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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

What is to be understood by the disciplining of societies in Europe since the eighteenth century is not, of course, that the individuals who are part of them become more and more obedient, nor that all societies become like barracks, schools or prisons; rather, it is that an increasingly controlled, more rational and economic process of adjustment has been sought between productive activities, communications networks, and the play of power relations.

Michel Foucault, (2000) [1981] ‘The Subject and Power’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, p. 339.
Random thoughts in response
I have posted a slightly different version of this comment before, but seem to want to keep returning to it!

Critics have often read Foucault’s notion of a disciplinary society as meaning that people subject to its effects behave like automatons. That is certainly the aim of the disciplinary regime, but not necessarily the result in practice. In fact, people continually resist attempts to rationalise and organise their behaviour whether with a deliberate program of resistance in mind, or piecemeal in specific situations just because they don’t like it. Unfortunately as disciplinary regimes become more refined, people have to become more and more creative – or just simply destructive – in their attempts to get around these regulatory systems.

Foucault’s ideas have often been blamed – particularly by conservative commentators – for the perceived contemporary breakdown in social order and for fostering the resistance to traditional seats of authority which has marked ethical systems in the post World War II period. I would argue, rather, that Foucault’s work – as was the work of other thinkers who emerged in the 1960s – was in fact a warning about certain directions in social organisation which have now become all too apparent. The disciplinary society is not something that had its heydey in the nineteenth and up to the mid twentieth centuries and now only exists in Charles Dickens novels or the histories of totalitarian regimes. It has evolved using sophisticated techniques of governmentality to become a system of extraordinary complexity and regulatory effectiveness.

What is perhaps most disturbing at present (but then perhaps nothing has changed!) is the high degree of volontary and unquestioning compliance by individuals with mechanisms which seek to restrict their freedom. Mechanisms of social order are, of course, essential to the survival of human beings at all levels, but the question becomes, and indeed has always been, where to draw the line between rules essential for harmonious social function, and regulation that simply enslaves people, locking them into inequitable relations of power.

Much of Foucault’s work focuses on this dangerous narrow and wavering line and seeks to warn people that they must be constantly alert to the dangers this line entails. Foucault and other thinkers of his generation who lived through the modernist debacle which was World War II and totalitarianism were determined to see that this never happened again, but the lessons of history are soon forgotten (particularly when the study of history has been wiped off both school and university curricula) and the re-emergence of old problems in new guises is frequently not recognised for what it is.

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

The art of government … which has now become the program of most governments in capitalist countries, absolutely does not seek the constitution of … [a] standardizing, mass society of consumption and spectacle, etcetera… It involves, on the contrary, obtaining a society that is not orientated towards the commodity and the uniformity of the commodity, but towards the multiplicity and differentiation of enterprises… An enterprise society and a judicial society, a society orientated towards the enterprise and a society framed by a multiplicity of judicial institutions, are two faces of a single phenomenon.

Michel Foucault, (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Course at the Collège de France. 1978-1979 New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 149-50.

L’art de gouvernement … qui est devenu maintenant la programmation de la plupart des gouvernements en pays capitaliste [sic] … ce programmation ne cherche absolumment pas la constitution … [d’une] société uniformisante, de masse, de consommation, de spectacle etc… Il s’agit au contraire d’obtenir une société indexée non pas sur la marchandise et sur l’uniformité de la marchandise, mais sur la multiplicité et la différenciation des entreprises. … Société d’entreprise et société judiciaire, société encadrée par une multiplicité d’institutions judiciaires, ce sont les deux faces d’un même phénomène.

Michel Foucault, (2004) Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au Collège de France. 1978-1979 Paris: Gallimard, Seuil, pp. 154-5.

Random thoughts in response
I have done a bit of chopping around of Foucault’s words here in the interests of succinctly summarising his argument. If the lecture (14 February 1979) these remarks come from is not amongst his best work and reads almost like a set of notes, or at least the first draft of empirical work to be worked over later, the enlightening insights and reversal of received ideas characteristic of most of his work are still in evidence. What I find fascinating about Foucault’s remarks here is how uncannily accurate they are (as was often the case in his work) in discerning emerging trends that some thirty years down the track we are now seeing in full flower – or perhaps in all their full horror.

