My liege

I recently wrote on biopower, an important concept alongside discipline. There’s a third concept created by Michel Foucault that I want to address. The primary text used in this essay is the aptly titled ‘Governmentality’, the chapter four of ‘The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality with Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault’.

To align the concept with the two aforementioned concepts, like on a time line, Foucault (87) states:

“But a more striking fact is that, from the middle of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, there develops and flourishes a notable series of political treatises that are no longer exactly ‘advice to the prince’, and not yet treatises of political science, but are instead presented as works on the ‘art of government’.”

Not unlike with the other concepts, the shift occurs starting at the end of feudalism, running through a number of centuries leading up to the French Revolution. I have a habit doing so, but this essay is not intended to muddle in feudalism, so I’ll let Foucault (87) continue:

“Government as a general problem seems to me to explode in the sixteenth century, posed by discussions of quite diverse questions. One has, for example, the question of the government of oneself, that ritualization of the problem of personal conduct which is characteristic of the sixteenth century Stoic revival. There is the problem too of the government of souls and lives, the entire theme of Catholic and Protestant pastoral doctrine. There is a government of children and the great problematic of pedagogy which emerges and develops during the sixteenth century.”

It’s clear from this passage that what Foucault refers to as government is very broad, having to do with nearly everything that goes on in a state. He (87) does include the narrow sense of the word as well:

“And, perhaps only as the last of these questions to be taken up, there is the government of the state by the prince. How to govern oneself, how to be governed, how to govern others, by whom the people will accept being governed, how to become the best possible governor – all these problems, in their multiplicity and intensity, seem tome to be characteristic of the sixteenth century, which lies, to put it schematically, at the crossroads of two processes: the one which, shattering the structures of feudalism, leads to the establishment of the great territorial, administrative and colonial states; and that totallydifferent movement which, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, raises the issue of how one must be spiritually ruled and led on this earth in order to achieve eternal salvation.”

So, government does have to do with actual ruling, as embodied by the prince (see ‘The Prince’ by Niccolò Machiavelli), but unlike in the feudal system it’s not a mere matter of levying. Governing poses problems that Foucault emphasizes by indicating their “multiplicity and intensity”. In any case, as Foucault (88) puts it, “[t]here is a problematic of government in general.”

Without going into the details, Foucault (90) identifies the key aspect in Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ as “the prince’s ability to keep his principality.” As he (90) elaborates, the prince has no inherent link to the principality, having either inherited it or gained it through conquest, which makes it imperative for the prince to think how to remain in charge of the principality, warding off both external and internal threats. Foucault (90-91) notes that it’s this lack of connection to the land and its people that pops up in anti-Machiavellian literature. In other words, the prince is a ruler, not a governor. There is a lack of continuity, as Foucault (91) puts it.

As an alternative, Foucault (90-91) takes up Guillaume de La Perrière and François de La Mothe Le Vayer. He (90) states that in La Perrière’s ‘Miroir Politicque’, as well as in other similar works, there is emphasis on the family:

“Like La Perrière, others who write on the art of government constantly recall that one speaks also of ‘governing’ a household, souls, children, a province, a convent, a religious order, a family.”

Addressing a text written by La Mothe Le Vayer, Foucault (91) summarizes its contents:

“[T]here are three fundamental types of government, each of which relates to a particular science or discipline: the art of self-government, connected with morality; the art of properly governing a family, which belongs to economy; and finally the science of ruling the state, which concerns politics.”

He (91) adds that:

“What matters, notwithstanding this typology, is that the art of government is always characterized by the essential continuity of one type with the other, and of a second type with a third.”

In addition, he (91-92) clarifies that this continuity then has to function in two directions: upwards and downwards. The upwards continuity has to do with taking good care of oneself and one’s possessions. In contrast, the downwards continuity means emitting good care to others, like a head of a family does to the other members of the family. Foucault (92) notes that the downwards continuity becomes known as police. He (92) also indicates that the continuity is marked by “the government of the family, termed economy.” I think here it is worth emphasizing that the word itself, ‘economy’, actually refers to household management even though it’s typically not understood as referring to a household. What people associate with household management is ‘home economics’, which, if you ask me, involves hilarious redundancy, considering that oikos (eco) itself refers to the household.

