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Maurizio Lazzarato: The Production of Subjectivity
The Production of Subjectivity
(p. 165 – 174)

The endless array of merchandise

Maurizio Lazzarato

The Production of Subjectivity

PDF, 10 pages


In contemporary capitalism, subjectivity is the product of a mass industry organized on a global level. For Félix Guattari this is actually the first and most important of capitalist productions, because it preconditions and is part of production in all other forms of merchandise. Subjectivity is a ‘key merchandise,’ which in its ‘nature’ is put together, developed and manufactured in the same way as a car, electricity, or a washing machine. Capitalism organizes the production and control of subjectivity through two different systems, which weave together the manufacture of the individuated subject (“social subjection”) and what seems to be the opposite, de-subjectification (“machinic enslavement”). Therefore capitalism exercises a twofold hold over subjectivity.

Social subjection involves techniques of government, which pass by way of, and mobilize, representation (political and linguistic), areas of knowledge, discursive visual practices, etc., and produce ‘subjects of rights,’ ‘political subjects,’ in short: ‘subjects’ of ‘I’s,’ of individuals. By producing us as individuated subjects, social subjection assigns an identity to us, a sex, a profession, a nationality, and so on. It is a signifying and representative semiotic trap which no one escapes. In contemporary capitalism, these processes and techniques find their realization in the “human capital” which makes each one of us a subject responsible for and guilty of his own actions and patterns of behaviour. The ‘free subject’ – in the sense of ‘delivered’ from all personal subordination – is realized in the figure of the self-entrepreneur and in the figure of the consumer who, in an entirely sovereign manner, chooses from an endless array of merchandise.

Machinic enslavement, on the other hand, refers to non-representative, operational and diagrammatic techniques, which explore partial, modular and sub-individual subjectivities. This enslavement works and produces what Gilles Deleuze calls the “dividual.” Capitalism is the permanent reconstruction of such a state of enslavement in which people function similar to mechanical pieces, by forming components and ‘human’ elements of mechanization. For companies specializing in social networks (Facebook) and search engines (Google), for polling institutes, for databanks, for market studies, for marketing firms and so on, humans are not perceived as a ‘subject,’ but rather as a source of exchange and information processing. Human functions, like those of technical elements, are restricted to making the machine work, providing it with the raw material of information. Representations, psychology, consciousness, inwardness, etc. are, in principle, not required. Social subjection functions on the basis of the subject/object dualism, while machinic enslavement makes no distinction between organism and machine, subject and object, humans and technology.

Humankind’s relation to the machine is radically different in the two cases: In social subjection, what is involved is a relation of use and action. The machine is at once an external object to which the human being relates as an ‘acting’ subject (worker or user) and a medium between two subjects. In machinic enslavement the human being and the machine are joined in a mutual, inner communication.

These concepts of social subjection and machinic enslavement, of simultaneous subjectification and de-subjectification enable us in their combination to enrich and enlarge, and even alter Foucault’s concept of bio-power. The concept and practices of political governmentality Foucault writes about change considerably because, in order to exercise their influence, they must be established where subjection and enslavement overlap.

The Paroxysm of Individualization

Contemporary capitalism pushes both social subjection and machinic enslavement to the limit in such a way that we are at one and the same time subjected to this twofold relation of power. Neo-liberalism has a particular way of bending the relation to self (the production of the subject, of the individual) by pushing it to its paroxysm. It is evident, in an exemplary way, in “human capital” (the “self-entrepreneur”), the culmination of social subjection. As in contemporary capitalism the human itself is rendered as capital, it exacerbates individualism at the same time as it imposes the appraisal and measurement of it, based on the logic of profit and loss, supply and demand, investment (in training, individual insurances, etc.) and profitability.

