Daniele Lorenzini on On the Government of the Living

In On the Government of the Living Michel Foucault explicitly links and articulates in an original way two of the main philosophical and political projects he never ceased to pursue in his works of the 1970s and the 1980s: on the one side, the project of a history of truth and, on the other side, the project of a genealogy of the modern (Western) subject. In this post I will focus on the first project, whereas in my intervention I will offer some reflections on the second project, and more precisely on the role of the individual’s will in Foucault’s account of the processes of subjection (assujettissement) and subjectivation (subjectivation) within the Christian and the modern Western regimes of truth.

The project of a history of truth, or better of a history of the relationships between subjectivity and truth in the Western societies, underpins more or less explicitly each and all of Foucault’s thirteen series of lectures at the Collège de France, starting from his inaugural lecture on The Order of Discourse—as it has been repeatedly pointed out in this blog as well as during the seminar. I have myself already drawn attention to one of the key moments of such a project, namely the “little history of truth in general” which can be found at the beginning of the 23 January 1974 lecture of Psychiatric Power (see here my previous post). In such a four-page “parenthesis”, through the distinction between two series in the Western history of truth—“truth-demonstration” and “truth-event”—, Foucault suggests that we should criticize and transform our common and shared conception of truth, since according to him truth is not first and foremost a logical or epistemological issue, but an essentially political one.

The first five lectures of On the Government of the Living contains both an extension and a substantial deepening of these analyses, as they introduce some crucial methodological and conceptual “shifts” in Foucault’s long-term project of a history of truth. Indeed, starting from 1980, this project takes the shape of a history of the regimes of truth in Western societies. But what exactly is a “regime of truth”, according to Foucault?

I have tried to answer to this question here, explaining that Foucault introduces for the first time this concept in 1975 (in the first chapter of Discipline and Punish) and develops it in his 1976 interview “The Political Function of the Intellectual”, where he argues that “truth is not outside power, or deprived of power”, but that, on the contrary, it “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints and it induces regulated effects of power”. He thus defines a regime of truth as “the types of discourse [a society] harbors and causes to function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements, the way in which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures which are valorized for obtaining truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (M. Foucault, “The Political Function of the Intellectual”, Radical Philosophy 17, 1977, p. 13, translation modified).

Therefore, as we can see, in Foucault’s works of the 1970s the concept of regime of truth refers to the well-known circularity and essential link he establishes between power and knowledge—since truth is linked “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it” (ibid., p. 14, translation modified). In other words, a regime of truth is the strategic field within which truth is produced and becomes a tactical element necessary for the functioning of a number of power relations within a given society.

In the first lecture of On the Government of the Living, however, Foucault announces an explicit shift he wishes to make with regard to the notion of power/knowledge: he says he would like to get rid of this notion, and try to develop instead the notion of “government by the truth”. And since he had already elaborated, in Security, Territory, Population and in The Birth of Biopolitics, the notion of government as a series of mechanisms and procedures intended to conduct the conduct of human beings, his task in On the Government of the Living will be “to develop the notion of knowledge in the direction of the problem of the truth”, or better in the direction of a genealogy of the relations between autos (the first person, the I) and alethurgy—between subjectivity and truth—within the “history of the truth in the West” (GL, pp. 12, 49-50).

Foucault’s 1980 definition of a regime of truth is thus no longer modeled on the notion of power/knowledge. On the contrary, Foucault explicitly introduces in the concept of regime of truth the dimension of subjectivity, not only (and even not primarily) for theoretical reasons, but because he is convinced that the relation between manifestation of the truth, government of the human beings, and constitution of the subjectivity is a crucial ethico-political problem for us, today.

