Hyper Obedience, Malicious Compliance and NYC Cycling

In Security, Territory, Population Foucault analyses a number of themes of counter-conduct in relation to the Christian pastorate. Choosing counter-conduct, rather than dissidence, Foucault is drawing attention to the way relations of power shape and invest the body, postures, comportment and conduct. To resist these relations, they need to be countered with practices and strategies that “redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth”.

One such strategy is hyper-obedience – an “exaggerated and exorbitant element” of obedience. This is not merely disobedience against an authority, but an intimate work of the self on the self that disrupts the pastors authority.

Foucault describes this strategy as  “a sort of close combat of the individual with himself in which the authority, presence, and gaze of someone else is, if not impossible, at least unnecessary.” In adopting the countering-conduct of hyper-obedience the individual or group “stifles obedience through the excess of prescriptions and challenges that the individual addresses to himself.”

The logic of hyper-obedience is articulated more precisely by Gary Ransom, a change management consultant. When asked “What kind of obstacles should business leaders anticipate as they endeavour to manage change?” Ransom responds:

[T]here are even worse things than outright resistance. One of our financial services clients coined the term “malicious compliance”… essentially, doing exactly what’s asked of you – no more, no less. Malicious compliance can be a killer because it’s hard to reprimand and because it undermines the credibility of the whole process. People come back to you and say, “See? I did just what you asked, and look at how it screwed things up”.

In doing the very thing that is being asked, the employee frustrates the goals and processes of the authority asking them to act in a particular way. A similar approach has been suggested by Matthew Woessner in response to Penn State University’s wellness plan. According to Woessner the plan requires all staff to

“complete an online wellness profile” as well as undergo a “preventive physical exam” designed to “help employees and their spouse or same-sex domestic partner learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”

Failure to do this will result in a $100 monthly surcharged deducted from the employees paycheck. Woessner calls on his colleagues to resist not through disobedience, but compliance. He proposes that employees fill out forms with volumes of irrelevant “lifestyle” information and use personal doctors rather than the insurers mobile medical teams. According to Woessner,

if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable. (More details here).

Woessner calls this approach civil disobedience. I would suggest it is hyper-obedience. But whatever it is, I hope it works.

Here is another humorous example:

Gary Ransom and Tom Knighton, “Stepping up to the challenge of change,” Managing Service Quality 6, no. 5 (1996): p.13.

see Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. (p. 200 – 201)

Inviting Judgement: A Note On Everyday Life, Eating and Smartphone Apps

I recently purchased an iPhone for the purpose of researching an app called The Eatery. According to a review from Time The Eatery “asks you to snap a picture of your food, and provides you with a healthiness meter that rates not just your current meal, but your noshing habits over time”. The stated logic of this app is that others are better at judging the healthiness of your food than you are. Over the past 28 days I have snapped 214 meals. Each meal has been assessed by other users along a spectrum from “fat” to “fit”. An aggregate of the individual meal ratings in a week tells me how I ate in comparison to previous weeks, days and other users. For example, in the week of June 3rd I “ate 73% healthy” which was “4% healthier than last week. Thursday was [my] best day, and Monday was [my] worst day.” The more data the more details. I eat most of my meals at home. My “healthiest” meal was at Korean restaurant. And my “unhealthiest” meal was at my parents.

Of course, there are several significant disconnects in all this:

  1. The description and visual representation of the food is not identical to its actual nutritional content. E.g. A meat pie described “homemade” accompanying a well-lit photo gets a healthier rating than a mere meat pie in a dimly lit room.
  2. The “healthiness meter” does not account for the overall diet. E.g. Mandarins and apples get ratings of 90-99%, yet a diet consisting of only mandarins and apples could not be consider “healthy” let alone 99% healthy.
  3. Nutritional health is valued over Well-being. E.g. This app, like many others emphasises the nutritional function of food. Leaving aside the place of exercise in physiological health, food also plays a significant role in individual and communal well-being. One user put a picture of a piece of chocolate cake with the label “My 16th Birthday Cake”. On the scale of “fat-to-fit” this would rate poorly, but is the “health” of a birthday cake only located in its nutritional value or can it include notions of well-being and hold symbolic importance.

