A New Subjectivity is Being Produced

24 04 2009

A few days ago the IMF released a report that claimed the world was in recession.  The news was delivered on the same day as the curious celebration of “Earth Day,” a well-intentioned but problematic event.  So symbolizes the dominant threads of thought in this hour of our species: the interlocked and always competing aspects of environmental awareness and sustainability and an capitalist economy.



Now, you may be anticipating a tangent on how an economy based on perpetual growth is by definition unsustainable.  And, as Derrick Jensen has insightfully pointed out over and over again, it’s stupid.  And immoral.  And stupid.

Or perhaps you’re ready for a rousing rant on how we should be paying very close attention, even as land-locked midwesterners, to phytoplankton levels (once they go, we go).

But instead I’m using this news to frame a very brief outline of Jason Read’s recent article in Foucault Studies, “A Geneology of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity.”  With a global economy in crisis, a population skeptical of government and bank representatives reassuring us that everything is going to be just fine, and the increasingly obvious plight of the planet’s health, I contend that we’re at a juncture where a new subjectivity is being formed.

While many may hear Foucault and think of his famous works on disciplining technologies or the governing of sexuality, Read picks up on a lesser known Foucault.  In his College de France lectures in the late ’70s, Foucault explores neo-liberalism under the title, The Birth of Biopolitics.  In these lectures, Foucault claims that the key element that distinguishes liberalism from neo-liberalism is the switch of emphasis from exchange to competition.

Of course, the rationalities of exchange figure prominently in both classical and neo liberalisms, sharing at its base the idea of “homo economicus,” where every individual is, as Foucault puts it, “an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself” (Birth 226).  But as Read notes, in neo-liberalism we have the move from a “‘homo economicus’ as an exchanging creature to a competitive creature, or rather as a creature whose tendency to compete must be fostered” (28).  Put more accurately, individuals are encouraged to think in these terms of the market; there is a production of subjectivity, in short, that privileges rationalities governed by the logic of the market.  In asking every one to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, companies of one, the distinctions between “worker” and “capitalist” are at the very least blurred and at the most entirely collapsed, producing new forms of subjectivity.

As a mode of governmentality, neoliberalism operates on interest, desires, and aspirations rather than through rights and obligations; it does not directly mark the body, as sovereign power, or even curtail actions, as disciplinary power; rather, it acts on the conditions of actions.  Thus, neoliberal governmentality follows a general trajectory of intenstification. This trajectory follows a fundamental paradox; as power becomes  less restrictive, less corporeal, it also becomes more intense, saturating the field of actions, and possible actions. 29

Quick example: Someone gets a beautiful sleeve tatoo on their arm and the general response is, “Won’t that limit your job prospects?”

“It is not the structure of the economy that is extended across society,” Read writes, “but the subject of economic thinking, its implicit anthropology” (32).  Constant strategizing of economic self-interest perverts collective relations.  Indeed, what capitalism destroys is our ability to sustain healthy collective relations.  As Wendy Brown puts it in her book, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, “The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options” (43).

In framing the argument this way, the work that needs to be done is understanding the production of subjectivities and identities in neoliberalism, to combat a society comprised entirely of self-interested individuals.  Neoliberalism, as Read understands Foucault to say, “operates less on actions, directly curtailing them, then on the condition and effects of actions, on the sense of possibility” (36).

These claims at once raise the stakes of understanding the possibilites for collective action in a digitally connected, neo-liberal world, and make it immensely more difficult.  But, as I mentioned at the beginning, the powers that produce neo-liberal subjectivities are in crisis and being vigorously questioned.  The combination of environmental devastation (it’s estimated that 3 species of plant and animal life go extinct every hour) and a global economic downturn may open up the possibility for critique and the production of new subjectivities, where life and relationships are prioritized over profit.

Castells :: The Power of Identity :: (Part I)

19 04 2009

It’s been a rich week for thinking about social movements and identity construction.  In addition to my first exposure to the writings of Manual Castells, I spent a good portion of the week with the work of Jason Read, who visited Ohio State for a lecture and seminar.

There is considerable overlap between the two in regards to their fields of inquiry.  Both are interested in identity construction, particularly collective identity, in an age of globalization, a term denoting extreme connectivity in the structures of communication and the nearly unmitigated expansion of capitalism.  In this time of massive restructuring of our social and economic relations, the search is on for an explanation of how people mobilize under shared conditions of belonging.  Castells is writing in the later half of the 1990s, exploring the elements of what he calls the network society, characterized “by the flexibility and instability of work, and the individualization of labor [and] a pervasive, interconnected, and diversified media system” (1).  413mnbjrwbl_sl500_aa240_Read is equally interested in these issues, though he frames the debate through different terms.  He notes in The Micro-Politics of Capital, “Capitalism must simultaneously develop the flexibility, cooperative networks, and potentiality of the subjectivity of labor while at the same time reducing the possibility for conflict and antagonism” (17).  The economic conditions that foster a flexibility and instability of work and individualization of labor is for Read none other than neo-liberalism.

