Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sarah Scheiner-Bobis: "Aesthetics of Control"

Sarah Thalia Scheiner-Bobis
Cardiff University

Governmentality and Bio-politics—Aesthetics of Control in Court Literature and Courtesy Books of the Italian Renaissance

1> The Renaissance witnesses the advent of a huge number of practical innovations and societal changes. They contributed to the modern age and resulted into new concepts, discourses and apparatuses [dispositifs] of knowledge and hence led to changing collective physical and mental conditions that determined human beings with regard to their individuality, sociality, and relation to freedom. My ambition is hence to further explore Foucault’s most relevant power constellations—governmentality and bio-politics—by looking at their period of promoterism which is hitherto a theoretical field nearly entirely neglected by today’s research. I will do so by looking at the discoursive field expressed by courtesy books and court literature of the Italian Renaissance. During the Renaissance, classical ideals and aesthetics were re-adapted by the arts and philosophical, medical, architectural and military writings were rediscovered. Also, antique images of the body were reintegrated in the thriving fine arts of the time—further supported by patronage—as distinct from medieval times, during which nudity was disfavoured, especially by the Church. Artists, poets and painters were looking for the (physically) ideal human being for whom they designed new worlds
[i] as reflected in the courtesy books and court literature of the cinquecento. Their specific aesthetics of body control can be seen as part of a changing relation of the individual to his/her environment while simultaneously expressing the new homocentrical concept of freedom. Courtesy books and court literature highlight not only the individual’s embeddedness in history and the ways in which corporeal images, techniques and experiences are imparted during the Italian Renaissance. They also point to the connection between an individual’s adequate self-fashioning and culturally specific bodily images in the course of emerging and hence changing mechanisms of power. All of this can be illustrated amongst others via the Foucaulian concept of governmentality.[ii]

2> By looking at the courtesy books and court literature of the Italian Renaissance, I would like to extend a relevant contemporary debate—namely the Foucaulian conception of bio-power and governmentality
[iii] in post-Fordian times and the age of globalisation, as well as its relations of power and work—to its early beginnings. At the same time, I would like to describe the displayed premises of an aesthetics of body control illustrated in this literary genre in terms of Foucault’s analysis of power relations. In doing so, I want to inspire the idea that courtesy books and court literature not only illustrate a transition period moving from modes of medieval sovereign power to power structures of governmentality, but also an important moment regarding a changing idea of corporeal control and aesthetics—sometimes even bringing to mind the corporeal concepts of postmodern times. Thus, I try to show that courtesy books and court literature of the Italian Renaissance in a way anticipate a ‘modern’ way of talking about the body.

3> Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano (1528) delineates the ideal Courtier
[iv] as ideal human being, whose own perfections take priority over attending his principe.[v] The dialogue between Raffaella and the younger Margerita in Alessandro Piccolomini’s La Raffaella (1539) depicts the necessity for un amante, which is linked to a variety of required modes of behaviour and corporeal techniques of the ideal woman. Firenzuola’s Delle belezze delle donne (1541) praises female beauty and a corresponding nobility of the soul. Carosos Il ballerino (1581) addresses the female and male dancing body in perfect harmony. Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo (1558) composes an educational program irrespective of social class, the intention of which is social integration. Stefano Guazzo’s Civil Conversazione (1579) also underlines societal class-independent conversation as a precondition for the formation of a community. All these works scrutinize a specific concept of humanistic homocentric freedom—despite their cultivation of disguise[vi]—by means of which the autonomous individual can attain the desired (physical) virtues. At the same time those virtues—amongst others grazia, sprezzatura, misura, arte e disciplina—are precursors of the civic virtues of the 18th century, which were most implicitly formulated in Guazzo’s Civil Conversazione. They also formulate the inscription of mental qualities onto the body and its discipline, so that eventually the disciplined body stands for the soul’s decorum. According to Foucault, Machiavelli’s Principe, in contrast to the courtesy books, marks an endpoint of sovereign governance that was effectuated over a territory and its subjects from the early Middle Ages onwards until the 16th century. This power relation between the sovereign and his princedom was characterized by singularity, exteriority and transcendence.[vii] Contrarily, courtesy books of the 16th century implicitly alter the concept of sovereign governance by creating a new art de gouverner which exercises power along the lines of the economy while embracing manifold forms of surveillance and control for the benefit of the individual and a society not exclusively bound to hierarchies of class[viii] and hence anticipating the state governance of later centuries.[ix]

