Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Adrian Blau has posted a critique of definitions of governmentality both in Foucault’s own work and in the secondary literature on his blog.

Part 1 deals with Foucault’s own definitions.
Part 2 deals with the secondary literature.

The author welcomes feedback on his remarks.

Extract from Part 1
Foucault’s definition of governmentality is widely quoted but rarely criticised. Yet as I argue in Part 1 of this two-part post, Foucault’s definition is unclear and inconsistent.

This is not a major problem, because his later account is fairly clear and coherent. What is a problem, I suggest in Part 2, is that many scholars are not explicit about Foucault’s initial unclarity or inconsistency, presenting the definition as self-explanatory, and often confusing its components. My aim is not so much to chide Foucault as to warn uncautious readers that many interpreters of Foucault may not have read him closely enough. The same is doubtless true of me, of course, and I welcome efforts to correct my interpretation.

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Extract from Part 2
Part 1 suggested that there were serious problems with Foucault’s definition of ‘governmentality’ in Security, Territory and Population lecture 4. Although his use of the term in later lectures is fairly coherent, his initial definition moves between a thing which he does not describe clearly (governmentality), a process or the result of the process (governmentalization), and how it works (a type of power).

In short, two components of Foucault’s ‘definition’ are not really part of the definition, and the key component of the definition is unclear. If you did not already have a sense of what Foucault meant by governmentality, I suggested, you would probably not understand the definition at all!

Yet little trace of these ambiguities is found in much of the secondary literature. The aim of Part 2 of this post is to show how unreliable the secondary literature can be as a guide to Foucault. This is consistent with similar work I’ve done, mostly unpublished, on how unreliable the secondary literature can be as a guide to Habermas. (The published part of that research is here.)

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