Control Society: The History, Logic, and Methodologies of Control

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the  conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he  must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though  the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can  come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground  which is given to him to till.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

To the point that the idea of freedom, a new and recent idea, is already fading from minds and mores, and liberal globalization is coming about in precisely the opposite form – a police state globalization, a total control, a terror based on ‘law-and-order’ measures. Deregulation ends up in a maximum of constraints and restrictions, akin to a fundamentalist society.

– Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism

Everywhere you turn you see the pulpists screaming conspiracy, paranoia, catastrophe as if the earth were the stage of some horrific cinematic apocalypse. Emerson preached a good tune, the great American Myth of the Self Reliant individual who could revolt against history, against the wisdom of the ages and invent himself whole cloth out of the emptiness of his own being, must mix it up with others in the carnival of life open and free. This was Emerson’s version of The Good Life, a personalist version of the pursuit of happiness in 10 easy lessons. Yet, in the pursuit of self-reliance and happiness we seem to have produced its opposite in less than a two hundred years. We are more dependent and unhappy than ever before in history. In our pursuit of the Liberalist Democratic Utopia we have imposed worldwide intolerance, hate, and unhappiness at the forefront. How did this all come about? Where is the history of this dark world to be found? In our pursuit to understand this are we not in ourselves forging the very links to control that feed the beast? Or, are we actually trying to liberate ourselves from its terrible grasp? Caught in the meshes of this fly-trap that seems to permeate the planet is there an escape valve, a way of withdrawing from its dark trap?

A great many individuals fall into the trap of ‘Conspiracy Theory’ narratives, which as Christopher Hitches recently said “are not just false, but are not even wrong” (2004). That is, they do not reach the threshold of acceptability to even be tested, to be falsifiable. If the mind is that sphere that can distinguish between truth and falsity, then conspiracy theories are beyond that sphere. They are para (beyond or beside) the nous (mind). They are paranoid.1 Richard Hofstadter (1967) in his germinal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” this term transformed a multiplicity of beliefs in conspiracy into a style of thought. Transposing a clinical psychology term onto the field of politics, Hofstadter not only pathologized conspiracy theories, he gave them formal coherence, historical persistence, and intelligibility as a genre of political knowledge.(ibid.) As one scholar puts it:

Conspiracy theory is thus a bridge term-it links subjugating conceptual strategies (paranoid style, political paranoia, conspiracism) to narratives that investigate conspiracies (conspiratology, conspiracy research, conspiracy account). Conspiracy theory is a condensation of all of the above, a metaconcept signifying the struggles over the meaning of the category. We need to recognize where we are on the bridge when we use the term. (CP Kindle Locations 129-131).

One of the difficulties as one begins to study the ‘Society of Control’ that philosophers such as Michel Focault and Gilles Deleuze in their latter work began to uncover is the temptation to fall into the trap of conspiracy theory oneself. Foucault once remarked:

Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.2 (TP 131)

Foucault himself would be the progenitor of biopolitics which offered a window onto global impact of biopower within the dispersed technologies of control we see in the world today. As another scholar states it Foucaults work enlightened us into the mechanisms of power in the world as the “control of life itself”, and that the underbelly of this power is the destruction of life in the pursuit of preserving it.3

How can we begin to resist such ‘technologies of power’? Deleuze told us that “machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyse the collective apparatuses of which the machines are just one component” (Negotiations 1995). Maybe a good place to begin is to understand both the history and logic of control as it has insinuated itself within the fabric of our societies since the Cold War. I think its important to understand this alliance between control and subjectivation, how both external and internal control mechanisms have infiltrated our political and individual bodies and modulated the interactions between the two in an abstract theory of normalization and monoculture.

Again I have to thank dmf, Arran James, Edmund and others who have opened my eyes of late to many of the traumatic aspects of our postmodern panic society. Tough times indeed. I’m trying to grasp this history and logic in the light of philosophy. Not sure how well I’ll succeed, but I do think their is a cookie crumb trail to follow in the life and writings of both Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault and their progeny. Hopefully over the next year I’ll gain a better understanding of this within the scope of a theory of resistance to its dark power. It’s made me shift gears in some was, given me a new direction in study and hopefully a book on Control Society: The History and Logic of Biopower. At least that seems to be the tentative title that keeps whacking me over the head. Somehow I always new I’d return to Foucault even it was to argue some more. And, with Deleuze, Badiou, and Zizek I’ll argue even more…. but somewhere in there is something worth discovering, a nugget of pure gold to help us through these dire times.

As a prelude to the control society Foucault uncovered the disciplined society: a society dominated through the economic discipline of profit that forced society to enforce a rigid and continuous regimen of discipline and punishment founded on the Panopticon’s network of permanent observation, which – enforced by experts, examined, defined, categorized, pathologised, improved, trained and, above all, reformed (Foucault). In his political anatomy Foucault described how these technologies of biopower emerged through “a multiplicity of often minor processes, of different origin and scattered location, which overlap, repeat, or imitate one another, support one another, distinguish themselves from one another according to their domain of application, converge, and gradually produce a blueprint of a general method (Foucault Disipline and Punish:182).

