Subjects of Responsibility: Framing Personhood in Modern Bureaucracies

Subjects of Responsibility: Framing Personhood in Modern Bureaucracies

Subjects of Responsibility: Framing Personhood in Modern Bureaucracies

Subjects of Responsibility: Framing Personhood in Modern Bureaucracies

Synopsis

How and why has the concept of responsibility come to pervade the fabric of American public and private life? How are ideas of responsibility instantiated in, and constituted by, the workings of social and political institutions? What place do liberal discourses of responsibility, based on the individual, have in today's biopolitical world, where responsibility is so often a matter of risk assessment, founded in statistical probabilities? Bringing together the work of scholars in anthropology, law, literary studies, philosophy, and political theory, the essays in this volume show how state and private bureaucracies play crucial roles in fashioning forms of responsibility, which they then enjoin on populations. How do government and market constitute subjects of responsibility in a culture so enamored of individuality? In what ways can those entities--centrally, in modern culture, those engaged in insuring individuals against loss or harm--themselves be held responsible, and by whom? What kinds of subjectivities are created in this process? Can such subjects be said to be truly responsible, and in what sense?

Excerpt

Responsibility. What’s your policy?

LIBERTY MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY

Bringing together the writings of scholars in anthropology, law, literary studies, philosophy, and political theory, Subjects of Responsibility asks how and why the concept of responsibility—confused and contested throughout its peculiar history—has come today to pervade the fabric of Western, in particular American, public and private life. Ideas of responsibility are instantiated in, and constituted by, the workings of social and political institutions; appeals to responsibility are used to define the parameters of inclusion in American culture, and those appeals become standards against which new social arrangements are judged. Since state bureaucracies play crucial roles in fashioning the forms of responsibility enjoined on the populations they serve, this collection suggests that efforts to cultivate an ethos of individual responsibility constrain or mask the exercise of power. We inquire in particular into the obscure origins and paradoxical functioning of types of private insurance, which, some claim, undermine the responsibility they appear to promote. How do government and market constitute subjects of responsibility in a culture so enamored of individuality? What kinds of subjectivities are created in this process? Are such subjects truly responsible?

These concerns are, of course, not new. They can be traced at least as far back as Hannah Arendt’s famous invocation of the “banality of evil” as a framework for understanding the Holocaust. But in an increasingly bureaucratized world, taking up Arendt’s interest in the subject of responsibility remains important, because appeals to ideas of individual responsibility continue to saturate discourses of state, commerce, and family in liberal democracies. Thus, in his first inaugural address Bill Clinton told Americans: “It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing, from our government or from each other. Let us all take more responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country.” Or, as Barack Obama put it in a speech before . . .

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