Governmentality, Catachresis, and Organizational Theory

By ten Bos, René | Philosophy Today, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Governmentality, Catachresis, and Organizational Theory


ten Bos, René, Philosophy Today


One can argue that there is no philosopher who has had as much impact on organizational theory as Michel Foucault. A major role in this reception has been played by the concept of "governmentality." Thought about organization, after all, seems to imply many questions about how people are and how they are not to be governed. To organizational theorists the work of Foucault is so enchanting because he asked these kind of questions. However, these theorists have always entertained doubts about the use value of Foucault's ideas. More specifically, they have argued that the concept of "governmentality" lacks the kind of precision needed for the work that they understand themselves to be doing, that is, to analyze organizational processes and practices.

The thesis put forward in this essay is that organizational theorists by and large have missed the point of Foucault's analysis. To understand Foucault's claims about governmentality, one should take into account not only the argumentative structure or literal meaning of what he has to say, but also the way in which he said it. Put differently, we will argue that it is Foucault's catachrestic style of philosophizing that organizational theorists have failed to recognize. Such a style implies that the meaning of philosophical concepts is constantly shifting. This has been a source of frustration to organizational scholars.

This essay proceeds in four sections. In the first one, we will analyze the way Foucault introduces and elaborates upon the concept of governmentality. Why did he introduce this concept which he himself deems to be vague and diffuse? In the second section, some key texts in organizational theory that have addressed the problem of governmentality will be discussed. It will be argued that these texts generally try to fix the meaning of governmentality. In the third section, the concept of "catachresis" (abusio, abuse) will be briefly addressed in order to critique the way organizational theorists have treated governmentality. In the final section, an attempt will be made to show that Foucault's way of doing philosophy, his philosophical style, might be an instance of the kind of philosophical practice that Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when they claimed that philosophy is about the creation of concepts, we will not claim that all philosophy proceeds or should proceed in this way. Our rather more modest claim is that organizational theorists who struggle with Foucault might find his work even more interesting and inspiring were they to take into account his specific philosophical style.

Foucault on Governmentality

Vagueness and undecidability are necessary prerequisites for the analysis of the highly complicated processes in the history of our society that Foucault aims to describe. This especially pertains to the concept of governmentality. My suggestion is that Foucault deliberately uses a word that sounds familiar - the word "government," after all, rings through in "governmentality" - and then starts to undermine the apparent security that seemed to be involved. He "misuses" words in order to hammer home some points about the way power operates in our society. The result is an idiosyncratic mix of ideas and insights, but not something stable that might straightforwardly help organizational scholars with the work of analyzing organizational processes and practices.

Lurking in the background is a concern about Foucault's philosophical style. About two decades ago, Hayden White wrote that the authority of Foucault's discourse does not derive from factual evidence or rigor of argument but rather from a certain style which, "privileges the trope of catachresis in its own elaboration."1 A more detailed discussion on the significance of catachresis will have to wait until the third section. At this stage, it will suffice to provide an example of this style. White refers to a few passages at the end of The Archeaology of Knowledge where Foucault makes sweeping statements about his intention "to free the history of thought from its subjection to transcendence .

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