Through (Foucaultian) Biopower to (Deleuzean) Control

Following discussion on Craig’s blog, and in light of Todd May’s review of the book, here is a brief extract from Nealon’s book Foucault Beyond Foucault that captures some sense of what Nealon means by ‘intensification’. (Pages 67-68, // = page break):

As Foucault puts forth in his work on disciplinary regimes, iron-fisted mechanisms of regulation are both expensive and inefficient—a lesson that international business learned long before the cold war nation-state did. Foucault argues that the disciplinary apparatus was born gradually alongside imperialist expansion in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, and reached its apex in the twentieth, with the factory societies of Fordism. By all accounts, however, this kind of Fordist New Deal welfare state has been systematically dismantled by worldwide conservative political hegemony and the rise of the so-called new economy—in short, by the intensification of biopower. In a world of cyber-work, e-commerce, distance education, virtual markets, home health care, and the perpetual retraining of flexibly specialized labor, the disciplinary world of partitioning and surveillance (the office, the school, the bank, the trading floor, the mall, the hospital, the factory) seems like it’s undergoing a wholesale transformation. As Deleuze argues, “We’re // definitely moving toward ‘control’ societies that are no longer exactly disciplinary. . . . We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate [primarily] by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication. . . . In a control-based system, nothing’s left alone for long.”28 Deleuze further elaborates on the Foucaultian distinction between discipline and control: “In disciplinary societies, you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything—business, training, and military service being coexisting metastable states of a single modulation, a sort of universal transmutation” of power.29 So, following the Foucaultian logic of power we’ve been developing here, as societies of control extend and intensify the tactics of discipline and biopower (by linking training and surveillance to evermore-minute realms of everyday life), they also give birth to a whole new form. And this emergence comes about through what Foucault calls a “swarming [l’essaimage] of disciplinary mechanisms,” through the intensification of discipline rather than its exhaustion or dissipation: “The massive, compact disciplines are broken down into flexible methods of control” (D&P 211). Panoptic disciplinary surveillance in the contemporary world of “control” has been taken to a new, even more disembodied and therefore efficient state; your Web browser, your DNA, your bank ATM card, your subway pass, or your credit report all suggest that you are tracked in ways that make the disciplinary or panoptic warehousing of bodily traces (like photographs, surveillance tapes, fingerprints, or blood types) seem positively quaint by comparison.

Nealon actually does make a historical argument regarding the movement between mechanisms of power, but does so in such a way as to not introduce a radical break between disciplinarity and control. The transition occurs across an intensive threshold rather than between historical eras. There is however, as it is clear in the above extract, a historical dimension to Nealon’s argument.

May is a bit unhappy with Nealon’s periodization:

The interpretive reservation has to do with the periodization Nealon lays out. On this periodization, discipline bears upon actions while biopower concerns norms. As he writes, “the disciplinary criminal is known through her transgressive deeds, while biopower’s delinquent is known through his abnormal personality” (p. 47). I believe this is a mistaken interpretation. For Foucault, it is precisely discipline that works through personalities and norms. He writes,

Behind the offender . . . stands the delinquent whose slow formation is shown in a biographical investigation. The introduction of the ‘biographical’ is important in the history of penality. Because it establishes the ‘criminal’ as existing before the crime and even outside it. (Discipline and Punish, p. 252)

And elsewhere he states, “The power of the Norm appears throughout the disciplines” (Discipline and Punish, p. 184).

Foucault’s view, as I see it, is that discipline is one part of biopower. Near the end of the first volume of the History of Sexuality, Foucault writes, “starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms. . . One of these poles . . . centered on the body as a machine. . . The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body” (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, p. 139). There are two aspects to biopower. One of those involves individualizing discipline, and the other involves an intervention into life of the kind Nealon calls biopower. Therefore, discipline is actually a part of biopower.

I don’t think Nealon’s argument contradict’s Foucault’s suggestion above about the biographical character of the criminal as quoted by May. In fact, I suggest it actually supports it. For Nealon, the criminal becomes known through his or her transgressive deed, the biographical investigation of the kind Foucault notes and May is quoting surely comes after this deed or action. The ‘criminal’ that transcends (‘as existing before the crime and even outside it’) the action of the crime (‘transgressive deed’) is a construction of investigative discourse. ‘Trangressive deed’ plus ‘investigative’ discourse equals subject that ‘always’ was and is a ‘criminal’.

To go out on a limb (I haven’t actually finished Nealon’s book, so maybe he discusses this later), the temporal relation is different for biopower and involves the modulation of action and norms through governance of relations of futurity. This is why ‘risk’, ‘opportunity’, ‘challenges’ and so on are central to neoliberal governance, because these three terms and others describe specific temporal relations. What is at stake is not necessarily relations between people or objects, but between at least two compositions of these relations at different times (present and future).

2 replies on “Through (Foucaultian) Biopower to (Deleuzean) Control”

  1. I’m a little hesitant about the discussion of the norm. As I think everyone agrees, Foucault is clearly not talking about “norms” in the sense of “normative” but in the sense of “normal.” Both discipline and biopower are oriented towards norms, but in significantly different ways: the “normalizing judgment” of discipline at the level of the individual and the indirect government of biopower of the population are both organized in terms of norms, but it is not possible for individuals and populations to relate to the norm in the same way; hence the distinction. One thinks of the difference between an individual grade in a course at school and a birth rate at the level of the population. Quite different, although both are “normed.”

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