From Bureaucracy to Governmentality: Subjection and Lived Experience

Convenors: Guido Barbi and Liesbeth Schoonheim

The physiognomy of the modern mass state has been subject to thorough analyses ranging from Max Weber’s assessment of bureaucracy as legal rule, Foucault’s thesis on governmentality as replacement of sovereignty, to Niklas Luhmann’s system-theoretical account. However, despite their insights into the logic of the contemporary state, it often remains unclear how to incorporate into their accounts the lived experiences of individuals vis-à-vis the state. The attention for subjectifying practices inherent to the modern state often comes at the expense of conceptualizing the individual’s potential for agency. Nonetheless, political subjects are increasingly subjected to these practices, which prevail not only in spheres usually associated with the state (e.g., education, health care), but are also reproduced by transnational organizations and extended to civil society (e.g., NGOs, social media). Given this condition, the question how political agency can assert itself vis-à-vis subjectifying practices becomes ever more urgent.

Then again, approaches emphasizing the lived experience of the political subject often seem to disregard the subjectifying practices inherent to the contemporary state. Stemming, for instance, from phenomenological (Arendt), ontological (Lefort), or poststructuralist (Butler) reflections, these approaches stress the capacity of the individual to act politically. Do these accounts, however, commit to a form of ‘social weightlessness’ (Bourdieu) by overlooking the profound and stultifying effect that bureaucratic structures and practices have on subjects?

Rather than opposing lived experience to subjectifying practices, this workshop wants to explore their complementarity. For instance, would a Foucauldian notion of governmentality benefit from a feminist account of political agency? Could the statehood notion of Max Weber be broadened by a phenomenological account of political judgment? In this workshop we aim to bring together scholars working at the intersection of the modern state’s subjectifying logic and the political subject’s lived experience of agency. By exploring avenues that allow for a complementary account, we hope to probe into questions of subjectification whilst avoiding the reduction of the subject to a merely passive individual enchained by the anonymous and automatizing structures of the modern state.

This workshop offers an opportunity to examine the tension between subjectifying practices and political agency, with a special attention to state practices. Topics could include, but are

  • Social ramifications of the ontological turn
  • Resisting techniques of domination: post-colonial perspectives
  • Agency beyond subjectifying practices?
  • Conditions and structural limits to political agency
  • Confronting the autonomy of the political with the heteronomy of the social
  • Various state practices (e.g., surveillance, welfare regimes, etc.): disciplinary force vs. autopoietic systems?
  • Agency as deconstruction?
  • The possibility of political individuality
  • Individual autonomy and embodied subjectivity
  • Epistemological status of lived experience
  • Subjectifying practices and the conditions for political judgment
  • Historical perspectives on state practices: from bureaucracy to neo-liberalism

Deadline for abstracts: 20 May 2016

For further information, and to submit an abstract of up to 300 words, please contact:

Notification of acceptance: 1 June 2016

A number of bursaries will be available to graduate students and retirees, of which the deadline is June 10th. These will be handled by MANCEPT ( ).

Deadline for full papers: 20 August 2016

We will ask all participants to pre-circulate their papers (5000-8000). We will allocate 50 minutes to each paper, of which up to 20 minutes can be dedicated to a presentation, and 30 minutes to the Q&A.