When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
((I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones, 1965)
The discussion of power is central to the social sciences. Countless theoretical advancements surround its possession, denial and use – largely framing it as something negative, owned and wielded – exist. This essay will use the analytical tool-box of Michel Foucault to examine the productive nature of power, power’s role in the formulation of the self, as well as its intimate and intertwining relationship with knowledge. Discourse, the nexus of power and knowledge, will be discussed through the lens of the neoliberal present and further, how discursive practises are normalised, codified, maintained and reproduced through governmentality, discipline and technologies of the self. To aid this analysis, the example of reality television will be used to make explicit these concepts, the essay situating this genre of entertainment as an exemplar of the neoliberal mandate, providing a key template for neoliberal citizenship. Finally, the ability to resist power, despite its inescapable nature, will be explored through further scrutiny of the power/knowledge amalgam and how an appreciation of this relationship can provide an anchor for opposition.
Power is often conceptualised as a repressive, dominating force that can be possessed, wielded or controlled. For Foucault, however, power is not proprietary, nor exercised in a top-down manner, but ‘everywhere’ (Danaher, Schirato & Webb, 2000, 45), emanating not from the state or a sovereign, but diffused through social practise, cultural brokers and the authorised expertise of institutions (Ouellette & Hay, 2008c). Nor is power a solely negative force of authoritarian domination but endlessly productive and stimulating – through the workings of power people are sculpted and shaped, their values and practises moulded, rules and conventions are learned and punishments and rewards procured (Danaher, et al, 2000, 45; Andrejevic, 2004, 80). Power produces what we are and what we are capable of, mobilises or dissuades us, colouring how we conceive ourselves and the world (Danaher et al, 2000, xxv). In other words, subjectification is the essence of power: the machinations of power actively create the self (Anderson, 2016, 738). However, power cannot function on its own. Nothing can operate as an instrument of power without access to coherent knowledge systems (Brass, 2000) and it is in this interwoven relationship, where power is welded to knowledge, that the scaffolds of discourse are produced.
Through the advocacy of experts, and dissemination through social, cultural and political institutions, discourse acts to make a set of world views, values or truths coherent, intuitive and ‘normal’. This nexus of power and knowledge acts as a ‘regime of truth’ (Brass, 2000), with discourse responsible for the organisation of ideas and concepts through which reality can be digested and understood (Gutting, 2005), power is legitimised, reproduced and maintained (Weedon, 1997, 117), and the behaviours, routines and yearnings of people can be assessed and chaperoned (Ouellette & Hay, 2008b). In short, discourse provides the language, options and capacities required to give a person’s life meaning and identity (Ransom, 1997, 15), becoming the sieve that separates the normal from the abnormal (Brass, 2000). Unlike grand-narrative frameworks, discourse is neither fixed nor uniform, but a multiplicity of practises that circulate in an almost infinite variety of behaviours whose power ebbs and flows depending on temporality, context and strategy (Foucault, 1998, 100; Danaher et al, 2000, 49). One may enter and exit various discursive architectures – medicine, law, economics – but one can never escape: wherever you stand you are within a knowledge scheme that believes it has some claim to regulation, control and the knowledge to discern what is correct and what is not (Brass, 2000). Discourse is not inert, but inherently performative (Gutting, 2006, 164), once one consents to perform or situate themselves within a discourse, they become a subject of it, and to it, capable of exercising the associated discursive power but also be governed by it (Brass, 2000): the self is created within, and acted through, discourse.
