Political Subjectivations: Between Freedom and Dependency

Antonio Tucci
Università di Salerno

Volume 9, 2016

In this essay I intend to focus on different forms of political subjectivation within the context of neoliberal governmentality. I would like to show how these forms ‘constitute’ themselves ambivalently, indicating a paradoxical and unprecedented compatibility of dispositifs of inclusion and exclusion, the foundation of which refers to the symbolic ‘ideological’ construction of otherness. Neoliberal governmentality is, precisely, this unprecedented compatibility. With this aim in mind, I propose to focus on a particular case analyzed by Aiwha Ong (2003). It is, in my view, an example that helps understand this ambivalence, which pushes itself to the point of deconstructing indentitary subjectivities, in the place of which mobile forms of relationship and practice appear. The object of analysis is the behavior of Cambodian refugees fleeing Pol Pot’s regime who, moving to a Western context, undertake a series of steps to become ‘good citizens’, subjecting themselves to a network of welfare offices, vocational training schools, hospitals and workplaces[1].


In our current processes of global governance traditional universal categories place themselves in a relation of continuity/discontinuity in light of previous structures. Universals become concrete, if you will, by abandoning the status of transcendence and pure logical statement, to be defined by actual practices of power relations. They therefore must endure considerable semantic twisting since they survive, taking on new guises, the very contexts that had produced them. Forms change, or rather, they adapt, to new contexts that, alongside great personal difficulties, provoke issues of order, unity, certainty and predictability: essential features of the formalistic ‘sovereignist’ tradition centered on the repressive nature of the law. Everything dissolves into a series of representations that allow us to understand the otherwise unintelligible network of governance, thereby revealing the impossibility of representing a complex and articulated reality solely by pre-established forms.

The form—that modern constructivism represented as defined and coherent, but primarily transcending the empirical reality it was supposed to order—is that of a way-of-life, which becomes flexible and adherent to the contexts from which it emerges and to which it adapts, changing and adjusting them in turn.

This complexity of forms drives political-legal theory to question whether or not decision-making processes can become immanent; this has to do increasingly with the pluralization and heterogeneity of power centers; with the issue of order and security increasingly experienced in a dramatized way, and consequently, with the problem of the use of force: issues which can be summarized in the obvious emergence of the factual and practical moment of the law. The vision of a world governed by a network of borderless relations and struggle would be too easy and irenic: it is important to recognize that the ability to cross governmental boundaries and create new ones encounters moments of interruption and dispute—or even of concrete conflict—in which an undeniable presence of sovereign powers does exist, exercising coercion on migration flows and preventing their movement; or otherwise allowing the same conflict to be resolved legally.[2] The conceptual claim of sovereignty to consider political unity, as a condition of possibility of the law, is no longer maintainable: governmentality produces movable zones of unity and coherence that generate rules as well as temporary negotiations of force. The de-nationalized and transnational character of the economy, culture, politics, and therefore of social powers, shows that there are still phenomena that the sovereign scheme allows us to identify, thereby confirming the principle of compatibility of rationalities. It is a question of an overlap—a cycle of “sovereignty-discipline-government”—that leads Aihwa Ong, in a work of critical sovereignty deconstruction, to use what in the traditional lexicon would be an oxymoron: “graduated sovereignty” (Ong 2006, 75-120).

Due to global capitalism national space, far from any final waning, is re-articulated at multiple levels that are intertwined in a way that is neither hierarchical nor pyramidal. A single sovereign space is divided into special zones (according to specific government technologies of zoning), which redefine their boundaries leaving them porous, flexible, but still separated and regulated, thereby sketching out an unprecedented mode of both sovereignty and citizenship. The logics reshaping different zones are numerous, from ethnicity and gender to the more often prevailing one of profit (access to labor markets, taxation systems, health and safety standards, industrial relations, environmental policy, all driven by the logic of the market). The coordination of policies and regulatory actions with interests organized differently from time to time leads to a fragmentation of national space into non-contiguous areas, promoting differentiated regulations about populations. The effect that these assemblages produce locally will then reverberate globally: graduated sovereignties in fact do not respect boundaries, but cross them arbitrarily, and erect new or even old ones, thereby giving rise to transnational networks.

