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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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Foucauldian Genealogy and Maoism

Concerning the origin and foundation of the method of genealogy in Foucault’s work, there is an astonishingly unanimous “interpretative consensus” among Foucault scholars.[1] While there is great disagreement about a vast range or many aspects of Foucault’s thought and practice, it seems that there is an almost harmonious agreement regarding the emergence of genealogy in his work. The secondary literature on Foucauldian genealogy feels obliged to repeat reverently and respectfully: in the beginning was the word of Nietzsche.

Foucault himself made no secret of his intellectual affinity to Nietzsche’s genealogical method. On the backcover of the French edition of Discipline and Punish in 1975 he posed the main question of his book in explicit Nietzschean terms by asking “could we do the genealogy of modern morality starting from a political history of the body?” [peut-on faire la généalogie de la morale moderne à partir d’une histoire politique des corps?] resonating deeply and sonorously Nietzsche’s groundbreaking Genealogy of Morality of 1887. Moreover, he confessed in what was meant to be his final interview: “I am simply Nietzschean, and I try to see, on a number of points, and to the extent that it is possible, with the aid of Nietzsche’s texts – but also with anti-Nietzschean theses (which are nevertheless Nietzschean!) – what can be done in this or that domain.”[2]

read more at the Foucault blog

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Thanasis Lagios, Foucauldian Genealogy and Maoism
20th March 2015 | 12:00 – 12:45

Conference paper, audio podcast on The Voice Republic site

Thanasis Lagios studied Philosophy, Pedagogy & Psychology (specialization: Philosophy), at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece (1998 – 2003). Having completed his postgraduate studies (MA) in Political Philosophy at the University of York (UK, 2004-5), he successfully defended his doctoral thesis at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens on “Stirner, Nietzsche, Foucault: The death of God and the end of Man” (2009), which was published by futura in 2012. He has published a Greek translation of Foucault’s 1978 interview “Considérations sur le marxisme, la phénoménelogie et le pouvoir” (futura, 2013). He has published several articles on the history of philosophy, epistemology and political philosophy. Since 2010, he has been teaching in the postgraduate program on Ethics at the Department of Philosophy, at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. Since 2013, he also teaches philosophy (epistemology/political philosophy) in the EU-sponsored program at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, “Plato’s Academy”.

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Colin Koopman, Historicizing the Critique of Power
20th March 2015 | 14:15 – 15:00

Conference paper, audio podcast on the Voice Republic site

Colin Koopman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon, where he is also 2014-15 Humanities Research Fellow and 2015-16 Wulf Professor of Humanities. He has published widely on genealogy, pragmatism, and political theory. His works on genealogy include his 2013 book Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (Indiana University Press, 2013) and articles in Critical Inquiry, Constellations, Foucault Studies, and James Faubion’s recent Foucault Now (Polity, 2014) collection.

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Michel Foucault’s Death Valley Trip
Heather Dundas
20th March 2015 | 17:30 – 18:15

Conference Paper, audio and podcast on Voice Republic

Heather Dundas is a Russell Fellow and a candidate for the Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where she is writing her dissertation on the intersection of American landscape and culture and Foucault’s later work. In addition to her critical work, Dundas is a playwright and fiction writer. Her story “House Menu” has been nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize, and her play Cannibals, described as “a comic reverie” by The New York Times, has received dozens of productions and is published by Faber and Faber. Other stories and essays have been published in PMSpoemmemoirstory, Brain, Child, The Los Angeles Times, among others.

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Naissance de la biopolitique : contextes, lectures, réceptions, disputes
Colloque de Cerisy

Podcast sur le site La forge numérique

A voir aussi France Culture plus le webcampus

Christian Laval, professeur de sociologie
laboratoire sophiapol
Date : 16/06/2015
Lieu : CCIC Cerisy
Durée : 53:17

Cette conférence a été donnée dans le cadre du colloque intitulé Foucault au Collège de France : une aventure intellectuelle et éditoriale qui s’est tenu au Centre Culturel International de Cerisy du 11 au 18 juin 2015, sous la direction de Frédéric GROS et Luca PALTRINIERI.

Les leçons de Michel Foucault au Collège de France, prononcées entre 1971 et 1984, constituent une somme théorique indépassable qui a profondément renouvelé la connaissance et la réception d’un des plus importants penseurs du XXe siècle. Au mois de mai 2015 a paru, aux éditions du Seuil / Gallimard, le volume Théories et institutions pénales, correspondant à l’année universitaire 1971-1972. Avec cette parution, un point final est mis à l’édition de ces cours mise en œuvre par François Ewald et Alessandro Fontana au milieu des années quatre-vingt-dix. Définitivement, avec cette entreprise éditoriale, une pensée de Foucault prise au vif de la parole s’est imposée sur la scène intellectuelle mondiale.
Le présent colloque entend revenir sur l’accomplissement de cette aventure intellectuelle, et surtout prendre la mesure de la diversité théorique et de l’intensité politique de ces leçons (de la pénalité à la psychiatrie, de la raison d’Etat au libéralisme, du souci de soi au courage de la vérité) en conviant un certain nombre de chercheurs, intellectuels, écrivains ou artistes à réfléchir sur ce qu’a pu représenter pour eux la redécouverte de cette parole.

Christian Laval, professeur de sociologie à l’Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, est spécialiste de l’utilitarisme et de l’œuvre de Bentham, sujets sur lesquels il a publié plusieurs ouvrages dans les années 1990. Il a publié ensuite L’homme économique (Éditions Gallimard, 2007) et une histoire de la sociologie, L’ambition sociologique (Folio, 2012). Il a écrit de nombreux articles et ouvrages sur les politiques éducatives et les transformations de l’école. Depuis 2007, il a co-écrit plusieurs ouvrages avec Pierre Dardot sur le néolibéralisme (La Nouvelle raison du monde, 2009), la pensée de Marx (Marx, prénom: Karl, 2012) et les alternatives politiques contemporaines (Commun, 2014).

Résumé de la communication

Le cours de l’année 78-79 (qui se déroule en fait de janvier à avril 79) est l’un des plus lus, et aussi l’un des plus controversés de Foucault. Il sert d’appui à tous ceux qui, pour des raisons variées, entendent faire de Michel Foucault, sinon un théoricien néolibéral avoué, du moins un sympathisant plus ou moins honteux du néolibéralisme. Nous voudrions d’abord montrer que le double contexte de production de ce cours, son actualité politique et sa place dans la recherche de Foucault, permet de faire un sort à ces imputations. Nous voudrions ensuite faire voir que le cours, aussi zigzaguant soit-il, donne du néolibéralisme comme art de gouverner une cohérence originale qui sera largement validée par son extension ultérieure. Nous voudrions enfin nous interroger sur les effets paradoxaux d’une publication qui vient plus de trente ans plus tard heurter un certain sens commun critique qui avait tendance à faire du néolibéralisme ce que Foucault considérait comme la plus grande erreur, à savoir une simple répétition du libéralisme classique. Il sera intéressant, pour conclure, de mettre en regard les interprétations foucaldiennes et bourdieusiennes du néolibéralisme.

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Prospects for an Ethics of Self-Cultivation

Introduction

Videos of this conference

‘Prospects for an Ethics of Self-Cultivation’ is a two-year research project investigating the revival of ethical self-cultivation within the European philosophical tradition.

The project will host two international conferences and workshops. The first, entitled ‘Hellenistic Ethics from Nietzsche to Foucault’, took place at the University of Warwick, UK in September 2014. The second, entitled ‘Modern Appraisals of the Hellenistic Legacy’, will be at Monash University’s campus in Prato, Italy in June 2015.

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