4> The body as literary topos of courtesy books and court literature represents a synthesis of biological sex, psychic structure, and physical appearance. In its quality as a socially shaped materialisation of gender and social status, and as a medium of self-fashioning, the body represents particular modes of sociality while at the same time reproducing social power.
[x] Not only Michel Foucault but also Norbert Elias and Pierre Bordieu have drawn attention to the interdependence of corporeal practices and social order.[xi] Through his concept of governmentality, Foucault emphasizes a body’s active share in establishing and actualizing structures of power. He describes governance as a form of power which, from the 16th century onward, unfolds its full impact in modern society and within which the technologies of the self (self-governance) and technologies of power (governance from the outside) are closely intertwined. In the course of the cinquecento, three ways of considering governance emerge: 1. Gouverner soi-même and the related ethics involved; as reflected, for example, in the Cortegiano, Guazzo’s Civil Conversazione, or humanist neo-Platonism in general; 2. Economy as the art of adequately governing a family and household respectively, as it is discussed in La Raffaela and Galateo; 3. Politics as a science of governing the state.[xii]

5> Hence, governance does not only occur on a political level, but also concerns ethics and economy. Through these three levels, Foucault illustrates a significant change within the exercise of sovereign power which from the 16th century onwards—once the Machiavellian structures of power proved to be insufficient—became decentralized. Power was no longer exercised by the principe alone but constituted by a more complex networking of knowledge and power. Thus, governmentality refers to a totality of governance, shaping and intersecting the subjects’ spirits and bodies. Recurring to neo-Platonic ideas, the body in courtesy books as representation of the noble soul—while at the same time disguising the involved discipline for its shaping—stands in a functional relation to the self. The I disposes of the body, using it for its own self-fashioning and thus the body falls prey to technologies of the self, it is utilized.

6> From this viewpoint, the Italian Renaissance appears as transition period between a medieval feudal state governed by a sovereign and an emerging administrative governmental system of the early 16th century which is gradually governmentalized against the background of an emerging new form of statehood and dissolving feudal structures. Sovereign power is amplified and turned into a broader instrument of power; it is no longer subordinated to divine right but to human reason, embracing technologies of the self and governance imposed from the outside as well as undergoing an economic alignment within the scope of mercantilism. Courtesy books illustrate this new art de gouverner and the interaction of governance imposed from an outside and self-governance, subjection and becoming-subject against the background of specific societal conditions, i.e. the strengthening of city states and princedoms respectively such as Urbino, Ferrara, Mantua and Genua, Venice or Florence which was frequently accompanied by new modes of production and mercantilism. Here, power over bodies is practiced via the sovereign over his subjects and by means of technologies of the self consciously employed by the ideal courtier, court lady, lover or citizen:

“Technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”

7> According to Foucault, it is mainly the body as material site and carnal-spiritual matrix onto which discoursive effects and practices operate. Correspondingly, the cortegiano, Annibale (Galateo) or Margarita (Raffaela) apply to their bodies specific strategies related to hygiene, clothing, gesture or dance (Ballarino), in order to achieve the ideal form of life of an uomo/(donna) universale, whose appearance (lo aspetto), countenance (lo stare) and movements (i movimenti)—reflect grazia.
[xv] What is relevant is that the art of the perfect courtier or donna di palazzo consists in rehearsed technologies of the self that appear to be employed spontaneously and nonchalantly (sprezzatura).[xvi]

8> Not only are those technologies part of Neo-Platonic philosophy, instructing both body and spirit, they are also linked to the protagonists’ specific spatial and social embeddedness. This embeddedness can be described as an emerging disciplinary gaze at a sovereign’s court, under which a married woman is secretly looking for a lover, a body dances on a ball (Ballarino) or under which subjects socialize (Galateo). Disciplinary mechanisms of power finally became manifest in the 17th and 18th centuries in the course of the rise of the state and the reason of state, recovering collective bodies as prime target of disciplinary power.
[xvii] The generation of disciplined bodies is moreover a precondition for its insertion in the production systems of capitalism, in the course of which bio-political control turns them into regulated producing bodies. Disciplinary power

“[…] est centrée sur le corps, elle produit des effets individualisants, elle manipule le corps comme foyer de forces qu’il faut à la fois rendre utiles et dociles.”

