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I have recently been exploring an area of Michel Foucault’s work which is not often emphasised; his analysis of work and its importance for discipline and capitalism. The way Foucault is often presented in undergraduate courses is as focusing on discourse and the mutual interdependence of power and knowledge. This sometimes leads to a view of him as seeing bodies and materiality as almost infinitely pliable to discourses.

Bodies are of course not produced through discourse but often through work (which may be informed by discourses of various kinds).  Similarly, discipline functions through work in many cases. Foucault explicitly conceptualised his approach to work in Discipline and Punish and an interview (“On Power”) with Pierre Boncenne but  I came across this through reading Norma Jackson and Pippa Carter’s excellent paper on this topic in the book Foucault, Management and Organization Theory.

Foucault suggested that work has three functions:

  1. The production of value
  2. Control
  3. Dressage

The first is similar to the classical Marxist view of work; that its purpose is to generate a use value which can become an exchange value and sold in a market.The second, control, is the aspect of work which is most commonly seen in Foucault’s work, the disciplinary function of military drills or prison punishments (eg. “breaking rocks in the hot sun”). The third, dressage, is perhaps the most interesting and unexpected. Dressage is a performative management of the body to show control over it. The way I see it this can be the  control of one’s own body or that of another (as with the control of a horse in competitive dressage).

For Foucault a particular form of work may have these different functions to varying degrees. For instance, the work conducted in prisons often produces no value and is almost purely about control. Military training also produces no direct value rather it has a function of exerting control but also has a dressage function in the sense of presenting a particular form and deportment.

In most instances work will have all of these functions. This is an interesting analysis which I feel has been largely underexplored and I would be interested to hear about any applications of it anyone has come across. More significantly than the analytical interest is that to me this seems to be a particularly pertinent way to critique work in the contemporary context.

The production of value is increasingly disconnected from work today. Some of the most successful “industries” such as the financial sector do not produce value so much as  generate it through speculation. Many people work productively for little or no pay in internships and in creative industries in particular. Others work in jobs in which they see no real value themselves (see for instance, David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs). How much of our jobs are actually about the performance of work; being seen to be working rather than doing anything productive?

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