Already post-Fordist organization endlessly solicits the individual who, based on his/her ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy,’ must continually arbitrate not only between external situations, but also exist in discord with him/herself. The independent, freelance worker, whose model is imported into the wage earners’ world, functions like an individual enterprise and he/she is forever involved in negotiating between his economic ‘ego’ and ‘superego,’ precisely because he/she is responsible for his/her own fate (“Am I going to work or am I going to have a holiday? Shall I plug in the telephone and make myself available for any request, or shall I cut all communication and make myself unavailable?” etc.). The individual who is isolated specifically by his/her very ‘freedom’ is not only in competition with others but also in competition with him/herself. This ongoing negotiation with oneself is the specific method of subjectification and control peculiar to neo-liberal societies: As in the Fordist system, the norm remains external, it is invariably produced by the socio-economic system, but it comes across as if the individual him/herself were its source, as if it came from the subject himself. Order and command must give the impression of coming from the individual him/herself, because “it’s you who are in command!,” because “you’re your own boss!,” because “you’re your own manager!.” Contemporary social subjection subjects the individual to an ‘infinite’ evaluation, making the ‘subject’ his primary judge. It is only the order to be a subject, to give yourself orders, to be permanently negotiating with yourself, to obey yourself, that carries individualism to its completion.

Frustration, resentment, guilt and fear are the ‘passions’ of the self-relation to the neo-liberal subject, because the promises of self-realization, of freedom and autonomy clash with a reality which systematically denies them. The current failure of capitalism is not as resounding as it might be, because individualism neutralizes it by the internalization of the conflict, in which the ‘enemy’ becomes confounded with a part of oneself. The tendency is to turn the ‘complaint’ against oneself, instead of relating it to the relations of power surrounding us, whence guilt, guilty conscience, loneliness, and resentment. The full ‘sovereignty’ of the individual, because it is he/she who chooses, because it is he/she who decides, because it is he/she who is in command, agrees with his full and complete alienation. Unlike neurosis, pathology of a bygone capitalism, the ‘sickness’ of the 21st century is evident in depression: an inability to act, an inability to decide, an inability to undertake projects: a passive and individual resistance to general mobilization, to the order to be active, to having projects, and being involved.

Dividuals and the New Form of Enslavement

Neo-liberal capitalism pushes to the limit not only subjectification, but de-subjectification, too. The nature and functions of machinic enslavement, which manufactures, controls and governs our patterns of behaviour by the action on the pre-individual components of our subjectivity and the elementary components of our body, closely relate to what is missing in critical theory: the concept of machine. In order to introduce the concept of the dividual and the techniques governing it, we must therefore first see what machines have become in contemporary capitalism. The post-Fordist era is hallmarked by a massive intensification of investments in machines, which do not solely have to do with ‘production.’ Our most ‘human’ acts (talking, seeing, hearing, reproducing ourselves as a species, feeling, affecting and being affected, etc.) are unthinkable nowadays without the contribution of machines. If capitalists can talk of “human capital” in a second sense, it is because nothing of what is ‘human’ escapes machinic enslavement today, techno-semiotic dispositifs, scientific laboratories, and the industries which make use of their findings. We are all perceived as ‘human capital’ because, across the board, we all constitute components, ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ of techno-semiotic networks, even, and above all, when jobless, on a training course, or retired.

We can call those investments in constant ‘social’ capital huge investments in ‘machines,’ whose scale cannot be compared with those of industrial capitalism. The broadening of the Marxian concept of constant capital finds its justification in the appearance of technical means which correspond to the generalized decoding of flows, the dissolution of boundaries of social and technical relations, which is specifically characteristic of post-Fordism. The computer is in this sense an instant and generalized decoding machine, which establishes, structures and organizes not only production flows, but also flows of communication, images, writing, consumption, etc., traversing and reconfiguring methods of perception, attention, sensation, vision, and thinking. The capillary diffusion of the constant ‘social’ capital has created the conditions of a new way of machinic enslavement.

