Culture Control Critique: Allegories of Reading the Present

Culture Control Critique: Allegories of Reading the Present

by Frida Beckman


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Culture Control Critique is an attempt to address the current crisis in cultural critique, situate it in relation to what it sees as a powerful tendency toward political allegory in contemporary Anglo-American mainstream culture, and analyse how this tendency can be understood...

Editorial Reviews

Jeffrey T. Nealon

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the fate of cultural critique at the present moment.  Beckman deftly limns out the contours of our contemporary “control society,” and then zeroes in on the current trend for producing cultural productions that take themselves to be allegories of this condition (everything from DeLillo’s fiction to The Hunger Games).  This is important work, furthering our ongoing, collective diagnosis of the present

Felicity J. Colman

Linking control with central concepts such as vision, Culture, Control, Critique offers the reader an impressively wide range of textual examples that examine control through readings from Plato through to reality television. The result is a very thorough study of the nuances of the terms of control, and how it has historically been applied, and how it might be used for theoretical studies of media forms including film, television, and literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783488001
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 05/16/2016
Series: Critical Perspectives on Theory, Culture and Politics Series
Pages: 170
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Culture Control Critique

Allegories of Reading the Present

By Frida Beckman

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Frida Beckman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-802-5


Culture, Control, Critique

History discloses numerous crises in representation and critique. Indeed, the problem of representation is situated at the heart of philosophical as well as religious discourses. It has given birth to various theories and practices relating to, for example, analogy, allegory, and iconography as well as to responses to sublimity and historical traumas. Critique, in the way it is understood here as relating to how to respond theoretically to political, cultural, and social developments, has also always constituted a problem. This problem has been intimately related to the question of representation as the possible space or position from which critique is possible. This question of position has in turn developed alongside conceptions of agency, subjectivity, rights, and the notion of the human itself. The very notion of the human as it derives from Aristotle rests on a distinction between life that just is — zoe — and life that is informed by a political community, and thus by a potential and a right to a critical voice — bios. As Aristotle puts it: 'It is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes family and a state' (Aristotle 1920, 29). Thus, the possibility to critically interrogate a state of affairs relies, from the perspective of Classical Greek thinkers, on a politics of inclusion and exclusion, an inside to the polis and an outside. The beginning of biopower in the seventeenth century and its development during the classical period as Michel Foucault delineates it is centrally a repositioning of this distinction between inside and outside in terms of life. Bare life is no longer excluded but is rather included in a politics built on controlling, regulating, and administrating life in all its dimensions. The 'threshold of modernity' as Foucault puts it, and thereby the break with the Greek separation of life into zoe and bios, 'has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies' (Foucault 1990, 143). Passing this threshold, political life ceases to be identified in relation to an outside and becomes, rather, pervasive of all spaces, actions, and bodies. From this point onward, critique cannot be performed without the simultaneous recognition that every position, including the one from which critique is expressed, is always already informed by the processes of administration that have monitored and regulated the very body and mind of this position. This, then, is the birth of a crisis in critique that has come to shape modernity and, in the wake of Foucault's seminal work on biopolitics, postmodernity.