Having summarized the role of the family, Foucault (92) states how this relates to the state:

“The art of government, as becomes apparent in this literature, is essentially concerned with answering the question of how to introduce economy – that is to say, the correct manner of managing individuals, goods and wealth within the family (which a good father is expected to do in relation to his wife, children and servants) and of making the family fortunes prosper – how to introduce this meticulous attention of the father towards his family into the management of the state.”

Turning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Foucault (92) adds:

“To govern a state will therefore mean to apply economy, to set up an economy at the level of the entire state, which means exercising towards its inhabitants, and the wealth and behaviour of each and all, a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and his goods.”

Going for a more object oriented approach, Foucault (93) turns to La Perrière, who, according to Foucault stated that:

“[G]overnment is the right disposition of things, arranged so as to lead to a convenient end.”

Foucault (93) elaborates that here things are not in opposition to people, but rather in addition and in relation to them. He (93) adds that what is distinct here is not territory, i.e. a delimited area of land, itself, but its qualities, including the things contained in it. He (94) clarifies this in relation to running a household:

“It means to reckon with all the possible events that may intervene, such as births and deaths, and with all the things that can be done, such as possible alliances with other families; it is this general form of management that is characteristic of government; by comparison, the question of landed property for the family, and the question of the acquisition of sovereignty over a territory for a prince, are only relatively secondary matters. What counts essentially is this complex of men and things; property and territory are merely one of its variables.”

So, in other words, government involves management of complexity unlike sovereignty, which revolves around remaining on the throne, holding on to certain property and territory. Foucault (95) states that:

“[Government] implies a plurality of specific aims, for instance, government will have to ensure that the greatest possible quantity of wealth is produced, that the people are provided with sufficient means of subsistence, that the population is enabled to multiply, etc.”

Simply put, government is all about management in high detail, as Foucault keeps repeating. To add something new to the discussion, he (95) points out that law is only one thing among others in government, unlike in sovereignty in which law and the sovereign were “absolutely inseparable.” That’s hardly surprising, considering that the body of the sovereign was also the social body. It’s all the same. Anyway, Foucault (95) reiterates:

“[T]he finality of government resides in the things it manages and in the pursuit of the perfection and intensification of the processes which it directs; and the instruments of government, instead of being laws, now come to be a range of multiform tactics. Within the perspective of government, law is not what is important[.] … [I]t is not through law that the aims of government are to be reached.”

Foucault (96) adds that it is not only the management and the multiform tactics that differentiate government from sovereignty in La Perrière’s account. He (96) explains that La Perrière emphasizes the importance of having “patience rather than wrath”; the governor should be wise and diligent, having the knowledge to reach the set aims.

Foucault (96) summarizes that while the presented anti-Machiavellian characterization of government is strikingly different from the one found in Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, it “is still very crude[.]” Instead, arguably partially linked to biopower, Foucault (96) emphasizes the importance of the development of statistics, which has to do with “the science of the state”. If you look at the etymology of the word, it is indeed the case. The state is clearly there (just think of it, state-istics). In a more general sense, he (96-97) adds that the art of government was grounded on “the theme of reason of state”, reason meaning non-transcendental principles of rationality, which, according to him, actually hindered the development of the art of government. That said, he (97) states that it was “a sort of obstacle”, by which he means that it could not properly develop and spread as long as the sovereigns reigned supreme. In other words, there was a conflict of interest. So while the system was no longer feudal, it was still in the interest of the absolute monarchs to remain on the throne, which entails that all development remains tied to the objectives of the sovereign, as discussed by Foucault (97-98).

