For Foucault, Neoliberal governmentality is a particular form of post-welfare state politics in which the state essentially outsources the responsibility for ensuring the ‘well-being’ of the population. The primary recipient of this responsibility is derived from a strengthened notion of the subject, as a rational individual. Indeed, these new subjectivities are expected to ‘look after themselves’. This form of governmentality has an extremely diffuse form of rule whereby strategies and imperatives of control are distributed through a variety of media but are implicated in even the most mundane practice of everyday life. As Schecter writes,
Foucault regards the exercise of power and the formalisation of knowledge to be intimately bound up with the constitution of living individuals as subjects of knowledge, that is, as citizens and populations about whom knowledge is systematically constructed… Subjects are not born subjects so much as they become them. In the course of becoming subjects they are classified in innumerable ways which contribute to their social integration, even if they are simultaneously marginalised in many cases (Schecter 2010: 171).
So for example, the state promotes an ethic of self-care which is justified in terms of a wider social responsibility and which is celebrated through the examples given in specific moments represented as individual acts of consumption that contribute to a notion of good citizenship. So using recycling bins, caring for one’s teeth, stopping smoking, and so forth are all actively invested by the state as both detrimental to individual and collective care, but most importantly they are the responsibility of the citizen to abide by.
Neoliberal governmentality also gestures towards the subordination of state power to the requirements of the marketplace, the implication being that ‘political problems’ are re-presented or cast in market terms. Within this framework citizens are promised new levels of freedom, consumerism, customisation, interactivity and control over their life and possessions. In other words, they are promised an unfulfilled expectation as to the extent to which they are able to exert their individual agency.
In order to facilitate this governmental platform certain infrastructural systems need to be put in place, bureaucratic structures, computational agencies and so forth. For example, it has become increasingly clear that providing information to citizens is not sufficient for controlling and influencing behaviour. Indeed, people’s ability to understand and manipulate raw data or information has been found to be profoundly limited in many contexts with a heavy reliance on habit understood as part of the human condition.
It is here that the notion of compactants (computational actants) allows us to understand the way in which computationality has increasingly become constitutive of the understanding of important categories in late capitalism, like privacy and self-care. Here we could say that we are interested in a transition from the juridicification, through the medicalisation, to the ‘computationalisation’ of reason. Hence, following Foucault, we are interested in studying the formation of discrete powers rather than power in general. That is, Foucault is interesting ‘in the processes through which subjects become subjects, the truth becomes truth, and then changing conditions under which this happens, which in the first instance is the discrepancy between the visible and the readable’ (Schecter 2010: 173). Or as Foucault himself writes:
What is at stake in all this research about madness, illness, delinquency, and sexuality, as well as everything else I have been talking about today, is to show how the coupling of a series of practices with a truth regime forms an operative knowledge-power system (dispotif) which effectively inscribes in the real something that does not exist, and which subjects the real to a series of criteria stipulating what is true and what is false, whereby these criteria are taken to be legitimate. It is that moment which does not exist as real and which is not generally considered relevant to the legitimacy of a regime of true and false, it is that moment in things that engages me at the moment. It marks the birth of the asymmetrical bi-polarity of politics and economics, that is, of that politics and economics which are neither things that exist nor are errors, illusions or ideologies. It has to do with something which does not exist and which is nonetheless inscribed within the real, and which has great relevance for a truth regime which makes distinctions between truth and falsity (Foucault, The Birth of Bio-Politics, quoted in Schecter 2010: 173).
Indeed the way in which compactants generate certain notion of truth and falsity is a topic requiring close investigation, both in terms of the surface interface generating a ‘visible’ truth, and the notion of a computational, or cloud, truth that is delivered from the truth-machines that lie somewhere on the networks of power and knowledge.
Foucault suggests that if there is a ‘system’ or ensemble of systems, the task is somehow to think systemic functioning outside of the the perspective of the subject dominated by or in charge of the so-called system. Critical thinking can deconstruct the visible harmony between casual seeing and instrumental reason… in contrast with monolithic appearances, surfaces are characterised by strata and folds that can inflect power to create new truths, desires and forms of experience (Schecter 2010: 175).
Here we can make the link between sight and power, and of course sight itself is deployed such that the ‘visible’ is not transparent nor hidden. Compactants certainly contribute to the deployment of the visible, through the generation of certain forms of geometric and photographic truths manifested in painted screens and surfaces.
Schecter, D. (2010) The Critique of Instrumental Reason from Weber to Habermas, New York: Continuum.