This is thus a new approach to sovereignty that begins by affirming practices of re-territorialization according to legal rules and heterogeneous, seemingly incompatible, government techniques. As a result, control and regulation refer to practices and techniques in which there are strategies of resistance and counter-behavior, thereby confirming the inclusive/selective nature of governmental rationality. In the twentieth century lexicon of legal theory, this process can be understood as the crisis of legal-formal positivism and of normative juridical conceptualizations, with the consequent consolidation of governmental practices that undermine the classical theories of institutionalization. Traditional sovereignty can no longer account for, or explain, the phenomena we are now facing, for they come into being through an endless dialectic between a reductive moment of unity and concentration, and a centrifugal, pluralistic, aggregating participation and power management moment.

This normative weakness, however, refers from a strictly legal standpoint to the complex unresolved question of the proliferation and pluralization of legal systems. One thing is for sure: such institutions bear witness to the impossibility of confining analysis to the order/legal system nexus and, as such, they undermine its traditional hierarchical, pyramidal presuppositions. Normativity is as technical as it is formal, as factual as it is immanent, and once again it calls into question the biopolitical attitude of laissez faire self-regulation that contrasts with sovereign and abstract government through the need to be “less governed. Governmentality does not refer to government over lives; it is about governing lives, and therefore it corresponds to an incremental, productive logic that coexists with the repressive/sanctioning nature of modern law (Bazzicalupo). Therefore, it is a question of modalities of law that work in the name of immanent and factual (horizontal) normativity, highlighting standards in terms of power and practice rather than in terms of obligations and sanctions according to which the distinction between lawful and unlawful is visible. Participatory forms of law come into being; they express forms of agency that jettison normativity in the strict sense, in order to unleash construction and decision-making processes from below.

Coercive practices, therefore, while persisting at nodal points where traditional sovereignty still operates in order to control space and boundaries in the name of safety and security, give way to mediation and negotiation.[3] Such shifts in emphasis in the overall system do not put an end to the practices of resistance that have been prompted by forms of self-government and self-regulation that uphold neo-liberal freedom. But resistances scarcely manifest themselves in the classic and modern forms of antagonism. Rather, they inaugurate practices that interpret resistance in terms of subtraction from governance arrangements, as a form of power repositioning in the gaps that remains as a result of molar regulation and the attempt to elude the law.

Government techniques, in other words, do not rule out anyone in principle; rather they include selectively according to criteria that may vary depending on the purposes for which government action has been programmed. Obedience and good conduct are, therefore, effects of subjectivation that can generate submission by subjectivizing, by addressing and steering energies towards compliant forms of self-government. The issue of rights and identities transforms forms of aggregation of individuals into groups that share similar governmental features and are potentially capable of self-government. Surely, the implications of these forms of discipline, control, and techniques of development can generate even more resistance, and, therefore, can define individuals and groups through deviations and differences. The persistence of citizenship and identity assumes a strategic profile, as if they were consolidated instruments to achieve specific concrete purposes; devices to be used in true negotiation and transaction. Rather than being defined in simply formal terms, subjects are defined in accordance with residual categories of modernity such as identity and citizenship, at the crossroad, intersection and overlapping between subjectivizing techniques (particularly, the legal-formal or ethnic) and subordination. In the alternating compatibility between forms of mediation and negotiation, of resistance and counter-conduct, lie subjectivation processes that move beyond and exploit the categories in which the sovereign paradigm had traditionally pigeonholed the subject, in such a way as to locate it in government strategies and struggle. Within these categories, subjects take on an ambivalent status, either as free or autonomous subjects or as the effect of dominant discursive practices that are modified and adapted to them over time, according to their own particular forms of life.

