Who’s Looking At You? (2017)

Who’s Looking At You? BBC 4 podcast, 17 October 2017

Editor’s note: Apart from the Panoptic photo, not sure how much Foucault content is here, but may be of interest in the wake of Foucault’s work.

Once upon a time, total surveillance was the province of George Orwell and totalitarian states, but we now live in a world where oceans of data are gathered from us every day by the wondrous digital devices we have admitted to our homes and that we carry with us everywhere. At the same time, our governments want us to let them follow everything we do to root out evil before it can strike. If you have nothing to hide, do you really have nothing to fear?

In Who’s Looking At You , novelist and occasional futurist Nick Harkaway argues surveillance has reached a new pitch of penetration and sophistication and we need to talk about it before it’s too late.

This is our brave new world: data from pacemakers are used in criminal prosecutions as evidence, the former head of the CIA admits ‘we kill people based on meta-data,’ and scientists celebrate pulling a clear image of a face directly from a monkey’s brain.
Where does it end, and what does it mean? Surveillance used to end at our front door, now not even the brain is beyond the prying eyes of an information-hungry world. The application of big data brings many benefits and has the potential to make us wealthier, keep us healthier and ensure we are safer – but only if we the citizens are in control.
The programme uses rich archive to illustrate how the ‘watchers’ have adapted to technology that has super-charged the opportunity to snoop. It examines the arguments of those who claim the right to keep their secrets while demanding that we the people give up more and more of ours. Transparency for the masses? Or simple necessity in a chaotic technological future? What happens to us, to our choices under the all-seeing eye? One thing is certain: if we don’t make choices about surveillance, they will be made for us.


Archive: The Calculating Self (2011)

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

Backdoor Broadcasting Company. Academic podcasts

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.

Conference papers Podcasts

Fully automated episode 2: biopolitical imperialism, with Mark G.E. Kelly (2017)

Fully automated episode 2: biopolitical imperialism, with Mark G.E. Kelly


Our guest this week is Mark G. E. Kelly, an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. He is the author of The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault (2009), as well as of Biopolitical Imperialism (from Zer0 books, in 2015) and he is also working on a book called ‘For Foucault: Against Normative Political Theory’ (SUNY, expected 2018).

Kelly has weighed in a number of recent ‘Foucault’ controversies, including the question of whether Foucault was a neoliberal. In this interview, we get into that debate. But I think for most listeners, the interesting stuff will be towards the end, where Kelly talks about Biopolitical Imperialism, and addresses the conflict in Syria.

The podcast was recorded on Wednesday, April 5, 2017. In the interview, you’ll hear Kelly comment on Donald Trump’s pivot a few days previous, on Syria. Two days after the recording, on April 7, the US military launched a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield. The attack was carried out in response to a chemical weapons incident in Idlib province, perpetrated allegedly by Syrian state forces. It would be hard to imagine a stronger confirmation of Kelly’s arguments about Biopolitical Imperialism.

Podcasts Video and audio

Lebensfuhrung and veridiction: Weber, Foucault (2015)

Colin Gordon, Lebensfuhrung and veridiction: Weber, Foucault

Podcast in a series on Daoism and Capitalism

Daoism is philosophical, political and devotional movement that emerged in early China as a critique of Confucian orthodoxy. At a crucial point in the development of the critique of political economy in the 20th and 21st centuries, a diverse array of thinkers converged upon Daoism as the image of an anti-authoritarian, non-coercive, and counter-governmental alternative to state power. Bringing together experts from sociology, political theory, cultural theory, German literary studies, philosophy, and Jewish studies to examine the composite image of ancient and modern China in contemporary political economy, this event engages with a little known, but geopolitically consequential lynchpin in the work of Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, and their interpreters. Exploring their interconnections and ramifications for the first time, the lectures grapple with how Daoism is integrated within the political economy of modern China, and within our understanding of political economy as a whole.

Colin Gordon is the editor and translator (with Graham Burchell and Peter Miller) of The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago UP, 1991) and Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge (Pantheon, 1980). He has written extensively on political theory and history of political thought, social and cultural theory, Foucault and Weber, governmentality, and neoliberalism, and is a contributor to numerous essay collections and journal issues on Foucault’s writings and lectures.

Podcasts Video and audio