Review: Michel Foucault’s On the Government of the Living, by Sophie Fuggle

logo95x95Review of Michel Foucault’s On the Government of the Living

by Sophie Fuggle, Nottingham Trent University

Book details:

On the Government of the LivingThese lectures from 1979-1980 chart the history of Western subjectivity as defined by a specific relationship with truth itself predicated on the Christian notion of direction de conscience, confession, as the perpetual verbalization of one’s thoughts, desires, actions. According to Foucault, the history of ‘tell me who you are’ remains for the most part unwritten. As such, the lectures are key to developing Foucault’s critique of the confessional as it pertains to disciplinary modes of power as set out in his earlier written texts, Discipline and Punish and The Will to Knowledge. The lectures appear at a pivotal moment between The Birth of Biopolitics and Subjectivity and Truth and thus chart the seemingly radical shift from Foucault’s work on modern forms of power and knowledge and his ‘return’ to Greco-Roman forms of subjectivity embodied, most notably, in the notion of epimeleia heautou [care of the self]. On the Government of the Living provides a sustained critical reflection on Foucault’s earlier work on power, considering first why such a rethinking of power was necessary as a critique of ideology and secondly, why a subsequent shift or displacement is now required towards the notion of government and eventually that which Foucault terms ‘governmentality.’ Foucault claims that in his use of the term ‘government’ he is attempting to provide ‘a positive and differentiated content to these two terms of knowledge and power’ which he perceives as having become ‘hackneyed’ in their formulation and theoretical use. Here, Foucault both preempts and echoes some of the best known criticisms of his notion of power as abstract and totalizing. At stake here is not the validity of such criticisms which, we might argue, overlook the specific and highly nuanced formulation of Foucault’s identification of power as power relations. Rather, it is a question of redefining and reasserting one’s terms in order to avoid the very forms of stagnation and abstraction via which methods and concepts lose their critical edge.


To begin to engage with Foucault’s Collège de France lectures in their posthumous published form implies at least two important caveats. The first of these is the very different presentation and, indeed, set of performances at work here to Foucault’s written texts. The second caveat pertains to the order in which the lectures have been posthumously published and thus their reception and interpretation within both the wider context of Foucault’s oeuvre and current debates in political theory underpinning such reception. In other words, Foucault’s lectures continue to be read in relation to what he once termed ‘the history of the present.’[1] As such, key references in the lectures to early Christianity, Saint Paul and the Christ-event, might read as a belated footnote to the return to Christian origins in the work of continental philosophers Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek at the turn of the 21st century. Most notably, Foucault is taken up with the problem of baptism as a form of ‘dying to sin’, examining the various ways in which Christian thinkers since Paul grappled with the persistence of human fallibility despite the radical break supposedly enacted by the Christ-event. At the same time, the lectures might offer another way to read contemporary forms of alienation produced by the residues of ‘confessional’ society within late capitalism.

These two caveats thus emphasize an ongoing tension. On the one hand we cannot fail to acknowledge Foucault’s lectures as exploratory exercises dependent upon an active engagement with his audience, some of whom also attended his weekly seminar and were involved in collective archival projects. The lectures, and this seems particularly true of On the Government of the Living, provide an alternative space to his monographs which enabled Foucault to develop a reading of his sources, new and old, unfettered from the constraints of a French intellectual tradition hostile towards an interdisciplinary, less-than-exegetical approach towards Antiquity and early Christianity. They also provide Foucault with the opportunity to engage in a complex game in which he challenges the parameters of intellectual authority and, indeed, the ‘truth’ claims made by such authority precisely as a result of its own performance. His claim that he is a ‘negative theorist’ should be read in terms of this game. On the other hand, this set of lectures invite us to return to Foucault’s published work, providing clarification for the aporias and perceived ruptures between the publication of The Will to Knowledge in 1976 and the subsequent volumes of History of Sexuality in 1984. It is not without a certain irony that where these lectures might constitute the moment where Foucault is least where we think he is, they will no doubt also serve as a key clarification to his shift in focus from subject to self and from power to governmentality. It is this ongoing tension between justification and negation at work in On the Government of the Living that make the lectures so compelling. Reader as much as audience is seduced by Foucault’s lively storytelling and rhetoric, not least the beautiful circularity of his opening and closing references to Septimius Severus, only to have the claims he makes undermined by a carefully crafted yet seemingly unscripted self-critique bordering at points on deprecation as he refers to his rereading of Oedipus as an ‘ultra-aggressively and bluntly positivist interpretation’. (p.47)

