Foucauldian analysis and the mystification of elites

In a recent review of The Reflexive Imperative*, Jonathon Joseph describes subjects “being encouraged to become active citizens and consumers who must make the right life choices based on acquiring the appropriate skills and information, making informed choices about risk activities, taking responsibility for their welfare and well-being and drawing on the appropriate resources (and social capital) from their communities and networks”. These “new notions of governance” are ones which “operate from a distance” and “use market logic as a rationality”. These “new forms of regulation” are ones which “rely on the responsibilization of various actors through more normative and normalizing techniques and procedures” (pg 101).

What does it mean to say that a ‘notion of governance’ uses ‘market logic as a rationality’? Is a ‘notion of governance’ the same as a ‘form of regulation’? What does it mean to say that a ‘form of regulation’ relies on the application of ‘techniques and procedures’ to actors? There’s undoubtedly sloppy conceptualisation here. It’s rife within social theory and I’m not exempting myself from it. But I think there’s a more entrenched problem with this conceptual vocabulary. Theoretical language of this sort has always irritated me slightly and it’s only recently, after reading Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, that I’ve finally realised why this is. It is, as Becker puts it, “a theoretical error, not just bad writing”:

In many sociological theories, things just happen without anyone doing them. It’s hard to find a subject for a sentence when ‘larger social forces’ or ‘inexorable social processes’ are at work. Avoiding saying who did it produces two characteristic faults of sociological writing: the habitual use of passive constructions and abstract nouns.

Becker, Writing for Social Scientists, Pg 8

This is why Joseph can be found saying that a “notion of governance” uses “market rationality“. What could this even mean? How can a notion use anything? The process of governance may use market rationality but the notion of governance is, well… notional. The claim about “new forms of regulation”relying on various strategies is much more coherent but again lacks a subject. I find it jarring to talk about strategies and techniques in the absence of an agency underlying them. Likewise to talk of “forms of regulation”. As Mouzelis has observed, “Foucault’s insistence that practices of subjugation fulfil specific objectives in a  subjectless, disembodied manner comes remarkably close to Parson’s middle-period writings on the social system, where systemic analysis completely displaces agency considerations” (Mouzelis 1995: 46).

Insisting on the role of agency in ‘governance’ doesn’t entail the self-transparency of agency. Nor does it suggest that the ‘techniques and strategies’ used straight-forwardly derive from instrumental scheming on the parts of agents (with the image this conjures up of closed door meetings at Davos devoted to ‘notions of governance’ and ‘new forms of regulation’). But this is an assertion that, so to speak, people make the world go round: something has gone seriously wrong with an account of ‘governance’ that isn’t couched in terms of elites, vested interests and the strategies they pursue to protect those interests. In this sense, I’m saying that Foucauldian analysis at its worst constitutes a form of mystification. It actively occludes the operation of power, obscuring the deliberate strategies of groups (and the emergent consequences which arise as a result of the competition between groups in an open system) behind an obscure rhetoric of governance without governors and regulation without regulators. Incidentally, does talk of governors and regulators as singular groupings not sound jarringly simplistic? But surely talk of ‘neoliberal governance’ is no less singular andfar less concrete?

As an example of what I mean, consider the Bourdieusian analysis Tom Medvetz offers of how ‘dependency theory’ was promulgated by think tanks and taken up by political actors in a specific context. The same process of social change, in which the relationship between welfare recipients and the welfare state was recast as dependency, could easily be ‘explained’ in terms of the enactment of neoliberal modes of governance. But is this really an explanation? It not only wouldn’t specify the concrete action involved in this transition, it would also undermine our inclination to look for it.

However at its best, Foucauldian analysis offers something really valuable. When I talk about Foucauldian analysis I like, it’s inevitably Nikolas Rose that I think of. But even he falls into these passive constructions, as seen in this example from one of many instances where I’ve quoted him on my blog:

Today, we are required to be flexible, to be in continuous training, life-long learning, to undergo perpetual assessment, continual incitement to buy, constantly to improve oneself, to monitor our health, to manage our risk. And such obligations extend to our genetic susceptibilities: hence the active responsible biological citizen must engage in a constant work of self-evaluation and the modulation of conduct, diet, lifestyle, and drug regime, in response to the changing requirements of the susceptible body.

Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, Pg 154, Princeton University Press

Surely the notion of ‘requirement’ is relational? If I am required to do or be a certain way then someone or something is requiring this of me. Are my social and cultural circumstancesrequiring me to be a certain way? Then what matters are the characteristics of those circumstances and how, in relation to my own characteristics, I am led to be required to be a certain way. Rose’s sheer insightfulness and detail about the former is why I like his work. He neglects the latter but, unlike many others, clearly states that this is a methodological and meta-theoretical move.

It’s the relationship between the circumstances and the self which interests me. While it’s a contentious claim, it nonetheless seems obvious to me that it is present, though suppressed, within Foucauldian analysis. It’s logically entailed by any statement that “we are required” or “we are subject to” or “we are governed by” (etc). It’s only excluded entirely by elaborating logical obscenities like “notions of governance use market rationality” which excludes human agency at the cost of imputing agency to ideas. But if we’ve brought the self back into the picture then why not go further? I accept there is a discourse surrounding reflexivity, one which social theorists may contribute to through their pronouncements upon reflexivity (though it does always strike me that there’s a tendency towards scholastic over-estimation of our influence). But there is also a capacity to be reflexive which is not discursively constructed. However the exercise of this capacity is discursively influencedand this is precisely why I’d like to bridge the gap between relational realism and foucauldian modes of analysis.

*It’s in Journal of Critical Realism (13): 1. I’m struggling to find a web link for some reason.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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5 replies »

  1. It’s always tempting to talk in vague notions of governance and tendencies. I think it’s in some respect because it allows us to make claims about things we see going on while remaining somewhat insulated from the partisan or invested push-back that comes with ‘naming names’ (that is, saying that real people do real things that hurt or disadvantage other real people). In my general field (settler colonialism and decolonisation), there’s a great deal of this vague language that comes from postcolonial theory and critical literary theory. I recently reviewed a book that brilliantly observed what happens in the processes of settler colonialism and empire building the United States, but only rarely mentioned the people who actually make it happen. On the other hand, when some of us (and I do include myself in this category) try to point out that groups of people actually do these things and why, the public and academic backlash is at times severe: ‘How dare you insinuate that I am a colonizer!’, etc… It really does discourage people from speaking plainly about what they perceive when what they would have to say is that racism is rife in society, that greed is a primary motivating factor for violence against specific individuals and communities by other specific individuals and communities, and so on. It’s difficult to put forward a well-reasoned and researched argument of that realist sort without it being treated as an opinionated personal attack by the people who ‘resemble the remark.’ I try to get around it by always including myself explicitly (as a white, male, Settler Canadian) in the group of people whose dominating actions I examine, but it doesn’t always help.

    • hi adam, that’s a really thought provoking and honest comment. would you think about extending it ever so slightly and it could be a free standing post? i think it’s a fascinating and little discussed issue (the epistemic implications of the social consequences attached to making knowledge claims) which needs to be talked about more.

  2. Mark this has interesting implications for my work that I’m now thinking through. In the meantime, I agree Foucauldian analysis works better when it has a specific research object; when it becomes a theory-method. For example, take term ‘excited delirium’ used in coroners courts in the USA (and increasingly over here) to explain deaths in custody. The term has no scientific validity yet it’s used to close very ambiguous cases of involving police restraint. Clearly, it’s a discursive construct that serves someone’s interests the key research question is whose interests?

    • it’s a discursive construct that coheres (or fails to) with people’s interests but I’m less sure that it can be said to ‘serve’ them and that this explains the circulation of the construct, if you see what i mean.

  3. Yes I can see what you mean. At some point a coroner decides to use a non-scientific term to make a subjective decision seem objective and close out other interpretations. This often leaves relatives unhappy. I agree, it’s difficult to say whose interests this process serves and this question is left hanging too often – but it’s clearly not serving the interests of the relatives

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