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Dancing skeletons from 1916

Back of the 50 centime emergency note issued in 1916 by the Merksplas Local Board of the National Assistance and Food Committee © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Biopower and necropolitics

IN DISCIPLINE & PUNISH Michel Foucault describes the measures taken, as per magisterial edict, in a plague-ridden French city sometime in the late seventeenth century. On the first day of quarantine, everyone is ordered to stay indoors; the doors are locked from the outside. Sentinels are posted at the city gates. Armed guards patrol the town hall.

Each street is placed under the surveillance of a syndic, who visits every house every day, speaking through a window. “Everything that may be observed during the course of the visits—deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities—is noted down and transmitted” to the city authorities. A resident who goes out without permission or a syndic who leaves the street may be sent to the gallows. Public health and social control go hand in hand.

The authorities recognize an obligation to the people inside the houses, who receive a kind of care, albeit compulsory: interrogations... see more