Michel Foucault, Governmentality, and the Making of the Subject
March 27 , 2014
Define the term ‘Government’. One of the most unanswered questions and poorly
defined concepts in political theory.
• We often assume government to be a noun – far too little do we think of it as
procedural, an art, an action, etc.
• The best way to talk about this is through etymology – trace the word back and its
The Word Government
• There are 45 different meanings, which can all be combined.
o To follow a road or a path. To govern in this sense would be to follow a
o The meaning of governing as supporting or providing for.
o To fashion a soul – this is where the idea of someone perishing due to poor
governance or bad conduct.
o To engage, discuss, and converse with another. To govern someone could
be as simple as talking with them.
This word at this time had nothing to do with a state or political structure
– it was impossible to align the idea of a sovereign with the word
“government.” It was not thought of as a form of power.
• Combining all of these examples, the word “government” (before attaining its
modern meaning), it represented space, treatment (of another), support, and
ultimately, the control one has over oneself and others (body, soul, and behavior).
Looking at Powers
• The older conception of government is not limited to the state and power
structures or institutions. Now we think of it more as a term of sovereign power
(coercion of subjects), disciplinary power, biopower, control societies, and
ultimately omnipresent power.
• We can no longer think of our society as one of only one of the forms of power
listed above. Thinking about power in only one of these ways significantly
narrows our vision. Foucault claims that in theory, we still have not “cut off the
King’s head.” We continue to restrict ourselves.
• Foucault looks at disciplinary power (emerged with massive period of
industrialization, where a large, controlled, and productive work force was
• Biopower emerges in the 19 century for Foucault, on the back of a whole new
system of knowledge (human sciences, health sciences, social sciences, etc.) –
rather than power targeting specific details and individuals, it targets the basic
biological features of human beings. It looks at people as a species, with a heavy
dependency on statistics and risk analyses. It is through these assessments that
populations are governed – thing SURVEILLANCE and RISK MANAGEMENT
approaches. • Disciplinary power and enclosures were used to confine “the crazies”, but it is
different. With biopower it is more about epidemics, vaccinations, and controlling
mass populations through largescale approaches. There is no more enclosure.
• Control societies have been revolutionized – no longer about confinement.
Connecting the Dots
• Foucault argues that governmentality is fundamental to our society, and it is how
• To govern for Foucault, is “to conduct conducts” – to conduct the conduct of
others. This leads to a very widespread definition of government.
• When individuals exist together and seek to shape both their own conduct and that
of others, government exists.
• We can never assume a unity of governmentality. There is no one idea that can
explain anything (opposite of Marx’s analysis of society).
• If control is successful, it is no longer control. It is automation. Freedom is
necessary for control to exist!
Ways in which we conduct our own conduct, or the way others conduct us.
o Basic military structure – the disciplinary oppression (e.g. appearance,