among the workers as an element of control in the labour process. Hence the second reason for the institutionalised blinding of the slaughter-factory.

While Hardt and Negri have noted how transnationals now routinely address different ethnic groups with “different methods and different degrees of exploitation and repression so as to enhance profit and facilitate control,”[xii] it is Foucault, however, who demonstrates how the utilisation by security mechanisms of the same instruments of discipline serve no longer to ensure the artificial standardisation of the worker but rather only the naturalisation of the freedom of production. Such mechanisms, in short, are not strictly economic, but rather ensure the functioning of economic exchange.[xiii] Thus, as Foucault shows, security technologies operate instead upon legislation, upon structures and institutions of society, facilitating in this way population transfers and migration while organising enmities and privileges by placing restrictions on training, instigating national hatreds by modifying certain laws while conspicuously ignoring others, by articulating advantageous oppositions between the legal and the illegal, by imposing routine conditions on aid packages enabling a greater exploitation of foreign grazing lands, and so on and so on.

Furthermore, Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism as both associative and dissociative enables a move beyond the simplistic notion of liberal individualism which even Deleuze occasionally falls back on, such as when he claims in his “Postscript on the Societies of Control” that transnationals protect themselves from mass resistance by “presenting the brashest rivalry as an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within.”[xiv] Against this myth of a capitalist “state of nature,” of a war of each against all, which in fact serves to naturalise neoliberal individualism, Foucault instead introduces the potential for a far more radical critique of neoliberal societies of control, one which focuses on the gap between the “non-local” bond between economic subjects and the localised bonds of sympathy and benevolence and of contempt and malice between some individuals in so-called “civil” society, insofar as it is this gap which enables the economic manipulation of social differences, and yet it is precisely these differences which formally serve as the “medium” of its manipulation. In this way, however, economic manipulation inevitably destroys the very medium of community it requires in order to function. This in turn points to the necessity of resistance networks which function outside of both the oppositions constituting local “civil” society, and the empty formalism of a global economic structure.[xv]

Another, more recent criticism levelled at Foucault is that his analysis of biopolitics cannot account for the extraordinary advances within biotechnology. Eugene Thacker, for example, has recently sought to move “beyond” Foucault by focussing on the biopolitics of biotechnologies defined “as the ongoing regulation of the bioinformatic inclusion of ‘life itself’ into the political domain.” Information in this “new” biopolitics, writes Thacker, accounts not only for the material and embodied, but also can produce the material and embodied, that is, it can produce “life itself,” while at the same time constituting the point of mediation which allows the continuous biopolitical regulation of “the relation between biology and informatics within the context of political and economic concerns” so as to reconfigure ““life itself” as open to intervention, control, and governance.” In short, “life itself” is now being produced as open to governmentality, alongside the various networks of uneven, asymmetrical production, distribution, and exchange. While this can perhaps be extrapolated from Foucault’s analyses, Thacker suggests, Foucault nonetheless leaves the relation between “biological ‘life itself’ and economics in the background,” with the latter being a mere “deviation of the aims of “governmentality.”[xvi] What Foucault’s lectures clearly demonstrate, however, is that governmentality in fact only functions so as to enable and to maintain this very illusion of “backgrounding.” While it is important to understand, as Thacker clearly does, that the way biopolitics manages the relation between “population” (as biological) and “statistics” (as informatics) is mediated by one or more systems of value, this is not, however, to move beyond the original purview of biopolitics as a result.

One can, for example, sketch out the rudiments of a Foucauldian analysis as regards the emergence of the “transgenic” sheep Polly and Dolly, themselves exemplary of the biotechnological revolution. Whereas the disciplinary order discretised time into minutes and seconds and disarticulated bodies into elemental gestures in the quest for a perfectly efficient worker-tool, the aim of our new postindustrial factories is to both employ and embody “life itself” by displacing the linear irreversibility of “natural” chronological time and instituting an undetermined network in its place. These “new” factories, also known as “bioreactors,” are the transgenic animals themselves: material givens which security mechanisms serve to open to undetermined circulation by the facilitation of apparently “natural” processes. It is no coincidence that the term “bioreactor” also names the machines which both culture cells and subject them to physical stimuli in order to incite nonspecific “protoforms” to self-assemble into specified morphologies. The aim, in short, is not to discipline, but only to facilitate an apparently natural economy of exchange. At the same time, as Sarah Franklin has shown, such facilitation requires that the scientific labourers voluntarily impose upon themselves various regimes of disciplinary technologies in order to protect the articifically enclosed space of their labs from natural processes of contamination.[xvii]