In Society Must Be Defended, Foucault outlines the gradual transitions of systems of power from sovereign power and disciplinary power to biopower. Sovereign power is, essentially, a hierarchal and clearly identifiable form of power that makes clear separation between the ruler and the ruled, between ordering and obeying. This power is built around the absolute right to kill — 'to take life or let live' (Foucault 2003, 241). Locating the emergence of disciplinary power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he notes how such power functions by means of the separation, alignment, serialisation, and surveillance of bodies. Bodies are organised in space according to principles of visibility, trained and rationalised in order to increase and ensure maximum productive force (Foucault 2003, 424). Disciplinary society works according to an 'individualising' mode maximising productivity and control by means of the organisation of bodies. Foucault observes that towards the second half of the eighteenth century, a new technology of power is on the increase that does not replace but modifies such disciplinary techniques. This new technology of power, while 'embedding itself in existing disciplinary techniques', exists on a level that is less concerned with individual bodies and more with the human species as a whole. This 'biopolitics of the human race' is engaged with life itself, directly taking as its object the regulation of life in terms of biology and the environment. Instead of primarily monitoring individual bodies, biopower aims to intervene in a more immediate fashion into the various aspects of life — health, reproduction, the regularity of the population. Thus biopower is not concerned with disciplining bodies so much as with regularising life. As Foucault puts it more succinctly: 'The mechanisms introduced by biopolitics include forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures. And their purpose is not to modify any given phenomenon as such, or to modify a given individual insofar as he is an individual, but, essentially, to intervene at the level at which these general phenomena are determined, to intervene at the level of their generality.' This way, the goal is establishing equilibrium and maintaining an average (Foucault 2003, 246). Foucault describes disciplinary — and biopower in terms of two series — 'the body-organism-discipline-institutions series, and the population-biological processes-regulatory mechanisms State' (Foucault 2003, 250). These two series are not oppositional so much as complementary, as can be seen, for example, in the way in which some elements, like medicine, which can be applied to both, or the norm, which circulates between the two, bring the two series together (Foucault 2003, 252–53). These two series — the disciplinary and the biopolitical — coexist from the eighteenth century onward and in one of his 1976 lectures at Collège de France Foucault notes that they are still on the advance (Foucault 2003, 254).

In a conversation with Antonio Negri in 1990, published as 'Control and Becoming', as well as in a brief but seminal essay titled 'Postscript on the Societies of Control', Gilles Deleuze returns to how Foucault theorises this shift in the distribution of power. Deleuze's theories of control are inspired not only by Foucault but also by Paul Virilio and William S. Burroughs, and they have subsequently inspired major works such as Michael Hardt's and Negri's work on Empire. Centrally, Deleuze looks at how Foucault's theories may be advanced to correspond to more recent developments in such distribution. Briefly, while Foucault's disciplinary societies rely on the spatial distribution of control by means of institutions, molds, and identities, and the biopolitical mode relied on regulatory and statistical strategies, the control society that Deleuze identifies is based on a form of free-floating control by means of modulations and individual codes. Foucault, Deleuze points out, was one of the first to articulate this move away from the disciplinary model (Deleuze 1995, 174). The idea of control society thus does not break off from Foucault's analyses of biopower so much as it constitutes a continuation and elaboration of disciplinary and regulatory technologies that Foucault had already begun to theorise. While the transition between sovereign rule and disciplinary society constitutes a more radical configuration of power that replaces the hierarchy of rule with a more diffused institutionalised politics based on disciplinary methods, the subsequent development of a disciplinary model into a regulatory practice is, as we just saw through Foucault, rather an elaboration of this model. What we via Deleuze thus come to discuss in terms of control society should be seen as a further intensification of these regulatory methods. Because freedom and discipline are fundamentally bound to each other in the liberal society that Foucault analyses, the introduction of additional freedom depends on an increase in control and intervention. 'That is to say, control is no longer just the necessary counterweight to freedom, as in the case of panopticism: it becomes its mainspring' (Foucault 2008, 67).

In this light, the increased 'freedom' that results from a further demise of governing institutions is dependent on a reconfiguration of modes of control. Control society thus comes to be more intimately associated with the state of late capitalism that marks our contemporaneity. This development, Hardt argues, entails that earlier political theory, such as that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the 'postcivil' theories of Antonio Gramsci and Foucault, no longer suffice to 'grasp the dominant mechanisms or schema of social production and social ordering' in the contemporary West (Hardt 1995, 34). Deleuze's essay on societies of control, Hardt argues, must be seen in this context. It can serve as 'a first attempt to understand the decline of the rule of civil society and the rise of a new form of control' (Hardt 1995, 34). This type of political control is also intimately connected with the increasing speed of communication and information and the ways in which they have put institutions and enclosures into crisis. While the influence of disciplinary society and its institutions certainly has not vanished, power today is not most efficiently exercised by means of discipline and punishment but rather by means of controlling information.

