Wednesday, December 01, 2004

(Reading Roundup: Deleuze on Control Societies)

Originally posted: Wed, 01 Dec 2004 10:40:29

I'm up to my elbows in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus for the second time, and am getting a little more out of it this time. It's still agonizing, thanks for asking -- sort of like reading the book of Leviticus, only with more S&M references. But I've also been doing some other reading which is shaping how I see some of the issues I've been working through.

For instance, when I mentioned Zuboff and Maxmin's recent book to my invaluable colleague Mark Longaker, he immediately recommended Deleuze's final chapter from Negotiations. I've read it a few times since then, and once again today. The argument has quite a bit of relevance for what I'm doing. Deleuze argues that whereas the 20th century was primarily marked by disciplinary societies (in Foucault's terms), control societies are taking over. Disciplinary societies are based on confinement and centralization (p.178). Think in terms of Taylorism, or Foucault's prisons, or hospitals, schools, factories, families. But all of these confinements are breaking down, Deleuze says, and in its place is control: "the ultrarapid forms of apparently free-floating control that are taking over from the old disciplines at work within the time scales of closed systems. ... With the breakdown of the hospital as a site of confinement, for instance, community psychiatry, day hospitals, and home care initially presented new freedoms, while at the same time contributing to mechanisms of control as rigorous as the harshest confinement" (p.178). Deleuze quite clearly sees this control society as a threat as bad as, perhaps worse than, the disciplinary society Foucault described. In the disciplinary society, factories produced a body of workers that could be controlled en masse by management, as well as an avenue of mass resistance via unions. But in the control society, we're not talking about factories producing goods, we're talking about businesses producing services; in this society, individuals relate to each other, compete against each other, and their wages fluctuate continually, "bringing them into a state of constant metastability punctuated by ludicrous challenges, competitions, and seminars" (p.179). This metastability is brought into education as well: "school is being replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It's the surest way of turning education into a business" (p.179). So you have a sort of "endless postponement" (cf. Body-without-Organs in A Thousand Plateaus) rather than a defined avenue of development; you travel in continuously changing "orbits," you "undulate," you find yourself switching jobs and careers and positionalities (p.180). The factory is gone, as are unions and lifetime employment; the best way to get a raise, as a friend once told me, is to switch jobs.

Capitalism in a control society becomes distributed and "essentially dispersive"; "it's a capitalism no longer directed toward production but toward products, that is, toward sales or markets" (p.181).

Now there are several reasons why these insights are striking. First, they parallel Zuboff and Maxmin's insights quite closely, but while Zuboff and Maxmin see these developments as generally positive, they fill Deleuze with dread: "We're told businesses have souls, which is surely the most terrifying news in the world" (p.181). Second, they give us a framework for reexamining much of the work being done in design and workplace research. For instance, the disciplinary/control divide provides a nice way of describing the difference between participatory design (developed for factory work with strong unions and lifetime employment) and contextual design (developed for software engineering in the US). Third, they demonstrate quite clearly why analyses like Simon Head's fall short: the new economy has not reproduced Taylorism, it is using some Taylorist techniques to establish control without centralization.

I'm a bit suspicious of how far these insights will travel, though. They bear more than a whiff of the Marxist obsession with economics, and there doesn't seem to be any bounds on its explanatory power. But that doesn't seem to be the case in A Thousand Plateaus. I'll keep investigating that book, which is turning out to have some insights of its own.

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