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Michel Senellart “Course Context [Security, Territory, Population]”

October 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Senellart, Michel 2009. Course Context. – Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. New York: Picador: 369-402


Key Concepts


The problematic of the art of government is outlined for the first time in the 1975 lectures, Abnormal. Contrasting the model of the exclusion of lepers with that of the inclusion of  plague victims,* Foucault then credited the Classical Age with the invention of positive technologies of power applicable at different levels (state apparatus, institutions, the family):

„The Classical Age developed therefore what could be called an “art of government,” in the sense in which “government” was then understood as precisely the “government” of children, the “government” of the mad, the “government” of the poor, and before long, the “government” of workers.“

Foucault specified three things that should be understood by “government”: the new idea of a power founded on the transfer, alienation, or representation of individual wills; the state apparatus (appareil d’État) set up in the eighteenth century; and finally, a “general technique of the government of men” that was “the other side of the juridical and political structures of representation and the condition of the functioning and effectiveness of these apparatuses.” This is a technique, the “typical apparatus (dispositif)” of which consisted in the disciplinary organization described the previous year. The analysis of “government” in this course was not limited to the disciplines, but extended to the techniques of the government of souls forged by the Church around the rite of penance.** Discipline of bodies and government of souls thus appear as the two complementary faces of a single process of normalization:

„At a time when states were posing the technical problem of the power to be exercised on bodies (…), the Church was elaborating a technique for the government of souls, the pastoral, which was defined by the Council of Trent and later taken up and developed by Carlo Borromeo.“

The art of government and the pastoral are two threads pursued once again by the 1978 lectures, but with some significant differences. First of all, there is a considerable extension of the chronological framework: the pastoral is no longer constituted in the sixteenth century, in reaction to the Reformation, but from the first centuries of Christianity, the government of souls being defined by the Fathers as “the art of arts” or the “science of sciences.”* Foucault therefore re-inserts the Tridentine pastoral in the long life of the Christian pastorate. Next, there is a refocusing of the art of government on the actual functioning of the state:

government, in its political sense, no longer designates the techniques by which power is connected to individuals, but the actual exercise of political sovereignty† – we have seen above the methodological stake to which this new “point of view” corresponded.‡ Finally, there is a shift from the analysis of the effective mechanisms of power to “self consciousness of government.” This move, however, does not break with the “microphysical” approach of previous works. As he explains in the introduction to the 1979 seminar, for Foucault it is not so much a question of studying the practices as the programmatic structure inherent in them, in order to give an account of the ensuing “procedures of objectivation”:

„All governmentality can only be strategic and programmatic. It never works. But it is in relation to a program that we can say that it never works.

Anyway, it is not the effects of social organization that I want to analyze, but the effects of objectivation and veridiction. And this in the human sciences → madness, the penal system, and in relation to itself, insofar as it is reflected → governmentality (state/civil society).

It is a matter of asking what type of practice governmentality is, in as much as it has effects of objectivation and veridiction regarding men themselves by constituting them as subjects.“


(a) Formulated for the first time in the fourth lecture of 1978 (1st February 1978), the concept of “governmentality”† progressively shifts from a precise, historically determinate sense, to a more general and abstract meaning. In fact, in this lecture it serves as the name for the regime of power deployed in the eighteenth century, which “has the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical

instrument,”‡ as well as the process that has led to “the pre-eminence over all other types of power – sovereignty, discipline, and so on – of the type of power that we can call „government.””§ It thus designates a set of elements whose genesis and articulation are specific to Western history. To governmentality’s character as event, in its historical and

singular dimension, are added the limits of its field of application. It does not define just any relation of power, but the techniques of government that underpin the formation of the modern state. In fact, governmentality is to the state

„(…) what techniques of segregation [are] to psychiatry, (…) techniques of discipline (…) to the penal system, and biopolitics to medical institutions.“

At this stage of Foucault’s reflection, “governmentality” is therefore the concept that allows a specific domain of power relations to be cut out, in connection with the problem of the state. This double, événementiel and regional character of the notion will tend to disappear over the following years. From 1979, the word no longer only designates the governmental practices constitutive of a particular regime of power (police state or liberal minimum government), but “the way in which one conducts people’s conduct,” thus serving as an “analytical perspective for relations of power” in general.* If this perspective, then, is always put to work within the framework of the problem of the state, the following year it is detached from it in order to become coextensive with the semantic field of “government,”

„(…) this notion being understood in the broad sense of procedures for directing human conduct. Government of children, government of souls and consciences, government of a household, of a state, or of oneself.“

“Governmentality” seeming from then on to merge with “government,”‡ Foucault strives to distinguish the two notions, “governmentality” defining “a strategic field of power relations in their mobility, transformability, and reversibility,”§ within which the types of conduct, or “conduct of conduct,” that characterize “government” are established. More exactly – for the strategic field is no more than the actual interplay of the power relations – he shows how they are reciprocally implicated, governmentality not constituting a structure, that is to say “a relational invariant between ( … ) variables,” but rather a “singular generality,”* the variables of which, in their aleatory interactions, correspond to conjunctures. Governmentality is thus the rationality immanent to the micropowers, whatever the level of analysis being considered (parent-child relation, individual-public power, population-medicine, and so on). If it is “an event,”† this is no longer so much as a determinate historical sequence, as in the 1978 lectures, but inasmuch as every power relation is a matter for a strategic analysis:

„A singular generality: its only reality is that of the event (événementielle) and its intelligibility can only make use of a strategic logic.“

It remains to ask, what link joins together these types of événementialité in Foucault’s thought: that which is inscribed in a particular historical process peculiar to Western societies, and that which is theoretically anchored in a general definition of power in terms of “government.”

(b) For Foucault, the analysis of types of governmentality is inseparable from analysis of corresponding forms of resistance, or “counter-conducts.” Thus, in the eighth lecture of 1978 (1 March) he establishes the inventory of the main forms of counter-conduct developed in the Middle Ages in relation to the pastorate (asceticism, communities, mysticism, Scripture, and eschatological beliefs). Similarly, the analysis of modern governmentality, organized in terms of raison d’État, leads him, at the end of the course, to highlight different sources of specific

counter-conducts, in the name of civil society, the population, or the nation. Being the symptom, in every epoch, of a “crisis of governmentality,” it is important to ask what forms these counterconducts take in the current crisis in order to define new modalities of struggle or resistance. The reading of liberalism that Foucault proposes can only be understood on the basis of this questioning. In this regard it seems to us to be interesting to quote the following

passage from the manuscript in which Foucault defined governmentality as a “singular generality.” We see here, in fact, how for Foucault politics is always conceived from the point of view of forms of resistance to power* (this is, moreover, the only text, to our knowledge, in which he refers to Carl Schmitt):

„The analysis of governmentality as singular generality implies that “everything is political.” This expression is traditionally given two meanings:

– Politics is defined by the whole sphere of state intervention, (…). To say that everything is political amounts to saying that, directly or indirectly, the state is everywhere.

– Politics is defined by the omnipresence of a struggle between two adversaries (…). This other definition is that of K. (sic) Schmitt. The theory of the comrade.


In short, two formulations: everything is political by the nature of things; everything is political by the existence of adversaries. It is a question of saying rather: nothing is political, everything can be politicized, everything may become political. Politics is no more or less than that which is born with resistance to governmentality, the first uprising, the first confrontation.“