The discursive formation influencing the political, social and economic apparatus of the current era is neoliberalism. Formulated as a structural consequence of the failure and subsequent enfeeblement of the post WWII welfare state, neoliberalism replaced collective responsibility for personal misfortune with the valorisation of the individual, the privatisation of public resources and a distaste for state intervention (Bauman, 2005; Anderson, 2016). The neoliberal mandate became ‘governing at a distance’ (Rose, 2006) and required citizens that could function without state intervention, embrace an ethic of self-sufficiency, cultivate the private sphere over the public, and value personal responsibility over the collective (Ouellette & Hay, 2008b; Ouellette & Murray 2007, 16). Neoliberalism encouraged and promised freedom from the constraints of state interference (Rose, O’Malley & Valverde, 2006) but that freedom was to be exercised responsibly (Ouellette & Hay, 2008b). Neoliberal citizens are required to reflect upon, cultivate and order their own lives as an explicit condition of citizenship (Ouellette, 2007), to mould, chaperone and steer their own conduct and, in doing so, the conduct of others (Rose, 2004, 3). The morality of the neoliberal citizen is ultimately linked to the sphere of consumption (Bauman, 2005) and ‘lateral surveillance’, or peer monitoring, is a key technique employed to negotiate and referee the mores of the capitalist market (Andrejevic, 2004; 2005). That we are employed to become our own governors and entrepreneurs of the self (Owen, 2014; Anderson, 2106, 738) becomes the central technique of neoliberalism.
To govern from a distance, neoliberalism mobilises intertwining techniques of ‘governmentality’, ‘discipline’ and ‘technologies of the self’ to enlist the populace in the government of themselves and each other. ‘Governmentality’ refers to techniques used by discursive powers to shape, control and influence without direct intervention (Ouellette & Hay, 2008c, 473). Foucault (1995) recruits the metaphor of the panoptic prison to explain the surveillant, disciplinary gaze of contemporary existence (p. 195-228). Prison inmates, potentially under constant surveillance, remain unaware of the activity of this gaze. The assumption must be that surveillance is constant and unavoidable, with behaviour is adjusted accordingly. Following the logics of neoliberalism, the top-down panoptic surveillance of the state is outsourced, the individual citizen drafted as both the prisoner and guard (Andrejevic, 2004). This ‘discipline’ is a two-fold process: firstly, discipline as surveillance, containing both facets of quiet coercion and punishment and secondly, discipline as forms of knowledge that need to be mastered (Danaher, et al, 2000, 62). A third facet of discipline can be theorised in neoliberal societies, the requirement to be a disciplined consumer, and to constantly rework the self, through various technologies, to suit the dynamic needs of the capitalist market.
The neoliberal subject, described by Foucault (2008) as ‘homo œconomicus’ (p. 226), or ‘economic man’ (sic), faces a state of ‘permanent vigilance’ (ibid, 132) due to the enormous level of information gathering, self-assessment and re-assessment required to be an active consumer (Andrejevic, 2004). As the forces of the free market and patterns of consumption are constantly in flux, so must a citizen’s personal biography be unconstrained, liquid and reinventable (Lewis, 2008; Andrejevic, 2004). A neoliberal subject must be infinitely anticipatory and customisable (Andrejevic, 2004) yet, within that array of potential ‘selves’, must also be aware of clearly defined norms, as failure to perceive and adhere to these leads to sanction and scandal (Danaher, , 2000, 59). The normative requirements of the neoliberal present require navigatory aids, which the market provides as an ever growing and customisable supply of citizenship templates (Ouellette & Hay, 2008b). One of which, reality television, connects three discursive apparatus – the state, family and the self – providing a customisable field of tutorials that aid the simplification of neoliberal citizenship (McCarthy, 2007). As a civic, cultural and discursive apparatus, reality television has become a core technology of neoliberal government.
