Are we living in Deleuze’s society of control?

Many years ago, on a drive from Berlin to Paris, I found myself talking with an official at the French border. I don’t recall precisely what we had to discuss, but after a brief conversation he tried to express himself in English to inform me that I could enter the country. “I will control you,” he said.

He meant both that he would examine my passport, and see to it that I got across the border. This double sense of contrôle is relevant to Deleuze’s picture of a “post-disciplinary” society.

It’s a world that depends on a constant flow of people, information, commodities, and capital from one part of the planet to another. Controls of various kinds – institutional, electronic, pharmaceutical, and educational – are designed to facilitate the flow, not to inhibit it. The infrastructure invites and encourage individuals – or dividuals, as Deleuze christens them – to divide and distribute their time, skills, and attention among the many different corporate and state enterprises that float freely over the streams, vectors, platforms, channels, and interfaces.

The flow never stops, and there is nowhere that flows do not penetrate. Everything in society bears down on you at once, all the time, and everywhere, although you are apparently bringing this on yourself.

Deleuze was a brilliant philosopher, and that’s putting it too mildly. But his political and social thinking was not of the same caliber as his metaphysics.

Like Michel Foucault, Deleuze had a way of describing in ominous language things that most people regard as beneficial. “Disciplinary societies,” Deleuze writes, “initiate the organization of vast spaces of enclosure” and “the individual … [is passed] from one closed environment to another.” This is how Deleuze characterizes mid-20th century family life, schooling, work, and health care as well as prisons. Oppressive enclosures such as families and hospitals served to “concentrate; to distribute in space; to order in time; [and] to compose a productive force” in order to effect the total “administration of life.”

Now, however, the “carceral archipelago” has been replaced by a new “monster”: the society of control. Caught in the coils of this “serpent,” the “dividuals” even come to desire their own oppression. Laments Deleuze: “Many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training.” Quelle horreur!

Are we living in a society of control? Deleuze captured important aspects of our globalized and networked world, and in many ways he was uncannily prescient. On the other hand, he was rather overwrought. From the vantage point of the theorist of control societies, “neighborhood clinics, hospices, and day care … could participate … in mechanisms of control that are equal to the harshest of confinements.” Having to follow the rules at a day care center is as bad as being in prison?

Finer distinctions are required.

Below, an “oppressive” corporation subjects a “dividual” to “control.”

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