21 Feb 2009

Foucault and Deleuze in Nikolas Rose's “Authority and the Genealogy of Subjectivity”

by Corry Shores
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Nikolas Rose

“Authority and the Genealogy of Subjectivity”

Rose’s sociological genealogy of subjectivity may at first seem foreign to a discourse on detraditionalization, when in fact it critiques some of the central presuppositions and methods of those who correlate the gradual emergence of modern selfhood to a reciprocal decline in the observance of tradition. The modern subject for Rose is not one who has actually discovered her unique and autonomous individuality, because the interiority constituting her selfhood is the product of external forces “folding” into her. A complex web of competing authorities influences the ways we manage and understand ourselves, which fashions our selfhood in a manner that grounds and perpetuates their power. Rose’s subject, then, is more of a subjected subject than a subjective subject, even though currently the two happen to coincide: our modern sense of independent autonomous selfhood benefits our capitalist democratic governments. Thus it is for political reasons, and not existential ones, that we have self-awareness and self-concern. The article ends by suggesting a way that we may hold this perspective without despairing from its deterministic implications. In the following, we will briefly summarize the article’s central notions.

Rose claims that the narrative of the emerging detraditionalized modern subject is a historical projection of our current fabricated sense of independent selfhood. In 1860, Jacob Burckhardt introduced this mistaken theory, which has influenced many sociological historians since then. According to Burckhardt’s account, human beings in the Middle Ages were not yet fully self-conscious, but were instead only aware of themselves as members of particular social groups: their race, party, family, people, and so on. It was not until the Renaissance that humans recognized themselves as spiritual individuals (Rose 295). Rose critiques this approach mostly by finding instances in history that do not follow the linear narrative of detraditionalization, which we will later address after describing the nature of his particular critical viewpoint.

Rose follows Foucault in examining the ways humans have been subjectified: through the manners of comportment and self-cultivation imposed on them by external authority; and, he takes up some notions from Deleuze’s read of Foucault, namely the “in-folding” of a diverse and discontinuous exterior plane of authoritative influences. More specifically, he seeks to identify:

1) the diverse multiplicity of authorities; namely those holding political power, and the experts who create the truths of our selfhood;

2) the sorts of expertises these authorities possess which place them in their position of control over the practices of their subjects; for example, ethical or psychological expertise;

3) the problematizations of selfhood: the issues and problems people face as a result of the ideas and images used to construe their subjectivity; for example, contemporary psychological selfhood is problematized by teaching that society conflicts with and constrains our instincts, which must be managed by an internal superego;

4) the techniques of governing self-government: the ways that subjects are instructed to act upon and understand themselves by mastering and shaping such personal aspects as their comportment, manners, speech, and passions;

5) the subject form of the individual that the authorities try to craft, such as docile, solidaristic, or responsible subjects; and

6) the authorities’ strategies: the ways they try to accomplish their aims by making use of the political advantages of the particular subject types they create; for example, leaders of capitalist democracies aim to create independent subjects in order to maintain the economy and political structure which gives these authorities their power (300-301).

Central to Rose’s depiction of subjectivity is self-governance; thus he, like Foucault, looks to marginalized historical documents which prescribe ways to conduct oneself (296-297). These artifacts are of particular importance, because they indicate the nature of the “in-folding” of exterior authorities.

This diagram from Deleuze’s Foucault – particularly its parts 1 and 4 – illustrates how the exterior dimension can fold-in on itself, thereby creating a region of subjectification that is constituted solely by the influences of exterior authority.

Rose, then, is not so concerned with philosophical writings on human subjectivity, which do not indicate the in-folded self-understanding of most people. Philosophy is relevant only to the extent that it serves to determine the government of conduct, as for example John Locke’s suggestions for solving certain social and economic problems of his time by means of practices governing human conduct (298-299). Yet, this exception is a rare instance of philosophical writing that is relevant to Rose’s genealogy of subjectivity.

By examining the more marginalized instructional texts, Rose finds anachronisms in the detraditionalist narrative:

1) Ancient Romans related to themselves, as we do today, with self-concern and with the feeling of duty to shape themselves through control of their conduct, which the government imposed by influencing the ways they managed their household affairs.

2) Like our current plurality of gurus and spiritual teachings for self-management, in early Christianity there was a diverse array of spiritual guides who taught, through face-to-face interaction, different ways of living (307).

3) Our current concern with risk and uncertainty is not unique to the postmodern era, because in Medieval towns, people controlled their anxieties over the future through rituals managing their daily conduct; and, regulations regarding such matters as marriage and morality were imposed to ensure that individuals planned their future.

4) In 16th and 17th century Europe, authorities emphasized ways of laboring upon oneself to improve character and body, meant especially for those who govern others (308).

5) The need for authority to vindicate the right of its own authority – often explained as a result of the reflexivity of our times – is found all throughout history. The ancient Greeks held that those with dominion over others must dominate their own appetites and passions; in 17th and 18th century Europe, the political elite were required to develop their character and body; and in the 19th century, those holding offices in all sorts of organizations legitimized their authority with new modes of self-mastery and self-control (311). Thus, these historical texts regarding proper conduct contradict the story of the detraditionalized self’s emergence into our postmodern era, a time when authorities must continually justify their own authority.

