STP: chapter 4

Earlier posts looking at Security, Territory, Population are here and here.

Lecture of 1 February 1978 (4th lecture).

Recovering the geography of governmentality

Foucault says in this lecture that he got the lecture series title a bit wrong. It should not be security, territory and population. Rather, it should be a history of governmentality. We’ll see what he meant by that below, but for the moment let’s highlight this supposed loss of focus on territory; something that Stuart Elden has focused on previously:

the key aim of this piece is to ask `what happens to territory’? Why does `territory’ remain only in the course title, and why does `government’ get inserted? Why is the object of government explicitly population? As Foucault asks in the course summary, does this mean that there is “a transition from a `territorial state’ to a `population state’?” “Certainly not”, he counters, “what occurred was not a substitution but, rather, a shift of accent and the appearance of new objectives, and hence of new problems and new techniques.” To follow this, Foucault takes up the “notion of government” as his “leading thread” (2004a, page 373; 1997a, page 67). It is this shift of accentörather than a substitutionöthat I want to look at here. Why is there a shift from a state of territory to one of population, or one perhaps from a state primarily concerned with territory to one concerned with population? Is this shift useful in terms of a historical narrative, or is it, rather, a shift in Foucault’s preoccupations (see Senellart, 2004, pages 394 ^ 395)?

Contrasting Machiavelli with a later work by La Perrière (Le Miroire politique) which for Foucault introduces a modern understanding of government, Foucault says that where Machiavelli focused on territory in the sense of defending a principality with borders and areal extent, La Perrière “does not refer to territory in any way” (p. 96).

This might seem to definitively mark the dropping out of territory as a concern, but actually Foucault is clearer later on that this does not mean governmentality is only about “things”:

The things government must be concerned about, La Perrière says, are men in their relationships, bonds, and complex involvements with things like wealth, resources, means of subsistence, and of course, the territory with its borders, qualities, climate, dryness, fertility, and so on (p. 96).

This more expansive (and better) notion of territory not just as a bounded unit which needs defending (a la Machiavelli) but one in which there is more of a notion of environment or milieu enables us to see that precisely territory does not drop out of the equation of governmentality after all. What is actually going on–and remember that Foucault had had extensive discussions with geographers in 1976 in Hérodote, which we reproduce in our book. There, however, he did not display a very rich notion of territory, stating it is “a juridico-political one: the area controlled by a certain kind of power” (Questions on Geography, reproduced in Space, Knowledge and Power p. 176).

He then went on to say:

the longer I continue, the more it seems to me that the formation of discourses and the genealogy of knowledge need to be analyzed, not in terms of types of consciousness, modes of perception and forms of ideology, but in terms of tactics and strategies of power. Tactics and strategies deployed through implantations, distributions, demarcations, control of territories and organizations of domains which could well make up a sort of geopolitics where my preoccupations would link up with your methods (p. 182).

So a concern for government, but a governmentality that necessarily is involved in the relationship of geography to wider things such as population etc.

Conduct of conduct

It is also this lecture where Foucault discusses the famous notion of “conduct” (conduire). Starting from La Perrière’s definition of government as “the right disposition of things” so as to lead (conduire) them to a suitable end. Foucault again contrasts sovereignty (force of law) with government, where it is “tactics rather than laws” (p. 99).

I think this marks an important break…the end of government is internal to the things it directs: it is to be sought in the perfection, maximization, or intensification of the processes it directs, and the instruments of government will become diverse tactics rather than laws. Consequently, law recedes… (p. 99).

Foucault often refers to this as “police” which is confusing only if the term is limited to modern law-enforcement: originally it meant management of the political economy. Conduct will reappear in Lecture 8 (1 March 1978) and police in Lectures 12-13 (29 March-5 April 1978).


Here is how Foucault begins to bring these things together. He defines governmentality as:

1. The “ensemble” of institutions, tactics, calculations etc. that focus power on the population, with political economy as its approach to knowledge and with apparatuses of security as its “essential technical instrument.”

2. A tendency or “line of force” that has emerged historically in the West that places government power pre-eiminently above sovereignty and discipline.

3. A process by which the state of justice previously (in Middle Ages) was replaced by one which became increasingly governmentalized in the terms listed above.

This is a famous lecture that has appeared in an English version previously. It lays his ideas out very clearly and deserves to be well known. In the context of the full lecture course however we can now see that it is only part of a larger series of interlocking ideas which are developed in the next chapters (particularly the pastorate and raison d’etat).


One Response

  1. I wen’t to Descartes, the town where the philosopher was born and remembered that years ago I was reflecting on the fact that the Claude Bernard notion of milieu, in biology, was in fact empty. Because it needs to rely on individual entities circulating in it to explain their memory of ways and uses.

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