Capital is a Semiotic Operator

The post-Fordist era is hallmarked not only by the de-territorialisation of technologies, but also by the decoding of signs themselves (and in particular the signs of language). Signs are no longer caught in the signifier/signified dualism, but act as ‘sign-points,’ ‘signs of power,’ ‘a-signifying signs’ and ‘operational signs’ having a direct effect on material flows of capital. Currency, stock exchange rates and the spread, or also algorithms, equations and scientific formulae are all semiotics which make the capitalist social machine function with regard to both the promotion and the production of subjectivity, without proceeding by way of social representation and consciousness. A-signifying semiotics, like, for instance, currency, can involve systems of signs with a signifying effect, but their own way of functioning does not refer to signification. Having crossed a new threshold of de-territorialisation, like the machines which they make work, signs subordinate language to the a-signifying semiotics of science and economics. The effectiveness of language lies henceforth in its capacity to make arrangements with the semiotics of currency, financial semiotics, algorithms, the ‘languages’ of computers, and the like.

In the early 1970s, a poet, who was a subtle connoisseur of language, announced that we had entered “a period of history in which verbal language is completely conventional and empty (technicized) and the language of behaviour (physical and mimical) has a decisive importance.” Our culture is expressed above all today by this latter, “plus a certain amount – completely conventional and extremely poor – of verbal language.” Contrary to what the supporters of the linguistic turn and the Lacanians think, language does not play a central part in post-Fordist capitalism. Neither strategies of production nor of communication and consumption, act on subjectivity firstly and exclusively through words. “The frenzy of consumption is the frenzy of an obedience to a non-declared order.” Non-declared linguistically, but through many other semiotics which, without passing through ‘expressed ideas’ or ‘consciously conveyed values,’ act directly on the ‘existential,’ the ‘lived.’ The ideological bombardment, even in a ‘spoken’ medium like television, does not pass by way of words, “it is altogether in the things, quite indirectly.” Such a physical-mimical system of signs is used first and foremost by advertising, whose effectiveness derives not from its ‘ideological and discursive strength,’ but from its capacity to draw from and cling to the semiotics of the world (the “language of things,” to use Pasolini’s words). Guattari, in his turn, emphasizes that

… children and adolescents do not learn their future development, at least in any pre-ponderant way, in terms of signifying discourse. They have recourse to what I call a-signifying forms of discursiveness: music, clothes, bodies, patterns of behaviour as signs of recognition, and they also have recourse to mechanical systems of every kind.

A subjective fact is invariably engendered by an arrangement of multiple and heterogeneous semiotic levels, but in enslavement, linguistic semiotics lose the pride of place that was assigned to them by structuralism.

The Dividual as De-territorialisation of the Individual

The de-territorialisation of technologies (and signs) described above and their diffusion as constant ‘social’ capital determines a new machinic enslavement, which unravels the pair represented by individuals/mass of disciplinary societies. In societies of control, individuals have become dividuals and the masses have become samples, data, markets and banks, as Deleuze has argued. The dividual is a result of the de-territorialisation of the individual, while databanks, samples, market surveys and so on constitute the forms of his ‘collective’ existence. This dividual coincides with a specific type of governmentality, which forces us to confront the Foucauldian concepts of “bio-politics” and “bio-power” with a techno-semiotic production of subjectivities. If the individual, as the word indicates, is indivisible, because, within a synthesis, within a ‘whole’ (the I), he/she contains the partial, modular and pre-individual subjectivities, which form him, the dividual, by unravelling the synthesis of the subject, is infinitely divisible, which means infinitely composable and thus infinitely ‘manageable.’ De-territorialisation breaks the individual down into his components, the way science dislocates matter into its chemical and atomic parts, assigning them to their specific functions and potentials. The governmentality of machinic enslavement is exercised not on subjectivity as unit or synthesis, but on the human and non-human vectors of subjectification which run through it, and on the somatic, biological, chemical, genetic and neuronal components which form the body. De-territorialisation produces a new plasticity of psychic and corporal subjectivity, a new and excruciating capacity of intervention in the ‘body’ and the ‘soul.’ Tearing to pieces the ‘whole’ that contained the partial and modular subjectivities, the host of vectors of subjectification is at once freed from the grip of the individuated subject, and captured, subordinated. It becomes a tool of the industries of communication and consumption, but also the pharmaceutical, drugs, sex etc.