Hence, where Foucault’s disclaimers and apologies about his grasp of the material he is evoking or the risky readings he is proposing seem to attest to his humility as a scholar or perhaps even suggest an ironic mock-humility aimed at puritanical colleagues, what is really going on here is a play on the very notion of ‘humility’ itself as key component of Christian subjectivity and its coupling of truth and obedience. To ‘perform’ the truth of oneself requires not only a complete renunciation of this self but, at the same time, total, unquestioning obedience to those charged with spiritual guidance or direction de conscience. Whether such obedience, in Foucault’s case, relates to the historical sources he is citing or those scholars or ‘experts’ who claim mastery or ownership over how such texts should be read and understood, at work throughout the lectures is a constant undermining of this relationship. Foucault’s methodology, which he terms an anarcheology, effects this decoupling of obedience and truth at the same time as he charts the process whereby these became intrinsic to the construction of Western subjectivity.

Consequently, the lectures lay the groundwork for Foucault’s subsequent work on Greco-Roman tekhnē as a means of suggesting the possibility of different relationships between truth and subjectivity precisely by establishing the problematic of a Christian subjectivity based on self-renunciation and unquestioning obedience. Henceforth it becomes clearer that Foucault’s later work on technologies of the self, as he indeed states, are not to be read as models or templates for contemporary existence but, rather, demonstrate the possibility of something else. Nevertheless, more work is perhaps needed here to clarify the link between truth and obedience, something Foucault highlights as necessary for thinking about contemporary forms of government but which he fails to explore beyond his own ‘disobedient’ reading of Oedipus. In his account of the emergence and development of Christian practices of baptism, penance and confession, Foucault makes it clear that such practices are not altogether different from earlier Greco-Roman practices aimed at self-transformation. The fundamental difference lies in the way such practices were adapted to explain and justify the possibility of a ‘lapse’ in human behavior, i.e. the possibility of committing sin following baptism. One of the key points emphasized by Foucault is the success of Christianity in its adaptation of such practices and the prevalence of the relationship between subject and truth it came to define within Western society. However, the link between the survival and global proliferation of what was once a fragile, subversive cult through its ability to adopt Greco-Roman practices of self-transformation and the radical reconfiguration of such practices, inserting them into more complex forms of social and political power relations precisely via the process of confession and self-renunciation is left largely unexamined by Foucault. It is this question of obedience that perhaps needs to be taken up again today over and against a Lacanian psychoanalytics which posits this in terms of the individual and the injunctions of his or her Super Ego. How might we effectively redefine the government of the living not in terms of the production and management of ‘obedient’ subjects or ‘docile’ bodies and the containment and regulation of ‘disobedient’ subjects or ‘criminal’ and ‘deviant’ bodies but instead through notions such as ‘care’ and ‘responsibility’? Here, On the Government of the Living concludes appropriately with an indictment of what Foucault saw as contemporary resignation to the notion that ‘we are all Oedipus’, an indictment which seems no less relevant today:

‘You don’t have to be Oedipus, unless, of course, an amusing mind tells you: but yes, yes you do! 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. But you see that the person who tells you this in the end, does no more than turn the glove inside out, the glove of the Church.’ (p.312)

[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Penguin, London: 1977), p.31.


Readers may also be interested in:

More Open Access material on the TCS Website on the subject of Foucault:


Material from the journal, Theory, Culture & Society, on Foucault:


The TCS Special Issue on ‘Michel Foucault’, edited by Couze Venn & Tiziana Terranova:


Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism: Thinking Through and Beyond Michel Foucault’s Lectures on Biopolitics’:


Nicholas Gane’s ‘Review Article: Trajectories of Liberalism and Neoliberalism’:


Neoliberalism: A Bibliographic Review

  • William Davies

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 309317., first published on September 16, 2014


A Response to Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism’

  • William Davies

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 299302., first published on September 16, 2014


Thinking Historically about Neoliberalism: A Response to William Davies

  • Nicholas Gane

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 303307., first published on September 16, 2014




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