Analysis and summary of the Birth of Biopolitics

Act quick, he’ll take it down in a couple of days:

The genealogy that Foucault sketches out in his important February 1978 lecture is by now well known in the English-speaking world . Here, following on from his earlier lectures’ outline of an approach to the questions of security and population, the course now turns to “an inventory of the problem of government”, focused explicitly on the entry of the notion of economy into political discourse, and in this sense, on the birth of political economy.

Foucault’s begins this inventory by focusing on what he calls an ‘explosion’ of treatises on the “arts of government” in the 16th century (Foucault, 2007: 89). In the outline that follows, the significance of this work is given precisely in the ways it pushes away from the “juridical paradigm of sovereignty” that had developed in part through the long tradition of treatise which “presented themselves as advice to the prince” (Foucault, 2007: p87), common through the Greco-roman antiquity and the middle ages. Figured around a set of problems described as “typical of the 16th century” – of ‘how to govern oneself, how to be governed, how to be the best possible governor’ – this literature is said to emerge at the “intersection” of the two processes  that have made the 16th century such and important theatre for understanding our own ‘modernity’. On the one side, the dissolution of the old feudal state structures with the concomitant establishment of “territorial administrative states”. On the other, the radical transformation of the sacred paradigm set off by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. In Foucault’s account, it is precisely at this moment – in which the transformations of the profane and sacred paradigms converge in the reorientation of the socio-political landscape of the 16th century – that the problem of government comes to be posed with an original urgency:

On the one hand there is the movement of state centralisation and, on the other, one of religious dispersion and dissidence…[I]t is at the meeting point of these two movements that the problem arises, with particular intensity in the 16th century of ‘how to be governed by whom to what extent, to what end, and by what methods’ (Foucault, 2007: p88?)



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