The pre-individual vectors of subjectification emit ‘information,’ ‘signals’ which are meaningful to consumer and communication companies. The media and the cultural industries act on the ‘modules’ of subjectivity, while other huge industrial combines, using scientific research and technological innovations, have an effect on the chemical, genetic and neuronal elements of the body. The de-territorialisation of the individual provides the basic factors for reconstructing not of new ‘subjects,’ but of consumers, voters and communicators, to manufacture sexual identities, patterns of behaviour, conventional conduct and new corporalities.

Michel Foucault proposes a definition of the subjectivity of the Homo Oeconomicus, taken from the neo-liberal economist Gary Becker, which in some ways overlaps with that of the dividual. The neo-liberal Homo Oeconomicus, the ‘human capital,’ is radically different from the classic Homo Oeconomicus, because he is no longer an ‘atom of freedom,’ he is no longer indivisible, an intangible partner of laissez-faire. Like the dividual, he is now infinitely divisible into his partial and modular subjectivities and into his many different pre-individual vectors of subjectification. He is thus rendered ‘governable’ and eminently guidable. Fitted into an “environment,” his conventional conduct consists of responding to the variations artificially introduced into the “environment,” in such a way that it now appears like “the correlative of a governmentality which will act on the environment and systematically alter the environment’s variables.” These ‘environmental’ technologies, like machinic enslavement, do not produce a new interiorization. According to Foucault, security-conscious governmental intervention is not of the “inner enslavement” type. Instead of having a direct bearing on the individual, it acts on the “environment” insomuch as it defines around the individual a framework that is wide enough for him to be able to ‘play.’

Unlike the disciplinary societies, this new governmentality is exercised in an open space and in a non-chronological time-frame, because it will “try to set up an environment on the basis of events or series of events or possible factors.” Governmentality refers to the “temporal and the random” and its security-conscious techniques are preventive and anticipatory (even simulative) of what will come to pass. A final observation from Foucault seems to me to be especially significant here. This new divisible Homo Oeconomicus, who has no ‘inwardness,’ constitutes an “interface between the individual and power,” he functions like an interface between subjectivities and governmentality. “Which does not mean that the subject in his entirety is regarded as Homo Oeconomicus,” but just that certain modular components of subjectivity are mobilized to these ends. Power does not act directly on the individual, but on the interfaces which, in their turn, have effects on the processes which constitute subjectivity.

These different interfaces produced by polls, by audience ratings, by surveys about ‘tastes’ and ‘opinions,’ the ‘profiles’ constructed by the companies which manage social networks and major databanks (Big Data), the models of behaviour conveyed by advertising, and subjective prototypes all form the phantasmagoria of the techniques of governmentality, which are added to the modern nation state and complement it. At the same time as the ‘contact surfaces’ engage the subjectivity of the individuals in many different ways and literally cause them to float, they also translate subjective patterns of conduct into flows of signs and information which are needed by capitalist axiomatics and capitalist power in order to ground their promotion, their control, and their domination.

The interfaces are thus at once dispositifs of incitation and continuous solicitations of subjectivity (social subjection) and instruments of indexation, evaluation and measurement of the divisible parts of this same subjectivity and its machinic enslavement. To put it differently, economic promotion and the production of subjectivity go hand in hand and pass by way of the same dispositifs.

The Matter of Bodies

It is perhaps in relation to the body that we can most clearly grasp the changes that are occurring in governmentality and its techniques. Guattari had already warned us that it was not at all evident that we have a body, or that an individual body, a ‘natural’ body, exists at all. On the contrary, the body is manufactured, and attributed to us. We are assigned to a body capable of developing in a social, productive and domestic space. There are other anthropological systems, which are not acquainted with such a ‘natural’ body, an individual body. In archaic societies, the body is invariably the subset of a social body, ‘produced’ by brands, tattoos, inscriptions, initiatory signs, etc. This body does not have individuated organs and it is itself traversed by souls and spirits, which belong to the whole of the collective arrangement.

