Michel Foucault

Kai Eriksson

Posted on May 06 2018

One of the most famous theoreticians in the late 20th century.



1926 Born in Poitiers, France
1948 Attempts suicide—the first of several times—caused by distress about his homosexuality
1962 Promoted as the Professor of Philosophy, University Clermont-Ferrand
1968 Becomes Chairman of Philosophy Department, University of Paris VIII in Vincennes
1969 Elected to the Collège de France
1971 Debates Noam Chomsky on Dutch television, for which he is paid in hashish that he and his friends call the ‘Chomsky hash’
1972 Joins his Maoist friends in a demonstration at a Renault plant
1975 Makes his first visit to the gay community in San Francisco where he explores his interest in sado-masochism. He throws away almost everything he has written about sexuality after a life-changing LSD trip in Death Valley, California. Discipline and Punish is published
1976 Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality is published
1978 Hit by a car when he leaves his apartment after smoking opium, causing an out-of-body experience
1984 Dies in Paris


Here we analyse Foucault's two key concepts – Dispositif and Governmentality. We bring out the reasons for why they were introduced as well as some major effects they had. We also trace the history of these notions and show how their meaning changed in Foucault's writings.




It has proven difficult to translate Foucault's term dispositif precisely into English, regardless its central function in his work as a name for a relation between knowledge and power. Neither device, machinery, apparatus, construction, or deployment catch its meaning as a productive network which runs through the whole social body.

By means of this term, Foucault could articulate the direction of action of a power that is no longer seen as based on a sovereign: power does not manifest itself as an institution but rather as continuously functioning nets of relationships.


INFLUENCES: Foucault’s work


  • Foucault responded to the critique that he has ignored what is non-discursive in his archaeology of knowledge project. The concept dispositif called attention to non-discursive factors and practices as constitutive of discursive ones.
  • The term was set against the episteme, a specifically discursive apparatus. In Foucault’s work, episteme was gradually displaced by dispositif.
  • One of Foucault’s aims was to break with a Marxist theory of ideology and its claim about the ideological constitution of the subject. By dispositif, Foucault avoided the reduction of power into the representation of ideological hegemony.
  • Foucault wanted to dissociate himself from structuralism. The model of language was supplanted by that of war and struggle.
  • Foucault intended to distance himself from the institutional conception of power. By the term dispositif, Foucault could analyse the way power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization.
  • Dispositif provided a means to address the positive, productive characteristics of modern apparatuses of power.




    INFLUENCES: Social


    • After May 1968, the themes of power and violence took hold in Foucault’s thought.
    • The formation of Prison Information Group, or GIP, in 1971. With Foucault as one of the founders, GIP focused on agitation and aimed at destroying the ideology of good and evil.



      INFLUENCES: Interlocutors


      • Foucault viewed Friedrich Nietzsche as a radical thinker who conceived of power and will as integral to the analysis of knowledge.
      • Giorgio Agamben has suggested that Foucault took the term from his teacher Jean Hyppolite’s book, Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire de Hegel (1948).
      • According to Judith Revel, the term appeared in Foucault’s vocabulary from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s influential book, L’Anti-Oedipe (1972).
      • The French structuralist school of classical studies (Louis Gernet, Jean-Pierre Vernant) and especially Marcel Detienne’s book, Les Maîtres de vérité dans la Grèce archaïque (1967) were motivating factors.
      • The épistémologie school of the philosophy of science, represented by Léon Brunschvicq, Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré, and Georges Canguilhem, also contributed. 



      IMPACT: Foucault’s work


      • Dispositif shifted the focus of Foucault’s work from localized practices and knowledge to the question of the state’s governance over an entire population.
      • The concept enabled him to investigate the relations of power supporting, and supported by, types knowledge in historically changing ensembles.
      • Dispositif made it possible to problematize the relations and interactions of powers coming from below and order imposed from above.


      IMPACT: Academic


      • Gilles Deleuze published an essay about the concept of dispositif (What is a dispositif?, in Michel Foucault Philosopher, 1989).
      • Giorgio Agamben published an essay about the concept of dispositif (What Is an Apparatus?, in What Is an Apparatus and Other Essays, 2009).
      • Ian Hacking published The Taming of Chance (1990), an original study of the emergence of probabilistic and statistical thinking that was partly inspired by Foucault.






