Control society

(Here are some reading notes from Postscripts on Control Societies, by Gilles Deleuze.)

Quoting Foucault, Gilles Deleuze describes three kinds of societies: sovereign, disciplinary, and control. For a long time, the US was a disciplinary society, where individuals moved from one sphere of “confinement” to the next. So, family, school, barracks, factory, etc. All of these places operated according to very strict hierarchical rules.

Foucault has thoroughly analyzed the ideal behind sites of confinement, clearly seen in the factory: bringing everything together, giving each thing its place, organizing time, setting up in this space-time a force of production [ie, getting the job done, whatever it is] greater than the sum of component forces.

Deleuze lays out his case that we are rapidly becoming a control society (he wrote in 1990 1992). He talks about changes in hospitals, schools, workplaces, and the military, where the individual, designated by a code, is increasingly given priority over the group. “Priority” is a strong word, though. It’s more that the individual is the common, unchangeable data point, around which other data points cluster.

In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while control societies you never finish anything—business, training, and military service being coexisting metastable states of a single modulation, a sort of universal transmutation.

In the disciplinary society, the individual is part of a factory or a machine. It can result in a loss of identity, but there are many different, discrete machines that are made up of individuals. In a control society, accompanied by democratization and globalization, the individual is held up as the ultimate ideal, but the individual becomes a data point, contributing, along with all the other little gray data points, to a massive whole. That's how, in a control society, you can simultaneously have individual freedom and absolute control. In some ways, this can be really empowering for a person. But you have to remember that those in control are human beings, just like you. And there is always, always a cost to doing business.

At one level, the transition from disciplinary to control resulted from an elevation of the individual over the group/society, and at another level, it’s a downstream effect of capitalism.

Capitalism in its present form is no longer directed toward production, which is often transferred to remote parts of the Third World, even in the case of complex operations like textile plants, steelworks, and oil refineries. It’s directed toward metaproduction. It no longer buys raw materials and no longer sells finished products: it buys finished products or assembles them from parts.


Family, school, army, and factory are no longer so many analogous but different sites converging in an owner, whether the state or some private power, but transmutable or transformable coded configurations of a single business where the only people left are administrators.

He’s overstating his case a little bit here. Even in an advanced control society, there’s no way you would only have administrators. But the point stands. I don’t know how many of my friends have jobs in fields where they are essentially managing information, not any actual objects or even people. They (we) are essentially administrators, clicking buttons and creating spreadsheets.

Whatever the cause, Deleuze is spot on in the diagnosis, I think. As much as present day Americans seem to have a lot of freedom – with an internet connection and a prayer, you can educate yourself into an Ivy League school, maybe one day become president for all I know – there’s always hidden friction. Somebody is always setting boundaries; some are just more invisible than others.

I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram where he describes the (pleasurable) feeling of watching TV as observation without being observed. At first, the internet seems to provide that in excelsis: with the all-powerful search bar, you can see almost anything you want to see, from almost anywhere you can get a cell phone connection. But there is no such thing as real anonymity online. By logging in, you leave footprints. So in this control society, as information, entertainment, even (some say) opportunity become democratized, every move is being watched.