Governing, knowledge and time: a governmentality perspective

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A blogpost by Dr. Marlon Barbehön, Heidelberg University

This blogpost based on a talk at the SKAPE seminar on 27 August 2019 

Time and practices of governing are intertwined in multiple ways. Political rule in general and its democratic form in particular are not possible without the temporalisation of processes and of institutional settings which constitute specific rhythms of political participation, deliberation, and decision-making. Political order can be seen as a complex configuration of stages, periods, intervals, cycles, and deadlines, which foster predictability and enable purposeful political action. At the same time, political strategies can be built on utilisations of time, for instance through an allocation of budgets, a sequencing of events, or an adjustment of the pace of processes. In recent years, research in political science and policy analysis has started to recognise how techniques and institutions of governing are characterised by these temporal features (cf. Pollitt 2008, Howlett and Goetz 2014).

However, the relationship of time and governing can also be grasped as an ontological and thus more fundamental one. In this sense, the very possibility of governing, understood as a specific social practice, both builds on and produces a certain notion of time and history. Time thus becomes de-naturalised, bringing to the fore the complex ways how (political) realities and temporalities emerge in mutual dependency (cf. Barbehön 2018).

In this SKAPE seminar, I will develop such a perspective on the basis of Michel Foucault’s lectures on the governmentalisation of the state (Foucault 2007, 2008). With this notion, Foucault has reconstructed the emergence of a specific kind of knowledge about how to govern (through) the state. Going back as far as to the 16th century, Foucault traces the consolidation of a distinct political rationality that embraces beliefs about what governing is for, how it is to be practiced, and what kind of knowledge it depends on. Starting from this general perspective, I will argue that the genealogy of a modern governing rationality could also, and maybe even primarily, be captured as the construction of a specific understanding of time and history (cf. Hamilton 2018; Portschy 2019).

Central to the historical emergence of a political art of governing is the generalisation and transformation of pastoral power; the Christian idea that the guidance of souls is exerted by a shepherd who leads his herd to otherworldly salvation. From the 17th century onwards, this notion of conduct becomes secularised, constituting the idea that governing is not the exercise of sovereignty over a territory, but, similarly to the pastorate, the guidance of individuals and, later in history, of the population. In the course of this fundamental transformation, the eschatological idea of an ultimate destiny is replaced by the notion of an “open historicity”: “we now find ourselves in a perspective in which historical time is indefinite, in a perspective of indefinite governmentality with no foreseeable term or final aim” (Foucault 2007, p. 260). The art of governing is thus not directed towards a fixed and ahistorical point in time which will inevitably arrive (Last Judgment), but a radically contemporary practice whose future is contingent upon current actions and events.

This transformation of time is fundamental to the emergence of a distinct political rationality, as an open future is the precondition for the conviction that the way worldly events develop in time can be influenced here and how. However, this notion of time and history is not external to governing practices which themselves yield time. This mutual relationship manifests in the (specific) temporal characteristics of the different forms of power/knowledge relations Foucault discerns. Disciplinary power, for instance, tries to dispose of the open future entirely in that it assumes that the unfolding of time can be controlled by an ever more far-reaching and fine-grained web of disciplining regulations. To be able to govern in every detail, the state starts capturing all that happens within its territory. A statistical knowledge emerges, a “knowledge of the state, of the forces and resources that characterize a state at a given moment” (Foucault 2007, p. 274). Disciplinary power thus both builds on and constitutes a time which is open and controllable through present interventions.

In contrast, the security dispositif observes the future not only as open, but also as a blind spot that can never be fully known. As societal dynamics result in “a never-ending generation of history” (Foucault 2008, p. 308), one can try to anticipate, though without being able to entirely control what will happen next. Governing according to the security dispositif thus means to establish institutions which are able to reduce future risks or which are, in today’s political semantics, resilient. For this purpose, a type of knowledge is needed which allows for prognoses or scenarios of possible futures. Based on knowledge of (assumed) nexuses and causalities, the security dispositif regulates probabilities which are calculated at the level of the population and, as a consequence, practices of governing erect a notion of time as contingent and inconsistent.

Finally, the disciplinary power over the human body and the regulation of collective life at the level of the population coalesce during the 19th century into a biopolitics which “exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it” (Foucault 1978, p. 137). This kind of power establishes yet another notion of the general idea of an indefinite time, as it constructs the open future as a room for enhancement and optimisation.

A time-centred interpretation of Foucault’s genealogy thus allows to grasp the relationship between time and governing in a more nuanced way as compared to perspectives that reduce time to a matter of organising political procedures, institutions, and strategies. A governmentality perspective enables us to investigate how the modern art of governing is, on the one hand, bound to a specific understanding of time and history, while this very understanding is, on the other hand, enacted and reproduced in and through governing techniques. This sheds new light on both the temporal requirements and the temporal performativity of current rationales of governing, as manifest for instance in the semantics of risk, precaution, or resilience.



Barbehön, Marlon 2018: Ever more complex, uncertain and urging? ‘Wicked problems’ from the perspective of anti-naturalist conceptualizations of time. diskurs – Zeitschrift für innovative Analysen politischer Praxis 3, 1-20.

Foucault, Michel 1978: The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, Michel 2007: Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Foucault, Michel 2008: The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hamilton, Scott 2018: Foucault’s End of History: The Temporality of Governmentality and its End in the Anthropocene. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 46 (3), 371-395.

Howlett, Michael and Klaus H. Goetz 2014: Introduction: time, temporality and timescapes in administration and policy. International Review of Administrative Sciences 80 (3), 477-492.

Pollitt, Christopher 2008: Time, Policy, Management. Governing with the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Portschy, Jürgen 2019: Biopolitik der Zeit. In: Gerhards, Helene/Braun, Kathrin (eds.): Biopolitiken – Regierungen des Lebens heuteWiesbaden: Springer VS, 67-93.

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