A few months ago, I received an email requesting some discussion of Foucauldian poststructural conceptions of “the subject”, agency and practices. A concern was expressed that the “decentred subject” left little space to reflect on actors’ motivations or behaviours. I intend to pursue these topics over several entries, which hopefully will complement each other. Subsequent entries will pick up the topics of bodies and affect/“emotions”.

The question of “the subject” became central to feminist debates from the 1990s, making a link to the previous Research Hub entry on “WPR and feminism”. In Feminist Contentions, Selya Benhabib and Judith Butler set out clearly what is at stake in these debates. Benhabib argued that there are weak and strong versions of the poststructuralist position on “the subject”. The former she described as a “situated subject”, one where the environmental, social and discursive influences on subject formation are acknowledged. In the latter, stronger version, according to Benhabib (1995: 20), “The subject … disappears in the chain of signification of which it was supposed to be the initiator”. In her view the stronger version denies the possibility of rational agency and construes us as what David Hoy has dubbed “cultural dopes”. The self, Benhabib argues, becomes nothing but the roles assigned to it (in Stern 2000: 111-112), a position I go on to dispute.

The concern for some (self-identified) feminists is that this “stronger version” of “the subject” is incapable of emancipatory action as is required for feminist projects committed to defending “woman” and “women”. Butler (1995a: 46; emphasis in original) responds that we need not, nor should not, appeal to a “pregiven subject or agent”, that we do not need to assume “theoretically from the start a subject with agency before we can articulate the terms of a significant social and political task of transformation, resistance and meaningful political practice”. [A few references worth pursuing on this debate include: London Feminist Salon Collective, 2004; Clegg 2006; Heyes 2007; and Gammage et al., 2016.] The topic of “agency” is pursued in a subsequent Research Hub entry.

It may help at this point to consider just what is intended by a “decentred” subject. To “decentre” something means to move it from the centre. The question becomes, therefore, what is this subject “at the centre” that is challenged in Foucauldian poststructuralism? Butler (above; emphasis added) assists us on this point, questioning the need for a “pregiven subject or agent” as a starting point for thinking about social relations and change. It is this pregiven or a priori subject that provides the foundation of much Western philosophy and that becomes the target of Foucault’s critique. This “subject”, often referred to as “the Enlightenment subject” or “the humanist subject”, is characterized as rational, autonomous, asocial and ahistorical. Fraser (1994: 191) describes the humanist project as “making the subject pole triumph over the object pole”, representing man (see Lloyd 1984) as constitutor, as free, as all knowing, and as master of their fate and destiny. This a priori subject serves as a foundation anchoring objectivity and truth (Olssen 2003: 80).

Freud, of course, decentred this rational subject with his investigation of the subconscious. However, as Mansfield (2000: 8) points out, there is still an assumption that a “subject” is a real thing, with a fixed structure, operating in knowable and predictable patterns.

Foucault makes a different move, putting in question the whole idea of a separate interior consciousness, a director directing the show (so to speak) (see Blanco 2018). Foucault argues that the view of “the subject” as autonomous, rational, etc. is only one possible way to think about “the subject”. Supporting this point, he insists that “the subject” has a history (Foucault 1990: 23) and a good deal of his work involved tracing the history or genealogy of “the subject” (Foucault 1977).

This Foucauldian approach enables us to see that what we understand by “being human” has “shifted radically over the ages” (Davies 1997: 272). If we accept this claim that there are other ways to think about “the subject”, it follows that “subjectivity” is not the “free and spontaneous expression of our interior truth” but rather “the way we are led to think about ourselves” (Mansfield 2000: 10). In this view we shouldn’t take for granted that we are particular kinds of actors; rather, we should consider how we envisage ourselves as actors.

