9/13 | On the Government of the Living

with special guests Achille Mbembe, University of the Witwatersrand, Daniele Lorenzini, Université Paris-Est Créteil, and Jean Cohen, Columbia University

Foucault’s 1979-1980 lectures On the Government of the Living represent a pivotal double movement in Foucault’s thought, a double movement that has the effect of elaborating the third key dimension to Foucault’s work: namely, the dimension of subjectivity. It is a double movement insofar as it reflects both a return to earlier problematics and an opening to a whole new set of inquiries:

  • A return: On the one hand, Foucault returns to themes and texts from his earlier years at the Collège de France and published writings. He returns to his first lecture series, Lessons on the Will to Know from 1970-71, to reelaborate an analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and other texts from Greek antiquity. He returns to the pastoral forms of guidance that he had explored in his 1977-78 lectures on Security, Territory, Population, to reelaborate the practices of penance and the examination of conscience as forms of governing the self and other. He returns to the role of avowal in the constitution of sexuality (which he had explored in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 1976) and in the exercise of disciplinary power (which as he had explored in Discipline and Punish, 1975).
  • An opening: On the other hand, by returning to these themes and texts, Foucault opens and elaborates a rich series of inquiries into the place of the self in the governance of itself and others. This opens, for Foucault, an entire vista that will lead him to study, over the course of the next four years at the Collège de France (1980-1984), questions of truth-telling and avowal, of techniques of the self, of the care of the self, of parrhesia, among other problematics that go to the heart of the relationship between the subject and the production/manifestation of truth.

In these 1980 lectures, Foucault performs this double movement in two steps, first with a return to Oedipus Rex in the early lessons (lectures 2-4) that underscores the centrality of “the ‘I,’ of the ‘autos,’ of the ‘myself’” in the manifestation of Oedipus’ truth (GL, p. 48); before turning, in the remaining lessons of 1980, to explore the three major forms of subjective manifestations of truth in the Christian tradition: baptism (lectures 5-7), penitence (lectures 8-9), and spiritual direction (lectures 10-12).

The effect of this double movement is to etch a third dimension—namely, that of subjectivity—into his overarching research project. The problematics of the subject, which were always present before, will now take central stage for several years as Foucault digs into this third dimension as a complement to the other two. Not as a replacement, it is important to emphasize, but rather as a way to elaborate a three-dimensional theory of knowledge-power-subjectivity in furtherance of an overall “history of truth.” In other words, to the first dimension of knowledge (of episteme, of savoir and connaissances, of the archeology of knowledge) and the second dimension of power (of relations of power, of genealogies of power relations, of governmentality), Foucault’s 1980 lectures On the Government of the Living launch the concerted work on the third dimension of subjectivity (of subjectivation, of truth-telling and avowal, of the techniques and care of the self, of parrhesia).


It is often said that 1980 marks the moment when Foucault turns away from politics and seeks refuge in ethics and antiquity—often intimating that, with a supposed newfound embrace of the ancient Greeks, Foucault was repudiating his militant engagements from the early 1970s and his theoretical critiques of neoliberalism in order to return, in a somewhat narcissistic way (somehow related to his own biography and sexuality), to what would seem like an overly sheltered, self-centered, or self-indulgent focus on the subject.

Nothing could be further from the truth, I would argue. The intensification of themes related to subjectivity in the years 1980-84 should be understood as complementing, filling out, and completing Foucault’s political project, not as undermining it or offering an alternative. These 1980 lectures On the Government of the Living are a key resource to correct any possible misperception in this regard.

As he explains in these 1980 lectures, Foucault is continuing to pursue his political analysis of contemporary forms of governmentality by pushing further on “the link between exercise of power and manifestation of truth” (GL, p. 17) and by exploring the various ways in which subjects manifest the truth about themselves. The trajectory and continuities can be described best in the following manner:

After exploring the emergence of disciplinary power in the nineteenth century in his Collège de France lectures from the early 1970s and his book Discipline and Punish in 1975, Foucault turns to more contemporary forms of power and governmentality, namely biopower and the neoliberal management of populations, in his book History of Sexuality, Volume I and his 1976 lectures. In order to understand contemporary forms of biopower, Foucault traces a genealogy of neoliberal forms of rationality, starting in his 1978 lectures, that runs through pastoral power, raison d’État, the police, and liberal and neoliberal thought. As he explains in 1979, understanding neoliberal rationality is an essential building block to analyzing the concept of populations and biopower (NB, p. 24). Though Foucault meant to return directly to that project by analyzing biopolitics in 1980, which was his original proposal as evidenced by the title of these lectures On the Governement of the Living (which he penned in Spring 1979), he turns instead to earlier texts from Western thought to complement his  genealogy of the arts of governing.

You will recall that in Security, Territory, Population, when he was beginning his genealogy of the arts of governing, Foucault had a short discussion of Oedipus Rex and he declared that the government of the living did not pass through the ancient Greeks, or Rome, but that it had its roots in the Christian pastoral (STP, French ed. p. 127-128). Foucault had, earlier, believed that he needed to trace the governmentality that we begin to see in the sixteenth century back only to Christian forms of guidance.

The 1980 lectures represent, in effect a correction of that. What Foucault had missed, and what he will now find in those earlier Greek and Roman texts, are a rich archive to explore the manifestation of truth by the self—to analyze one’s own participation in the production of truth. Not just the role of the market as metric of truth, nor legal processes, nor even historical narratives, but the place of the self, the “I,” the avowal in the “rituals of manifestation of truth” (GL, p. 6). This leads Foucault back to the much earlier texts and his renewed attention to avowal, the examination of self, the direction of others, and forms of truth telling.