The crisis in critique briefly outlined in my introductory chapter is a response to this type of control and its effects on developments in politics, culture, and representation. In different ways, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, and Negri all respond to the way in which the nature of the power formations that monitor life has changed. Jeffrey T. Nealon notes that as the logic of global finance capital builds on hybridity and fluidness and as the liberation of desire becomes a government encouragement in the face of the war on terrorism, the genealogy of much postmodern theory stemming from the 1980s is becoming 'increasingly unhelpful' (Nealon 2012, 20). Similarly, Latour is concerned that when we are passing on to students the critical spirit of the poststructuralist period, we are preparing them to fight 'wars that are no longer possible, fighting enemies long gone, conquering territories that no longer exist' (Latour 2004, 225). The once-so-crucial battles of questioning notions of scientific truth, of interrogating received reality, and of probing ideological biases informing supposed matter of facts, Latour argues, have turned not only into 'instant revisionism' that prevents us from intervening into events. These battles have also turned into a popularised mode of conspiracy that plays right into the hands of the social and political systems they were meant to critique. Like weapons smuggled through a border and ending up in the wrong hands, the 'neutron bomb of deconstruction', 'the missiles of discourse analysis', and 'the virus of critique' now serve to undermine an engagement with empiricism rather than, as was really the point, to renew it. Such renewal, Latour argues, is absolutely crucial to politics (Latour 2004, 230–31). At the same time, what Baudrillard suggests is that the problem for art is that the hyperreality of the image makes critical reflection redundant as it inevitably reflects back on itself. The collusion of art and discourses on art evinces a paranoia of meaninglessness, which entails that 'there is no longer any possible critical judgment, and only an amiable, necessarily genial sharing of nullity' (Baudrillard 2005, 28). Again, the critical spirit has been devoured by the spectacle itself, and as Baudrillard's fictionalised appearance in the modern classic The Matrix suggests, his own persona has been sucked up into the very popularised metadiscourse that he attempted to critique. In addition to Latour's and Baudrillard's disenchantment with the power of critical discourse in the present, Negri's call for a new critique and acknowledged redundancy of cultural critique after Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer too constitutes a response to the neutralisation of information and the perfect circle of trash culture that continually feeds on itself in contemporary society. What Latour, Baudrillard, and Negri are all responding to, in other words, is this shift in the way in which political power is exercised and the crisis in critique that follows.


The identification of the way in which society as well as its individuals have come to be shaped by a political system of total administration was made in the early 1960s by Herbert Marcuse. An active participant of the Frankfurt School in its early period, Marcuse, like Adorno and Horkheimer, recognised the increasing political power of communication and mass culture in the postwar United States. For Marcuse, the new forms of control emerging in this period are new because they rely on an administration and organisation that undo individual will in favour of a total administration of needs and desires. What emerges in the place of a dialectical subject-object relation that, for Marcuse, would accommodate the possibility of radical change is a self-contained, one-dimensional society and a one-dimensional man who cannot easily transcend and thereby critique or transform his own conditions. Under these conditions, individual thought is 'absorbed by mass communication'. As Marcuse puts it, words and images are losing 'the tone which were formerly antagonistic and transcendent to the prevailing order' and they thereby also lose 'their alienating power' (Marcuse 1993, 181). Material as well as intellectual needs are implanted in the individual, and modes of satisfaction are pre-conditioned (Marcuse 1991 [1964], 6–9). Both cultural critique and culture itself are imbricated in this total administration. Intellectual opposition 'seems to become increasingly impotent' at the same time as art loses the 'alienating force' upon which its political potential depends. Absorbed into the monopolistic system, 'Revolutionary art becomes fashionable and classical. Picasso's Guernica is a cherished museum piece' (Marcuse 1993, 181–82). Marcuse also recognises how developments of the rational, productive, and technical administration of society point towards an increasing difficulty for individuals to 'break their servitude and seize their own liberation' (Marcuse 1991 [1964], 9). Marcuse did believe in the possibility of radical change, however, and encouraged radical forms of action, not the least in his later books, as Douglas Kellner notes (Kellner 1991 [1964], xxxvi). And his hopes for the 'Great Refusal', that is, 'the protest against that which is' (Marcuse 1991 [1964], 66) were, as Kellner points out, at least partly and momentarily realised during the student protests in the late 1960s (Kellner 1991 [1964], xxxvi). Yet, Kellner notes, the development of late capitalism in the West has proven Marcuse's theory about total administration only too right (Kellner 1991 [1964], xxxvii).