One of the great phases of initiation in the capitalistic flows consists in the internalization of the ‘natural’ body, the individuated body, already organized in the dualisms of male and female, soul and body, individual and collective. The production of subjectivity proceeds by way of work on the body (“the body first,” said Nietzsche, “the rest will follow”). We can find their functioning of social subjection and machinic enslavement in the pharmaco-pornographical capitalism described in a most incisive way by Beatriz Preciado. In the manufacture of sex, ‘genus’ and sexual identity, the intervention on the body is produced where these two systems overlap in such a way that governmentality is exercised both on the individual and on the dividual.

As we have learned from Foucault, social subjection intervenes on the body through techniques of disciplinary organization of time and space, and through laws, specialized areas of knowledge, norms, linguistic and visual semiotics, and an educational system. But this type of power relation does not exhaust the methods of action and control over the body, as Preciado has demonstrated. What the state and private companies mobilize at the same time is a kind of ‘material production of genus,’ through the use of what is most abstract and most de-territorialized: the equations of science, the ‘power-signs’ of chemistry, the ‘particle-points’ of the neuro-sciences, molecular biology and genetics acting directly on the body without passing by way of representation or consciousness. Machinic enslavement organizes a normalization that does not pass by way of the externalized norm, but through the operation of chemical, genetic and neuronal programs or diagrams, through the influence of synthetic molecules on natural molecules, of synthetic hormones on natural hormones. What is quite literally involved is a ‘molecular’ power that is ‘endocrinological and high-tech’ power, which goes beyond the representational, discursive and molar techniques acting on the individual/subject. Social control is exercised by passing through the body, but via its reconstructed ‘inside’ (by swallowing pills one swallows power, Preciado would say). Through the massive administration of synthetic hormones (oestrogens) to women’s bodies, ‘pure femininity’ is produced and reproduced, just as the same hormones, exuded through the urine of women taking the pill pass through the filter of treatment plants and end up in the waters of rivers, causing a feminization of fish (male fish starting to produce eggs in their testicles).

The force of capitalism thus lies less in the performative, the symbolic, words and techniques common to every form of power, than in these operational ‘diagrammatic’ operational forms of action which do not pass by way of consciousness or representation. Our body is marked by these power-signs, these a-signifying signs that are those of the pharmaceutical and genetic industries, products of research and laboratories. Here we are not dealing with the ‘subject’ but with its sub-individual components – ‘biological,’ chemical and atomic – with a view to putting together a new ‘body’ and a new ‘subject,’ based on the requirements of the production and reproduction of capital. Machinic enslavement defines a subject that is no longer exclusively reflexive and conscious, no product of ‘inter-subjectivity.’

As Preciado points out, the Freudian archaeology of the ‘I’ is confronted with a new hormonal, electro-chemical, mediatic and totally connected subject. The subjectivities of contemporary capitalism in this sense “toxico-pornographic” (cue Prozac, cue cannabis, cue alcohol, cue Viagra, cue cortisone, etc.), the late discovery of the humanism of the “anthropocentric model” of action of man through man by the economists of the school of regulation, subsequently taken up by the theoreticians of “cognitive capitalism,” is in this regard on an altogether different wavelength in relation to the functioning of these dispositifs of power. The human is literally dependent on the great pharmaceutical industries, an appendage of the enormous collective facilities of the welfare state, product of massive investments in science and technology. If we add to this reality the relations with techno-semiotic machines which we use day, in day out in the most commonplace of activities, it is not necessary to refer to science fiction in order to understand that the human modalities of action cannot be scaled down to inter-subjective relations (people who act on other people). The end purpose of the enslavements of pharmaco-pornographic capitalism (defined simultaneously by the production and consumption of drugs – legal or illegal –, the production of medication, and the production, circulation and consumption of pornographic audiovisual materials and sex work) is less to satisfy or procure pleasure than to “setting in motion the somatic mechanism that regulates the excitation-frustration-excitation cycle” and, through the “production of mental and psychosomatic states,” wield control over subjectivity. The “excitation-frustration-excitation” cycle is another way of introducing the infinite into the economy. Frustrating-excitation provides the subjective dynamic of the infinite promotion of capital-money (A – A’). The worker, the consumer and the communicator are continually caught in this cycle, which is forever starting over again. The infiniteness of production, of consumption, of debt as dispositifs for achieving the infiniteness of promotion all relaunch each other until the “total destruction of the eco-system.” Something is always missing for the human living under capitalism, and this lack cannot be satisfied, because it is the fuel of the machinery. The real production of the excitation-frustration cycle is the lack, the infinite lack.