This reworked notion of the genetically-engineered animal-as-factory is symptomatic of the more general shift from life conceived metaphorically as information, to life understood practically as its literal actualisation which can be patented and thus commodified. Constituted as an accumulation of power-knowledges, such a body is thus re-constituted as a mediated and distributed materiality entirely suited to the highly mobile, geographically dispersed networks of postindustrial capital. In other words, as the nonhuman animal becomes at once informatic network, fleshly materiality and speculative capital, at the same time legislation, structures, and institutions play their part in securing control over the flows of a new form of techno-bio-logical reproduction, facilitating for example both the outsourcing of clinical trials from North to South and the unregulated global trade in unfertilised human eggs from South to North. Meanwhile, in the suburban ghettos of the North, the old disciplinary-model slaughterhouse remains, only it is has been deregulated and displaced into the margins, further faciliating the transfer of things and the migration of bodies by way of a continuous noxious counter-circulation from North to South and back again.

Finally then, by analysing the displacement and re-investment of disciplinary technologies within the order of security, it therefore becomes possible to disclose the two contradictory temporalities underpinning their interarticulation. On the one side, the North exports to the South an evolutionary narrative of “progress” and “modernity” as a rationale for market and geophysical coercion while, on the other, we find a second narrative in operation within the North itself, that of post-modernist reversibility, recapacitation, and immortality. This in turn serves to push the South ever further into the margins of “base” industrial production figured by a myth of redemptive temporality: the promise of a “modern” future for which the poor must sacrifice themselves today. At the same time, the poor and marginalised of the North are reduced to desolation on the basis of the capitalist promise of an incalculable future which nonetheless remains dependent upon the historical yet naturalised limits of capitalism, limits which inevitably impoverish—and excuse—the present. We can also better understand the promise performed so conspicuously by Dolly herself. A singular, nonsubstitutable materiality that is at once patentable and, more importantly, infinitely reproducible, she brings together in and as one body the promise of both the industrial and the postindustrial, both discipline and control, in a mutual articulation of informatics, biotechnology and immortality on the one hoof, and a global agribusiness dealing in biotechnologically-accelerated death on the other. She intersects too with the biopolitical pharmacology of health: life-enhancing pharmaceuticals crossing with death-accelerating antibiotics and growth hormones. For a few, Dolly represents the promise of a perpetually-extended human lifespan, while for a great many others she figures only the accelerated death of the slaughter-factory, the two extremes moving ever further apart.

History, in Foucault’s sense, is never the past. Rather it is that which constitutes “a knowledge of struggles that is deployed, and that functions within a field of struggles.”[xviii] This is at the core of all of Foucault’s writings, and I think it remains today a necessary starting point for a radical politics which seeks to struggle against those mechanisms which, all around us today, aim to secure as natural such extremes of control.

[i] Haraway “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” in The Haraway Reader 22

[ii] Deleuze Foucault (1986) 19

[iii] Deleuze “Postscript on the Societies of Control” 3

[iv] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 39. At the same time, the reactivation of bourgeois sovereign right—with, for example, the application of rights to nonhuman animals—becomes increasingly untenable as a challenge to disciplinary power. Indeed, Foucault was making this important point long before the publication of Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights.

[v] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 30-3

[vi] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 19

[vii] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 242

[viii] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 19

[ix] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 47

[x] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 65

[xi] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 353

[xii] Hardt & Negri Empire 200

[xiii] Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics 140-141

[xiv] Deleuze “Postscript on the Societies of Control” 5

[xv] Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics 301-2

[xvi] Thacker The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (2005) 28-30

[xvii] Franklin “The Cyborg Embryo: Our Path to Transbiology” (2006) 174

[xviii] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 171

About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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