For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Revisiting Foucault through reading Agamben: implications for workplace subjectification, desubjectification and the dark side of organizations"

by Ek, Richard; Fougère, Martin; Skålén, Per (2007)


Questions of subjectivity have been a central concern in organization studies (OS) – and the subfield of critical management studies (CMS) – at least since the late 1980s. Despite differences, existing approaches to subjectivity have one thing in common: a theoretical interest in the construction and reproduction of subjectivity, that is, subjectification. However, to our knowledge, no study within OS and CMS has explicitly focused on desubjectification – processes of breaking free from subject positions. This is perhaps an effect of the lack of such research in general social sciences and philosophy. This paper aims to address this gap in OS and CMS by conceptualizing subjectivity as being produced through a dialectical process of subjectification and desubjectification. The theoretical discussion of the paper is particularly based on the works of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. Subjectivity here is seen as the result of both subjectification and desubjectification. The former refers to the subject positions that organizational actors move towards while the latter is understood as the subject positions they break free from. To us, the discourse/knowledge nexus frames these processes since it defines accepted and illegitimate subject positions (those one should strive towards and those one should break free from). In the paper, we first recapitulate the Foucauldian conceptualization of subjectivity and discuss Foucault’s marginal but nevertheless existing interest in desubjectification. Thereafter we introduce the work of Giorgio Agamben and contextualize his work within a biopolitical resurgence in the social sciences and humanities today. In a fourth section, a tentative conceptual framework of organizational subjectivity is laid out. We then turn to a discussion centering on how a reading of Agamben may contribute to the understanding of the dark side of organization. In the conclusion, possible implications for OS and the ‘reconnection’ of CMS are discussed.

Key Passage

The Foucauldian analysis of workplace subjectivity (e.g. Bergström and Knights, 2006; Covaleski et al., 1998; Knights and McCabe, 1999; Townley, 1993) has been preoccupied with subjectification, that is, with what a subject position has to offer in terms of new ways of thinking, behaving and feeling. Empirical research has accordingly focused on what a person becomes when entering a new subject position. But analyses of workplace subjectivity have not systematically focused on ways of thinking, behaving and feeling that are incongruent with a particular subject position. Empirical research has thus not focused on which abilities a person takes a critical attitude towards and leaves behind and how this empowers the process of transformation of subjectivity. This is understandable. Particularly if the analysis is based upon Foucault’s work on power (Foucault, 1977, 1981), since what he was interested in then, was the process of subjectification in discourse and power/knowledge. He thus did not have much use of a notion of desubjectification. Later though, in his work on ethics (Foucault, 1985a, 1985b), desubjectification came to take a more central role. The process of selfmaking, which he primarily focused upon then, requires as its condition a kind of desubjectification in taking a critical attitude toward, or breaking from, the discourses and norms by which one is made a subject. Even though Foucault did never articulate a notion of desubjectification it is thus possible to trace an implicit such notion in his works on ethics.  (p.4)


Foucault, Agamben, Workplace Subjectification, Desubjectification, Organisational Studies, Critical Management Studies


On Foucault, Foucault, Organisation and Management Studies

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