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The Foucault Effect
Studies in Governmentality
By Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, Peter Miller
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1991 Editors and Contributors
All rights reserved.
Governmental rationality: an introduction
Between 1970 and 1984, Michel Foucault delivered thirteen annual courses of lectures at the Collège de France in Paris. Foucault's duties at the college, as professor in a specially created Chair in the History of Systems of Thought, were not to teach a syllabus but to report on the results of his own researches. Several of these lecture series, Foucault's own official summaries of which have been republished as a volume by the Collège de France,1 are preliminary explorations of themes taken up in various of Foucault's later books. But others contain rich seams of material which he never chose or had time to work up in a final written form. Perhaps the two most remarkable annual courses of which this is true were those of 1978 and 1979, entitled respectively 'Security, territory and population', and 'The birth of biopolitics'. One of the 1978 lectures was published (although not in French) in Foucault's lifetime, and is reprinted in this volume (Chapter 4). A provision in Foucault's will has been interpreted by his literary executors as precluding posthumous publication of the complete lecture series; but the exceptional interest of the 1978 and 1979 courses has been recognized by the recent publication on cassette tape of the initial lectures of the two series, and a complete tape edition of the two series is currently under consideration. Complete recordings of these lectures are available to researchers in the Foucault archive at the Bibliothèque du Saulchoir in Paris.
In these lectures Foucault defined and explored a fresh domain of research into what he called 'governmental rationality', or, in his own neologism, 'governmentality'. This work was not carried out single-handedly. A group of fellow researchers, several of whom are among the contributors to this volume, took part in seminars held at the Collège de France which paralleled and complemented the programme of the lectures. In the subsequent lecture courses in Paris, Foucault shifted his attention away from these governmental themes in the direction of the topics of his final volumes of the History of Sexuality. But he continued to teach and organize research seminars on questions of government on his frequent visits to the United States, particularly at Berkeley. A number of lectures, essays and interviews published in the USA during these later years provide valuable documentation of this area of Foucault's work.
In the present essay I shall attempt a brief outline of the meaning of the theme of 'governmentality' in Foucault's work and the studies which he and others carried out under this heading, constructing a composite picture of the kinds of political and philosophical analysis which this style of working produces in the hands of a number of different and independent researchers. In some ways this is a problematic and even a foolhardy undertaking. A condensed, syncretic account may risk glossing over important differences of perspective between different individual contributions. One is describing a zone of research, not a fully formed product (although happily, it is now possible to refer to major subsequent publications by many of this volume's authors). The inaccessibility and the informal oral structure of the lecture materials makes summarization at once an indispensable and an uncomfortable task. I can only hope that the richness of the material itself will encourage the reader to tolerate these presentational obstacles and their attendant irritations.
As well as summarizing, I shall attempt to connect and to contextualize. We are only gradually becoming aware of, and are still far from having fully documented access to, the astounding range of Foucault's intellectual enterprises, especially in the later years from 1976 to 1984. The governmental theme has a focal place in Foucault's later philosophy; an effort needs to be made to locate this as accurately as possible. To understand the theme's wider resonance, something needs to be said about the interactions between a research agenda and a contemporary political world. To help to situate its distinctive value – and on grounds of good sense – it will be advisable to resist doctrinaire overstatement of this work's unique and unprecedented character, and instead to try to establish lines of communication with twentieth-century enquiries into allied areas of political philosophy and the history of political ideas. Such points of fruitful connection are, as Graham Burchell illustrates (Chapter 6), encouragingly numerous. Finally, and taking due account of widespread extant discussion of Foucault's later published work, something ought to be said about the ethical and political considerations (if any) implicit in this way of working and thinking.
What did Foucault have in mind by the topic 'governmental rationality'? Foucault understood the term 'government' in both a wide and a narrow sense. He proposed a definition of the term 'government' in general as meaning 'the conduct of conduct': that is to say, a form of activity aiming to shape, guide or affect the conduct of some person or persons. 'The government of one's self and of others' was Foucault's title for his last two years' lectures, and for a projected, unpublished book. Government as an activity could concern the relation between self and self, private interpersonal relations involving some form of control or guidance, relations within social institutions and communities and, finally, relations concerned with the exercise of political sovereignty. Foucault was crucially interested in the interconnections between these different forms and meanings of government; but in his lectures specifically on governmental rationality he concerned himself principally with government in the political domain.
