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Racism as a Governing Apparatus: The Biopower of Michel Foucault

I first heard the name, “Michel Foucault” during my undergraduate work… barely scratching the surface to his in depth thought, analyses, and historical overviews in linguistics and power systems. As a graduate student, I learned even more about the power of language, power systems and how we can use language to either give or take away institutional power. Rather than bogging down this thread with heavy discourse theory, I will provide some thoughts on racism for today’s volatile uprising in race talks.


Around the 19th century, there began a shift in the form of governance from sovereign power based on punishment and death to control and discipline its population to a new form of power.

Foucault identified this new form of power as “biopower,” a governance technique focused on various mechanisms that subjugated individual bodies for population control [1]

According to Foucault, biopower is a form of power that was concerned with the administration, optimization, and fostering of life by promoting the care for and well-being of its population under the state’s control [2].

From biopower emerged “biopolitics,” a second form of biopower ‘focused on the species body’… of reproduction, mortality, health, life expectancy, and so on [3]

Under this new form of power, the population is managed through knowledge. For example, the emergence of demography via the evaluation of the relationship between resources and inhabitants was one way this modern power was able to achieve population control [1]

The state no longer managed its population through punishment, i.e. physical death, but rather through political rationality for precise control and comprehensive regulations. 

In this sense, biopower moves from a sovereign power with the right to ‘kill and let live‘, to a biopolitical governance concerned with to ‘make live and let die‘ [2, 3].

Biopower and racism

Within this modern power’s desire to administrate, optimize, and foster the biological makeup of its population was “the latent potential to eliminate that which is perceived to threaten the vital health of the population” [4]

Biopower’s ability to be preoccupied with the care of its population, and to ‘make live,’ while at the same time exercising the elimination of certain sectors of the population by ‘let[ting] die,’ is what Foucault regarded as the paradoxes of biopower.

Foucault was interested in how biopower can justify its killing (killing here is metaphorical) “if it is true that its basic function is to improve life, to prolong its duration, to improve its chance, to avoid accidents, and to compensate for failings” [2]

In other words, if biopower’s function is to maximize the wellbeing of its population, how do we account for the part of the population that slip from the care of the State? What are the mechanisms by which, if any, biopower can justify its power to make some live, while it let(s) others die?

Michel Foucault on power. Photo for mind on fire books website

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For Foucault, the answer was racism.

Foucault regarded racism as the mechanism by which biopower exercises the right to ‘make live and let die,’ and contended “racism is inscribed at the basic mechanism of power, as it is exercised in modern States” [2].  

For Foucault, racism is a governing apparatus that establishes the racial subject as a threat to the social body that needs to be removed from society via means of institutions, such as prisons, residential segregation, and so forth [2]

In fact, Foucault goes as far as to assert that this kind of racism is not “a truly ethnic racism, but racism of the evolutionist kind, biological racism” to “justify the exercise of the sovereign right to kill in an economy of power concerned with the life and well-being of the population” [2 (p. 261)]. 

The historical construction of the black body, which I will discuss in detail below, greatly illustrates this argument.

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The racial subject: A genealogy of racism and the black body 

The historical construction of the black body can be traced back to the 17th century when the development of the global market and trade between continents laid the foundation for racial classifications to emerge.

The growing industrialization of America’s economy in the 17th century called for a large labor force to produce goods to meet the market demand. During that time, highly civilized West African societies were engaged in trade relations with Europeans, and these West African nations had a ready supply of slaves to trade with Europeans in exchange for weapons and other resources [5]

The new power that emerged around the same time, concerned with the protection of its population, needed a justification for the enslavement of black bodies. This, in turn, led to the fabrication of a new type of categorization for humanity, i.e. racial categories.

Thomas Jefferson was the first to suggest the natural inferiority of black people, bringing science to the support his race ideology, as a rationale for the enslavement of blacks . A scientific explanation of race fought to assert the natural superiority of whites and the inherent inferiority of blacks. In the early 20th century, intelligence tests became the dominant way in which scientists tried to document significant differences between black people and whites [5].

As Enoch eloquently put it, “medical discourse served to create biologized subjects through the establishment of racial norms and their application as part of a statewide regulatory apparatus.” [4 (p. 70)].

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Around the turn of the 20th century, biological explanations for racial difference were deemed inadequate and unscientific. Various medical experts denounced racial differences as biological, which changed the social discourse on race and racism.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of any scientific evidence to prove its validity, the 18th century ideology of race as something that is natural and biological continues to have a lingering influence on contemporary social realities of different racial groups.

Biopolitics ability to construct biological explanations, i.e. racial differences, for a host of social problems has greatly increased the potential for biopower to divide human beings into competing races, normalizing the view that the ‘death’ of the inferior race will make life in general healthier [4].

Death in this sense is symbolical— the inferior “Other” is left to ‘die’ through segregation, isolation, and eventually eradication from the broader society.

