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Peter Miller – The Calculating Self
4 June 2011, A Conference at Birkbeck College, University of London Reflecting on 20 years of The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality

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Peter Miller – The Calculating Self

Over thirty years ago, it was said that we go in search of our selves through the genitals. Today, in contrast, we find who we are through the incessant calculations that we perform on our selves and others. This is no doubt to overstate things somewhat, but recent events in financial markets and their consequent impact on public services, combined with ongoing attempts to “modernise” public services, have given even greater prominence to the calculating self in all its manifestations.

If I can claim to have learned anything from the writings of Michel Foucault, it is the importance of exploring how ways of calculating go hand in hand with the shaping of subjectivity or forms of personhood. For some years now, along with others, I have been trying to explore how one particular set of governmental practices – which goes very roughly under the heading of accounting – has enabled the “calculated management of life” (Kurunmäki and Miller, 2006; Miller, 1994, 1998; Miller and O’Leary, 1987) . This adjustment or alignment between the accumulation and distribution of persons and their capacities on the one hand, and the accumulation and distribution of capital on the other, was at the heart of what Foucault called “bio‐power”. But, perhaps due to the long shadow cast by Marxism, this is something that has been relatively neglected by those working within and through “governmentality” (Miller and Rose, 2008; Rose and Miller, 1992).

I offer here four propositions that I have found helpful as a way of framing the sorts of questions that can be asked about this specific, albeit increasingly generalised modality of being and acting. Many (if not all) of these will be familiar to those who have been working in and around governmentality, but I want to suggest that they have a particular meaning when viewed in terms of the calculating self.

First, and in common with many other technologies of the self, to attend to the calculating self means attending to the possibilities for acting on oneself and on the actions of others. But, by abstracting from the substance of things, and by distilling substantively different kinds or classes of things into a single financial figure, a particular type of action is made possible here. It is one that allows the actions of “free” individuals to be linked, directly or indirectly, to the requirements of markets and the commensuration that they engender. The term “mediating instruments” (Miller, Kurunmäki and O’Leary, 2010; Miller and O’Leary, 2007) captures well this ability of the calculating self to carry within it at least a dual set of ideas, whether these pertain to science and the economy, or medicine and finance.

Second, a concern with the calculating self means paying attention to the particular ideas of personhood that are brought into play in all these attempts to act on the actions of others. It concerns what Nietzsche called the possibility of breeding an animal with the right to make promises, but again in a specific sense. This is not a matter of conducting investigations at the level of political theory, but within and across the lowly domain of administrative discourse and administrative science, where notions of “responsibility accounting”, “decision‐making” and much else besides have sought to impose a sort of moral constraint or template on the actions carried out under their aegis. It is here, I suggest, that we see one of the clearest forms of a type of power that presupposes rather than annuls the capacities of agents.

Third, I suggest we need to attend to the assemblages within which the calculating self operates, and the territorialisations they seek to impose. For the calculative instruments of accountancy not only transform the possibilities for personhood. They also construct the calculable spaces that individuals inhabit within firms and other organizations. Whether it is an actual physical space such as a factory floor or a hospital ward, or an abstract space such as a “division”, a “cost centre” or a “profit centre”, or even an idea such as “failure”, the calculative instruments of accountancy territorialise, and in the process reframe the objects and objectives of governing. And they do so in such a way as to link highly specific domains such as healthcare or social care with larger political categories.

Fourth, a concern with the calculating self means that we need to understand better its ability to travel. While some ideas and practices travel “light”, others appear too heavy to travel easily. Put differently, the interdependence between the instruments for the governing of conduct, and the rationalities that articulate the aims and objectives of governing, seems at times to encounter limits regarding what can be done and where (Mennicken, 2008). Standard costing, for instance, was equally at home in the very different assemblages of the Soviet Union and the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. Audit, likewise, seems today to travel effortlessly across a vast range of territories (Power, 1997). But other devices (for instance, something called accruals accounting) seem to travel less easily. This suggests that we still have much to find out about how the calculating self travels, and how this peculiarly modern form of personhood is fashioned and refashioned in historically specific assemblages.

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Progressive Geographies

Foucault-The-Birth-of-Power-coverFoucault: The Birth of Power is reviewed at LSE Review of Books by Syamala Roberts.

In Foucault: The Birth of Power, Stuart Elden outlines how the theorisation of power was the essential tool developed within Foucault’s work and political activities in the early 1970s following his return from Tunisia. Drawing on writings, interviews, lectures and unpublished or newly available manuscripts, Elden offers an indispensable read for those looking to gain further insight into Foucault as a writer, philosopher and activist, recommends Syamala Roberts. [continues here]

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