Foucault used the term 'rationality of government' almost interchangeably with 'art of government'. He was interested in government as an activity or practice, and in arts of government as ways of knowing what that activity consisted in, and how it might be carried on. A rationality of government will thus mean a way or system of thinking about the nature of the practice of government (who can govern; what governing is; what or who is governed), capable of making some form of that activity thinkable and practicable both to its practitioners and to those upon whom it was practised. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Foucault was interested in the philosophical questions posed by the historical, contingent and humanly invented existence of varied and multiple forms of such a rationality.
In these two years' lectures, Foucault applied this perspective of analysis to three or four different historical domains: the theme, in Greek philosophy and more generally in antiquity and early Christianity, of the nature of government, and the idea of government as a form of 'pastoral power'; doctrines of government in early modern Europe associated with the idea of reason of state and the police state; the eighteenth-century beginning of liberalism, considered as a conception of the art of government; and, lastly, post-war forms of neo-liberal thought in Germany, the USA and France, considered as ways of rethinking the rationality of government. These different and discontinuous forays were linked together for Foucault by a common focus of interest, encapsulated in the formula of one of his lecture titles: 'Omnes et singulatim' (all and each). Foucault saw it as a characteristic (and troubling) property of the development of the practice of government in Western societies to tend towards a form of political sovereignty which would be a government of all and of each, and whose concerns would be at once to 'totalize' and to 'individualize'.
We can better locate this preoccupation of Foucault's by reconstructing some of the moves which took him there. In his preceding book Discipline and Punish, he had famously proposed and expounded a kind of political analysis called the 'microphysics of power', exemplified by the study of the application of disciplinary techniques as part of the invention of the modern penitentiary prison. A whole aspect of modern societies, Foucault was suggesting here, could be understood only by reconstructing certain 'techniques of power', or of 'power/knowledge', designed to observe, monitor, shape and control the behaviour of individuals situated within a range of social and economic institutions such as the school, the factory and the prison. These ideas encountered considerable interest and extensive criticism. Foucault's responses to some of these criticisms can be read as giving some of the key directions to his subsequent work.
One objection frequently raised by the Marxist left was that this new attentiveness to the specifics of power relations and the detailed texture of the particular techniques and practices failed to address or shed light on the global issues of politics, namely the relations between society and the state. Another was that Foucault's representation of society as a network of omnipresent relations of subjugating power seemed to preclude the possibility of meaningful individual freedom. A third complaint was that Foucault's markedly bleak account of the effects of humanitarian penal reformism corresponded to an overall political philosophy of nihilism and despair.
Foucault introduced his lectures on governmentality as being, among other things, an answer to the first of these objections. The same style of analysis, he argued, that had been used to study techniques and practices addressed to individual human subjects within particular, local institutions could also be addressed to techniques and practices for governing populations of subjects at the level of a political sovereignty over an entire society. There was no methodological or material discontinuity between three respective, microphysical and macrophysical approaches to the study of power. At the same time, moving from the former to the latter meant something different from returning to the theory of the state in the form demanded and practised by Foucault's Marxist critics. Foucault acknowledged the continuing truth of the reproach that he refrained from the theory of the state, 'in the sense that one abstains from an indigestible meal'. State theory attempts to deduce the modern activities of government from essential properties and propensities of the state, in particular its supposed propensity to grow and to swallow up or colonize everything outside itself. Foucault holds that the state has no such inherent propensities; more generally, the state has no essence. The nature of the institution of the state is, Foucault thinks, a function of changes in practices of government, rather than the converse. Political theory attends too much to institutions, and too little to practices. Foucault takes the same methodological course here as in Discipline and Punish, where changes in the rationale and meaning of the practice of punishing are prioritized over transformations in the structure of penal institutions.