9> However, disciplinary power does not act via repression, and it relied on prevention rather than punishment, since punishment would involve an interruption of (economic) production, comparable to a courtier’s beneficial socialization. The bodies’ formation via disciplinary power depends on their spatial distribution as well as on their separation, adjustment, sequence and surveillance, to which the organism and individual corporeal techniques are central.
[xix] According to Foucault, this panoptic system broadens from the 17th century onwards, affecting all social fields, whereby total and permanent surveillance finally leads to what he refers to as the disciplinary society.[xx] Courtesy books and court literature illustrate this concept of social life as stage, i.e. an observable space of representations that finds its analogue in urban Renaissance space and more specifically the gaze that arranges the houses and streets of the city into a central perspective. Thus, self-surveillance and surveillance at court via the sovereign’s gaze coexist, whereas in the focus of power exertion one finds assembled individuals as docile and rational beings.[xxi] Not only were the city-states of the Italian cinquecento were centred around the sovereign’s court. Courtiers were further arranged according to the sovereign’s positioning in space,[xxii] which turned them into determinants of the relationship between the capital, the court and the remaining territory. Consequently, the courtier was functionalized within the constellation of the sovereign and his territory.[xxiii]

10> Nevertheless—due to the sprezzatura which dissimulated the technologies of the self and hence undermines effective surveillance—surveillance in a way also re-affirms homocentric freedom. I would then state that courtesy books already imply this very process of individualization of power and the accompanying creation of disciplined and docile bodies, because an ideal existence could only be obtained via arte e disciplina.
[xxiv] The everyday ‘work’ on the private body is understood as both individual necessity and social obligation.[xxv] One could say that the cult of the perfect courtier or donna di palazzo prepared disciplined bodies for the exigencies of production and early capitalism. Here the disciplined bodies are the precondition for their eventual regulation as producing body (population) and pre-establish the field of bio-political intervention.

11> Moreover, due to the emerging governmentalization which is in parts preoccupied with a body’s well-being, I would further argue that during the 16th century sovereign power as the prevalent constellation of the medieval feudal system and its practice of “faire mourir ou laisser vivre”
[xxvi] alters. One might say that it already implicitly anticipates the power mechanism called bio-politics—again embracing technologies of the self as well as sovereign power—which is the right to “faire vivre ou […] laisser mourir”. Foucault diagnosed the manifestation of bio-political intervention as new type of power for the transition period from the 18th to the 19th century against the background of emerging capitalism and the insertion of controlled bodies into production systems:

“Et je crois que, justement, une des plus massives transformations du droit politique au XIXe siècle a constisté, je ne dis pas exactement à substituer, mais a compléter, ce vieux droit de souveraineté—faire mourir ou laisser vivre—par un autre droit nouveau, qui ne va pas effacer le premier, mais qui va le pénétrer, le traverser, le modifier, et qui va être un droit, ou plutôt un pouvoir exactement inverse : pouvoir de « faire » vivre et de « laisser » mourir. Le droit de souveraineté, c’est donc celui de faire mourir ou de laisser vivre. Et puis, c’est ce nouveau droit qui s’installe: le droit de faire vivre et de laisser mourir.”

12> Bio-politics [or bio-power] is linked to the emergence of “la population comme problème”
[xxviii] and is concerned with the protection of life rather than the threat of death. It regulates bodies as biological species in order to secure production. Courtesy books anticipate this “population comme problème”—and hence the new space of security—which motivates the intervention of bio-political control. Hence, Governing the body on a microcosmic level reflects the governing of a society as population—on the level of individual normative corporeal technologies of the self this refers to clothing, hygiene, health and youth.[xxix] Here, population, production and work are inscribed as an aesthetics of control on the working body governing itself and eventually leading to societal productivity. According to Foucault, ever since both mechanisms of power—disciplinary power and bio-politics—coexist, because the individual disciplinary control exercised over a single organism and its corporeal conduct as well as the regulation of a population and its effects of procreation are mutually dependent.

13> It is precisely this alteration of self-government and governance from the outside illustrated in the courtesy books of the 16th century and their aesthetics of body control—initially relating to the body of the courtier before transgressing social class such as in Galateo, Raffaela and Ballarino—which illustrates the rise of governmentality which, according to Foucault, is always linked to either sovereign power, disciplinary power or bio-politics. The courtesy books I roughly introduced thus illustrate a changing attitude towards life and death due to the emerging regulation of a population according to a certain normativity of individual corporeal techniques.

