Creativity & Cultural Labour

Un-Governing the Neoliberal Subject: Humanities in the Service of Cultural Criticism

Jessica Davis

Under the influence of neoliberal tendencies, knowledge generation within academia is increasingly focused on heightened productivity, metric performance, and enhanced competitiveness. Within this context, the university has been characterized by its recalibration through a new market logic (De Angelis and Harvie, 2009). Demonstrable in this regard is the reconfiguration of higher education as an enterprise form and the rearticulation of academic priorities through a lexicon shaped by market values. Universities and academics are recast and reconstituted on a business model of “services” and “providers” to capture quantifiable forms of understanding in terms of investments and profits (Feldman and Sandoval, 2018). The commercialisation of knowledge, the marketisation of degree programs, and the intensification of systems of measurement have become routine practices for neoliberal universitiesAt stake is the conversion of knowledge as a public good into a private resource and means of individual profit (Brown, 2015). Accordingly, one no longer pursues knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but rather through a cost-benefit schema of accounting in order to assert one’s rightful place in academia and capitalist society at large.  

If we understand the contemporary era of neoliberalism not simply as an economic policy, but as a governing rationality that generalizes the enterprise form to the full range of social life (Foucault, 2008) including the university, how can we understand the place of the academic within this “market of knowledge”? This is not so much a research question, as it is the very backdrop that informs my experience as a PhD candidate who must engage in the formative process and produce a work of economic value. It is precisely within this context that knowledge production is made expressly acute. For academic activists who seek to transform existing power structures, how can we be certain that the type of research we do does not have the unintended consequence of reproducing the status quo? In other words, to what extent are our own agendas shaped –consciously or unconsciously– by neoliberal imperatives? More crucially, what are the modes of resistance that are available to us?  

In Defense of Lost Causes (2008), Slavoj Žižek claims that “the threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to be active, to participate, to mask the nothingness of what goes on”. Could we not transpose this consideration onto the demands of the neoliberal university? To counter the ever-renewed call to produce more knowledge, perhaps the most subversive gesture today is to think rather than act. Taking a step back to question dominant thought paradigms and the appropriation of already existing knowledge may allow the academic to go on a strategic strike, by doing more with less.  

As a student in the Department of Culture, Media, and Creative Industries, I find myself at an interesting intersection, one that thrusts a new subject area upon traditional academic rigour. Somewhat of a newcomer within the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, I represent an emerging field that draws its strength and vigour from a variety of disciplines and approaches. Alongside a wealth of empirical studies taking place here, I’ve opted to proceed down an alternative path by considering the extent to which our thinking of contemporary problems may be part of the problem. My aim is to create a critical dialogue between the humanities and knowledge production therein that orients itself towards the social sciences. 

In precise terms, I focus on the social significance of cultural criticism and consider the causes and conditions that render it possible. To make critique itself socially significant involves focusing on the effects of culture on the subjects that consume it, such that our own lives and experiences are recognized and become part of what we analyse. For Mary Poovey (1990), a socially significant criticism “describes culture as the ensemble of categories and signifying systems that provide the terms through which humans understand the world, from which we derive our identity, and in which we formulate or express desire.” This means emphasizing the capacity of certain discourses, neoliberal or other, to shape the subjectivities of social beings and to impact upon the social order. In my own estimation, the social significance of cultural criticism realizes itself, first and foremost, by passing through an account of the human subject. 

For purposes of my research, I enlist Michel Foucault’s work on neoliberal governmentality as a critical framework for understanding the antithetical and parallel production of both capitalist and emancipatory forms of subjectivity. Through an original reading of Foucault’s “critical history of thought”, one that traces his lineage of post-Kantian critique, I lend credence to his retrospective claim that the subject, not power, constitutes the leitmotif of his intellectual work. By proposing a general principle by which to rethink popular articulations of the Foucauldian subject, I locate the project of critique within the process of subjectivation: the way subjects constitute and govern themselves in relation to what they take to be truth. My objective is to assert the theoretical plasticity of this process as a methodological priority for studies of governmentality. 

Reclaiming the transformative gesture of critique through the problematization of the subject is especially timely under current neoliberal power dynamics. Indeed, recent studies demonstrate the extent to which the “psychic life of neoliberalism” reconstitutes our self-relation on the model of homo entrepreneur (Scharff, 2015). Despite being less corporeal and less restrictive, the exercise of power under neoliberalism operates on aspirations, interests, and desires and therefore upon the conditions of possible actions of the subjects it helps to produce. At stake is the commodification of subjectivity rooted in neoliberal imperatives. Here, the array of market freedoms and individual choice that neoliberalism makes possible creativity, mobility, and flexibility in labour– form the very instruments of capitalist domination which are, in turn, maintained and reinforced by the entrepreneurial self. 

Yet in tumultuous times, the possibility for transformation is great. My objective is to reinstate the role of cultural studies as an active player in the project of critique. Towards this end, I aim to make strategic use of the humanities and its tools, from feminist philosophy and post-war French thought to Lacanian psychoanalysis. By pursuing this path, I hope to create a critical space in which to reimagine the very coordinates of social life under neoliberalism.