Colin Gordon – Governmentality and the genealogy of politics

Event Date: 3 and 4 June 2011
Clore Lecture Theatre
Clore Management Centre
Birkbeck College
Malet Street, Bloomsbury
London WC1E 7HX

The Birkbeck Centre for Law and the Humanities presents:


A Conference at Birkbeck College, University of London Reflecting on 20 years of
The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality


I don’t have the competence to survey, still less to assess the vast and varied body of studies in governmentality which have been undertaken since we published The Foucault Effect. What I would like to offer instead, by way of an introduction, is a brief personal afterthought on our book, with the benefit of hindsight, in the light of subsequent history and publications, and with an eye to our current interests and problems. What did we (and I) miss or overlook that might have helped in writing the history of later presents? (I will look here especially at the first lectures of the 1979 series: liberalism and liberty, ways of limiting government, the liberal international order.) Conversely, what things did we notice and highlight, which may have subsequently been given less attention to date than they merit? (I will mention the idea of a collective, continuous history of governmentality, some points about law and neoliberalism, and some challenges about socialist governmentality and the culture of contemporary political critique).

This brings me to my main topic. A lot of discussion focussed on ideas of stand‐off or disjunction between Foucault’s notion of governmentality and some thing or things (such as sovereignty, the juridical, rights and political theory) which function as governmentality’s other. I know I am not alone in feeling that, without lapsing into undifferentiated eclectic blandness, we need to move beyond some of these disjunctions and the brand‐differentiated sectarian silos they might be at risk of imprisoning us in. I want to argue here in particular that the vast wealth of posthumous Foucault publication now allows us to see a number of ways in which the history of governmentality which Foucault and others undertook enables, implies and demands an accompanying genealogy of politics, that is to say of political culture, conduct, sociability and subjectivity. To start with, we can look at a number of suggestions in Foucault’s lectures about instances of what one might call the multiple births of politics. Along with these hints, I will draw here on some key, complementary sources outside the 78‐79 lectures which became available after TFE was published (notably ‘What is critique?’ and ‘Society must be defended’), look rapidly at the implications of the novel reflections on philosophy and the political developed in the recently published lectures of 1983‐4, and reflect on that basis about what Foucault might have been planning to do next, having promised his audience, in early 1984, an imminent ending of his ‘Greco‐Roman trip’.

Reading that promise today is a reminder of the simple fact that Foucault’s work was unfinished, and, as a consequence, that alongside the ever‐valid option to instrumentalise Foucault’s work, in whatever area one chooses and with as much freedom, inventiveness and faithful infidelity as one is capable of, there is also the possibility, within the limits of our powers, of trying to finish what Foucault left unfinished, or at least of taking up some of what may have been his work’s unfulfilled aims and ambitions.

Hints or clues to how this might be attempted include some points of useful connectivity with other scholars’ work on the history of early modern thought and politics (Donald Kelley and Peter Donaldson) and some brief but promising encounters with the governmentality theme in some other important currents of contemporary work (Ann Stoler, Duncan Ivison, Keith Baker, Benedict Anderson and Partha Chatterjee). Finally I will ask how and under what conditions this kind of genealogy can make a useful contribution to public discourse.


Ann Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (1995)

Donald R Kelley, The Beginning of Ideology: Consciousness and Society in the French Reformation. (1981)

Peter S Donaldson, Machiavelli and Mystery of State (1992)

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983, 2006) and ‘Nationalism, Identity and the Logic of Seriality’ in The Spectre of Comparisons (1998)

Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (2004)

Keith Baker, “A Foucauldian French Revolution?” in Foucault and the Writing of History. Ed. Jan Goldstein (1994)

Colin Gordon

Colin is Clinical IT Programme Manager at Royal Brompton Hospital, London.

Edited and co-authored publications: Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 1980; (with Graham Burchell and Peter Miller); The Foucault Effect, 1991.

Introduction and selection of contents: Michel Foucault, Power: Essential Writings, volume 3 (New Press 2001.)

“Foreword: Pedagogy, Psychagogy, Demagogy ”, in Governmentality Studies in Education (Contexts on Education) Peters, Michael A. Besley, A. C. Olssen, Mark (eds), Sense 2009.

“La réception de l’Histoire de la folie chez les historiens et les géographes : l’exemple anglo-saxon”, in Folie et justice : relire Foucault, Philippe CHEVALLIER and Tim GREACEN (eds), ERES 2009, Paris.

With Jacques Donzelot, ‘Governing Liberal Societies – the Foucault Effect in the English‐speaking World’Foucault Studies, No 5, pp. 48‐62, January 2008

Review of Michel Foucault, History of Madness. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2005)

‘Foucault in Britain’. In A. Barry , N. Rose & T. Osborne (Eds), Foucault and political reason. London: UCL Press, 1996, pp. 253-70

‘Histoire de la folie : an unknown book by Michel Foucault’ in Rewriting the History of Madness: Studies in Foucault’s Histoire de la folie, eds. Arthur Still and Irving Velody London: Routledge, 1992.

1987.“The Soul of the Citizen: Max Weber and Michel Foucault on Rationality and Government.” In Max Weber, Rationality and Modernity. Scott Lash and Sam Whimster, eds. Pp. 293-316. London: Allen and Unwin.

(1986)`Question, Ethos, Event: Foucault on Kant and Enlightenment ‘ , Economy and Society 15(1): 71-87.






<<== back to main conference page

share this entry: