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<nettime> The Flexible Personality, part II
Brian Holmes on Sun, 6 Jan 2002 05:00:03 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Flexible Personality, part II

(The Flexible Personality, part II)

Beneath A New Dominion
If I insist on the _social form_ assumed by computers and
telecommunications during the redeployment of capital after the recession
of the 1970s, it is because of the central role that these technologies,
and their diverse uses, have played in the emergence of what Manuel
Castells conceives as the global informational economy. Describing the most
advanced state of this economy, Castells writes that "the products of the
new information technology industries are information processing devices or
information processing itself."29 Thus he indicates the way that cultural
expressions, recoded and processed as multimedia, can enter value-adding
loop of digitized communications. Indeed, he believes they _must_ enter it:
"All other messages are reduced to individual imagination or to
increasingly marginalized face-to-face subcultures."30 But Castells tends
to see the conditions of entry as fundamentally technical, without
developing the notion that technology itself can be shaped by the patterns
of social, political and cultural relations. He conceives subjective and
collective agency in terms of a primary choice or rejection of the network,
followed by more or less viable paths within or outside the dominant
system. The network itself is not a form, but a destiny. Any systemic
change is out of the question.
        A critical approach can instead view computers and
telecommunications as specific, pliable configurations within the larger
frame of what Michel Foucault calls "governmental technologies." Foucault
defines the governmental technologies (or more generally,
"governmentality") as "the entire set of practices used to constitute,
define, organize and instrumentalize the strategies that individuals, in
their freedom, can have towards each other."31 At stake here is the
definition of a level of constraint, extending beyond what Foucault
conceives as freedom - the open field of power relations between
individuals, where each one tries to "conduct the conduct of others,"
through strategies that are always reversible - but not yet reaching the
level of domination, where the relations of power are totally immobilized,
for example through physical constraint. The governmental technologies
exist just beneath this level of domination: they are subtler forms of
collective channeling, appropriate for the government of democratic
societies where individuals enjoy substantial freedoms and tend to reject
any obvious imposition of authority.
        It is clear that the crisis of "ungovernability" decried by
Huntington, Thatcher and other neoconservatives in the mid-1970s could only
find its "resolution" with the introduction of new governmental
technologies, determining new patterns of social relations; and it has
become rather urgent to see exactly how these relational technologies
function. To begin quite literally with the hardware, we could consider the
extraordinary increase in surveillance practices since the introduction of
telematics. It has become commonplace at any threshold - border, cash
register, subway turnstile, hospital desk, credit application, commercial
website - to have one's personal identifiers (or even body parts: finger-
or handprints, retina patterns, DNA) checked against records in a distant
database, to determine if passage will be granted. This appears as direct,
sometimes even authoritarian control. But as David Lyon observes, "each
expansion of surveillance occurs with a rational that, like as not, will be
accepted by those whose data or personal information is handled by the
system."32 The most persuasive rationales are increased security (from
theft or attack) and risk management by various types of insurers, who
demand personal data to establish contracts. These and other arguments lead
to the internalization of surveillance imperatives, whereby people actively
supply their data to distant watchers. But this example of voluntary
compliance with surveillance procedures is only the tip of the control
iceberg. The more potent and politically immobilizing forms of self-control
emerge in the individual's relation to the labor market - particularly when
the labor in question involves the processing of cultural information.