Foucault had already begun to develop his view of the links between the microphysics and the macrophysics of power in the final chapter of The History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1976). Here he had introduced the term 'biopower', to designate forms of power exercised over persons specifically in so far as they are thought of as living beings: a politics concerned with subjects as members of a population, in which issues of individual sexual and reproductive conduct interconnect with issues of national policy and power. Foucault reintroduced this theme of biopower or biopolitics in his 1978 lectures, in a way linking it intimately with his approach to the theme of government. One of the key connections here was the perception that modern biopolitics generates a new kind of counter-politics. As governmental practices have addressed themselves in an increasingly immediate way to 'life', in the form of the individual detail of individual sexual conducts, individuals have begun to formulate the needs and imperatives of that same life as the basis for political counter-demands. Biopolitics thus provides a prime instance of what Foucault calls here the 'strategic reversibility' of power relations, or the ways in which the terms of governmental practice can be turned around into focuses of resistance: or, as he put it in his 1978 lectures, the way the history of government as the 'conduct of conduct' is interwoven with the history of dissenting 'counter-conducts'.
In these matters Foucault had some important clarifications to offer, notably in his American essays and interviews, on his views about power, freedom and hope. Foucault seems to have found fault afterwards at least with his rhetoric in Discipline and Punish, where this may have seemed to give an impression of certain uses of power as having an almost absolute capability to tame and subject individuals. In his 1982 essay 'The subject and power', Foucault affirms, on the contrary, that power is only power (rather than mere physical force or violence) when addressed to individuals who are free to act in one way or another. Power is defined as 'actions on others' actions': that is, it presupposes rather than annuls their capacity as agents; it acts upon, and through, an open set of practical and ethical possibilities. Hence, although power is an omnipresent dimension in human relations, power in a society is never a fixed and closed regime, but rather an endless and open strategic game:
At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. Rather than speaking of an essential freedom, it would be better to speak of an 'agonism' – of a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle; less of a face-to-face confrontation which paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation.
Perhaps, then, what Foucault finds most fascinating and disturbing in the history of Western governmental practice and its rationalities is the idea of a kind of power which takes freedom itself and the 'soul of the citizen', the life and life-conduct of the ethically free subject, as in some sense the correlative object of its own suasive capacity. This was one of the crucial points where Foucault found himself among the inheritors of Max Weber. In the fresh way it re-poses the conjunction of the history of politics and the history of ethics, Foucault's later work rejoins a great theme of modern political sociology.
A little more needs to be said about the political and critical value orientation of this work of Foucault's, beginning with a note on its place and time of gestation. Foucault's 1978 course overlapped with an unexpected defeat in French parliamentary elections of an alliance of Socialist and Communist parties. His 1979 course ended a few weeks before Margaret Thatcher's election as British Prime Minister. This work was being done at a time of the fading in France of the multitudinous blossomings of post-1968 social militancy, at a time when the intellectual prestige of Marxism was about to undergo a rapid collapse (partly stimulated by the influence of Eastern European dissidents, with whose welcome and reception in France Foucault was actively involved), and when the spreading influence of neo-liberal political thought, from the Germany of Helmut Schmidt to the France of Giscard and Barre and the Britain of Callaghan and Healey, had begun to present a challenge to the post-war orthodoxies of governmental thought.
One of the conspicuous attributes of Foucault's governmentality lectures is their serene and (in a Weberian sense) exemplary abstention from value judgements. In a pithy preamble he rejects the use of an academic discourse as a vehicle of practical injunction ('love this; hate that; do this; refuse that ...'), and dismisses the notion that practical political choices can be determined within the space of a theoretical text as trivializing the act of moral decision to the level of a merely aesthetic preference. The terms of Foucault's accounts of governmental rationalities are devoid of the implicit pejorative sarcasm which Foucault's Nietzschean affiliations have so often led readers to hear in his writing. Foucault's accounts of the liberal and neo-liberal thinkers indeed often evince a sense of (albeit value-neutral) intellectual attraction and esteem. The perspective may be libertarian, but it is not anarchist. His reproach, if there is one, is addressed to critical culture itself. Foucault does not eschew practical maxims where the obligations of thought are concerned. In a nutshell, he suggests that recent neo-liberalism, understood (as he proposes) as a novel set of notions about the art of government, is a considerably more original and challenging phenomenon than the left's critical culture has had the courage to acknowledge, and that its political challenge is one which the left is singularly ill equipped to respond to, the more so since, as Foucault contends, socialism itself does not possess and has never possessed its own distinctive art of governing. The conclusion from this exercise in critical attentiveness to the present lies in the affirmation of the possibility and necessity, for those who wish to pursue certain ends and values, of fresh acts of inventiveness.
Excerpted from The Foucault Effect by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, Peter Miller. Copyright © 1991 Editors and Contributors. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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