The killing of the inferior subject is exercised and then justified, through the discourse on the biologized black subject that is continuously conflated with the discourses of inferiority and criminality implicated in a host of social ills.

Simply put, the construction of the black body as a threat to society justifies their punishment, whether it is through segregated neighbourhoods, police brutality, and the prison–industrial complex.

As black people continue to be presented as a threat to the social body, their elimination from the broader society through segregation, isolation, and eventually eradication becomes to be rationalized and justified under the protection of the social body deemed worthy of protection by biopower governance [3, 4].

Michel Foucault, mind on fire books website

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To conclude, a critical analysis of Foucault’s work on racism, the racial subject, and biopower reveals the constructedness of our racialized world that, nonetheless, have real and devastating consequences for racial minorities [6]

Foucault’s idea of racism breaks away from the common understanding of racism as a form of irrational prejudice, social discrimination, and political ideology, and encourages us to rethink racism as a form of biopolitical government that impinges on individuals in their most basic relationship to themselves and others [6].

Evidently, racism should be re-conceptualized as a governmental rationality that is central to the apparatus of biopower in the 21st century.

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From Plato to Longinus: A Brief History on Writing and Arrangement

“Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head nor without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work” – Plato in Phaedrus

Much has been said about this subject since its conception as an integral element to rhetoric by the Ancient Greek culture, at least in Western Traditions.  Numerous treatise have been documented since then and there are many perspectives to look at when studying arrangement.  This particular review will focus on a few rhetoricians of antiquity: Plato; Aristotle; Cicero and Longinus.  Since the term “arrangement” is not a set definition, it becomes an idea or philosophy of how and where to apply its conditions.  The canon of arrangement shifts in importance depending on the rhetorician, culture and even political background.  But on the other hand, critics do agree on “at least this much: Every speech must be put together like a living creature, with a body of its own; it must be neither without head now without legs; and it must have a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work” (Plato, Phaedrus.)  So, lets take a step back into the days of the orator and begin with our Greek origins, at the heart of Athens.

From Plato’s text, Phaedrus the character of Socrates begins his inquiry into arrangement.  Plato uses one of the prime literary pamphlets, One Eroticus by Lysias, distributed in Athens to begin the conversation and study on what rhetoric was thought to be.  Plato was already been aware of the traditional four part structure being used in the Senate and knew exactly how important arrangement is (introduction, narrative, proof and conclusion.)   Except Plato makes a jab at the four-part structure and draws an analogy that the characters Socrates and Phaedrus refer to its structure as having “distinguished four parts within the divine kind” (Phaedrus.)  Calling these four parts something of a divine kind is a sarcastic remark on how all the major rhetoricians of the day follow that structure.  Plato has already made it apparent at this point that arrangement is important, he is merely questioning the standard because he believes that rhetoric “takes many forms, like the shape of bodies, since, as we said, that’s what it Is to demonstrate the nature of something.”  Even though these definitions are quite ornamental, nonetheless, Plato has begun to define arrangement.

Brief History on Arrangement
From Plato to Longinus by Mind on Fire Books, written by Willy Martinez

  A once claimed student of Plato, Aristotle eventually develops his own ideas on rhetoric which he expels in his lectures, published posthumously as On Rhetoric.  In book 3 of this treatise, he applies his investigate methods to breaking down the different ways to talk and make a statement.  The section addressed as arrangement was known as “taxis” to the Greeks which is translated by George Kennedy as having had a connotation to “the arrangement of troops for battle” because “the speaker needs to marshal the available means of persuasion for debate” (Aristotle.)  He lets the reader know that since the orator acts as a guide through the facts, he has to be able to move the reader or listener to react with certain emotions (Aristotle.)  Even though his method is aimed at objectively studying arrangement, Aristotle admits that any narration should be indicative of character, and that this character is reflected by how he manages the facts. Similar to Plato’s critique of the standard for arrangement, Aristotle agrees that “current [writers of rhetoric] make ridiculous divisions”, because they do not properly address the different contexts of the three different types of speeches; the deliberative, judicial and epideictic (Aristotle.)  Aristotle then studies how to deliberate and narrate each type of speech (Aristotle).  Different from the traditional four part structure is his foundation for a six part arrangement: Introduction, statement of facts, division, proof, refutation and conclusion.  This new six part structure begins to develop what will become stasis theory, which is a way of looking at fact, or evidence in a case in order to build an argument.  Stasis theory relies heavily on the arrangement of these facts and evidence.