Pharmacology and pornography and their semiotics, which cannot be attributed back to language, embed themselves deeply into our social relations. Pornography lies at the root of the mainstream production of imagery and in particular of advertising. It is impossible to sell a pot of yoghurt, a car, a perfume, etc. without enticing the consumer through the display of the ‘exciting’ image of a woman, an image that in reality is dull, stereotyped, harmonized and standardized. ‘Creative’ advertising people are the real pimps in our society. The offence of soliciting should be applied not to prostitutes, but to advertising companies and agencies, across the board. Neo-liberal societies are ‘doped’ societies. The hypocrisy of the fight against drugs in sport and the use of illegal drugs is equally excessive as is their widespread availability throughout society. Not only does the money from the drug trade fuel the way tax havens like the City of London operate. The entire economy and social functioning are unthinkable today without these ‘additives’ that people want to ban for athletes.

The relation of machinic enslavement organized by pornography and drugs is not ‘inter-subjective’ or ‘inter-individual,’ because it is established between dispositifs, in which indeed human beings, too, play a role, but also technologies and their a-signifying semiotics (algorithms when computer machines are involved, scientific equations when, for example, medications are involved, along with the signs of currency when the economy is involved, and images when advertising and television are involved, and so on), which act on a divided, cracked subjectivity, at once ‘individual’ and a multiplicity, phantasmagoria of the dividuals. Social subjection and machinic enslavement are thus not the exclusive monopoly of the state. On the contrary: since the 1920s, the private management of these dispositifs has been relentlessly broadening.

In capitalism, at least since the beginning of the last century, the population is not the exclusive responsibility of the state. In a few paragraphs in Sécurité, territoire, population [Security, territory, population], Foucault develops the domain which extends from population to “public” as the area of intervention of governmentality. But if the population and its biological ‘needs’ have become diversified and enriched (especially by way of the benefits of the welfare state), what he calls “public” has grown in an exponential manner. Audiences for the press, radio, film and television have been further diversified as users of the Internet and social networks, which are no longer strictly speaking ‘public’ audiences. The ‘population’ is being continually translated, summoned and solicited in real time through samplings of audience ratings, polls, and market surveys. It is sounded out by statistics of every kind and type. Is there something more effective for conducting the behaviour of people than today’s consumption and communication techniques?

  • human-computer-system
  • algorithms
  • government technologies
  • data
  • identity
  • Post-Fordism
  • Governmentality
  • subjectivity
  • capitalism
  • subjectification

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Maurizio Lazzarato

is a Paris-based sociologist and philosopher. During the 1970s Lazzarato studied in Padua. His involvement in the workerist movement and his politically enforced move to Paris remained crucial for his theoretical work as well as for his film co-operations with the artist Angela Melitopolous. During the 1990s Lazzarato was a founding protagonist of the post-workerist discourse concerning the change towards ‘immaterial’ and ‘cognitive’ labour as a paradigm of post-Fordist Western society. His essays have been included in numerous anthologies relating to post-structuralist philosophy as well as to political and economic theory of the present.
Other texts by Maurizio Lazzarato for DIAPHANES
Kerstin Stakemeier (ed.), Susanne Witzgall (ed.): Fragile Identities

What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.