14> Physical and mental disciplinary actions and techniques of normalization always occur for the benefit of the optimization of an economic society. It’s whose aim is—via corporeal “exercise”—to internally and externally shape subjects’ bodies and spirits while motivating uniform auto-disciplinary actions by means of mediating corporeal standards. Classical and medieval feudal systems are, amongst others, distinct from those of the early modern period regarding the direction of impact onto the body. Thus, the courtesy books inherently anticipate disciplinary power and bio-political regulation while still being part of sovereign structures of power which are however transgressing due to emerging governmentality. ‘Old’ sovereign power let live and made die whereas early modern power since the beginning 16th century aimed at increasing productivity and physical stylization and aesthetization. At the same time it already slightly interfered into the process of life
[xxx] and found its repercussion in cults of beauty. All disciplinary technologies circulate around the body: during the Renaissance and hence during the Italian cinquecento and its courtesy books around the individual body, as from the 18th century onwards around the biology of a population.[xxxi]

15> In spite of the shift from a theocentric to a homocentric worldview and its new conception of freedom, this new humanistic freedom of the individual already incorporates on a literary level technologies of power of normative societies whose emergence researchers mostly diagnosed as social practice primarily for the 17th century onwards until the present day, involving the rise of the middle class. Cinquecento courtesy books and court literature, in their capacity of instructing individual (auto-)subjection, illustrate a micro-physics of power relations, while their reflected aesthetics of body control represents that power which eventually transforms social subjects into a disciplined, auto-regulating population.

16> The creation of the ideal body of the courtier, donna di palazzo, dancer or early modern citizen in Renaissance literature as a universal role-model illustrates not only the integration of an ethical code of body control into an all-embracing educational program leading the individual to social and private self-fulfilment. Simultaneously humanist ideas—first based on the aristocratic body—incorporated a broad agenda for the formation, disciplinary action and regulative maintenance of bodies. The aesthetics of body control of the “aristocratic” and then of the “working” body were strongly linked to the fear of loosing corporeal balance and of excess while standing for temperance and self-composure to which paradoxically homocentric freedom is its main precondition.


[i] Lorenz, Leibhaftige Vergangenheit. Einführung in die Körpergeschichte, p. 132/134.

[ii] Via the power mechanism of governmentality, Foucault now places more emphasis on the active subject which reproduces power. The individual is always and simultaneously object to and effect of power—because if an analysis of power relations is only restricted to a prohibitive authority (sovereign power) or controlling surveillance (disciplinary power) it gives a limited understanding of the mechanisms of power.

[iii] Foucault scrutinizes his concepts of bio-politics and governmentality for the first time in his lecture held at the Collège de France on 17 March 1976, published in: Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976; followed by History of Sexuality I. The Will to Know; Sécurité, Territoire, Population: Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978 and La Naissance de la Biopolitique: Cours au Collège de France, 1979.

[iv] Castiglione discusses a courtier’s desired corporeal and mental requirements (book I), the designation of his qualities and talents (book II), the ideal donna di palazzo (book III), and the relation between the courtier and his sovereign (book IV).

[v] Beyer, Preface to Il Cortegiano (German edition), p. 7.

[vi] Castiglione mentions „una certa avvertita dissimulazione” essential to a courtier’s demeanor (book II, 40).

[vii] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 1 February 1978.

[viii] Loos, Literatur und Formung eines Menschenideals, p. 8.

[ix] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 1 February 1978.

[x] Klein, ‚Das Theater des Körpers. Zur Performanz des Körperlichen’, p. 72.

[xi] Elias, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, (The Civilizing Process); Bourdieu, Ce que parler veut dire : économie des échanges linguistiques.

[xii] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 1 February 1978.

[xiii] This thought is further elaborated in Klein, ‚Das Theater des Körpers. Zur Performanz des Körperlichen’, p. 79-80.

[xiv] Foucault, 'Technologies of the Self', in: Martin, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, p.17.

[xv] Grazia as true beauty is based on an harmonious display of corporeal and spiritual qualities; Loos, Literatur und Formung eines Menschenideals, p. 5.

[xvi] Burke, Die Geschicke des ‚Hofmann’, English title: The Fortunes of the Courtier , p. 42 and 44.

[xvii] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 174.

[xviii] Foucault, Il faut défendre la Societé, 17 March 1976, p. 222.

[xix] Moreover, time meticulous mechanisms of power penetrate the body (Discipline and Punish); the body thus rehearses rhythmic patterns and cycles of repetition.

[xx] In Discipline and Punish, Foucault scrutinizes the provenance of the gaze which, as he further explains, on the basis of the new system of prison as Panopticon—provides the observer with power due to his/her knowledge about the emprisoned. The emprisoned on their part provide this knowledge and hence power to the observer since they—due to their mere assumption of a possible surveillance—ceaselessly act as if they were under surveillance. Looking at courtesy books one could draw a line to the omnipresent gaze of a courtly society, consisting amongst others of enviers, favourites and potential patrons or benefactors.

[xxi] Foucault, The History of Sexuality I. The Will to Knowledge; Discipline and Punish.

[xxii] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 11 January 1978.