        Salaried labor, whether performed on site or at distant,
telematically connected locations, can obviously be monitored for
compliance to the rules (surveillance cameras, telephone checks, keystroke
counters, radio-emitting badges, etc.). The offer of freelance labor, on
the other hand, can simply be refused if any irregularity appears, either
in the product or the conditions of delivery. Internalized self-monitoring
becomes a vital necessity for the freelancer. Cultural producers are hardly
an exception, to the extent that they offering their inner selves for sale:
at all but the highest levels of artistic expression, subtle forms of
self-censorship become the rule, at least in relation to a primary
market.33 But deeper and perhaps more insidious effects arise from the
inscription of cultural, artistic and ethical ideals, once valued for their
permanence, into the swiftly changing cycles of capitalist valorization and
obsolescence. Among the data processors of the cultural economy - including
the myriad personnel categories of media production, design and live
performance, and extending through various forms of service provision,
counseling, therapy, education, and so on - a depoliticizing cynicism is
more widespread than self-censorship. It is described by Paolo Virno:

"At the base of contemporary cynicism is the fact that men and women learn
by experiencing rules rather than "facts"... Learning the rules, however,
also means recognizing their unfoundedness and conventionality. We are no
longer inserted into a single, predefined "game" in which we participate
with true conviction. We now face several different "games," each devoid of
all obviousness and seriousness, only the site of an immediate
self-affirmation - an affirmation that is much more brutal and arrogant,
much more cynical, the more we employ, with no illusions but with perfect
momentary adherence, those very rules whose conventionality and mutability
we have perceived."34

        In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard identified language games as an
emerging arena of value-production in capitalist societies offering
computerized access to knowledge, where what mattered was not primary
research but transformatory "moves" within an arbitrary semantic field.35
Here, cynicism is both the cause and prerequisite of the player's unbounded
opportunism. As Virno notes: "The opportunist confronts a flux of
interchangeable possibilities, keeping open as many as possible, turning to
the closest and swerving unpredictably from one to the other." He
continues: "The computer, for example, rather than a means to a univocal
end, is a premise for successive 'opportunistic' elaborations of work.
Opportunism is valued as an indispensable resource whenever the concrete
labor process is pervaded by diffuse 'communicative action'...
computational chatter demands 'people of opportunity,' ready and waiting
for every chance."36 Of course, the true opportunist consents to a fresh
advantage within any new language game, even if it is political. Politics
collapses into the flexibility and rapid turnover times of market
relations. And this is the meaning of Virno's ironic reference to
Habermas's theory of communicative action. In his analysis of democracy's
legitimation crisis, Habermas observed that consent in democratic societies
ultimately rests on each citizen's belief that in cases of doubt he could
be convinced by a detailed argument: "Only if motivations for actions no
longer operated through norms requiring justification, and if personality
systems no longer had to find their unity in identity-securing interpretive
systems, could the acceptance of decisions without reasons become routine,
that is, could the readiness to conform absolutely be produced to any
desired degree."37 What was social science fiction for Habermas in 1973
became a reality for Virno in the early 1990s: personality systems without
any aspiration to subjective truth, without any need for secure processes
of collective interpretation. And worse, this reality was constructed on
distorted forms of the call by the radical Italian left for an autonomous
status of labor.
        The point becomes clear: to describe the immaterial laborer,
"prosumer," or networker as a _flexible personality_ is to describe a new
form of alienation, not alienation from the vital energy and roving desire
that were exalted in the 1960s, but instead, alienation from political
society, which in the democratic sense is not a profitable affair and
cannot be endlessly recycled into the production of images and emotions.
The configuration of the flexible personality is a new form of social
control, in which culture has an important role to play. It is distorted
form of the artistic revolt against authoritarianism and standardization, a
set of practices and techniques for "constituting, defining, organizing and
instrumentalizing" the revolutionary energies which emerged in the Western
societies in the 1960s, and which for a time seemed capable of transforming
social relations.
        This notion of the flexible personality, that is, of subjectivity
as it is modeled and channeled by contemporary capitalism, can be sharpened
and deepened by looking outside of France and beyond the aspirant
managerial class, to the destiny of another group of proto-revolutionary
social actors, the racialized lumpen proletariat in America, from which
arose the Black, Chicano, and American Indian movements in the sixties,
followed by a host of identity-groups thereafter. Here the dialectic of
integration and exclusion becomes more apparent and more cruel. One the one
hand, identity formations are encouraged as stylistic resources for
commodified cultural production. Regional cultures and subcultures are
sampled, recoded into product form, and fed back to themselves through the
immeasurably wider and more profitable world market.38 Local differences of
reception are seized upon everywhere as proof of the open, universal nature
of global products. Corporate and governmental hierarchies are also made
open to significant numbers of non-white subjects, whenever they are
willing to play the management game. This is an essential requirement for
the legitimacy of transnational governance. But wherever an identity
formation becomes problematic and seems likely to threaten the urban,
regional, or geopolitical balance - I'm thinking particularly of the Arab
world, but also of the Balkans - then what Boris Buden calls the "cultural
touch" operates quite differently and turns ethnic identity not into
commercial gold, but into the signifier of a regressive, "tribal"
authoritarianism, which can legitimately be repressed. Here the book
_Empire_ contains an essential lesson: that not the avoidance, but instead
the stimulation and management of local conflicts is the keystone of
transnational governance.39 In fact the United States themselves are
already governed that way, in a state of permanent low-intensity civil war.
Manageable, arms-consuming ethnic conflicts are perfect grist for the mill
of capitalist empire. And the reality of terrorism offers the perfect
opportunity to accentuate surveillance functions - with full consent from
the majority of the citizenry.
        With these last considerations we have obviously changed scales,
shifting from the psycho-social to the geopolitical. But to make the ideal
type work correctly, one should never forget the hardened political and
economic frames within which the flexible personality evolves. Piore and
Sabel point out that what they call "flexible specialization" was only one
side of the response that emerged to the regulation crisis and recession of
the 1970s. The other strategy is global. It "aims at extending the
mass-production model. It does so by linking the production facilities and
markets of the advanced countries with the fastest-growing third-world
countries. This response amounts to the use of the corporation (now a
multinational entity) to stabilize markets in a world where the forms of
cooperation among states can no longer do the job."40 In effect, the
transnational corporation, piloted by the financial markets, and backed up
by the military power and legal architecture of the G-7 states, has taken
over the economic governance of the world from the former colonial
structure. The "military-industrial complex," decried as the fountainhead
of power in the days of the authoritarian personality, has been superseded
by what is now being called the "Wall Street-Treasury complex" - "a power
elite a la C. Wright Mills, a definite networking of like-minded luminaries
among the institutions - Wall Street, the Treasury Department, the State
Department, the IMF, and the World Bank most prominent among them."41
        What kind of labor regime is produced by this networking among the
power elite? On June 13, 2001, one could read in the newspaper that a sharp
drop in computer sales had triggered layoffs of 10% of Compaq's world-wide
workforce, and 5% of Hewlet Packard's - 7,000 and 4,700 jobs respectively.
In this situation, the highly mobile Dell corporation was poised to draw a
competitive advantage from its versatile workforce: "Robots are just not
flexible enough, whereas each computer is unique," explained the president
of Dell Europe.42 With its just-in-time production process, Dell can
immediately pass on the drop in component prices to consumers, because it
has no old product lying around in warehouses; at the same time, it is
under no obligation to pay idle hands for regular 8-hour shifts when there
is no work. Thus it has already grabbed the number-1 position from Compaq
and it is hungry for more. "It's going to be like Bosnia," gloated an upper
manager. "Taking such market shares is the chance of a lifetime."
        This kind of ruthless pleasure, against a background of
exploitation and exclusion, has become entirely typical - an example of the
opportunism and cynicism that the flexible personality tolerates.43 But was
this what we really expected from the critique of authority in the 1960s?

The flexible personality represents a contemporary form of governmentality,
an internalized and culturalized pattern of "soft" coercion which
nonetheless can be directly correlated with the hard data of labor
conditions, bureaucratic and police practices, border regimes and military
interventions. The study of such coercive patterns, contributing to the
deliberately exaggerated figure of an ideal type, is a way that academic
knowledge production can contribute to the rising wave of democratic
dissent; in particular, the treatment of "immaterial" or "aesthetic"
production stands to gain from this renewal of a radically negative
critique. Those who admire the Frankfurt School, or closer to us, the work
of Michel Foucault, can hardly refuse the challenge of bringing their
analyses up to date, now that a new system and style of domination has
taken on increasingly clear outlines.
