The "Birth" of Biopower

The "Birth" of Biopower in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Claudia Stein

Claudia Stein's research focused on the political and medical world of one of eighteenth-century Germany’s most powerful states, the electorate of Bavaria. She was particularly interested in the medical reform program initiated by the country's protomedicus Johann Anton von Wolter (1711–89). Von Wolter's life and work permits a fascinating insight into the development of medicine and science during the so-called Catholic Enlightenment. Moreover, his activities reflect the increasing concern of the Bavarian government with the protection and fostering of the physical life of its subjects. As in most other European states, in Bavaria, the "body" of the individual and the "body" of the population became relevant factors for political and economic management. High-profile bureaucrats such as Anton von Wolter began to create an administrative apparatus that would ensure not only the subjection of individual bodies, but also the constant increase of their utility. Michel Foucault, whose work on governmentality is central to this project, labeled this new technology of power "biopower" and saw it rivalling the older strategies and techniques of "sovereign power." Health was one of its central concerns, and medicine (as a general technique of health and in its administrative realization as the so-called "medicinische Polizei") assumed an ever-increasing importance.

This project investigated the theoretical approaches of medical policing through which eighteenth-century governing bodies in Bavaria tried to create the ideal subjects. Through a close investigation of key medical concerns involving the electorial court, the centre of sovereign power, and the wider Bavarian territory, it also explored the emergence of new organized medical practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which subjects were governed and governed themselves. One of its central claims is that in the case of Bavaria the new strategies of the biopower were "born" at the center of sovereign power, the Munich court itself.