Foucault takes to task standard – and usually Marxist – critiques of modern capitalist and liberal society which see it as a society of mass consumption. His argument is that we have moved beyond this into a governmental arrangement which incites the creation of multiple enterprises. With the existence of multiple enterprises and the inevitable friction between them, we also see the proliferation of endless forms of legal regulation to keep them all in balance.

As he says elsewhere in the same lecture, the homo Æconomicus that neo-liberal government is aiming to create is ‘not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production’. (p.152). There is now of course an enormous literature both inciting people to become entrepreneurs in every aspect of their existence – not just economic – and a perhaps less convincing literature criticising this goal. We are constantly invited to perform, to be ‘creative’, to ‘manage our own careers’, to be infinitely productive to the exclusion of both personal well-being and the well-being of others

Each one of us is also expected to be entirely responsible for administering the economic, health and other risks involved in our individual existences. As Foucault points out, according to this model, looking after members of the social body is not to be seen as a collective social endeavour, but as the personal responsibility of each individual. If for some reason you can’t acquire enough capital to take out the necessary insurance to guarantee your own survival, then you only have yourself to blame.

Neoliberal arts of government in the 21st century have engineered an unliveable society based on a combination of unending individual responsibility for ever increasing productivity and growth based on entrepreneurial principles, of individual responsibility for insurance against risk and an oppressive regulatory and legal apparatus which is necessary to manage the frictions between the ever increasing proliferation of individual enterprises. If one is not constantly creative, productive and entrepreneurial at both the economic and personal levels, one has no social visibility and no social value. This might go some way towards explaining the obsessive attachment to social networking technologies such as Facebook and Twitter where those involved are constantly producing and creating themselves in the most minute details of their daily existence and making that production of self visible to the rest of the social body.

For further discussion of this post see the Foucault blog

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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Quand je parle de société «disciplinaire», il ne faut pas entendre «société disciplinée». Quand je parle de la diffusion des méthodes de discipline, ce n’est pas affirmer que «les Français sont obéissants»! Dans l’analyse des procédés mis en place pour normaliser, il n’y a pas «la thèse d’une normalisation massive». Comme si justement, tous ces développements n’étaient pas à la mesure d’un insuccès perpetuel.

When I speak of a ‘disciplinary’ society, I don’t mean a ‘disciplined society’. When I speak of the spread of methods of discipline, this is not a claim that ‘the French are obedient’! In the analysis of normalising procedures, it is not a question of a ‘thesis of a massive normalisation’. As if these developments weren’t precisely the measure of a perpetual failure.

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1980] ‘La poussière et le nuage’ In Dits et Ecrits vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard, pp. 15-16. This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell

Random thoughts in response
Foucault takes issue with critics here who have described his idea of the disciplinary society as deterministic. They argue that Foucault describes a dreary and oppressive system from which we cannot escape.

But Foucault makes the excellent point that if populations were perfectly organised there would actually be no need to set up these systems of discipline. The ‘disciplinary society’ is a utopia dreamed up by nineteenth century reformers and bureaucrats who in a kind of mechanistic and obsessive fervour sought to organise the ways bodies behaved, how time and space were divided and the division of tasks amongst a hierarchy of individuals.

It is precisely the resistance of the unruly masses to attempts to organise them which engender the ever more finely detailed plans by the devotees of order at any cost to get them under control. There is a constant strategic interplay between the forces of order and those who wish to think and act otherwise. The constant failure of the disciplinary project leads those bent on its realisation to redouble their efforts which in turn engenders ever more creative efforts to sidestep these constraints.

Brutal methods of repression have been demonstrated to be largely ineffective in the long run and since the nineteenth century we have seen ever more subtle methods of ‘governmentality’ which use the very freedom of individuals to assist in their own enmeshment in these systems. Of course the increasing bureaucratisation of any number of organisations, including universities, is a daily demonstration of this process. One could also undertake an interesting analysis of current consumerist practices and communication technologies in this context.

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