The Government of Life

International symposium, Copenhagen, 8-10 April 2013

In the past few decades, considerable conceptual work has been carried out around the notions of gouvernementalité and bio-power, initially proposed by Michel Foucault in his analyses of the emergence of modern power/knowledge configurations in 18th and 19th century Europe. Although the two concepts were contemporaneous in these initial analyses, further conceptual development (in English-language empirical social sciences) has tended to be rather disconnected. On the one hand, a particular style of scholarship coalesced around empirical analyses of political power in terms of a problematics of government rather than as a problem of the State. Focusing on the ways in which historically contingent forms of ‘the conduct of the conduct’ emerged out of interlinked political rationalities/mentalities and technologies/techniques of government, this body of work has demonstrated the analytical traction that can be gained from mapping out how particular modes of problematisation rely on and generate regimes of truth and practice, knowledge and power.

On the other hand, social science scholars have taken up the conceptual and empirical challenge to examine the different ways in which life became the object of a bio-power which has brought life and its mechanisms into realms of explicit calculation and intervention. Most notably, this body of work has, in recent years, focused on how advanced biological sciences (genomics, neuroscience, reproductive science and other life sciences) are transforming the ways in which life comes to be made knowable, calculable and perhaps controllable at cellular and molecular levels. Bio-power today, it is suggested, is in important ways playing out in a molecular realm of DNA, cells, tissues and synapses.

Yet, bio-power is not restricted to targeting people’s biological existence in a narrow sense, as if only distinct biological and medical problems can appear under the gaze of bio-power. Rather, modern bio-power concerns itself with the biological life of man as it is lived out within small or big scale environments, covering an almost limitless number of factors that may be perceived as influential upon living humans. Bio-power shares some characteristics with Foucault’s seminal portrayal of modern discipline, but it does not confine itself to institutions as the emblematic locus for exercising power. It takes ‘man-as-living being’ as its object and seeks to operate on individuals in all their whereabouts, actions, and social relations, thereby transgressing institutional barriers and dissolving conventional boundaries between the public and the private, the institution and its outside. In brief, and relevant for the theme of new forms of public governance, bio-power guides analysis towards programs and initiatives that do not depend upon the circumscribed spaces and divisions of modern (state) institutions, including hospitals and clinics, but also operate on and across, sites and disciplines conventionally separated in public policy and regulation. The targeting of ‘lifestyles’, ‘social environments’, ’quality of life’ and previously non-health related institutions in current strategies of health promotion offers a case in point.

In April 2013, a symposium will be convened in Copenhagen to examine how the innovative conceptual work that has taken place around both bio-power and gouvernementalité today might be brought further into interlocution in contemporary empirical scholarship through a prism of ‘the government of life’. The symposium will explore how bodies of expert knowledge emerging out of molecular biological sciences (of the cell); molar anatomical sciences (of the body); ‘old school’ public health, epidemiology and demographic sciences (of the population); as well as sciences of the human (and the social), in different ways, have been and continue to be harnessed in/generated through more or less rationalized efforts to intervene upon the vital characteristics of human existence – individually and collectively.

Key questions to be explored include:

  • How might life be empirically studied as a problematic of government?
  • How do particular forms of government generate specific understandings and valuations of ‘life’?
  • In which ways can we further conceptualise (emergent) relations between normative valuations, knowledge of life/knowledge of living and the government of life/living?
  • What different vital characteristics of human existence are at stake in the government of life?
  • Which authorities and forms of expertise make claims/are accorded the capacity to speak truthfully about human life?

The objective of this symposium is to promote further conceptual development and to identify avenues for further empirical attention if we pursue studies of bio-power today in terms of a problematics of the government of life.


Kaspar Villadsen, Copenhagen Business School
Esben Houborg, Aarhus University
Mitchell Dean, Copenhagen Business School
Lars Thorup Larsen, Aarhus University
Julie Kent, University of the West of England
Mianna Meskus, University of Helsinki
Klaus Hoeyer, University of Copenhagen
Thomas Lemke, Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main
Dominique Memmi, CNRS Paris
Nikolas Rose, King's College London
Ilpo Helén, University of Helsinki
Ayo Wahlberg, University of Copenhagen
Jeffrey Bussolini, CUNY/ABMSC
Holger Højlund, University of Århus