His interest in identity construction, one could say, is focused more on the conditions that allow for its instantiation than any specific, historically contextualized formations, like Castells.  Read is exploring capitalism’s production of subjectivity; in other words, he’s theorizing on how the economy produces a particular logic in its participating subjects and produces certain tastes, 9781405107136 desires, and conceptual modes of problem solving.  While Read’s work is mostly theory, interspersed with powerful examples from everyday practice, Castells first chapter of The Power of Identity is focused on practice, observing social movements and their origins in various contexts as a foundation for theorizing the network society.

Beginning with Islamic fundamentalism, Castells then sketches out its close cousin, American Christian fundamentalism; he follows this with a discussion of the Soviet Union and Catalan, making distinctions between Nation and State and the implications they hold for understanding identity construction through nationalism, finishing with some reflections on ethnicity and localized territory as factors in identity construction.  Castells argues that the cases of fundamentalism are in response to and symptomatic of a network society that is “shaking institutions, transforming cultures” (2), creating the sense of “an increasingly unpredictable and uncontrollable life” (27).  Although he doesn’t use the term postmodern, Castells continually characterizes our age by the fragmentation  of identity, where traditional roots of meaning-making are being “twisted, divided, reprocessed, mixed [and] differentially stigmatized or rewarded, according to a new logic of informationalization/globalization of cultures and economies that makes symbolic composites out of blurred identities” (59).  Sounds like postmodernity to me.

While I have great respect for the methodology of Castells (he is “communicating theory by analyzing practice” (3) and will not allow himself to go down a path of endless abstract theorizing (12)), and I found his historical genealogies impressive, I’m much more interested in the theoretical insights his study has to offer.  To extract some of the conceptual models that seem useful I will outline here some of his terminology and main claims.

First, Castells separates out identity from roles, or role-sets, but acknowledges the obvious connection between the two.  Roles, like “being” a student, a smoker, a bike messenger, or a Freemason, for example, are sources of identity construction, but their “relative weight in influencing people’s behavior depend upon negotiations and arrangements between individuals … institutions and organizations” (7).  Identities, sources of meaning constructed through the process of individuation that are given priority over other sources of meaning, are much “stronger sources of meaning than roles” (7).  By this I take Castells to mean that societal roles do not operate under the “hypodermic needle” theory, where the meanings attached to a certain role are directly and completely injected into a  person’s identity.  As he puts it succinctly, “identities organize the meaning while roles organize the functions” (7).

In a trialectic worth sketching out, Castells proposes three forms and origins of identity building:

  • Legitimizing identity: A set of logic and meaning introduced and propagated by the ruling powers, in order to rationalize, reproduce, and expand existing rule.
  • Resistance identity: Constructed in response to devaluation and stigmatization; where social actors build “trenches of resistance” in opposition to the ruling norm.  This formation leads to communes or communities of resistance.
  • Project identity: the construction of a “new identity that redefines their position in society and, by doing so, seek the transformation of overall social structure” (8).

Obviously, there is traffic across these zones of distinction.  Project identities can be seen as when resistance identities, as Castells puts it, “move out of the trenches.”  I am particularly interested in this movement from resistance to project: where a fundamentally defensive (or resistive) identity, framed largely in terms of dominant system simply by its oppositional stance, becomes fundamentally productive of new values, new meanings.  In modernity, Castells claims, project identities were born out civil society; in contrast, in the network society, they are constituted communal resistance.  Legitimizing identity, he argues, is in a state of crisis.

I’m only 70 pages in to The Power of Identity, but I’m eager to hear more of what he has to say about the movement between resistance and project identities.  This shift, as I see it, is perhaps the most central question of activism of the past ten years.  At the Battle of Seattle the mantra was, “Another world is possible.”  A decade later in London the chant remains; but what that political alternative looks has gained little consensus.

In the next post I’ll attempt a brief sketch of some of Read’s claims against this backdrop of Castells.

