Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Subject to Truth: Before and after Govern Mentality in Foucault's 1970s

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Subject to Truth: Before and after Govern Mentality in Foucault's 1970s

Article excerpt


In this article, I situate Foucault's governmentality analytics between his first lecture course (On the Will to Know, 1970-1971) and his first course after his two 'governmentality' lectures (On the Government of the Living, 1979-1980). The lectures are interconnected by a shared interpretation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex as well as by different but related obsessions with the production of truth: the earlier, with truth as fact; the latter, with truth as self-relation. The former analyses discourses of truth, law, inquiry and sovereignty in ancient Greece. The latter focuses on early Christian individual manifestations of truth (baptism, penance and spiritual direction) forming a genealogy of confession and, Foucault suggests, of western subjectivity itself. This article uses the analytical categories of governmentality, usually used to analyse regimes of government, to perform a comparative reading of the lecture courses, charting the continuities and ruptures in their various studies of episteme, techne, identities, ethos and problematisations. This suggests that the earlier lectures outline the birth of the sovereign-juridical compact that modern governmentalities would emerge through and against, whereas the later lectures use the term 'governmentality' less, but enable the analysis of the conduct of conduct to progress to the ethical scale of self-formation.


Foucault, governmentality, truth, subjectivity, Christianity, confession


If you are obliged to tell the truth it is because, without knowing it, despite everything, there's a bit of Oedipus in you too. (Foucault, 1979-1980 [2014]: 302)

Foucault's governmentality

The use of governmentality as an analytical framework to understand the conduct of conduct, and the analysis of governmentalities within actually existing scales of regulation, has risen exponentially within geography and beyond over the last 20 years (see Crampton and Elden, 2007; Ettlinger, 2011; Legg, 2014; Rutherford and Rutherford, 2013a, 2013b; Schlosser, 2008). Foucault offered a threefold definition of governmentality (a type of power, the pre-eminence of governmental power over time, and the governmentalisation of the state) in his famous lecture of 1 February 1978 (Foucault, 1977-1978 [2007]: 108-109, previously published in Burchell et al., 1991). At its heart, governmentality concerns the supplementing of older forms of sovereign power with more subtle ways of influencing behaviour (modern forms of which were termed biopower, or power over life). These subtle forms conduct behaviour from a distance so as to secure semi-natural processes (such as population, society or economy). But these definitions were packed around, in 1977-1978 and the following year's second 'governmentality' lecture course (Foucault, 1978-1979 [2008]), with complementary and challenging concepts that would prove equally central to the governmentality corpus, such as the conduct of conduct and counter-conducts, liberalism as the play of freedoms, and pastoral power. Foucault described 'governmentality' in 1979 as '... no more than a proposed analytical grid for these relations of power [the conduct of conduct]' (Foucault, 1978-1979 [2008]: 186).

There has been some reflection within geography on the impact of the publication of the full 'governmentality' lecture courses, situating the lectures within their broader intellectual (Elden, 2007) and political (Barnett, 2011) context. But since the explicitly 'governmentality' lectures have been translated, there has been a stream of further College de France courses released, from Foucault's first (Lectures on the Will to Know, Foucault, 1970-1971 [2013], henceforth referenced as WtK) to his last (Foucault, 1983-1984 [2011]). These lectures show Foucault fleshing out research that appears in work he published during his lifetime (Elden, 2005), addressing, at least: prisons, penal control and punitive society; psychiatry, normal behaviour and disciplinary care; society and government; and the classical world as a place where the self becomes a scale for internalising politics and ethical self-formation (see Philo, 2012). …

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