Using the market instrument of commercial television networks, reality television disseminates an increasing series of citizenship tutorials designed to aid the neoliberal citizen with their self-entrepreneurship and ‘responsibilisation’. Positioned as a commercial enterprise, reality television fuses popular entertainment and lifestyle tutorial with proclamations to authenticity (Ouellette & Murray, 2007, 3; Ouellette, 2007, 229). Despite claims to education and ‘the real’, reality genres eschew the ethical responsibilities and sobriety typically attached to education and documentary programming (Ouellette & Murray, 2007). Reality television has proliferated alongside the rise of neoliberal orthodoxy, complementing demand for the privatisation of public life and the primacy of individual choice and responsibility (Ouellette & Murray, 2007, 16). As a ‘technology of the self’, reality television becomes an important regime of authority through which subjects can create, adapt, customise and re-evaluate their subjectivity in the dynamic flux of the neoliberal consumer market (Rose, et al, 2006). Operating through the enlistment of experts across a wide range of fields, such as health, etiquette, interpersonal relationships, fashion advice, real estate choice, home renovation and life skills (Ouellette & Hay, 2008c), reality television positions itself as a lifestyle tutorial, with expert knowledge imparted through testing, judging and the sanctioning or rewarding of conduct (Lewis, 2014). These knowledges and judgements become a guideline for living, as normative appellations are digested, internalised and reproduced – honing the individual’s ability to conduct themselves as a successful neoliberal subject (Ouellette & Hay, 2008b). If homo œconomicus is the ideal neoliberal citizen, then reality television becomes the crucial neoliberal technology of citizenship as it operates within, and normalises, the DIY rubric of responsibilisation, the filtering of systemic public issues into the individual sphere (Lewis, 2014) and the wider ethic of mass consumption.
With no provisions to relieve us from power, or escape from discourse, Foucault’s work is often derided as misguided, nihilistic or amoral, furnished as it is with no narrative for an ideal human society or value judgements for social progress (Danaher, et al, 2000, 1-4). However, the inability to escape discourse does not mean an inability to resist (Ransom, 1997, 23), as resistance is an integral aspect of power (Danaher, et al, 2000, xxvi). Despite all efforts to appear so, discourses are not natural, and are therefore responsive to alternative practises and influence. As discussed, power is productive and, in that capacity, is capable of producing subjects that perform in manners that are resistant or even adversarial (Foucault, 1998, 95). In the case of reality television, it would be illogical to claim that all viewers consume the spectacle in a uniform way (Ouellette, 2007, 239), and may even enjoy the discursive position of a ‘delinquent’ (Danaher, et al, 2000, 49). Nevertheless, the dynamic nature of neoliberalism, embedded as it is within capitalism, is greedy to expand markets, and subject positions, once proudly perched as abnormal judgements, are quickly subsumed and commodified, sold back to the public as ‘alternate life-styles’ (Adorno, 2001, 23). Mere resistance at a cultural or symbolic level appears ineffectual at challenging the quickly mutating chimera of advanced consumer capitalism.
If power is diffuse and unanchored, where is the pressure of resistance to be applied? The chink in the discursive armour is found at the nexus of power/knowledge that creates them (Ransom, 1997, 23). This weld between power and knowledge is not unbreakable and the diffuse nature of power provides infinite access points. If discourse is formed at the intersection of power and knowledge, logically it follows that understanding this relation is the key to unravelling it. For Foucault, power and knowledge have a ‘relationship’ but are not ‘identical’, therefore there is space between them that may be manipulated and exploited (Foucault & Raulet, 1988, 43). A firm grasp of the knowledge systems operating at the centres of power provides the opportunity to understand, neutralise, reverse or destabilise discourse (Ransom, 1997, 23). Foucault may not have signposted an ideal society but his set of analytical tools allow us to imagine and create our own. The knowledge that power is not in possession of some omnipotent force, but something that exists everywhere, and can be manipulated and focused by anyone, truly is powerful.
This essay has discussed the workings of power through a Foucauldian lens.
Often framed in the negative, power also has a productive capacity intimately connected to the formation of the self. Power also shares a relationship to systems of knowledge, with the formation of discourse occurring at their nexus. The nature of discourse, approached through the neoliberal present, and the discursive techniques of ‘governmentality’, ‘discipline’ and ‘technologies of the self’ has been illustrated by positioning reality television as a key civic template for the neoliberal mandate. Finally, the potential for resistance in an environment of diffuse and unanchored power has been analysed, examined through the power/knowledge amalgam and its position in the discursive scaffold as a site of both fortitude, and fragility.
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