        Yet it is not certain that the mere description of a system of
domination, however precise and scientifically accurate, will suffice to
dispel it. And the model of "governmentality," with all its nuances, easily
lends itself to an infinite introspection, which would be better avoided.
The timeliness of critical theory, today, has to do with the possibility of
refusing a highly articulated and effective ideology, which has integrated
and neutralized a certain number of formerly alternative propositions. But
at the same time it is important to avoid the trap into which the Frankfurt
School, in particular, seems to have fallen: the impasse of a critique so
totalizing that it leaves no way out, except through an excessively
sophisticated, contemplative, and ultimately elitist aesthetics. Critique
today must remain a fully public practice, engaged in communicative action
and indeed, communicative activism: the recreation of an oppositional
culture, in forms specifically conceived to resist the inevitable attempts
at co-optation.44 The figure of the flexible personality can be publicly
ridiculed, satirized, its supporting institutions can be attacked on
political grounds, its traits can be exposed in cultural and artistic
productions, its description and the search for alternatives to its reign
can be conceived not as another academic industry - and another potential
locus of immaterial production - but instead as a chance to help create new
forms of intellectual solidarity, a new collective project for a better
society. When it is carried out in a perspective of social transformation,
the exercise of negative critique itself can have a powerful subjectivizing
force, it can become a way to shape oneself through the demands of a shared
        The flexible personality is not a destiny. And despite the
ideologies of resignation, despite the dense realities of governmental
structures in our "control societies," nothing prevents the sophisticated
forms of critical knowledge, elaborated in the peculiar temporality of the
university, from connecting directly with the new and also complex, highly
sophisticated forms of dissent appearing on the streets. This type of
crossover is exactly what we have seen in the wide range of movements
opposing the agenda of neoliberal globalization. The initial results are
before our eyes. The communicational infrastructure, largely externalized
into personal computers, and a considerable "knowledge capital," shifted
from the schools and universities of the welfare state to the bodies and
minds of the immaterial laborers, can be appropriated by all those willing
to simply use what is already ours, and to take the risks of political
autonomy and democratic dissent. The history of radically democratic
movements can be explored and deepened, while the goals and processes of
the present movement are made explicit and brought openly into debate.
        The program is ambitious. But the alternative, if you prefer, is
just to go on playing someone else's game - rolling the loaded dice, again
and again.


1. The World Social Forum, held for the first time in Porto Alegre in
January 2001, is symbolic of the turn away from neoclassical or
"supply-side" economics. Another potent symbol can be found in the charges
leveled by economist Joseph Stiglitz at his former employers, the World
Bank, and even more importantly, at the IMF - the major transnational organ
of the neoclassical doctrine.
2. For a short history of cultural studies as a popular-education movement,
then a more theoretical treatment of similar themes, see Raymond Williams,
"The Future of Cultural Studies" and "The Uses of Cultural Theory," both in
The Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 1989).
3. See Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, et. al., Resistance through Rituals
(London: Routledge 1993, 1st edition 1975), esp. the "theoretical overview"
of the volume, pp. 9-74.
4. The reversal becomes obvious with L. Grossberg et. al., eds., Cultural
Studies (New York: Routledge, 1992), an anthology that marks the
large-scale exportation of cultural studies to the American academic
5. The methodological device of the ideal type was developed by Max Weber,
particularly in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; as we
shall see, it was taken up as a polemical figure by the Frankfurt School in
the 1950s.
6. Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1996/1st ed. 1973), p. 116. 
7. Herbert Marcuse, "Some Social Implications of Modern Technology," in A.
Arato and E. Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New
York: Continuum, 1988), pp. 143, 158.
8. The term "state capitalism" is more familiar as an indictment of false
or failed communism of the Stalinist Soviet Union, for instance in Tony
Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London: Pluto Press, 1974); however, the
concept as developed by the Frankfurt School applied, with variations, to
all the centrally planned economies that emerged after the Great
9. Friedrich Pollock, "State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations"
(1941), in ibid., p. 78.
10. Otto Kirchheimer, "Changes in the Structure of Political Compromise"
(1941), in ibid., p. 70.
11. T.W. Adorno et. al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper,
12. T.W. Adorno, "Commitment" (1962), in The Essential Frankfurt School
Reader, op. cit. p. 303.
13. Ibid., p. 304.
14. M. Crozier, S. Huntington, J. Watanabi, The Crisis of Democracy
(Trilateral Commission, 1975), p. 74.
15. In the words of the Paris enrages: "What are the essential features of
council power? Dissolution of all external power - Direct and total
democracy - Practical unification of decision and execution - Delegates who
can be revoked at any moment by those who have mandated them - Abolition of
hierarchy and independent specializations - Conscious management and
transformation of all the conditions of liberated life - Permanent creative
mass participation - Internationalist extension and coordination. The
present requirements are nothing less than this. Self-management is nothing
less." From a May 30, 1968 communique, signed ENRAGES-SITUATIONIST
available over the Internet by Ken Knabb at:
16. Juergen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975/1st
German edition 1973), p. 36.
17. The Crisis of Democracy, op. cit., p. 113.
18. The origins of the "conservative revolution" are described by Keith
Dixon in an excellent book, Les evangelistes du marche (Paris: Raisons
d'agir, 1998).
19. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1997), p. 8.
20. Thomas Frank, ibid., p. 229; the references to Harvey are on pages 25
and 233.
21. Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide
(New York: Basic Books, 1984); excerpts in R. Koolhaas, S. Boeri, S.
Kwinter, et. al., Mutations, exhibition catalogue, arc en reve centre
d'architecture, Bordeaux, 2000, pp. 643-644.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme
(Paris: Gallimard, 1999). As the title suggests, the authors draw on
Weberian methodology to propose a new ideal type of capitalist
entrepreneur, the "connectionist man." Unlike the Frankfurt School, and
myself, they do not systematically relate this ideal type to a
sociopolitical order and a mode of production.
25. Andrea Branzi, one of the north Italian designers who led and theorized
this transition, distinguishes between the "Homogeneous Metropolis" of
mass-produced industrial design, and what he calls "the Hybrid Metropolis,
born of the crisis of classical modernity and of rationalism, which
discovers niche markets, the robotization of the production line, the
diversified series, and the ethnic and cultural minorities." "The Poetics
of Balance: Interview with Andrea Branzi," in F. Burkhardt and C. Morozzi,
Andrea Branzi (Paris: Editions Dis-Voir, undated), p. 45.
26. In L'individu incertain (Paris: Hachette, 1999, 1st ed. 1995),
sociologist Alain Ehrenberg describes the postwar regime of consumption as
being "characterized by a passive spectator fascinated by the [television]
screen, with a dominant critique marked by the model of alienation"; he
then links the positive connotations of the computer terminal in our own
period to "a model of communication promoting inter-individual exchanges
modeled on themes of activity and relationships, with self-realization as
the dominant stereotype of consumption" (p. 240). Note the disappearance of
critique in the second model.
27. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990),
pp. 141-148.
28. In the text "Immaterial Labor," Maurizio Lazarrato proposes the notion
of aesthetic production: "It is more useful, in attempting to grasp the
process of the formation of social communication and its subsumption within
the 'economic,' to use, rather than the 'material' model of production, the
'aesthetic' model that involves author, reproduction, and reception.... The
'author' must lose its individual dimension and be transformed into an
industrially organized production process (with a division of labor,
investments, orders, and so forth), 'reproduction' becomes a mass
reproduction organized according to the imperatives of profitability, and
the audience ('reception') tends to become the consumer/communicator."
Today, the computer is the key instrument allowing for the industrial
organization of aesthetic production. In: Radical Thought in Italy: A
Potential Politics, eds. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1966), p. 144.
29. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (London: Blackwell,
1996), p. 67.
30. Manuel Castells, ibid., p. 374.
31. Michel Foucault, "L'ethique du souci de soi comme pratique de la
liberte," interview with H. Becker, R. Forner-Betancourt, A. Gomez-Mueller,
in Dits et ecrits (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), vol. IV, p. 728; also see the
excellent article by Maurizio Lazarrato, "Du biopouvoir a la biopolitique,"
in Multitudes 1, pp. 45-57.

32. David Lyon, Surveillance Society (Buckingham: Open University Press,
2001), p. 44.
33. For an analysis of the ways that (self-) censorship operates in
contemporary cultural production, see A. Corsani, M. Lazzarato, N. Negri,
Le Bassin du travail immateriel (BTI) dans le metropole parisien (Paris:
L'Harmattan, 1996), pp. 71-78.
34. Paolo Virno, "The Ambivalence of Disenchantment," in Radical Thought in
Italy, op. cit., pp. 17-18.
35. Lyotard, La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir, Paris,
Minuit, 1979, esp. pp. 13-14 et 31-33.
36. Paolo Virno, "The Ambivalence of Disenchantment," op. cit., p. 17.
Compare Sennet's discussion of a 1991 U.S. government report on the skills
people need in a flexible economy: "in flexible forms of work, the players
make up the rules as they go along... past performance is no guide to
present rewards; in each office 'game' you start over from the beginning."
Richard Sennet, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of
Work in the New Capitalism (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 110.
37. Juergen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, op. cit., p. 44.
38. Can research work in cultural studies, such as Dick Hebdige's classic
Subculture, the Meaning of Style, now be directly instrumentalized by
marketing specialists? As much is suggested in the book Commodify Your
Dissent, edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (New York: Norton, 1997),
pp. 73-77, where Frank and Dave Mulcahey present a fictional "buy
recommendation" for would-be investors: "Consolidated Deviance, Inc.
('ConDev') is unarguably the nation's leader, if not the sole force, in the
fabrication, consultancy, licensing and merchandising of deviant
subcultural practice. With its string of highly successful 'SubCultsTM',
mass-marketed youth culture campaigns highlighting rapid stylistic turnover
and heavy cross-media accessorization, ConDev has brought the allure of the
marginalized to the consuming public."
39. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 2000), pp. 198-201: "The triple imperative of the Empire
is incorporate, differentiate, manage."
40. Piore and Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide, op. cit.
41. Jagdish Bhagwati, "The Capital Myth," Foreign Affairs May/June 1998;
electronic text available at
42. "Une crise sans precedent ebranle l'informatique mondiale," Le Monde,
June 13, 2001, p. 18.
43. The ultimate reason for this tolerance appears to be fear. In
Souffrance en France (Paris: Seuil, 1998), the labor psychologist
Christophe Dejours studies the "banalization of evil" in contemporary
management. Beyond the cases of perverse or paranoid sadism, concentrated
at the top, he identifies the imperative to display courage and virility as
the primary moral justification for doing the "dirty work" (selection for
lay-offs, enforcement of productivity demands, etc.). "The collective
strategy of defense entails a denial of the suffering occasioned by the
'nasty jobs'.... The ideology of economic rationalism consists... - beyond
the exhibition of virility - in making cynicism pass for force of
character, for determination and an elevated sense of collective
responsibilities... in any case, a sense of supra-individual interests"
(pp. 109-111). Underlying the defense mechanisms, Dejours finds both the
fear of personal responsibility and the fear of becoming a victim oneself;
cf. pp. 89-118.
44. Hence the paradoxical, yet essential refusal to conceive oppositional
political practice as the constitution of a party, and indeed of a unified
social class, for the seizure of state power. Among the better formulations
of this paradox is Miguel Benassayag and Diego Sztulwark, Du contre pouvoir
(Paris: La Decouverte, 2000).

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