In this entry I intend to pursue what it means to say that “subjects” are constituted in practices. Practices here are understood as Foucault conceptualized them, as legal “codes”, loosely defined, that are “in the true”.
Foucault made clear that one of his major purposes in examining such practices was to come to understand how we emerge as “subjects” of particular kinds. As he stated:
What I wanted to try to show was how the subject constituted itself in one specific form or another, as a mad or healthy subject, as a delinquent or nondelinquent subject, through certain practices that were also games of truth, practices of power and so on. (Foucault 1994)
In the previous entry we looked more closely at how “the mad” emerge in practices that problematize “subjects” in specific ways. Foucault refers to “games of truth” to emphasize that, as in a game, the rules of truth-making are internal to the game – there is no external arbiter. The reference to “practices of power” highlights that the “subject” in Foucault is always a political subject, enmeshed in practices, rather than an a priori subject. To study how “subjects” are produced, therefore, “We must descend to the study of the concrete practices through which the subject is constituted within a field of knowledge” (Foucault 1988: 15). “Fields of knowledge” in Foucault generally refer to the “human sciences”, highlighting the role that research in such fields plays in producing the “subjects” it assumes (e.g. as rational or self-directed or, as in nudge theory, as needing guidance. See Research Hub entry, 26 Nov. 2017).
As Butler (1990) elaborates, the subject of law does not exist prior to the law but is produced within judicial processes. The repetition of these judicial processes operates to naturalize the “subject” along with the qualities, capacities and statuses that constitute the “subject” (Butler 1990: 2). Further, as “subjects” perform the qualities, capacities and statuses attributed to them, they reinforce the naturalization of these attributes, leading to the characterization of this theoretical perspective as “performativity”. As a simple example, think of how ticking the box “male” or “female” on administration forms reinforces the existence of sexed/gendered “subjects”.
In poststructural discourse theory, “a performative is that which enacts or brings about what it names” (de Goede 2006: 10). The language of “enactment” has come to replace “performativity” in many accounts, because the latter could be seen to support a view of conventional subject-actors as the originators of practices – when the intent is quite the opposite (see Mol 2002: 33; see also Netz et al. 2019). Most commonly, the word “constitute” is used by post-structuralists to capture this sense of “subjects” being produced or constituted in practices. As Jones (1997: 265) explains, the term “constitute” or “produce” means something like “comes into existence” rather than “shaped” or “made” (out of something else). With this understanding, there is “no doer behind the deed; rather, the “doer is invariably constructed in and through the deed” (Butler 1990: 142). People’s identities “do not precede their performances, but are constituted in and through them” (Mol 2002: 38): “The pervasive and mundane acts in which this is done make people what they are” (Mol 2002: 39).
None of these processes are predictable or straight-forward. The plural and contradictory characterizations (subject positions) available for “subjects” to perform means that the “subject” is always in process, always provisional (Bonham and Bacchi 2017: 688). Recalling that governmental mechanisms of power are not always successful (see Research Hub entry, 30 September 2019), practices (such as ticking the box) need to be repeated. In the repetition emerges the space for challenge and change (consider how administrative forms now often offer “other” as an option) (see Stern 2000: 113). Within this space we can locate the possibilities of “counter-conduct” (see Research Hub entry 31 October 2019) and “practices from below”. For example, Death (2010: 245) emphasizes how, through the embodied practices of protest, such as hunger strikes, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, “new identities and subjectivities are performatively constituted”.
The reference to Annemarie Mol above signals a linkage between “performative” or “enactment” theory and STS (Science and Technology Studies), including Actor-Network theory. The points of connection include a shared relational ontology, seen in the language of “assemblages” and “networks”, and a constitutive approach to social “actors” and to “objects”. As Woolgar and Lezaun (2013: 322) describe, the field of STS “has long advanced an analytical programme that foregrounds the instrumental, performative and material dimensions implied in the making of facts and artefacts”. There is a particular emphasis on the way “objects” are “enacted” in practices, as described by Annemarie Mol and John Law:
knowing, the words of knowing, and texts do not describe a pre-existing world [but] are part of a practice of handling, intervening in the world and thereby of enacting one of its versions – up to bringing it into being. (Mol and Law 2006: 19 in Pellizoni 2015: 74).
The focus on “objects” as “actants” produces an emphasis on the place of non-humans in political relations. In line with this position, ANT offers a dispersed understanding of “agency”, a topic I pursue in a subsequent Research Blog entry.
I believe that there is a good deal more to be said about “practices”. With Pellizoni (2015: 77) I share disquiet with the tendency to appeal simply to the “generative power of the practices involved in the constitution of reality” (Woolgar and Lezaun 2013: 324; see entry 12 Nov. 2017), without elaborating on what “practices” are taken to be and how they are presumed to function politically. Perhaps the same could be said about a wide range of concepts, such as “processes” or “agency”, the topic I pursue next. As with “the subject”, it has become imperative to think through just what we mean by “practices” and to engage critically with research in the field.
Bonham, J. and Bacchi, C. 2017. Cycling “subjects” in ongoing-formation: The politics of interviews and interview analysis. Journal of Sociology, 53(3): 687-703.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.
Death, C. 2010. Counter-conducts: A Foucauldian analytics of protest. Social Movement Studies, 9(3): 235–251.
de Goede, M. 2006. International political economy and the promises of post-structuralism. In M. de Goede (Ed.), International political economy and poststructural politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. 1977/1971. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Foucault, M. 1994/1984. The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom. In P. Rabinow and N. Rose (Eds) The Essential Foucault. NY: the New Press.
Jones, A. (1997). Teaching Post-structuralist Feminist Theory in Education: Student resistances. Gender and Education, 9(3): 261-269.
Mol, A. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mol, A. and Law, J. 2006. Complexities: An introduction. In J. Law and A. Mol (Eds) Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. NC: Duke University Press.
Netz, S., Lempp, S., Krause, K. and Schramm, K. 2019. Claiming citizenship rights through the body multiple. Citizenship Studies, https://doi.org/10.1080/13621025.2019.1651041
Pellizoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature. Surrey: Ashgate.
Stern, D. 2000. The return of the subject? Power, reflexivity and agency. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 26(5): 109-122.
Woolgar, S. and Lezaun, J. 2013. The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies? Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 321-40.