For Marcuse, one-dimensional society stands in opposition to the freedom of the individual subject. He strongly believes in such a subject and puts his hopes to it for a political alternative to total administration. Even as he theorises the emergence of a one-dimensionality that flattens and swallows all opposition into itself, his Hegelian/Marxian approach nonetheless implies that the seeds of change must be located by means of transcendence or, as Kellner puts it, in 'another realm of ideas, images, and imagination that serves as a potential guide for a social transformation' (Kellner 1991 [1964], xvii). The key to radical change thus to some extent lies outside the one-dimensional realm in which subjects have been caught. Change depends on a reappropriation of the true will, needs, and freedom of the individual subject. Art, 'as an instrument of opposition', depends on 'its power to remain strange, antagonistic, transcendent to normalcy and, at the same time, being the reservoir of man's suppressed needs, faculties and desires, to remain more real than the reality of normalcy' (Marcuse 1993, 182). Marcuse was thus early in his analysis of forms of internalised political control that are more effective today than ever. His theoretical approach relies on a specific kind of post-Marxist dialectical politics that puts its hope to the identification and claiming of realms other than the existing form. Even as the undermining of this other realm lies in the very nature of the kind of control he theorises, the importance of this realm for the possibility for change is absolutely essential. Without it, it becomes impossible to think and without it, it becomes impossible to negate existing conditions and produce something new.

This other realm, conceptually originating from the Hegelian dialectic and constituting, of course, also a central tenet in the nature of political conflicts and struggles as theorised by Karl Marx, has continued to be an essential if contested part of many modes of post-Marxist theories of resistance. The notion of an 'outside' to culture, to ideology, and to capitalism constitutes a point of debate and dispute in various instantiations of post-Marxist and postdialectical theory. Central to this debate is the extent to which a politics of resistance, subversion, and critique can be seen as the labour of alternative cultural expression, a critique performed to some extent from the 'outside'. From post-Marxism to posthumanism to varieties of new materialism and biopolitical reflection, the notion of the 'outside' continues to be a point of contention in contemporary theory, and especially when aligned with or opposed to recent delineations of culture, capitalism, and the complex legacy of critique. At stake are oppositional notions of resistance, subversion, and alternative cultural expression as they weave through a range of artistic and political movements in modernity and postmodernity. Not only in the realm of critical thought but also in the realm of action and cultural critique, the idea that it is possible to establish a position other than the one in which we are controlled has remained crucial. Post-Marxist politics of resistance, subversion, and critique has typically been the labour of alternative cultural expression. The avant-garde, the politics of perversion, the punk, the underground — the arena for critical commentary has been markedly positioned as an 'other' to the society it critiques. This 'other' or 'outside' has been a position purposefully created by those in resistance, but also by society itself as it has delegated critique to its margins through censorship and other less-overt forms of cultural politics. Since Guy Debord, at least, and especially in the early phase of his work, the importance of searching for a position outside 'the society of the spectacle' has been central. While it is a central tenet for Debord and other Situationist activists that the society of the spectacle infiltrates all levels of life, their early work was characterised by a firm conviction that it is possible to contradict and challenge this all-encompassing commodification. Situationist tactics, as Sadie Plant puts it, 'revealed the spectacular nature of capitalist society and could maintain a position in contradiction to it' (Plant 1992, 4). Although it is continually under threat of alienation and complete usurpation of commodified relations, the individual subject is still seen as a site for transcendence and resistance. Since then, however, both the notion of a transcendent subject and the possibility of an outside have become increasingly precarious. The idea of the individual subject on which both Marcuse and many of those involved with Situationist practices rely, not to mention the conception of the true freedom, will, and needs of such a subject, has since been under question both theoretically and by means of the further development of the control mechanisms Marcuse himself identified. The intensification of the forms of control he theorises already in the 1960s suggests that it is time to call off the search for a transcendent subject or even a transcendent realm from which alternative political change can be projected.


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