        Foucault initially formulates the concept in the lectures on psychiatric power (1973-1974). His intention is to examine power’s relation to knowledge. The point of reference is the Nietzsche-inspired view of power as warlike struggle rather than language, as the structuralists believed. Power comes from below and is characterized by constant struggle. 


        The idea of power as struggle begins to be displaced by the problem of government. The model of war is supplanted by the art of government by the end of the 1970s.


        The problem of government begins to be formulated in terms of the ethics of the subject. This is articulated within the larger dispositif of sexuality.





        INFLUENCES: Foucault’s work


        • The introduction of the concept governmentality was Foucault’s response to accusations of addressing larger socio-political issues by using the same juridical model of power he himself criticized.
        • Foucault sought to move the focus from the institutional, state-oriented model of power to the technologies of power. The state became an embodiment of the historically changing relations of power rather than being the subject of government.
        • He also wanted to break away from the question of power’s functionality to focus on the question of its strategies and tactics. Foucault was now able to view government as a practice.




          INFLUENCES: Social


          • The ascendancy of neoliberalism in Western Europe in the governments of Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
          • The Klaus Croissant case. Croissant’s extradition from France as the defence lawyer of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group stirred up debate on the right of ‘the governed’.
          • The movement of Soviet dissidence.
          • Foucault’s enthusiasm toward the thinking on the left: Is there an adequate socialist governmentality?



          INFLUENCES: Interlocutors


          • Pierre Rosanvallon (especially Le capitalisme utopique. Histoire de l’idée de marché, 1979).
          • Paul Veyne (Le pain et le cirque, 1976).



          IMPACT: Foucault’s work


          • Governmentality shifted the focus of Foucault’s work from localized practices and knowledge to the question of the state’s governance over an entire population.
          • The concept brought together the micro and macro analysis of power—or cast aside the supposition of two independent levels of analysis.




            IMPACT: Academic


            • Governmentality studies since 1991 provided a vast field of research in Anglo-Saxon countries and Germany. Major members include Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose in the UK, Mitchell Dean in Australia, and Thomas Lemke in Germany.
            • Research on risk was a contributing factor (e.g., Pat O’Malley, François Ewald).
            • Italian left-wing intellectuals further elaborated some of Foucault’s themes in terms of an economic and political analysis. See, e.g., Antonio Negri and Michel Hardt, Empire (2000).
            • Giorgio Agamben sought to formulate the concept of biopower in a philosophically more lucid way compared to Foucault.
            • Foucault-inspired organization and management studies were conducted (e.g., Alan McKinlay, Ken Starkey, Stewart Clegg, Barbara Townley, Edward Barratt).
            • Social historical studies were done (e.g., Patrick Joyce, Mary Poovey).
            • Research on cultural studies was conducted (e.g., Jack Bratich, Jeremy Packer, Cameron McCarthy).
            • Foucauldian law studies commenced (e.g., Gary Wickham, George Pavlich).








              The concept is formulated for the first time in Foucault’s fourth lecture of 1978 (1 Feb 1978). Governmentality is the name for the regime of power deployed in the eighteenth century. It is connected with the question of biopower, organized around population, political economy, and apparatuses of security.

              Governmentality morphs through three stages: a ‘state of justice’, consolidated in the Middle Ages; a secular art of government in the form of a ‘police state’ in early modern Europe; and the liberal ‘governmental state’.


              The concept designates both the governmental practices of a particular regime of power and the more ambiguous problem of others’ conduct.


              Governmentality is detached from the problem of the state, becoming the name for the procedures for directing human conduct in general.


              Foucault dies.  



              DIIPLE RECOMMENDS:


              Primary Literature


              • Les Mots et les Choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines,The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences,1973.
              • Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,1977.
              • Histoire de la sexualitévol. 1: La volonté de savoir, The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction, 1978.
              • Dits et écrits vol I–IV, 1980–1988, 1994; Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, 3 volumes, 1997–1999.
              • Il faut défendre la société (1975-1976); 'Society Must Be Defended', Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976.
              • Sécurité, territoire et population (1977-1978); Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978.
              • Naissance de la biopolitique (1978-1979); The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979.


              Secondary Literature


              • Timothy J. Armstrong (ed.), Michel Foucault Philosopher, 1992
              • Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, second edition, 1983
              • Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault, 1991
              • David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 1993
              • Mitchell Dean: Governmentality. Power and rule in modern society, revised 2nd edition, 2010







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