[xxiii] The new bio-political safety order diagnosed by Foucault develops against the background of economic changes of the early modern period. Space and its multiplicities is a field of intervention either of the sovereign power, of disciplinary power or of bio-politics [bio-power]. Disciplinary power as part of the governmental grid individualizes multiplicities of space, seizing them via capitalizing them and hence empties space. In contrast to disciplinary power’s emptied and thus artificially constructed space, bio-politics’ field of intervention is the population and its material realities. This generates the concept of ‚milieu’ as the new field of intervention of bio-political power. (Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 11 January 1978).

[xxiv] Il Cortegiano, book II,9.

[xxv] Klein, ‚Das Theater des Körpers’, p. 85.

[xxvi] „L’effet du pouvoir souverain sur la vie ne s’exerce qu’à partir du moment où le souverain peut tuer. C’est finalement le droit de tuer qui détient effectivement en lui l’essence même de ce droit de vie et mort : c’est au moment où le souverain peut tuer, qu’il exerce son droit sur la vie. “ (Foucault, Il faut défendre la Societé, 17 March 1976, p. 214).

[xxvii] Foucault, Il faut défendre la Societé, 17 March 1976, p. 214.

[xxviii] „La biopolitique a affaire à la population, et la population comme problème politique, comme problème à la fois scientifique et politique, comme problème biologique et comme problème de pouvoir, je crois qu’elle apparaît à ce moment là.“ (Foucault, Il faut défendre la Societé, 17 March 1976, p. 218/219).

[xxix] Along with the new discoursive knowledge, amongst others the discourses of medicine, hygiene and sexuality, emerge mechanisms of regulation aimed at natality, mortality and morbidity.

[xxx] Foucault hence stated in Il faut défendre la Societé and in Security, Territory, Population that a qualitative change in view of eugenics, racial politics and/or sexual sciences took place as from the middle of the 19th century onwards.

[xxxi] Foucault, Il faut défendre la Societé, 17 March 1976.


Selected Courtesy Books and Court Literature:

Carroso, (1581). Il ballerino, to be found at:

Castiglione, Baldassare. (1528). Il libro del Cortegiano. Feltrinelli, 1972.

della Casa, Giovanni (1558). Galateo ovvero de’costumi, trattato nel quale, sotto la persona d’un vecchio idiota ammaestrante un suo giovanetto, si ragiona de’modi che si debbono o tenere o schifare nella comune conversazione,

Firenzuola, Agnolo (1541). Delle belezze delle donne. (English title: On the Beauty of Women. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.)

Guazzo, Stefano. (1574) Civil conversazione.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. (1513) Il Principe / Der Fürst. Reclam, 1986.

Piccolomini, Alessandro. (1539) La Raffaella, ovvero della bella creanza delle donne. Ullstein, 1984.

Secondary Literature:

Beyer, ‘Preface’ to Il Cortegiano (German edition: Der Hofmann). Wagenbach, 1996. pp. 5-9.

Burckhardt, Jacob. Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien. Nikol, 1987.

Burke, Peter. Die Geschicke des ‚Hofmann’. Wagenbach, 1996.

Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality I. The Will to Knowledge. Vintage, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. Palgrave, 2007. Original title : Securité, Territoire, Population. Cours au Collège de France 1977-1978. Seuil, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Bio-politics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1979. forthcoming in English: April 2008. Original title: Naissance de la Biopolitique. Cours au Collège de France 1979. Seuil, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. Il Faut Défendre la Societé. Cours au Collège de France 1975-1976. Seuil, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Penguin, 1977.

Foucault, M.(1982) 'Technologies of the Self'. In: Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (eds). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. pp. 16-49.

Klein, Gabriele. ‘Das Theater des Körpers. Zur Performanz des Körperlichen’. In: Markus Schroer (ed.). Soziologie des Körpers. Suhrkamp, 2005. pp. 73-91.

Lemke, Thomas / Krasmann, Susanne / Bröckling, Ulrich (eds.). Gouvernementalität der Gegenwart. Studien zur Ökonomisierung des Sozialen. Suhrkamp, 2000.

Loos, Erich. Literatur und Formung eines Menschenideals. Das Libro del Cortegiano von Baldassare Castiglione. In: Abhandlungen der geisteswisssenschaftlichen und sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse / Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Nr. 5, 1980. pp. 3-20.

Lorenz, Maren. Leibhaftige Vergangenheit. Einführung in die Körpergeschichte. Edition Diskord, 2000.

Sarah Thalia Scheiner-Bobis studied American, Italian and French literature at the University of Cologne and is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Cardiff University.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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