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.

Identification and Unification ~

11 07 2008

There’s a quote that has been haunting me the past few weeks. I received it in a late-night text message from a friend of mine in Brooklyn, a few hours after a conversation we had about the weaknesses of various activist projects. It’s a Brian Eno quote; he produced several Talking Heads albums and is therefore very, very cool. Anyway, here’s what he said:

There are many possible futures and only one status-quo; that’s why conservatives appear as if they all agree and the radicals will always argue.’

So often I see right-wing pundits point to the fissures and altercations between reformist collectives as a reason why they’re weak or simply wrong (just flip on any episode of Tucker Carlson to see this tiresome argument played out relentlessly). “Unity = Strength” is no doubt the underlying assumption being spoken here.

This same argument is also pitched frequently by activists — something like, “If only we could all get on the same page we could make some real headway.” Take for instance the otherwise excellent article by Marilyn Cooper on environmentalism in an age of hegemonic politics, where she essentially argues that if groups like Earth First! and The Nature Conservatory could find more middle ground, the consequences could really move environmentalism along in the right direction (this is reductive of her argument, but not by much).

Of course I would agree that there is a certain strength in unity, whether it’s a physical group of people or a particular attitude of mind. What I’m interested in is how it’s used as an argument either for or against activist collectives. Especially, given my reading today, how this argument and its attendant assumptions plays out among individual identity formation.

Here’s the quote that spurred this post:

Opening discourse to the theoretical critique rejected by Foucault and, to an extent, Althusser, [Laclau] maintains that, while the black, feminist, gay, and ethnic social movements properly defend their separate interests or their political independence, each movement must construct equivalent ideals establishing a new hegemonic bloc because what establishes identity is contextual oppostitions, antagonisms, or exclusions, not essences or transcendent selves.

I gather from this quote that Laclau and Mouffe, coming out the Gramscian line, see the New Social Movements (NSM) as a productive step in fighting oppressive living conditions, but they must unify into a “hegemonic bloc” in order to be effective. In other words, all the marginalized groups must come together as one large marginalized unit. (I mention Gramsci because Laclau and Mouffe agree that hegemony is not something that can be destroyed and simply done away with — rather, it’s just a matter of which hegemony is ruling.)

But what might this mean for the various idenitification processes of individual activists? While the suggestions almost always seem to refer strictly to the collective conscious (Greenpeace as an organization must show solidarity with Earth First! as another environmental collective, even if they differ sharply in their philosophies and tactics), is it implied that the same indentification must take place on an individual level? Is Laclau (and all others that use this argument, whether Post-Marxist or not) suggesting that the marginalized pro-queer activist must build “equivalent ideals” with individuals of the Black Nationalist Movement? What do these equivalent ideals look like? What type of discourses might sustain the connections that Laclau & Mouffe want to see borne out?

And now I’m wondering if our modern digital communication structures open new doors for this possibility (at the same time, I’m not necessarily endorsing this as the best route to take). The NSM took root just slightly before text-messaging, instant-messaging, and e-mail became pervasive and fundamentally changed the way activist networks function.

Hmmm . . . more on this later . . .