Indeed, starting at least from the first volume of his History of Sexuality, and until his last series of lectures at the Collège de France, the main issue Foucault confronts is precisely how and why, in the history of Western societies, truth has been inscribed in the individual, giving rise to a peculiar form of subjectivity built on the space of “interiority”—a field of thoughts, desires, and feelings that the individual is asked to decipher “as subjective data which have to be interpreted, which have to be scrutinized, in their roots and in their origins”, in order to discover the truth of herself (M. Foucault, About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self, The University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 68). However, according to Foucault, the emergence of the idea of a truth we have to discover about (and in) ourselves, as well as the idea of a discourse through which we are asked to articulate it, are nothing but the effects of a series of techniques of power and of the self, of a certain regime of truth that urges us to “discover” the hidden truth in ourselves, but that in fact digs in ourselves the very space in which it produces the truth we are asked to disclose and manifest (see M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Pantheon Books, 1978, p. 60).

In On the Government of the Living too Foucault addresses such a fundamental issue: “Why and how does the exercise of power in our society, the exercise of power as government of human beings, demand not only acts of obedience and submission, but truth acts in which individuals who are subjects in the power relationship are also subjects as actors, spectator witnesses, or objects in manifestation of truth procedures? Why in this great economy of power relations has a regime of truth developed indexed to subjectivity?” (GL, p. 82). Why and how, in other words, does the regime of truth which seems to be dominant in our contemporary Western societies require from the individual to say not only “here I am, me who obeys”, but in addition “this is what I am, me who obeys”?

In 1980 Foucault redefines the concept of regime of truth as “that which determines the obligations of individuals with regard to the procedures of manifestation of truth” (GL, p. 93). This narrower and more specific definition highlights the role played by the individual within the procedures of manifestation of the truth, since the truth “is not creator and holder of the rights it exercises over human beings, of the obligations the latter have towards it, and of the effects they expect from these obligations when and insofar as they are fulfilled. In other words, it is not the truth that so to speak administers its own empire, that judges and sanctions those who obey or disobey it. It is not true that the truth constrains only by truth” (GL, p. 96). This means that under every argument, every reasoning, and every evidence there is always a certain assertion which does not belong to the logico-epistemological realm (to the “truth-demonstration” series), but which is rather a sort of commitment, of profession, and which has the following form: “if it is true, then I will submit; it is true, therefore I submit”. And even if in some games of truth it is almost invisible, even if sometimes it goes so much without saying that we hardly notice its presence, this therefore, which links the “it is true” and the “I submit” and gives the truth the right to say “you are forced to accept me because I am the truth”, does not arise from the truth itself in its structure and content. Such a “you have to” of the truth is, according to Foucault, a “historical-cultural problem” (GL, pp. 96-97) and thus, ultimately, an ethico-political problem, since the acceptance by the individual of this therefore gives rise to a process of subjection (assujettissement) and/or of subjectivation (subjectivation).

In other words, every regime of truth requires the individuals who are implicated in it to engage in a specific self-constitution. For instance, in Descartes’ Meditations, the subject can say “I think, therefore I am” only if she is “qualified in a certain way”, that is—according to Foucault—only if she is not mad, only if she has constituted herself and has been constituted by her society as someone who is not mad (GL, pp. 98-99). In short, there is always a specific subject associated to a regime of truth, a subject who constitutes herself and is constituted by this very regime of truth precisely when (and as long as) she accepts the therefore that links the “it is true” and the “I submit”.

This is why, in On the Government of the Living, Foucault’s long-term project of a history of truth (in the form of a genealogy of our contemporary regime of truth) essentially needs to be coupled and articulated with another project—a project that Foucault explicitly describes in his lectures at Dartmouth College in the terms of a “genealogy of the modern [Western] subject” (M. Foucault, About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self, p. 21).

It is on this second project, which somehow “emerged” from the first, that I will focus in my intervention, exploring the way in which Foucault analyzes the Christian regime of confession (aveu) as the historical framework where “a relation between the government of the human beings and […] reflexive truth acts” (GL, p. 82) has been constituted—i.e. as a fundamental piece of the genealogy of the regime of truth indexed to subjectivity that characterizes our contemporary Western societies. More precisely, as I have already mentioned, I will address the issue of the role of the individual’s will in Foucault’s account of the processes of subjection (assujettissement) and subjectivation (subjectivation) within the Christian and the modern Western regimes of truth, relying not only on Foucault’s 1980 lectures at the Collège de France, but also on Security, Territory, Population, on “What is Critique?”, and on Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling.