Using the work of Maurizio Lazzarato to understand subjection in the contemporary British university

Previously on this blog (here), I provided an account of Maurizio Lazzarato’s elegant, concise and persuasive book on debt. What I’d like to do here is take some of the main insights from two later works, Governing by Debt (Semiotext(e) / MIT, 2015) and Signs and Machines (Semiotexte, 2014) and show how they can help us understand governmentality and subjection in the contemporary British University. I give a developed account of the two works in a forthcoming piece in SubStance, the North American journal of theory and criticism, so what I am doing here is necessarily and deliberately partial, an application of knowledge to a specific context rather than a rounded explanation. There has been a great deal of insightful analysis of the neo-liberal university. I feel, nonetheless, that Lazzarato’s work can help open up some productive new lines of inquiry. 

Lazzarato draws on a range of thinkers to develop his own work. However, those he comes back to most consistently are Foucault, on the one hand, and Deleuze and Guattari, on the other. Put (over) simply, one might say that Lazzarato uses the work of the latter pair to update the former’s account of neo-liberal governance and its production of subjectivities, as expressed most notably in his famous Collège de France lectures on bio-politics. Put equally simply, one might note that Lazzarato’s major critique of Foucault is rooted in what he sees as the latter’s over sanguine account of neo-liberalism. While Foucault discusses neo-liberalism’s indirect action (its action on apparently free actions) as forms of incitement, solicitation or facilitation, Lazzarato adds in terms such as prohibition, command and normalization: but Foucault was writing about neo-liberalism in its earlier phase when an authoritarian drift, increasingly apparent in our age of austerity, was less in evidence. In a similar way, Foucault, as Lazzarato sees it, misread the way neo-liberalism seemed to offer a weakening of or even a freeing from the state’s governmental power. As Lazzarato underscores, rather than dissolving the state, neo-liberalism inhabits and transforms it, using it to drive a weakening or privatization of welfare systems and to ensure both the continued operation of a crisis-ridden financial system and the transfer of the debt burden from the banks to the citizenry.  All this is perhaps relatively familiar territory but nonetheless provides an essential context for other, more original elements of the argument.

On the latter score, Lazzarato suggests, especially in Signs and Machines, that a whole range of critical thinkers (Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Judith Butler) over-concentrate on subject formation and the linguistic and neglect the machinic and the non-linguistic dimensions of contemporary subjection. With its clear debt to Deleuze and Guattari, the concept of the machinic evokes not simply technology but the way humans and technical machines are drawn together into complex, functional assemblages. Thus, for example, the car (or automobile) involves the coming together of the human body and electrical, electronic and mechanical systems and components (not to mention the hardware and the codes of the road) in order to function. And, most of the time, it does not need our full engagement as subjects. Aided by part of our attention, our foot or our hand knows what to do. It is this combination of the mechanical with elements of the human body or attention that Lazzarato labels machinic enslavement. The concept has obvious applications to a factory environment (with its incorporation of mindless gestures and human cogs (‘hands’) into the production process) but also applies more generally to contemporary work environments and to the broader ways in which capitalism puts fragments of our attention, emotions and behavior to work (as consumers, viewers etc.). Although the modern world constantly subjects us to this kind of pre-, sub-, or trans-individual enslavement, it also needs us as apparently self-contained individual subjects: subjects whose sense of self can be appealed to by consumption, who can fulfil specific functions, be rewarded, own property, and be made to pay and feel guilt for debts. Neo-liberalism, Lazzarato notes, has driven both forms of subjection to new levels: we function as atomized, fetishized, culpable individuals as never before, even while more and more areas of our activity are opened up to exploitation by machinic assemblages by the ever greater intersection of digital technologies with our working and everyday lives.

The notion of asignifying semiotics is drawn from Guattari’s tri-partite account of the semiotic and the way he distinguishes between symbolic forms (music, dance etc.), the linguistic (or signifying semiotics) and asignifying (non-linguistic)  semiotics in the form of graphs, charts, production schedules, plans, diagrams, and so on. The latter has clearly been with us for a very considerable time, organizing our activities, shaping production and our social and physical environment.  More recently, however, with the rise of computers, the digital, and big data it has taken on a new and all-pervasive force even though it often passes unnoticed, precisely because it lies outside the realm of the linguistic and the cognitive. Globalised capitalism clearly could not function without it: it is only because the whole range of human activities can be measured, cut up, digitized, translated into figures, transmitted and reassembled that the capture apparatuses of neo-liberalism can work. And, of course, the financial markets, with their data, their prices, their fluctuating graphs and share yields could not function without the same asignifying semiotics. Clearly, the signifying semiotics of language still has its role to play, not least in its capacity to individualize (I, you, he or she), to assign social roles and places (boss, worker, man, woman), to ground property relations (mine, yours), and to create representations about how the world works and who deserves which level of reward.  But it is asignifying semiotics that play the leading role in the contemporary order, the ultimate measure of a nation’s worth being provided, as we know, by the financial markets, the ultimate gauge of a company’s value being decided by the stock exchange, and investment and disinvestment decisions being driven by percentage rates of return.

So, what, if anything, does this discussion of subjectivity and machinic enslavement, of signifying and asignifying semiotics, have to do with contemporary British universities? A few years ago, one might have said ‘not much’, the university seeming to be the heartland of the cognitive and the linguistic, of high-level critical thought, scholarly discussion and sophisticated linguistic interchange. But now, with the rise of league tables, the National Student Satisfaction Survey and numerous other metrics, there has clearly been a paradigm shift that very much fits what Lazzarato describes and which, precisely because of its machinic and non-linguistic character, has a high capacity to resist the grasp of the academic’s traditional tools of analysis. The change can be traced in the area of teaching and assessment as well as in that of research.

In teaching, the beginning of the change was probably signaled by the rise in the culture of outcomes and of transferable skills whereby the qualitative and uncountable skills and knowledges more tied to specific disciplines, and the unpredictable yet precious moments of meaningful classroom interchange were slowly but inexorably devalued by the rise of the (apparently) measurable, countable and marketable. But the change accelerated sharply with the dramatic increase in fees and the intensified commodification of higher education and accompanying rise in internal and external measures of customer (student) satisfaction and the organization of the latter into league tables. All this is well enough known but what is perhaps insufficiently discussed, and what Lazzarato’s work illuminates, is the way in which students and lecturing staff are exposed to two very different forms of subjection.

Let us begin by considering students. On the one hand, they are empowered, pampered and highly individualized consumerist subjects whose judgements on a module, course, or university are fetishized. On the other hand, through a process of machinic enslavement, the same students’ affects and judgements are sliced up, standardized, packaged and repackaged to produce evaluations and rankings, of modules, courses and universities, in which located, individual voices give way to the anonymity and mobility of data. In these processes, the different forms of semiosis described by Lazzarato play their contrasting and complementary roles: on the one hand, the signifying semiotics of language confirms the students in their role as individualized subjects (‘your course’, ‘your students’ union’, ‘your library’, ‘your student experience’, ‘your feedback’); on the other, the asignifying semiotics of computer code, of data and of tables works to provide the local and national comparisons which the ‘free’ (but oh, how so manufactured) market in education requires.  And, of course, just as Lazzarato notes, the semiotics which very definitely has the upper hand here is the asignifying semiotics of data, statistics and league tables. Ultimately, the most important role of the signifying semiotics of language is to persuade the students how valued they are as individuals in order to drive up the satisfaction statistics. The data rule.

If we temporarily bracket the question of debt, this situation might seem to promise some form of empowerment for students, as long as they buy into their shrunken, consumerist role. For lecturers, in their roles as teachers and researchers, and module, subject and course leaders, it is overwhelmingly disempowering. Little if any of what used to be the core of their professional identity comes intact out of the current transformation. Individually and collectively, lecturers are subjected to the same kind of machinic enslavement as the students, their work, torn apart, digitized and reassembled as rankings, scores and targets. Their roles as educators, evaluators, critical thinkers, curriculum designers and pastoral carers are subordinated to the institutional imperative to produce ever improving data sets: data for student satisfaction; data for employability; data for student results. It is not just that the drive to improved figures puts increasing strain on educational integrity and academic professionalism, although it certainly does that. It is that the very core of what a meaningful education might be about – the cognitive mastery of critical concepts, the critical deployment of language – is subordinated to the asignifying semiotics (in Lazzarato’s Guattari inspired terminology) of digitized information. This is not to say that lecturers are no longer addressed as subjects. There is a whole machinery of individualized appraisal, target setting and performance management that does precisely that. But what is built into the way in which individualized subjects are asked to account for themselves, their past performance and their future plans, is precisely the subordination of the cognitive and the signifying to the data: you are only as good as your last set of grades, your last satisfaction survey figure or the number of your students in professional and managerial employment six months after graduation; and where you have been deemed inadequate, it is only when your plans promise to produce a measurable improvement in the data that they will be signed off.  And you can argue with this as much as you like, bringing all your discursive expertise to bear to prove how wrong it all is, but in a world in which the data, expressed in terms of figures or even, more humiliatingly, as different coloured traffic lights, rules, your words always lack any real purchase.