Setting the Stage (part II) :: Social Movements & ICTs :: The Basics

13 04 2009

The study of the intersections of social movement rhetoric and digital media isn’t the easiest task, no doubt in large part because what a social movement is exactly remains rather elusive.  Definitions that establish a set of criteria to be met are often too rigid to encompass the range of action that is actually happening on the street; such is the fate of earlier social movement scholarship, which set parameters more around what they understood than what was emerging.  More refined definitions are cautious, offering disclaimers and reservations, or defining in the negative: by describing what it’s not.  Here’s how the editors of Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements put it:

As stated time and again in and beyond this volume, these [social movements] tend to be fuzzy and fluid phenomena often without clear boundaries.  Although they may include formal organizations as components, on the whole they are not an organization.  A social movement typically lacks membership forms, statutes, chairpersons, and the like.  It may expand or shrink considerably over relatively short periods of time, and exhibit phases of visibility and latency.  Also, unlike political parties, social movements may have significant overlaps with other movements.  Moreover, a social movement may quickly change its forms, strategy, tactics, and even some of its goals.  In sum, a social movement is a ‘moving target’, difficult to observe.  3

They rightly continue on to observe that there is organization within this chaos—often a multiplicity of overlapping organizational forms: “This structure, however, is not an organization but a network, or even a network of networks, that both rests on a maintains a sense of collective identity” (3).  With much of the digital innovations over the past ten years focused on connecting networks with other networks, it should come as no surprise that there is an “elective affinity” (to borrow a term from Max Weber) between digital communication technology and social movements.

In approaching these complex set of interactions, the introduction glosses some established methodologies:

Resource Mobilization:

  • This approach highlights the processes and ability of social movement organizations’ leadership to gather and distribute resources such as labor power (which includes time, skill sets, brute strength, etc.), money, and information.  Resource mobilization, however, often overshadow aspects of the communication interplay of social movements, because of its focus on the organizational structure, and as a result, only the communication within an organization; furthermore, it often only examines that internal communication with a lens to see how it mobilizes resources, consequently eliding its impact on areas such as identity and ideology.  Thus, we might say that it focuses on a particular micro set to the detriment of the larger macro issues and “the structural setting in which social movements act” (9).

Political Opportunity:

  • While aligned with resource mobilization in its positioning of social movement actors as “rational and instrumentally oriented”—in contrast to social behaviorist models that posit actors in social movements as irrational and lacking clear goals—political opportunity approaches center the attention on external relations of communication, departing from the internal focus of RM.  Here the attention is drawn to how movements communication issues broadly, across media structures, or to authorities and/or opponents.  As the pendulum swings the other way (towards the macro), however, there is a neglect of the “concrete communication and mobilization processes that underlie direct action” (10).

Ideology/Identity/ Persuasion:

  • The editors seem to choose this broad banner to identify the various methods that focus less on organizational structure and more on the expressive, persuasion-oriented practices of social movements.  The dominant model with this spectrum is “Framing,” which comes from sociology studies.  This discursive strategy identifies the perceptions that are trying to be changed and evaluate persuasive appeals based on those.  I believe that with this approach offers the bets opportunity for bridging the micro and macro is sensible and productive ways.

The introduction to Cyberprotest finishes by outlining some of the main issues that social movement scholars must pay attention to with the increased reliance of digital tools, that although rather obvious, are good to list nevertheless:

  • Use of information communication technologies (ICTs) to circumvent mass media outlets; information can be distributed both internally and externally to large audiences at a low cost and without the interference of the established media.
  • Forges alliances between organizations, linking issues together sometimes in the process.

Throughout this post I’ve used the term “social movement” without making any reference to which contemporary movements are operating today: What is the most dominant social movement?  The Green movement?  The anti-globalization movement?  And how might we interrogate its status as a “movement?”  To put us on that track we might turn to the recent rabble-raising that took place in London . . .

Bridging Micro and Macro :: Setting the Stage

6 04 2009

I am interested in thresholds.  I am interested in critical masses, tipping points, decisive moments.  More specifically, I’m interested in the rhetorical strategies used to move people to action, particularly the action that many refer to as activism, or the direct action taken to bring about significant shifts in the social and political way of life.

A quick story might help contextualize what I’m after with my studies.

Derrick Jensen, the most brilliant eco-philosopher alive today in my opinion, will often tell the story of how he came to use the word apocalypse.  I’ve heard him relay the tale in his lectures, but he’s recently recorded it in his two-volume book, Endgame:

A few years ago I began to feel pretty apocalyptic.  But I hesitated to use that work, in part because of those drawings I’ve seen of crazy penitents carrying ‘The End is Near’ signs, and in part because of the power of the word itself.  Apocalypse.  I didn’t want to use it lightly.

But then a friend and fellow activist said, ‘What will it take for you to finally call it an apocalypse?  The death of the salmonGlobal warming?  The ozone hole?  The reduction of the krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent, the turning of the sea off San Diego into a dead zone, the same for the Gulf of Mexico?  How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of two hundred species per day?  Four hundred?  Six hundred?  Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you’ll use that word’ (3).

This is the question I want to ask people everyday.  What’s your threshold?  What would/will it take to put you in a mental state where collective action against those that steal, exploit, or destroy the very things that make your life possible (air, water, food) is perhaps not just necessary, but the only conceivable ethical option?