What this reflects is that, for a full and complete analysis of relations of power and of how we govern ourselves and others, Foucault must add a third dimension to his method. These 1980 lectures reintroduce and approfondissent this dimension of subjectivity. It was, of course, present from the start—in fact, it formed the basis of his analysis of Kant’s Anthropology which he translated and commented as part of his doctoral degree (1961)—and it threaded through his 1970 lectures, his discussion of subjectivation in Discipline and Punish, his writings on avowal in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, etc.; but it comes to the fore in the final lectures.

Three Dimensions

What is most important to emphasize then—and this applies to all of the following Collège de France lectures from the 1980s—is that it would be an impoverished reading of these lectures on subjectivity to view them as displacing Foucault’s earlier problematics. They complement, they add a necessary dimension, they do not represent a break from earlier problematics. As you will recall, Foucault expressly stated in 1984 in The Courage of Truth that it would be an impoverished reading of his work on power-knowledge to set aside subjectivity: “to depict this kind of research as an attempt to reduce knowledge (savoir) to power, to make it the mask of power in structures, where there is no place for a subject, is purely and simply a caricature.” (CT, p. 10) In a similar way, it would be an impoverished reading of Foucault’s work on subjectivity not to integrate it into the study of politics and power. In other words, in the study of sexuality, for instance, it is essential to read his Volumes 2 and 3 back into Volume 1. That alone is what can make sense of the full research project.

To best understand this, it is helpful to take a retrospective approach and to listen to how Foucault himself articulated this in 1984 in an important passage from The History of Sexuality II: The Uses of Pleasure. To begin with, as Foucault explains, his critical theoretic approach is three dimensional, bringing together an analysis of knowledge, power, and subjectivity:

To speak of “sexuality” as a historically singular experience also presupposed the availability of tools capable of analyzing the peculiar characteristics and interrelations of the three axes that constitute it: (1) the formation of sciences (savoirs) that refer to it, (2) the systems of power that regulate its practice, (3) the forms within which individuals are able, are obliged, to recognize themselves as subjects of this sexuality. (HS2, p. 4)

Foucault underscores that his previous research and the methods that he had developed—the archeology of knowledge and the genealogy of power—could serve well to study the first two dimensions:

Now, as to the first two points, the work I had undertaken previously—having to do first with medicine and psychiatry, and then with punitive power and disciplinary practices—provided me with the tools I needed. The analysis of discursive practices made it possible to trace the formation of disciplines (savoirs) while escaping the dilemma of science versus ideology. And the analysis of power relations and their technologies made it possible to view them as open strategies, while escaping the alternative of a power conceived of as domination or exposed as a simulacrum. (HS2, p. 5).

But, Foucault wrote in 1984, what he was missing was a theoretical framework to elaborate the third dimension, namely subjectivity:

But when I came to study the modes according to which individuals are given to recognize themselves as sexual subjects, the problems were much greater. […] Thus, in order to understand how the modern individual could experience himself as a subject of a “sexuality,” it was essential first to determine how, for centuries, Western man had been brought to recognize himself as a subject of desire.” (HS2, p. 5-6)

Thus, whereas the study of knowledge had required a first shift in the critical method toward archeology, and the study of power had required a second shift in the critical methods toward genealogy, to get at the third dimension of his project, Foucault needed to make another shift in his approach:

It appeared that I now had to undertake a third shift, in order to analyze what is termed “the subject.” It seemed appropriate to look for the forms and modalities of the relation to self by which the individual constitutes and recognizes himself qua subject. After first studying the games of truth (jeux de verite) in their interplay with one another, as exemplified by certain empirical sciences in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and then studying their interaction with power relations, as exemplified by punitive practices—I felt obliged to study the games of truth in the relationship of self with self and the forming of oneself as a subject, taking as my domain of reference and field of investigation what might be called “the history of desiring man.” (HS2, p. 6).

In his 1980 lectures On the Government of the Living, Foucault characterizes this as the shift from a two-dimensional theory of knowledge-power to a richer framework of “government by the truth,” (12) or alternatively as a shift from power-knowledge to a framework of “regimes of truth” (defined at p. 93). A few years later in 1984, Foucault would reassemble all this under the rubric of “a history of truth”:

[W]hat I have tried to maintain for many years, is the effort to isolate some of the elements that might be useful for a history of truth. Not a history that would be concerned with what might be true in the fields of learning, but an analysis of the “games of truth,” the games of truth and error through which being is historically constituted as experience; that is, as something that can and must be thought. (HS2, p. 6-7)

It is from this perspective as well—from this perspective of a history of truth—that we can also see the continuity in the 1980-84 lectures. From the perspective of this overarching project, we had seen that Foucault had started his Collège de France lectures with an analysis of “truth and juridical form” (1970-1974). Foucault then explored the question of “truth and historical form” (1975-78), followed by “truth and economic form” (1978-19679). And these lead him to the study of “truth and subjective forms” or “truth and subjectivity” from 1980-1984—which, incidentally, is the very title of the next lecture series from 1980-1981, Subjectivité et vérité.

It is in the process of elaborating, then, on the third dimension of subjectivity that certain problematics of truth come to the fore—such as issues of avowal, truth-telling, parrhesia… This explains why avowal will take such an important role here in these 1980 lectures and lead, the next year at Louvain in 1981, to a genealogy of avowal in his lectures, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice. It will also explain the role of baptism, penance, and the direction of conscience that we see in these 1980 lectures.

With us to help read, interpret, and discuss these 1980 lectures, we are delighted to welcome Achille Mbembe, Daniele Lorenzini, and Jean Cohen. Welcome to Foucault 9/13!


[Read post here. © Bernard E. Harcourt]