Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Societies of Control and the Perpetual Metastability of Work

In 'Postscript on the Societies of Control', Gilles Deleuze describes the transition from societies of sovereignty (pre 18th century) to disciplinary societies (18th and 19th century) to societies of control (20th century and beyond). Deleuze posits that disciplinary societies supported the dominance of institutions (e.g. the factory, the school, the family) as 'spaces of enclosure' through which individuals passed over the span of their lives. One important element of these institutions is that they are distinct. In other words, as one moved through institutions, one would reach a defined end and then start afresh.

A major marker of societies of control, on the other hand, is that there are not neat, defined beginnings and endings. Rather, individuals are always in a state of 'perpetual metastability' (4). The focusing example that Deleuze uses, which I'd like to explore further, is the replacement of the factory with the corporation. He notes, "the corporation constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, diving each from within." (5) The important thing to note here is not that the corporation introduced competition into the workforce, but rather that competition in the modern corporation is continuous, never-ending.

Continuous competition is just one way in which the corporation produces perpetual metastability. Corporations also strive to blur the separation of the professional and the personal. For instance, Google encourages its employees to bring dogs to work, provides free transportation to and from its offices, has massage therapists on staff, and sets aside time for employees to work on 'personal' (10%) projects. This is a obviously a huge shift from work at the factory.

While I'm not in a position to say whether this new order is better or worse than the old, I'd like to reflect a bit more on how things have changed. We know that the concept of job security has eroded - few can expect to remain in the same job for an extended period of time. Rather, individuals must constantly be on the lookout for new, better opportunities that best capture the 'skills' that they've acquired through continuous education. Each must constantly engage in 'professional networking', which epitomizes this blur between the personal and the professional, in order to find such new employment. I wonder, what does this perpetual metastability of work mean for our institutions in crisis - for schools, for the family? Are there meaningful opportunities for resistance?

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