If you’re going to talk about subjectification you need a theory of the subject…

When Miller and Rose (2008: 1 – 25) describe the general trajectory of their work on governmentality, they elaborate upon the questions that have guided their inquiry over the last two three decades. Most notable for my purposes is the question relating to human self-understanding and its utilisation within governmental practices:

What understandings of the people to be acted upon – whether explicit or implict – underpinned these endeavours, and how did they shape or reshape the ways in which these individuals understood and acted on themselves?

This is a crucial question which, when pursued empirically, leads into all manner of localised, contingent and messy social phenomena which grand theories of modernity, globalization, individualization (etc) too frequently overlook. Yet there is a fundamental problem with the approach they adopt in attempting to address it: their hostility towards a theory of the subject. They suggest that any attempt to offer such a theory would leave them implicated in precisely those ‘psy disciplines’ which are a crucial object of their genealogical inquiry: “that question could only be answered on the basis of some explicit or implicit assumptions about human mental processes. Yet for us, the historical forms taken by those presuppositions were exactly what we were studying” (Miller and Rose 2008: 7).

Part of the problem here is methodological. A failure to distinguish between what Bhaskar (2011: 21) terms the transitive and intransitive objects of scientific inquiry: the “changing cognitive objects that are produced within science as a function of scientific practice” and “the unchanging real objects that exist outside the scientific process” respectively. As I understand their intention, Miller and Rose are inquiring into the transitive aspects of governmentality and the psi disciplines (i.e. the models of the subject worked with and the uses to which they are put as technologies of power and control) rather than the properties and powers of the subject, understood in an intransitive and ontological sense.

Due to their failure to draw this distinction they are left in the strange position of investigating the actual effects of such models of the subject when applied in social life while denying the possibility of objective knowledge of the underlying properties of actual subjects in virtue of which such effects become conceptually comprehensible. In essence they are forced to presuppose a model of the subject which their meta-theoretical and methodological commitments simultaneously force them to deny.

So what would such a subject look like? What has to be true of the human subject for Miller and Rose to be able to answer the questions they address about subjectification?

  1. Individuals must have the capacity for self-understanding
  2. Individuals must have the capacity to act upon themselves
  3. Both (1) and (2) must be, at least to some extent malleable in virtue of external influence

So some notion of reflexivity is tacitly affirmed, in so far as that individuals are assumed to understand themselves and act on themselves in virtue of this self-understanding. Yet this reflexivity does not stand insulated from external influences. While the capacity itself stands as an inherent power of the individual, its form and content is susceptible to social and cultural conditioning. What form would this conditioning take? If it is entirely external then it becomes difficult to see how it could produce the degree of malleability which Miller and Rose convincingly illustrate through their empirical inquiry: individuals could be told incessantly to practice their internal life in a particular way but without some mechanism through which such invocations could become, in some way, internalised, the efficacy of these efforts would likely be limited.

I want to suggest that this mechanism is something internal to reflexivity which is, as yet, under-theorised and under-researched. Its relative absence from theories of reflexivity perhaps accounts for at least some of the hostility directed towards them, as well as the straw man attacks which they are often subject to e.g. that a strong defence of reflexivity implies an anti-empirical quasi-existentialist belief in free will, as Atkinson (2010) suggests. That mechanism is the reliance of reflexivity – our conscious deliberations / internal conversations – on habitual cognitive categories which are themselves the products of socialisation and subject to change throughout the life course. In my next post I’ll have a go at elucidating what I mean by this, as well as its relation to the wider debate on reflexivity and habitus. Or maybe I won’t. I’m realistic enough to recognise that I’ve said ‘in my next post’ on various blogs countless times and almost never done it. Oh well.