All of the above confirms the relational, procedural, power-generative paradigm that is so central to Foucault’s thought (Histoire 1976), and which marks the movement from a purely top-down conception of power to a horizontal exception in which individuals are both subject and vehicle of the same power. As Judith Butler puts it: “the disciplinary apparatus produces subjects, but as a consequence of that production, it brings into discourse the conditions for subverting that apparatus itself” (1997, 100). All of which, however, may result in defining inclusion as integration and assimilation to a formal and abstract subject: a democratic political actor according to the criteria and rules of the Western democratic tradition in which conflict and antagonism are absorbed by cosmopolitan democratic procedures.[4]

Conversely, it can be difficult to accept that the bastions of our democratic culture are subject to legal forms of bargaining, but one needs to be aware of this, perhaps by signaling emerging risks. Therefore, we must first try to understand how the subject, rather than being and defining itself in some pre-established way in respect to policy, is given and identifies itself with—it connotes itself as—a political subjectivity, while remaining immersed in the social through forms of concrete, special, contingent agency: thus it is no longer the subject and its universal rights, but the person who, involved in political and social practices—as Hannah Arendt suggests—claims these rights by herself and uses them in some way.

One needs, therefore, to look at practices of citizenship in terms of the “politics of the governed” (Chatterjee 2004). In other words, one must refer to concrete forms—sub-political and intergovernmental—of resistance and mediation of the excluded or assimilated, by taking up alternative though complementary routes with respect to the dominant discourses of truth. This is an operation that is well evidenced, for instance, within a process aimed at “reformulating the question about colonialism” (Scott 2005, 23) by those who, in the light of governmental technologies, emphasize the constitutive heterogeneity of global space as a temporary and unstable product of a complex process. This has the obvious consequence of producing emergent stories and subjectivities that are “other” than the homogeneous and compliant story of the nation state, taking into consideration that “if with sovereignty, the relation between ruler and ruled is such that power reaches out like an extension of the arm of the prince himself, announcing itself periodically with unambiguous ceremony, with government, governor and governed are thrown into a new and different relation, one that is the product not merely of the expanded capacity of the State apparatus but of the emergence of a new field for producing effects of power—the new, self-regulating field of the social” (Scott 33-4). This is a field that is affected by individuals, groups and heterogeneous populations in no way related to the uniform homogeneous forms and limits that characterized the system of the Rule of Law, of rights and citizenship.


At this point we can turn our attention to the case described by Aihwa Ong. It is an example, we might say, of re-identification that inserts itself into a sociocultural process of at least partial subjectification and dis-identification with respect to the symbolic code as well as to the original imaginary: “Poor refugees and immigrants are subjected to a series of determining codifications and administrative rulings that govern how they should be assessed and treated, and how they should think of themselves and their action … The effects of technologies of governing as related through social programs and experts seeking to shape one’s subjectivity can be rejected, modified, or transformed by individuals who somehow do not entirely come to imagine, to act, or to be enabled in quite the ways envisioned in the plans and project of authorities. Thus while governing technologies are involved in the making of citizens by subjecting them to given rationalities, norms, and practices, individuals also play a part in their own subjectification or self-making. Ambivalence is an unavoidable product of the process” (Ong 2003, 16).

These people are forced into a new definition (somehow they subject themselves to it) but also, in some way, they actively reinvent their own ‘identity’. Their subjectivation is shaped within a new context, but, in relation to the latter, they show themselves capable of following alternative routes and adopting resistance strategies. The conceptual crux of governmentality—the subjection/subjectivation relationship—receives a particularly striking and interesting explanation. There is no frontal resistance. On the contrary, at the time of the conscious acceptance of legal rights and obligations, a series of practices designed to elude the techniques of governmental control are put into place. Cultural difference and the distant spatial origin thus allow the shaping of a particular form of distance in the identification process; a distance that is achieved not through logoi, discourses or reasoning, but through sub-political practices. Though the latter are part of governmental rationality (and of the laws that include them), they divert from or circumvent it, with the effect of impressing on it alternative directions and different purposes with respect to the ‘assimilation’ project pursued by the U.S. government. The key notion of the citizen, or more modestly, of the immigrant or legal refugee, is recognized and accepted as a guarantee and as a force; but pragmatically it also fits within a process of (re)localization and (re)aligning of oneself in which symbolic codes (the state and market in the first place), with their truth regimes aimed at standardization and control, are ‘bent’, hybridized, and devoid of their own goal.

