Sunday, April 17, 2016

w(h)ither liberalism?

The work of Michel Foucault has had a deep impact on theorizing in gender studies, queer theory, critical disability studies, and other critical theoretical investigations of the production of certain types of embodiment. In particular, Foucault’s work on discipline, surveillance, power-knowledge, and biopower remain current in academic publication. Even when Foucault’s way of working or his analysis is criticized, the basic conceptual frameworks he developed in books like Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality continue to underlie and underwrite critical theoretical investigations.

What is usually left behind is Foucault’s insistence on periodization in the production of power-knowledge. This theme, most prominently examined in Foucault’s pre-genealogical, transitional work The Order of Things, should caution us to resist positivist impulses to totalize any theory. In the game of academic publication, the posture of positivist totalization is a significant display of dominance, so it continues.
In so far as the theorist is dissatisfied with every partial truth, the theorist should interrogate the way that a given theory appears true—under what historical and political conditions, under what episteme (remember those?), under what regime. When times change, the ground shifts, and with it eventually the groundwork of theoretical knowledge.1 And times have changed.
Foucault explored the births of the clinic, the prison, and sexuality. They share a general historical-political context, which in all cases coincides with the development of bourgeois industrial capitalism. To my knowledge, Foucault did not write anything about the development of capitalism that would parallel his theorizing about the clinic, the prison, and sexuality. My guess is that this was because of academic politics of the day, but an interesting thought would be that it is because capitalism was too base for Foucault’s theoretical tastes or capacity. In any case, these are all contemporaries, age peers.2
The basic set-up of capitalism has changed a great deal, even since Foucault’s death. Multinational corporations have overtaken the capacity of any state to control them, and the state and all institutions are being broken down, restructured and rebuilt through the auspices of corporations. Among the institutions undergoing this radical change are the clinic, the prison, and sexuality—and also identity, language, music.
Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality both rely on a notion of the individual as the site of power-knowledge, produced through the construction of subjectivity, self-consciousness (a word Foucault eschewed), and self-identity. The Panopticon relentlessly called upon the prisoner to attend to himself as prisoner, to become penitent, and eventually to become productive citizen. For that power-knowledge to effectuate that conversion, the individual implicitly had to understand himself in terms of identity-within-society, as a person-with-personhood, as one who would be held to account, and to whom this account should be significant as a matter of who he was. Individuals-as-persons were needed, and their self-surveillance was needed. To become “docile”—Foucault’s name for the ideal type of socially productive, well-adjusted citizen-body—one must be interpellated as social being, as a being whose identity within society could matter.
On the other side of the ledger, the anonymous bearer of power-knowledge was subjectivized into a hierarchical, bureaucratic position by way of achievements of docility (e.g., earning PhDs, moving up the corporate ladder, etc.) The fundamental attributes of power-knowledge, leaving aside all details of their nominal spheres of endeavor, are the capacity to produce knowledge, the capacity to produce docile bodies, and the capacity to produce and reproduce its own hierarchical bureaucracy. In short, at its base, power-knowledge requires a division of labor and a division of social control that depends on every member doing the assigned work in the assigned time in the prescribed fashion. Without bureaucratization, the liberal institutions Foucault interrogated could not continue to exist.
Where we are now is a situation in which systems of bureaucratization and hierarchy are in crisis. Obviously, this is not due to a proletariat revolution.3 It is due to the contradiction inherent in bureaucratization as a form of power. Perhaps the exemplar of bureaucratization in our computerized, networked society is the dominance of control and decision algorithms for guiding financial, industrial, and other major economic behaviors. The relationship between computer systems which wield power-knowledge and individuals upon whom power-knowledge inscribes and prescribes is at so abstract a remove from lived experience that it is barely intelligible. To most individuals, most of the time, it is invisible not only in its production of oneself as a subject, but also in its prescriptions.
I am not personally very interested in knowing how my credit scores are arrived at, and I am not suggesting, nor am I interested in the notion that computer systems control my life. My point is this: the fundamental arrangement of power-knowledge has gone past the models Foucault concerned himself with. The persistence, omnipresence and invisibility of power-knowledge in the shape of something like a credit score makes it appear to fit Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon. But if I am not aware of being in prison at all, if I do not or can not understand myself as a consumer, for instance, then I can not be subjectivized as such.

To conclude this all too briefly. Industrial capitalism needs workers—that is, subjects who work, subjects who are conscious of themselves as workers, who are accountable for being productive, industrious, conscientious, and “free.” The institutions of power-knowledge belonging to the era of industrial capitalism likewise need subjects who are conscious of themselves and who are accountable for having knowable identities.
It is not clear to me at all that consumer capitalism needs consumers who are subjects conscious of themselves as consumers. Consumers need not be accountable at all. In this era, we are not called to account as productive, industrious, conscientious, and least of all as “free,” despite (because of?) the cultural currency of these brand names.4 While it may appear as if advertising and marketing has taken on a decisive role as the Panopticon of Panopticons in our era, the programming of consuming does not rely on the production of subjectivity in anything like the sense Foucault analyzed. Instead of power exerted to produce an affirmative active subject, consumer capitalism produces a passive recipient/perceiver.

1. I have always suspected that Foucault was deeply Hegelian, especially in the archaeological period: theorization of power-knowledge always comes on the scene too late to effect change. Critics who charge that Foucault provided no basis for action are fundamentally correct. The owl of Minerva flies only at the coming of the dusk.
2. We ought to be struck by the way Foucault’s analyses, even of power-knowledge, assumes the relative stability of bourgeois industrial capitalism and its production and reproduction of power. Who or what else could be power if it is the nameless, identity-less, universal that Foucault suggests? Who or what else could be everywhere at once, underlying all social forms, all forms of knowledge, all institutions? Being? God?
3. If anything, the contrary: it is due to the crisis of industrial capitalism, and the proximity of its catastrophe.
4. The hierarchical relations of our age are beginning to resemble feudalism more than industrial capitalism.

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