Rose describes his own approach as spatializing the ways of being human rather than narrativizing them: he examines how spaces were created between types of people, and the ways that habits and images of self-understanding and self-cultivation were given designated locations, for example, libraries, schools, museums, and stores. Thus, the “space” between classes of personnel in a company’s hierarchy is established and maintained by their designated placements in the actual manufacturing plant itself: the laborer works on the shop floor while the foreman stands above from an elevated position permitting surveillance of his workers below. As well, the laborer’s time is spatialized (313); for, between the moments that she clocks-in and -out, her time is sold to the factory; and outside her designated work period, she may spend the money her clocked-time earned. This temporal-spatialization creates a relation between work-times and personal-times, which instills an understanding of one’s self as a labor commodity. As well, workers are often limited to the residential regions they can afford, which again creates relational distance to those with more authority. Here, Rose also could have mentioned – as do Foucault and Deleuze – Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a circular prison building he designed, whose central observation tower may survey every cell lining the structure’s outer ring (Deleuze 72).

Just its very structure alone establishes the hierarchical space between guards and inmates, whose time is likewise rigidly organized to control their conduct. By making such spatial observations as these, Rose offers an alternative account of recent modern and postmodern subjectivity in terms of the ways certain authorities folded-into and subjectified individuals by modifying their self-governance and self-understanding.

Rose finds the techniques employed in the 19th century to be predominantly of this spatial sort. Authorities spatially organized people’s time and physical locations, which served to fix such authority-subject relations as between teacher & pupil, foreman & worker, and gaoler & prisoner. In schools, children’s characters were shaped to make them more obedient and industrious members of the working class. Those who threatened the social order were placed in prisons, asylums, and workhouses; recreational activities were taken out of rowdy and transgressive sites and relocated to public parks and pools; knowledge became a means of instruction and was distributed into such places as zoos, libraries, and museums; and maps helped determine locations of different social groups for modifying their interrelations (313-314). Thus, moral formation has real material sources and is conducted not merely by state government authorities, even though it served as an important means for government to remedy its political and economic problems. Political authorities employed programs to promote virtues that served the functioning of the state, such as self-reliance, independence, and self-restraint. Their novel techniques were applied to individuals on every level, and brought about a new sort of subject serving the authorities’ interests. However, to do so, governments relied on other “engineers of the soul,” who battled each other for influence: doctors competed with lawyers for the authority to determine how criminal conduct would be explained, judged, and reformed (315-316).

Those with expertise in fields generating positive knowledge of the human being, such as psychiatry, criminology, statistics, pedagogy, and sociology, developed new truths and techniques for managing conduct, which were based largely on the notion of an internal psychological selfhood. The authority they obtained replaced theological and juridical influences, and infiltrated many spaces of conduct-management, including courtrooms, schools, churches, and clinics. More importantly, their modes of conduct-control served the strategic aims of political authorities who made use of their expertise to fashion citizens through the regulation of their self-governance (317-318). However, to preserve the society’s solidarity and stability, social programs were created to ensure the security of those who lost their capacities to support themselves, as for example “insurance-based technologies of welfare,” which served to collectivize the society’s fate (318).

In his analysis of our current era, Rose does not seek postmodern traits such as reflexivity, self-scrutiny, fragmentation, and diversity, but rather the techniques, practices, problems, locales, truths, and authorities involved in our new modes of subjectification. He discovers, for example, that our problems with risk and uncertainty derive not so much from “existential” changes but from the new ways we reflect upon our future. Our current era is not a unique time whose future actually is more uncertain than ever before. Rather, what is different now is the way we problematize the future, which has brought about our continual awareness of the possible consequences for our daily decisions. Hence, Rose observes the new roles for medical and scientific experts to inform us on the life-style changes we need to make in order to better manage our fate (319-320). The contemporary individual is an autonomous, active, self-realizing, enterprising citizen formed primarily through the psycho-sciences’ new techniques for folding authority into the self. As well, subjects view images of self-conduct and self-formation on a wide variety of television programs, while consumer products for self-fashioning personal identity are marketed using techniques derived from psychological research. These new modes of folding authority are connected with revised political problematizations and technologies: there is now less emphasis on welfare and more on entrepreneurship; prudentialism replaces social insurance; and, self-promotional striving becomes valued more than social bonds (321-322).

Thus, Rose concludes, there is not detraditionalization today, but rather changes in the complex web of authorities and their means of subjectification. Although this analysis does not critique these relations, they still may be evaluated in terms of the unnecessary suffering they engender. As well, on account of the plurality, indeterminacy, and heterogeneity of the languages, spaces, and practices governing us, we “inhabit a space of differentiation and choice,” and thus we may “weigh the costs and benefits, not of being freed from government, but of governing ourselves differently” (322-323).

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Transl. Sean Hand. London: Anthlone Press, 1988.

Rose, Nikolas. “Authority and the Genealogy of Subjectivity.” Detraditionalization: Critical reflections on authority and identity. Eds. P. Heelas, S. Lash and P. Morris. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

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