speaker marshals persuasion

Next up on the rostra is Cicero.  In the introduction to Cicero’s On the Ideal Orator, the editor describes a time when the handbooks of the time were leaving the canon of arrangement emptier of content than should be.  The handbooks were clumping the art of arrangement into the same process as invention.  Cicero is said to have understood the importance of a more systematic approach, so he chooses to go back to Aristotle’s approach to arrangement rather than follow the trend at the time (31).  The character Catalus asks his friend Antonius before his departure, “What do you think is the best order of the arguments” (Cicero.)  Cicero expresses his ideas through guise of character and reinforces Aristotle’s presentation of the six part speech (intro, state facts, division, proof, refutation, conclusion) in order to find truth (Cicero.)    In book 2, Cicero further investigates the importance of Arrangement.  He claims that there are two main principals: “one is inherent in the nature of our cases” (208).  It is important to have mastery over the arrangement of arguments because that is how the orator will stir up emotions in his audience.  He then runs through the reasons of his arrangement model, but note that Cicero’s character only identifies three parts, he has condensed proof, refutation and the conclusion (Cicero.)  Yet, still the same as Aristotle’s six parts, only condensed into three.  In book 3, Cicero’s character expresses the importance of arrangement because even if the orator changes one word, they actually change the whole sentence and that an orator can say the same thing in different ways and still convene the same meaning.  This same evidence can also be used to support his ideas of style which are closely related to arrangement.

The next rhetorician to say something about Arrangement is Quintilian in his Institutes of Oratory.  I will not go into detail as to what he says since these readings were not assigned for the class, I would just like to point out where to find Quintilian’s ideas on arrangement for further references.  He devotes book 4 to managing the parts of a forensic speech, book 5 to proofs/arrangement and then promotes stasis theory at book 7.  Stasis theory is something that began with Aristotle and gets added to, transformed or upgraded to the different rhetoricians.

plato on speeches arrangement      The last of the rhetoricians to have said something about arrangement may come from Longinus.  Except his thoughts on the subject are not prescriptive, in fact, Longinus sets out to identify the elements of lofty aesthetics in On the Sublime, so he deals mostly with style and arrangement is not spoke of in a technical manner.  In section 10, Longinus says that there is “a law of nature that in all things there are certain constituent parts, coexistent with their substance” and that the rhetor must have “the power of afterwards combining them into one animate whole”.  Longinus provides the reader with a passage written by Sappho because her “peculiar excellence lies in the felicity with which she chooses and unites together the most striking and powerful features” (Longinus.)   Longinus’s mention of ‘arrangement’ as a canon is subtle and even implicit.  This treatise does not spell out any tangible accounts of what arrangement should be.

“a law of nature that in all things there are certain constituent parts, coexistent with their substance” – Longinus

The classical rhetorical canon of arrangement and its studies by rhetoricians of antiquity still has merit.  We still discuss the art of arrangement today, in our speech, our advertisements, and plans for the day and interacting in our daily lives.  Even though we aren’t all Senate members or interested in legal language, the classical rhetoricians have identified parts of speech that affect all types of communication.

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What English Teachers Should Know About Formal Grammar


Before the foundation is laid for what it is that teachers should know about formal grammar, perhaps it is best to describe some of the assumptions about formal grammar as presented by Constance Weaver, which are: humans learn easily, simply by being exposed; grammar exercises will help students correct themselves automatically; knowledge acquired, will automatically transfer to writing; people will master the socially prestigious conventions of spoken or written usage and that the study of grammar will help people master another language more readily.

Once these assumptions are understood or agreed upon, we then have to take a look at the research that has been conducted upon these topics of grammatical discourse.  According to the research conducted by different institutions (i.e. Curriculum Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English), the traditional way of teaching grammar does not hold up to the standards to which are bestowed upon them; meaning, that all of the assumptions as listed above, are not entirely true, in fact, some of them are not true at

So if “research apparently gave no support to the idea that teaching grammar would help students develop mental discipline, master another language or become better users of their native language,” then what are some alternative routes to implanting a strategy that will work?

Here it is: what teachers need to know is that the traditional method of teaching grammar is not as effective as it is thought to be, therefore, teachers should incorporate a more useful methodology in their class room.  Other styles that teachers can use are structural and transformational grammar.


Transformational grammar emphasizes how surface structures can be generated from hypothesized deep, underlying structures, and how underlying structures can be transformed into different stylistic variants.  This method utilizes relationships between stylistic variants and offers students a more malleable approach to learning grammar.  Teachers can also combine the use of stylistic variants with sentence combining to provide more fluidity in language usage: O’Hare’s research suggests that sentence combining practice alone can enhance syntactic maturity and writing quality, without grammatical terminology or the study of grammar.

Overall, the research has shown that even though the use of transformational grammar or sentence combining does not increase efficiency by much, they do produce more growth in grammatical knowledge than the traditional verse of formal grammar.

detentionIf teachers wish to truly enhance their students’ knowledge about grammar, then they should definitely consider mixing the different styles of teaching grammar in order to provide a lucid learning environment for the multitude of minds in the classroom; we all learn different.  Therefore, it would be who of you, to switch up your teaching method.