The task therefore becomes to explore “the history of morals, ideals, and metaphysical concepts” rather than to accept them as “given” and “true” (Foucault 1977: 86). In effect, what we refer to as “subjectivity” and “consciousness” are creations “produced by techniques of power-knowledge, such as the human sciences” (Simons 1995: 47); think here of psychology. Likewise, the concepts of “attitude”, “behaviour”, “perception” and “motivation” assume that the individual has an interior consciousness that “processes and produces true meanings of the world” (Bonham et al. 2015: 184). Therefore, says Foucault (1988a: 15), we need to study how this “subject” has been produced: “We must descend to the study of the concrete practices through which the subject is constituted within a field of knowledge”; think again of psychology (topic pursued in next Research Hub entry). It follows that, instead of assuming a subject “at the start”, we need to ask about the assumptions that inform the particular position on “the subject” we decide to adopt.

Foucault goes on to question the assumptions underpinning the sovereign subject of Enlightenment thinking, especially the assumption that this “subject” can access “truth” (Taylor 2013: 90). As Olssen (2003) explains, for Foucault, “the unresolved tension of Kant’s philosophical project is that he fails to appreciate the contingent and historically contextualized character of all truth-claims”.

To understand this position, we need to say a few things about conceptions of power and of government in Foucault.

For our purposes it is sufficient to register that Foucault did not see power as something people possessed. He challenged the humanist view where power is generally considered to be the product of agency (see forthcoming Research Hub entry for discussion), a “universal resource to which all humans qua humans have access” (Butler, 1995b). Nor did he believe it possible to define a priori the “acceptable conditions of power” by locating some underlying structure, e.g. class. In place of universals he sees power as the complex working out of heterogeneous relations in which “subjects” and “objects” are produced (Foucault 1988b: 11).

Foucault is particularly concerned with how “governmental mechanisms of power” try to impose on groups of individuals a specific form of conduct deemed desirable for governing purposes, captured in the term “governmentality”. The objective of government, thus understood, is to “build subjects who are voluntarily subjugated (assujettis) – subjects who want what the other wills, who want not to will anything different from the other, and who want not to will” (Lorenzini 2016: 17: emphasis in original). As Dean (2010: 43, 83) explains, following this proposition, “governing is concerned with the fabrication of certain kinds of subjectivity and identity”, or rather identification. He offers the examples of “the consumer”, “the active job seeker” and “the poor”. It is these forms of subjectivity and identification that are considered in Question 5 of the WPR approach on the subjectification effects of governmental problematizations (see Chart Bacchi WPR CHART).

This mode of governing, through the creation of “subjects”, derives its strength “from the fact that it does not impose itself upon individuals through constraint or threat” (Lorenzini 2016: 16). In Foucault’s understanding, by definition we speak of “government (instead of constraint, domination and so on) if and only if the individual is free to choose to be governed or not to be governed like that” (Lorenzini 2016: 7-8; emphasis in original). Dean elaborates:

Regimes of government do not determine forms of subjectivity. They elicit, promote, facilitate, foster and attribute various capacities, qualities and statuses to particular agents. They are successful to the extent that these agents come to experience themselves through such capacities (e.g. rational decision-making), qualities (e.g. as having a sexuality) and statuses (as being an active citizen). (Dean 2010: 43).

By definition, therefore, in Foucault’s account (2000: 324), “there is no power without potential refusal or revolt”.

A critical point that often gets missed here is that a Foucauldian analysis considers governmental attempts to create certain kinds of subjects. While governmental mechanisms of power are “extremely efficient” (Lorenzini 2016: 16), there is no assumption that they are always successful. [The word “attempts” does not imply intentionality or deliberate manipulation.] To make this point Foucault developed the notion of counter-conduct, which is specifically to do with refusing governmental shaping of conduct (see Lorenzini 2016). Counter-conduct entails “the endless questioning of constituted experience” (see Rajchman 1985: 7 in St Pierre 2000: 493).

So, who or what is this “subject” deemed to be capable of counter-conduct? I will take up this topic in the next entry.


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