The same or very similar processes of subjection and machinic enslavement apply to research, as we all know. On the one hand, research seems to rely upon and even fetishize the individual researcher and the signifying semiotics of language, with a whole machinery of authorship, copyright and institutional recognition attributing ownership and according rewards to named persons. On the other, research outputs, income and environments are sliced up, standardized, rated, digitized and reassembled into league tables of different sorts all with very real material consequences. And, again, it is clearly the asignifying semiotics of the data, income statistics and tables that has the upper hand not least because its reach is much wider and much more powerful. While each article, paper or book is tied to a particular field and speaks to a relative few, the league tables and ratings allow for intra-institutional, national and international comparisons. When individuals are appraised, rewarded or penalized or when institutions make judgements on the viability of research units or departments, it is the statistics and rankings that have the final decision.

If we now bring student debt back into the picture, we can see some very similar mechanisms at work. As Lazzarato notes in Governing by Debt, the indebted student is exposed to machinery of both subjectivation and machinic enslavement. In order for debt to manage behaviours, a specific sum has to be attached to a particular individualized subject who has to plan his or her education and future career in such a way that he or she will be able to repay what she or he owes. As Lazzarato noted in his earlier The Making of the Indebted Man, debt forces people to produce themselves as reliable, calculating individuals who will behave in such a way as to guarantee future reimbursement of their debt. In this way, debt works not simply to constrain the present but also to govern future behaviours. At the same time, however, and following a very different, de-individualizing logic, student debt (prime or sub-prime) is carved up, repackaged and sold on, entering into balance sheets and calculations of future financial rent. Students are machinic cogs as well as indebted subjects.

For Lazzarato, the current crisis of neo-liberal capitalism resides as much as anything else in its inability to generate subjectivities in some sort of positive conformity with the concatenation of flows off which it profits. In its earlier days, at the time when Foucault was writing his bio-politics lectures, neo-liberalism’s ideal subject was the entrepreneur of the self, the acquisitive, dynamic, calculating figure who saw each aspect of his or her life as a good or bad investment decision. The contemporary British higher education system still seeks to mobilize this figure. Cast in an entrepreneurial role, the student is told that he or she is investing in his or her future. Departments and faculties are asked to make business plans that will enable them to outstrip their ‘competitor set.’ Individual academics are expected to bid for the time that they need to develop high quality outputs or write successful grant applications. Yet, this positively framed entrepreneurialism is constantly over-written by more negative subjectivities: the heavily indebted student; the lecturer whose students haven’t had their feedback quite quickly enough; the academic who, in an economy of scarcity, struggles to bring in grant income despite the enormous pressure on him or her to do so; the department or faculty whose employability figures are not high enough or whose students’ future incomes will not pay off enough of their debt. Under these conditions, the academic entrepreneur of the self mutates into a far more negative figure, one still cast as responsible, but responsible now for his or her debts, his or her investment in the right or wrong academic course, her or his failure to compete for external income, please students or design impossibly attractive courses. Despite all their refurbished or newly built buildings, their new, brightly coloured furnishings, and their newly themed, customer friendly environments, all carefully designed for the production of positive feelings, universities are part of a machinery that mass produces negative affects, machinic subjection and constrained, unhappy subjectivities.  Reading Lazzarato may not cheer us up. But it certainly helps us look at our situation with more informed eyes.

So, where does this leave us? Lazzarato is anything but a nostalgic. Part of his argument refers to the way in which, through its fragmentation and reassembly of human elements, machinic enslavement helps us see beyond current subjectivities, no matter how much we might be tempted to cling to them. But part of his argument is also about more positive ways we might move forward. In Governing by Debt, he returns to the idea of the strike, underscoring its ability to suspend existing hierarchies, on the one hand, and to open up space for ‘lazy action,’ a time for thought, debate, and discussion, on the other. The invitation here is clearly not to return to a traditionally framed understanding of the labour strike but to think what the strike might mean at a time when more and more aspects of our lives and everyday behaviours have been put to work by capital. Complementing this discussion of the strike, with its necessarily collective dimension, Signs and Machines looks to Foucault’s concept of ‘care of the self’ to discuss what can be done by individuals. The invitation here is clearly to consider the extent to which, whether as fetishized individuals or machinic cogs, we are stitched into a system that is also stitched into us. While it is urgent to open up ‘lazy’ space and time for collective deliberation, it is also urgent that we probe ourselves and our deliberate or inadvertent connivance with our subjection. Where better to start than the university?


Martin O’Shaughnessy

This entry was posted in Crisis and the university, debt in theory and culture, The politics of crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Using the work of Maurizio Lazzarato to understand subjection in the contemporary British university

  1. Pingback: Lazzarato and the governmental power of debt: La Fabrique de l’homme endetté or The Making of Indebted Man | La France et la Crise

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