There are, of course, a thousand different ways to ask such a question, framing it at various levels of engagement and with different focuses; for me, the questions will always be centered on the communicative process—the rhetorical strategies and structures—that are in play with these issues.  For example, what persuades someone who purchases organic groceries to actively fight industrial farming?   What persuades someone to move along the scale of activism?

And with that comes this week’s question: what forms of persuasion are occurring in the process of those smaller practices becoming common enough that they tip over into a much larger collective action?  Put differently, what connects micro-political practices to macro-political movements?  What processes of persuasion are occurring along that scale of micro to macro (in either direction)?

Oliver Marchart asks the same question in his essay, “Bridging the Micro-Macro Gap: Is There Such a Thing as a Post-subcultural Politics?”  “What criteria,” he asks, have to be met by micro-practices in order to ‘go macro’? Do we need a new concept of ‘organization’? Can there be a subcultural politics of pure particularism or does it take a dimension of universalism?’

Marchart begins by debunking what he sees as a heroism myth that dominates subcultures and those who study them academically.  While others have certainly critiqued the narrative of “co-optation,” it’s still necessary to do so, and Marchart does it swiftly and with eloquence.  I say that it’s still necessary becasue there are still plenty of folks (punks, activists, liberals) who believe they can “drop-out” of capitalism in many ways and narratives of “selling out” continue to proliferate.  In this set-up, a subculture is designated as “authentic” to the degree that it remains unappropriated by the mainstream.  The group or set of practices remains heroic in relation to how much it resists commodification and recuperation.  Marchart notes that this narrative of the process of subculture’s incorporation into the mainstream construes “subcultures as some sort of substance–noise from the viewpoint of the dominant system, and the precedes any cooptation by the latter” (author’s emphasis 87).

This myth is used to show how the “defending of micro-political practices eo ipso” obviates any move to the macro-political, since those micro-practices are always already political, “simply by virture of resisting cooptation” (88).  Some theorists laud this indirect, style-driven form of dissent and its oblique challenge to exploitative powers.  Not Marchart, for sure.  And I have some pretty serious reservations about it, too.  Who has time to take direct action when one is busy looking like they’re constantly dissenting?  (This also becomes an issue, as we shall see in later posts, when dealing with internet cultures of protest.)

Much of postmodernism and cultural studies in particular has done excellent–and needed–work in revealing the political nature of our everday acts.  The cultural and the political have been blurred for some time now.  But you can see where this may stunt the move to macro action: if we’re always already political, how do we judge a scale of action?   I agree with Marchart that, “What is needed today is an analysis of the passage between culture and macro-politics, that is, an analysis of the process of ‘becoming macro'” (90).  We’re missing an understanding of the links between everday life and organized, collective action, especially with regard to the communicative process.  So we must ask, is an answer to be found in the micro-politics of everyday life or in the marco-political movements of collective will and deep structural and cultural reorganization?  Where do we start in attempting to make sense of this line between micro and macro; and what role do information communication technologies play in the communication process of this movement between micro and macro?

Marchart lists four preconditions for the passage of micro going macro:

1) A situation of explicit antagonization;

2) The emergence of a collectivity;

3) The function of organization;

4) A movement towards universalization.

So, for Marchart, what is necessary is a swing towards the macro, a recognition that as long as resistance to hegemony remains at the level of symbolic rituals of the micro-political, we’re in trouble.  Only when these tactics form a collective will they become politicized.  Despite using a term like micro-political, Marchart argues there is no politics of the individual; politics is collective.  And that is why he argues for theorization to begin at macro-levels.

A few points of reflection:

* While I’m in agreement with Marchart that collective action is the only option for deep, systemic change towards a more sustainable and sane way of life (a culture that produces the means to destroy itself ten times over has certainly lain waste to a considerable part of its sanity).  However, I’m not sure why this means we must start our thinking at the macro level.  Although I’m sure he would answer this question if he had space beyond a small essay in an edited anthology, I’m still not convinced as to why the answer dictates the point of departure.  There are also seems to be a bit of fallacy of the excluded middle here: why choose sides?  If the goal is to illustrate the line between micro and macro more forcefully, why not approach it from a myriad of directions?

* Marchart’s list might provide a good structure for the next post, which will begin to outline some of the issues we will have to deal with when bringing in the changes that digital communication structures have brought to formation and functioning of social movements.  Information communication technologies (ICTs) have obvious implications for the emergence of collectivities and the functioning of organizations–and certianly movements towards universalizations.  For that post, I’ll turn towards Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements.

* The mention of movement towards universalization has me intrigued and nervous in equal measures.  The intersections between globalization, ICTs, and social movements are complex and non-totalizing, but I remain hesitant to accept “movements towards universalization,” precisely because I don’t want a different culture to replace this one, I want 10,000 cultures to replace it.