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 and far 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 circumstances requiring 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 influenced and 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.


  1. I hear this term often: reflexivity, here…and I imagine to cognize that it refers to Agency’ projection or enaction, whether purposive and conscious as perhaps unctuous and quasi-spontaneous (non-reflexively?).
    Might you have a moment, can you clarify how this term fits a theoretical framework for the perception, conception, practices of Agency as arising within the experiential (objective/subjective) Field? I miss a number of references here it seems…and my curiosity inclines me to believe that this operation or ‘function’ of “reflexivity” holds critical importance in your analysis of a kind of linear or liminal agency, and maybe not a good indicator for Agency, per se. I mean, if my determinations are compelled and in any way unexamined rationally, can I be said to exercise Agency, or be mere agent in an ever fluid Field of influences impinging, as some might say, upon my clearer perception of what an autonomous Agency even constitutes?

    This begs a question, on MY end. I keep query at hand for insight whether liminal agency isn’t much like a recycling process where functionally determined perception is clarified or distorted by orientations and interests ‘liminally’ adopted from the psychosocial milieu; but where more deeply grounded, as a Process of linear awareness turned ‘reflective-reflexive’, and therefore becoming something like circumferential (references of orientation) for agency, obtaining a plane, degree, standard purview of sheer historical awareness as to be virtually exhaustive for Agency, per se. The historical ‘limits’ of the linear self, as it were, somewhere along the continuum of ego and the most abstract objectification (without the falsification quibbling) of Agent conceivable. Can such a notion, concept of Agency even be formulated strictly rationally, or must we rely upon a Logic somewhat other worldly; why, after all must any ’cause’ be other than efficient and not necessarily First for Agency, per se, when calculating an empirical ‘ground’ for enactment of the same? Anticipation and Possibility, Discovery and Invention?

    These do shape the EF quite more energetically; and all those ‘selves’ that make habitation there, as they must. So, I see a stripped-down version of Agent Active (as distinct among Agent Passive) that literally Personalizes as distinct from Institutionalizes Value, being the nexus of determination for judgment, aesthetic or practical.

    I see an archetypal constellation of agent orientations expanding and deepening in references (Ferris wheel and merry-go-round) whose perimeter, limit of association may expand or contract agent awareness (bare historicity categorically cognizable-we can Think Order here (transcendental, non mathematical logic?)). This would be to locate Autonomous Agency, were it possible and not confounded with lesser orders, degrees, planes of Agent Awareness, Active or Passive, historically evaluated (HE). Involved wholly in Limits, this can produce scarcely non other than categorical identity and essence. What I aver to call Optional and Fundamental.

    Meandering terrain…Sun Day calls for re-sponsa to the existential death/rebirth cycle in archetype. (Vivat Rex?)

    1. If I understand what you’re asking correctly, I don’t think reflexivity is equivalent to action (and I mean ‘agency’ in a slightly different way to you, more sociological than philosophical). I understand reflexivity as self-regarding action rather than action as such. So things we do that are informed by an understanding of why we’re doing them, with this ‘why’ inevitably linking up the personal and the social (my motivations, aims, goals, feelings, thoughts, history // my environment, constraints, enablements etc).

        1. I wasn’t sure I did understand though. It depends on what you meant by linear or liminal in this context – could you clarify?

  2. Few aspects of ‘experience’ cannot be construed linearly, unless one posits the possibility of completely unforeseeable Invention or Discovery that literally alters the basic, synthetic nexi of working paradigms, the manifold of Value. Liminal agency is adaptive orientation, requiring as many ‘optional’ divorces from the going stream of events as observation allows or instructs. A purposive ‘model’ of Agency in the EF, here, though, has a grander scope, projection, voice, history, intellectual/affective trajectory involved with social/personal dynamics of agent orientation, impulsion, interest, gratification…the stuff our dreams are made of.

    The ‘linear’ divide is merely historicity and phenomenal empiricism as relates to agent awareness and orientation, while cultural value in the round, as critical to the dynamic manifold of the EF and making of Perception transmutes all that is liminal, sometimes a compost pile of worn-out ideas, constructs, frames, temorary ideational butresses, some flying, in the sense that degrees of awareness are graduated by the MORE inclusive synthetic of the dynamic manifold of ‘essential’ values, inherent to organic intelligence across a broad scope of evolutionary history. So, liminal as a caterpillar, linear as a song. Still clearing out the buttresses here, as mentioned in an Interlude. Gentle as she goes.

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