Tag: consumerism

Foucault and the archive

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

The idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.

Michel Foucault [1967] “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), 22-27.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault originally wrote this in 1967 arguing that the idea of the archive initially came to the fore in the nineteenth century. It is clear that we continue to live within these historical parameters. The desire for preservation extends far beyond the documentary archive with, for example, various heritage laws enacted to preserve housing (some of it not worth preserving in terms of its actual habitability). This operates in opposition to an ever increasing consumer disposibility. Objects such as cars, computers, home appliances are constantly and often needlessly updated and consumers are incited to buy the latest and greatest in an exhausting and overstimulating cycle that never ends. Redundancy is deliberately built into a number of these objects to perpetuate this process.

Both processes – the will to preserve every historical artefact and document from the ravages of time and decay and the ever more rapid cycles of the aquisition and disposal of consumer goods are no doubt opposite sides of the same coin – a desperate attempt perhaps to maintain some kind of cosmic equilibrium. The ever increasing and expanding dead weight of the archival past must be counterbalanced by a frenzy of consumer disposibility and the rapid and often counterproductive reconfiguration of consumer goods.

But if these goods are disposed of, examples of superseded items still persist in design museums and in the obsessive archives of private collectors. These collectors preserve in memory the most ephemeral and unaesthetic of objects – old packaging, broken down pieces of machinery, old advertising material.

Contemporary developed society and culture enact major anxieties around the passage of time and also the human relation to objects. In the contemporary era humans exist in highly uncomfortable and conflictual relation with objects. As in dystopian science fiction, they are increasingly expected to adapt to the machines they have created, rather than the machines being designed harmoniously with human comfort and the requirements of the body in mind.

Foucault and the neoliberal art of government

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

The art of government … which has now become the program of most governments in capitalist countries, absolutely does not seek the constitution of … [a] standardizing, mass society of consumption and spectacle, etcetera… It involves, on the contrary, obtaining a society that is not orientated towards the commodity and the uniformity of the commodity, but towards the multiplicity and differentiation of enterprises… An enterprise society and a judicial society, a society orientated towards the enterprise and a society framed by a multiplicity of judicial institutions, are two faces of a single phenomenon.

Michel Foucault, (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Course at the Collège de France. 1978-1979 New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 149-50.

L’art de gouvernement … qui est devenu maintenant la programmation de la plupart des gouvernements en pays capitaliste [sic] … ce programmation ne cherche absolumment pas la constitution … [d’une] société uniformisante, de masse, de consommation, de spectacle etc… Il s’agit au contraire d’obtenir une société indexée non pas sur la marchandise et sur l’uniformité de la marchandise, mais sur la multiplicité et la différenciation des entreprises. … Société d’entreprise et société judiciaire, société encadrée par une multiplicité d’institutions judiciaires, ce sont les deux faces d’un même phénomène.

Michel Foucault, (2004) Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au Collège de France. 1978-1979 Paris: Gallimard, Seuil, pp. 154-5.

Random thoughts in response
I have done a bit of chopping around of Foucault’s words here in the interests of succinctly summarising his argument. If the lecture (14 February 1979) these remarks come from is not amongst his best work and reads almost like a set of notes, or at least the first draft of empirical work to be worked over later, the enlightening insights and reversal of received ideas characteristic of most of his work are still in evidence. What I find fascinating about Foucault’s remarks here is how uncannily accurate they are (as was often the case in his work) in discerning emerging trends that some thirty years down the track we are now seeing in full flower – or perhaps in all their full horror.

Foucault takes to task standard – and usually Marxist – critiques of modern capitalist and liberal society which see it as a society of mass consumption. His argument is that we have moved beyond this into a governmental arrangement which incites the creation of multiple enterprises. With the existence of multiple enterprises and the inevitable friction between them, we also see the proliferation of endless forms of legal regulation to keep them all in balance.

As he says elsewhere in the same lecture, the homo Æconomicus that neo-liberal government is aiming to create is ‘not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production’. (p.152). There is now of course an enormous literature both inciting people to become entrepreneurs in every aspect of their existence – not just economic – and a perhaps less convincing literature criticising this goal. We are constantly invited to perform, to be ‘creative’, to ‘manage our own careers’, to be infinitely productive to the exclusion of both personal well-being and the well-being of others

Each one of us is also expected to be entirely responsible for administering the economic, health and other risks involved in our individual existences. As Foucault points out, according to this model, looking after members of the social body is not to be seen as a collective social endeavour, but as the personal responsibility of each individual. If for some reason you can’t acquire enough capital to take out the necessary insurance to guarantee your own survival, then you only have yourself to blame.

Neoliberal arts of government in the 21st century have engineered an unliveable society based on a combination of unending individual responsibility for ever increasing productivity and growth based on entrepreneurial principles, of individual responsibility for insurance against risk and an oppressive regulatory and legal apparatus which is necessary to manage the frictions between the ever increasing proliferation of individual enterprises. If one is not constantly creative, productive and entrepreneurial at both the economic and personal levels, one has no social visibility and no social value. This might go some way towards explaining the obsessive attachment to social networking technologies such as Facebook and Twitter where those involved are constantly producing and creating themselves in the most minute details of their daily existence and making that production of self visible to the rest of the social body.

For further discussion of this post see the Foucault blog