I could spend more time explaining the development of and the obstacles to the art of government, but instead it’s probably best to address how it developed and managed to overcome the obstacles. As already discussed in the essays dedicated to discipline and biopower, Foucault (98-99) states that due to the increase in wealth and property, with emphasis on population here, developing the science of government became ever more relevant. More specifically, he (99) notes that what was understood as ‘economy’ gained a new meaning, the meaning attributed to it contemporarily. Summarizing Foucault (99), the sharp increase in population pushed things into a grand scale, which required administration of the state that went beyond the familial model. Now, one could err to think that the familial model disappeared. That is, however, not the case. Foucault (99-100) argues that it while it became apparent that it could no longer function as a model, it remained a highly important segment, shifting from a model to an instrument. In his (100) own words:

“But the family becomes an instrument rather than a model: the privileged instrument for the government of the population and not the chimerical model of good government. This shift from the level of the model to that of an instrument is, I believe, absolutely fundamental, and it is from the middle of the eighteenth century that the family appears in this dimension of instrumentality relative to the population, with the institution of campaigns to reduce mortality, and to promote marriages, vaccinations, etc.”

Simply put, Foucault (100) states that population became “the ultimate end of government.” The connection to biopower is apparent, albeit not discussed by Foucault here. The population is arguably the mass of biopower. Anyway, returning to the topic, Foucault (101) states that the new model is no longer mere art of government, but political science. Importantly, like in the case of the family, he (101) argues that sovereignty was shaped into the characterization of the state. While Foucault doesn’t seem to be clear on this aspect, I guess you need to think of it in relation to security, as the sovereignty of the state, independent instead of dependent. Similarly, he (101-102) notes that while discipline could already be found in the monarchies, it became a highly important instrument in the management of population.

Having investigated the history of sovereignty and government, Foucault (102) creates the concept of governmentality, to which he gives a tripartite definition. Firstly, it is (102):

“The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.”

Secondly, it is (102-103):

“The tendency which, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led towards the pre-eminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline, etc.) of this type of power which may be termed government, resulting, on the one hand, in the formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of savoirs.”

Thirdly, it is (103):

“The process, or rather the result of the process, through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages, transformed into the administrative state during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gradually becomes ‘governmentalized’.”

The first part functions as a concise summary of governmentality. The second part elaborates how it makes use of knowledge and subsumes other forms of power and makes them instrumental in governmentality. The third part shortly explains how it all happened.

Following the definition, Foucault (103) argues that, in general, state is understood as an abusive cold monster, or a faceless monolithic entity that, for example, manages the (re)production of relations of production. The concept of governmentality as defined and elaborated by Foucault stands in clear opposition of this, what I take is a Marxist view, in which it is absolutely essential to target, attack and occupy the state, as Foucault (103) characterizes it.

Similarly to biopower, governmentality is not a concept that I come across in landscape research or linguistic landscape research. You could point out that dedicating time to explain it is simply wasteful, if not useless. I think otherwise. I think it is essential to understand governmentality as it is not only related to the concepts of discipline and biopower but also helps to understand their importance and their instrumental role in contemporary societies.


  • Foucault, M. ([1978] 1991). Governmentality (R. Braidotti and C. Gordon, Trans.). In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality with Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault (pp. 87–104). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • de La Mothe Le Vayer, F. (1756). Œuvres. Dresden, Germany: Michel Groell.
  • La Perrière, G. (1555). Le Miroir Politicque: Œuvre non moins utile que necessaire à tous Monarques, Roys, Princes, Seigneurs, Magistrats, & autres surintendans & gouverneurs de Republicques, par Guillaume de La Perrière, tolosain. Lyon, France: Macé Bonhomme.
  • Macchiavelli, N. ([1532]). The Prince (W. K. Marriott, Trans.). London, United Kingdom: J. M. Dent & Sons.
  • Rousseau, J-J. ([1755] 1923). A Discourse on Political Economy. In J-J. Rousseau, The Social Contract & Discourses (G. D. H. Cole, Trans.) (pp. 249–287). London, United Kingdom: J. M. Dent & Sons.