There are many other ways to consider this app and the increasing use of smartphones to measure and quantify life. However one of my primary interests is in the way everyday life is increasingly colonized by dual operation of smartphones and biomedical norms of health. Innocuous habits such as snacking on crackers with peanut-butter are not only judged against purported values of nutritional health but we willing offer up these practices for judgement. Not unlike the penitent turning to the confessional, perhaps we recognise a value in having these activities judged and scrutinized by others.

The allusion to the confessional is not incidental. Michel Foucault writes that Western society has become a confessing society. “One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctors, to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell anyone else…Western man has become a confessing animal.”[1] There’ll be more on the confession in a future post, but the point I am currently interested in is the attention given to the mundane and quotidian as effective of social and biomedical reality.

Many aspects of The Eatery and other apps that quantify life through measuring everyday habits are not new. Although food, exercise and health-related activities have been made conspicuous but smartphones, these developments are just the most recent in a long history of interrogating and routinising everyday life.

Charles Taylor elucidates some of this history in comparing Aristotelian to Protestant ethics. According to Taylor, “traditional, Aristotelian ethics” regarded ‘ordinary life’ – the life of production and the family – as holding mere “infrastructural importance”, serving as “the necessary background and support to ‘the good life’ of contemplation and one’s action as a citizen”.[2] In the Reformation, Taylor locates “a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life”.[3] Rather than finding the ‘good’ or ‘higher’ life in philosophical contemplation or monastic retreat, Taylor, following Max Weber,[4] argues that ordinary and everyday life becomes a locus for political action and self-understanding. The importance and affirmation of everyday life “becomes one of the most powerful ideas in modern civilization” and “colours our whole understanding of what it is truly to respect human life and integrity”.[5]

The measuring and quantifying of everyday habits and health-related behaviors is arguably a continuation of these processes – a secular working on the self that serve (bio) political ends of physical health and longevity rather than salvation in the next life, or in more Calvinist tones evidence election. Instead Th Eatery and practices like it demonstrate a vigilance over ones bodily health and attempt to align the everyday with norms promoted by putative nutrition experts.

In reinforcing the place of the everyday at the centre of the good life, The Eatery contributes to a ressentiment that values nutrition over pleasure or the “high rating” mandarin over the “low rating” celebratory cake. This is not inevitable, although the tide certainly appears to be moving in that direction. However, I contend that new pleasures will respond. Rather than nutrition over pleasure, there will be pleasure and nutrition, binging and purging, and detoxing and retoxing. That is, an agonism of consumption that is both/and not either/or. But more on this another time.

[1] Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge (New York: Penguin, 1998), p.59.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge Classics, 2001).

[5] Ibid., p.14.

C.S. Lewis and MasterChef

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Collins, 1988: 82.

If the feverish desire for MasterChef and “food porn” in general weren’t enough, it has been announced that the leader’s debate between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott will be moved an hour earlier to make way for the MasterChef final.

The Soul is the Machine

The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection much more profound than himself. A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.                        Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1991: 30.

The body is shaped, subjected and brought into existence not from within, but without. It is not the soul inside that animates the body subjectifying it, but the soul outside as pedagogy, psychology, and increasingly the electronic machines surrounding, mediating, and broadcasting us as subjects.

Types of machines are easily matched with each type of society–not that
machines are determining, but because they express those social forms
capable of generating them and using them. – Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control

From societies of discipline to societies of control; from regulation and segmentation of space, to circulation and speed. No longer is the gaze of the panopticon a feared limitation of conduct, but a desired circulation and production of conduct. To be watched, monitored, surveyed and followed is not the fear of the paranoid schizophrenic, but the desire, hope and need of the subject of control.

iPhone4: ‘This Changes Everything. Again.’
While everyone else was busy trying to keep up with iPhone, we were busy creating amazing new features that make iPhone more powerful, easier to use, and more indispensable than ever. Apple advertising

The soul as machine becomes a powerful affect on the body. Shaping, transforming and enabling certain relations and delimiting others. The soul as machine becomes indispensable to self, and its relation to itself.

I forgot my headphones today and I feel dis-eased.