Following the arguments set forth by Foucault in the The Birth of Biopolitics, Ong explicitly states that her analysis (regarding the acquisition of citizenship, the dynamics of social and political subjectivation of peoples from other countries) takes the North American context as its reference, since it best illustrates the governmental logic of the homo economicus, of ‘economic man’. The subjectivity proper of such a context would seem to be regulated by this standard behavior. Yet it is precisely here—in relation to the problems of a multicultural and transnational society; through a reworking of citizenship itself through the conceptual nexus of modern politics and society developed now in light of flexibility—that we see ‘disturbing’ models of subjectivation, classification and identification emerge.

The expression flexible citizenship, which for classical law is an oxymoron and a contradiction in terms, highlights the ambivalence of the effects of governmental dispositifs. These oscillate between the assumption of the alleged and assumed freedom and autonomy of the governed, and the concrete fragility of the practices that render this freedom and power visible, upon which are superimposed requests for dependency and heteronomy (Wallinger-Schorn 2001, 30).[5] Going back to our case study, upon their arrival on American soil the refugees are treated under a regime of racialization. This means that the governmental dispositif works by classifying ‘populations’ according to cultural and social but also ethno-racial categories (in this case, the groups of individuals from a given country such as Cambodia). The aim is not simply repressive and exclusionist. Rather, the ethno-racial classification has differential-inclusive purposes, for it aims to evaluate the employment potential of the governed. Obviously the goal is low-cost and flexible work. In this case—and this is clearly different from that of Chinese managers or Indian IT experts—the simplification and racial stigma force the ‘population’ itself into a subordinate and servile role. The consequence is that the Cambodian refugees, for whom the United States are, in any case, the land of freedom after despair and totalitarianism, swiftly gain awareness of the role in which the new symbolic identification locates them. The power of the democratic state is biopolitical in nature. It exerts its grip on their bodies, objectifying them in view of a specific government objective, assuming the care, of course, but at the same time disciplining them for a specific purpose. Identification in a liberal regime, however, is ambivalent. While its aim is production and the market, it takes place within a legal context. A context of rights, of civil rights and—in a governmental and economic rationality—especially, rights ensuring access to social policies (social rights). Of the congeries of rights tied around the concept of citizenship, evidently political rights here have no relevance contrary to the set of assistance and “care” rights that enhance productivity and life.

In our case, of course, the Cambodians begin their path towards their inclusion in social and productive life, assuming the stereotypical image built by social workers, teachers and bureaucrats.

Inclusive governmentality shows its reception capacity; but there is a high price. To be governed means, despite the casuistry, to occupy a certain position in it. Accepting, then, an identity symbolically construed appears to be a necessity from which the governed cannot escape. And yet at the same time and despite this, we witness practices and attempts to bring into play a form of strategic, not essentialist, identity. It is almost, I would say, a non-identity that is defined and exhausted within the network of relationships of powers and forces, irreducible to the identity/otherness dichotomy.