Out of this Disciplinary Society and its blueprints Deleuze would discover a further folding operation that would emerge within what he termed Control Societies. The key term within his new conception was ‘dividuality’ which brought about a doubling and intersection of what Deleuze would see as the twin production of the disciplinary machine and the control machine. For Deleuze the dividual is a  physically embodied human subject that is endlessly divisible and  reducible to data representations via the modern technologies of control,  like computer-based systems. Mark Savat argues that dividuality, and both the objectile and the superject, are useful concepts in coming to terms with a potentially new  ‘fluid poltics’, which moves us beyond the static conceptions of a self-reliant individual politics.4

There is so much territory to cover or map that I’ll not even attempt it in one post. Any suggestions? Books? Paths to take? So much to think through… mind boggling! Yet, as with all things, it is a worthwhile investigation and will hopefully produce if not solutions, at least some further questions…

1. Jack Z. Bratich. Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture (Kindle Locations 92-94). Kindle Edition.
2. Foucault, Michel. (1980a). Truth and power. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Power/knowledge (pp. 109-133). New York: Pantheon.
3. Deleuze and New Technology. Editors Mark Poster and David Savat. (Edinburgh University Press 2010).
4. David Savat. Uncoding The Digital: Technology, Subjectivity and Action in Control Society. (Palgrave McMillan 2013)

15 thoughts on “Control Society: The History, Logic, and Methodologies of Control

  1. one bit of a thought is that these “systems” can be widespread without actually being totalizing/unified, so no grand schemes/logics/webmasters at work tho the cumulative and overlapping effects can make them nearly impossible to escape/avoid in our daily lives. I was hoping that “object” oriented re-search would have been more along the lines of the reporter who tracked down the mechanisms (behind the the curtain as it were) and all that make up much of what we experience as The Internet, some parallels perhaps to our experiencing a sense of having/being a ‘Self’? When one sees the kind of innovation/powers required to come to the new big data crunching machines it should be a kind of object lesson in how we where projecting literally machines before they actually existed as we tend to do, not sure if any of this is very coherent/useful, looking forward to your own more analytical take.

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    • Yea, in that sense there is no Big Other or Master behind the curtain pulling the strings…. I think from what I’m seeing it is a combination of all these discursive practices and the underlying internalization of these mechanism from bureaucratic hierarchies of discipline to the self-reflexive normalization that Deleuze uncovered. I think somehow we have to think multiplicity and plurally rather than unified / totalist… Going to take some renotcheting of the conceptual tools to gain a framework toward which we can incorporate what is still worthwhile in Foucault and Deleuze…. lots of work.

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    • If anything else I’m seeing more and more this huge rapport between Foucault and Deleuze, a complementarity in their respective investigations that I did not notice before. More and more the two seem to interact on multiple planes … I think even their interviews with each other prove that out. I keep thinking there must be a study out there that weaves the traces between these two powerful philosophers.

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  2. On the link between Foucault and Deleuze, I think you may want to have a look at some work that gets dubbed “post-anarchism”, especially Todd May’s 1994 ‘The politics of post-structuralist anarchism’. This is not so much an exploration of the similitude of these thinkers as it is a way to situate their projects.

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  3. A couple of book suggestions: have you read Deleuze’s work that deals with Foucault directly? To my mind, its the best work that illustrates just how much Deleuze and Foucault’s separate works conjoin and on what levels this occurs on (Foucault, in the footnotes of Discipline and Punish, says that Anti-Oedipus was the bedrock on which his work was built; an etching of how this exactly happens would be illuminating, I think, but I digress…) Also incredibly worthwhile is Baudrillard’s “Forget Foucault,” which tackles simultaneously Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard; the edition that is coupled with Sylvere Lotringer’s “Forget Baudrillard,” where he illustrates the true monstrosity of Baudrillard’s theoretical approach, in that he is “more Foucauldian than Foucault,” “more Deleuzeguattarian than Deleuze and Guattari.”

    As for the history and logic of the Control Society, Johnston’s “The Allure of the Machinic Life” is worthwhile, as is any of Foucault’s lecture series (“Birth of Biopolitics”, “Society Must Be Defended”, etc), which is where he first starts to take transnational neoliberalism as a society of control seriously. Also, there’s the info straight from the horse’s mouth: works like Samuel Huntington’s Trilaterial Commission report “The Crisis of Democracy” and Fukuyama’s “End of History,” which both just how Hegelian dialectic can be used not for revolutionary means but to usher in the control society, and also how what Baudrillard is saying can be turned into a celebration.

    I think I have some pdf links for a lot of these books, if you would be interested.

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    • great.. sure, more the merrier… haah, I’ll be busy on this project, but at least there is a basic finite historical horizon for it, and a limiting set of concepts to work with and on… Yea, I read Foucault for years, but have only lately begun to go back and reread him along with Deleuze. Focus, focus, focus… I have to hone in… I have a tendency to wander off on tangents at times, then come back around… 🙂

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    • Yea, read John Johnston’s book back when it came out! Of course the others have been in that bucket of secondary stuff.. read bits and pieces of both… been a while… as for joy, no not joy, but the painful application of the truth that needs to be marked…

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  4. Pingback: The Fourth Revolution: Technology, Capitalism, and the Eclipse of the Human | noir realism

  5. Pingback: Slavoj Zizek: Another World is Possible | noir realism

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