Invisible subjectivity and societies of control

Monday, February 10th, 2014 by dparker90

Reading Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” I can’t help but wonder how to characterize the modern subject. If subjects under what Foucault terms “disciplinary societies,” were characterized by uniformity and self-discipline – I’m thinking of the example in Discipline and Punish of reform-school students who didn’t participate in France’s 1968 student riots because of the self-monitoring behavior that had been instilled in them – how can we describe the modern subject in Deleuze’s terms? Instead of “vast spaces of enclosure,” we are now controlled by the invisible forces of corporate competition, fluctuating markets, “floating rates of exchange,” and commodified information. I’m also thinking here of what McKenzie Wark calls the “privatization of metadata,” which operates under the appearance of freely giving information – not charging a fee to join Facebook or Google+, for example – platforms that actually “extract far more than they give.”

So, if these are the new terms of control, what kind of subjects do they create? In line with Deleuze’s assertion that societies of control operate under free-floating, ever-shifting dynamics of power, I want to suggest that the modern subject is in fact unaware that it is being controlled and subjugated. Like Wark describes, mechanisms of control like Facebook and Google work under the pretense of giving users freedom, when in reality they privatize and manipulate users’ data. Modern subjects don’t feel they need to resist these controlling platforms because the control they exert is invisible. Within disciplinary societies, subjects could locate and actively resist power structures in schools, factories, prisons, etc., by forming labor unions and organizing demonstrations. Nowadays, it’s hard to resist “the man” when you can’t pin him down. Maybe this explains why so many of us discredited the “Occupy Wall Street” movement back in 2011 – if you’ve been trained to see yourself as an independent, decision-making individual, it’s harder to see what you’re up against. That’s what I find most frightening about societies of control: you don’t know when you’re subject to power because it feels like freedom.

To illustrate my point, I leave you with this horrifying “article” that popped up on my Facebook: “Could It Be? Millennials Are the New Generation of Hippies, But With Better Weed.” Now, truth be told, many of its commenters vehemently disagreed with its content, but the fact that someone actually wrote this, and that someone else posted it on Facebook, reveals that at least some modern subjects truly believe that they’re resisting power. Under of the auspices of freedom and choice, societies of control create a population of consumers who remain unaware of the forces controlling them.


3 comments on “Invisible subjectivity and societies of control

  1. contromal says:

    I agree that the forces which exert control today are much less easily detected, but I cannot agree that they are invisible (I acknowledge that you are probably inflating the term a bit). For example, after doing some research on glitch art over the last two weeks, a band or album or something called “Glitch” has started popping up as a recommendation for me through various digital avenues (iTunes, Amazon, Google, etc.). It makes me feel like my only “safe” and truly alone time is during my runs, on which I bring no cell phone, often wear no watch, and control where my mind wanders for a change… It was an uncomfortable moment for me, when I realized that this is my only REAL alone time.

    • dparker90 says:

      I guess I was thinking in terms of actual spaces of enclosure that are no longer visible – or perhaps don’t exist. So, in place of Foucault’s factories, schools, prisons, and hospitals, we’re controlled by free-floating, intangible codes and passwords. Or maybe societies of control are only visible to some? For a while, I didn’t understand why my Facebook newsfeed was full of ads for products I’d clicked on around the web. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now that I’m clued in to how the privatization of metadata operates, I fully realize how I’m being controlled as a consumer.

  2. Lori Emerson says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post Deven – I’ve been thinking about the same issues lately as I’ve been trying to trace the shifting valences of the terms “free” and “open” on the web and thinking too (I might have already mentioned this in class) about young people’s almost gleeful foregoing of their privacy online…it certainly does seem like, in this context, current mechanisms of control so conveniently mask themselves as offering us freedom! and ease of use! that the insidious ways in which we are tracked and controlled are utterly invisible to all but a few people. I know Wark thinks that Marx isn’t relevant any more, and he’s probably right, but still – talk about false consciousness…

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