In the path leading to what Ong calls ‘good citizenship’, for example, the dispositif of medical welfare obviously plays a significant role in identification and classification.[6] Indeed, as Aiwa Ong claims, even though doctors and health professionals work toward a normalization according to the aforementioned criteria, and in accordance with the presumed ethno-racial characteristics with which the governed have been defined, the effects are always distorted. These health care workers, who act as ‘socialization agents’, fail to normalize the refugees in the way expected, which consists in construing subjects who undergo self-assessment and self-monitoring processes, and of training people capable of planning their own existence as responsible individuals. Well aware of what were in America the limits of their rights and safety Cambodian patients, rather, negotiate a variety of resources with theie operators. The vocabulary of rights is thus used outside of a legal logic; in an economic fashion, as a tool to obtain goods, benefits, and room for maneuver. The negotiation places the poor newcomers within a set of rituals, institutional practices, and routine obligations that become essential to learn how to re-place membership. Practices thus replace the legal universals and translate them into forms of life: “Although doctors and health workers were in a sense socializing agents, the refugees were not “normalized” in quite the ways intended—as self-monitoring patients and life-planning citizens. Instead, acutely aware of their own limited rights and security in America, Cambodian patients constantly negotiated with health providers for a variety of resources. Engaging in such institutional practices was an unavoidable set of rituals and routines for impoverished newcomers along their road to learning and resetting the terms of belonging” (Ong 2003, 119).

Everything takes place at the boundaries of legality, and often beyond them. The imaginary in which the populations of the governed identify themselves is hybrid. We have forms of re-invention of the faith that from Buddhism pass into the Mormon religion (2003 195-228); family businesses are developed while continuing to receive subsidy; adherence to urban gangs takes place alongside the dutiful obedience to institutional social policies (2003 229-49). In this fabric of hybridization we might see attempts to stay within governmental identifications, but also the attempt to stretch them towards paths that might lead to a different fate than that of being a low cost labor force.

Finally, it could be argued that in this powerful, seemingly destinal and unassailable governmental machine the dispositifs of subjectivation that it puts into place and that are available to it are not capable of actually performing the objectivations, classifications, and valuations that they are meant to do. There remains a field of resistance that refers to a degree of dis-identification that opens in every process of symbolic identification, and that is all the more evident in forms where there is a reconstruction of identity. The practices we have used as examples already highlight the disconnection in governmental rationality of citizenship from the identitary, and therefore exclusionary, definitions that long have been their lynchpin. The terms that define citizenship must be sought in the specific and differentiated evaluation of citizenship itself, that are made within the techniques of governmental power. These processes of identification show a sensitive cleavage, a sensitive non-coincidence, with the experiences of those who are invested by it.

Our refugee does not fully accept the imaginary representation built by the inclusionary discourse of the U.S. This is not to say that the imaginary does not function as a support to his inclusion in the social context. It is certainly an imaginary loaded with libido, requiring a deep emotional investment that can plow through the refugee’s original identity. But the distance remains nonetheless – and in this exemplary case it is visible, bringing a new gap into play. Perhaps faced with the risk of schizophrenic divisions it undermines dangerously the person’s own identitary cohesion. But it also offers him niches of coexistence and compatibility, spaces of negotiation and ‘livability’. The representation offered to the refugee is accepted with passion but also with reservation, leaving in its wake an unsaid. It is assumed to be reworked and negotiated in forms of resistance and self-subjectivation, perhaps through behaviors that go beyond the law without frontally transgressing it, without opposing it antagonistically and thus politically. There is no radicalness, no fracture, but there is, rather, a twisting and a transaction. The assertion of mediation and negotiation (of rights, but also of goods, spaces and benefits) is achieved at the expense of potential antagonism, and it prevents the politicization of subjectivities, at least of those subjectivities that exist according to the political forms to which we have grown accustomed.


01. See Ong (2003, 9).

02. See Brown (2010); Mezzadra & Neilson (2013); Andreas (2003).

03. For a different perspective see Ellickson (1991), in which the author examines the imbalanced role of the law in favor of people’s attitudes toward mediation and private negotiation.

04. See Benhabib (2004, 2006).

05. See the concept as it has been developed by Ong herself with reference to the ‘diaspora of Chinese managers’ in Southeast Asia (1999, 112). Also see Wallinger-Schorn, 2011, 30.

06. “Talking medicine buttressed a disease narrative whereby stereotypical Asian patients’ beliefs were integrated into and transformed within the medical paradigm. In practice, then, cultural sensitivity became a strategy that used cultural difference not so much to understand particular experiences of illness as to read symptoms that confirmed universalized states of bio-medicine” (Ong 2003, 104).


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