The Flexible Personality - Notes

Notes for Brain Holmes' text: The Flexible Personality: For a New Cultural Critique.


1. The World Social Forum, held for the first time in Porto Alegre in January 2001, is symbolic of the turn away from neoclassical or "supply-side" economics. Another potent symbol can be found in the charges leveled by economist Joseph Stiglitz at his former employers, the World Bank, and even more importantly, at the IMF-the major transnational organ of the neoclassical doctrine.

2. For a short history of cultural studies as a popular-education movement, then a more theoretical treatment of its origins and potentials, see Raymond Williams, "The Future of Cultural Studies" and "The Uses of Cultural Theory," both in The Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 1989).

3. See Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, et. al., Resistance through Rituals (London: Routledge 1993, 1st edition 1975), esp. the "theoretical overview" of the volume, pp. 9-74.

4. The reversal becomes obvious with L. Grossberg et. al., eds., Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1992), an anthology that marks the large-scale exportation of cultural studies to the American academic market.

5. The methodological device of the ideal type was developed by Max Weber, particularly in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; as we shall see, it was taken up as a polemical figure by the Frankfurt School in the 1950s.

6. Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996/1st ed. 1973), p. 116.

7. Herbert Marcuse, "Some Social Implications of Modern Technology," in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Continuum, 1988), pp. 143, 158.

8. The term "state capitalism" is more familiar as an indictment of false or failed communism of the Stalinist Soviet Union, for instance in Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London: Pluto Press, 1974); however, the concept as developed by the Frankfurt School applied, with variations, to all the centrally planned economies that emerged after the Great Depression.

9. Friedrich Pollock, "State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations" (1941), in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, op. cit., p. 78.

10. Otto Kirchheimer, "Changes in the Structure of Political Compromise" (1941), in ibid., p. 70.

11. T.W. Adorno et. al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950).

12. T.W. Adorno, "Commitment" (1962), in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, op. cit. p. 303.

13. Ibid., p. 304.

14. M. Crozier, S. Huntington, J. Watanabi, The Crisis of Democracy (Trilateral Commission, 1975), p. 74.

15. In the words of the Parisian enragés: "What are the essential features of council power? Dissolution of all external power-Direct and total democracy-Practical unification of decision and execution-Delegates who can be revoked at any moment by those who have mandated them-Abolition of hierarchy and independent specializations-Conscious management and transformation of all the conditions of liberated life-Permanent creative mass participation-Internationalist extension and coordination. The present requirements are nothing less than this. Self-management is nothing less." From a May 30, 1968 communiqué, signed ENRAGÉS-SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE, COUNCIL FOR MAINTAINING THE OCCUPATIONS, made available over the Internet by Ken Knabb at: <>.

16. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975/1st German edition 1973), p. 36.

17. The Crisis of Democracy, op. cit., p. 113.

18. The origins of the "conservative revolution" are described by Keith Dixon in an excellent book, Les évangélistes du marché (Paris: Raisons d'agir, 1998).

19. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 8.

20. Thomas Frank, ibid., p. 229; the references to Harvey are on pp. 25 and 233.

21. Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide (New York: Basic Books, 1984), p. 4.

22. The research inspired by the industrial innovations of Northern Italy is pervaded by culturalist or "institutional" theories, holding that forms of economic organization grow out of all-embracing social structures, often defined by reference to a premodern tradition. Such a reference is mystifying. As Antonio Negri writes: "It is not the memory of former types of work that leads the overexploited laborers of massive Taylorist industries first to double employment, then to black-market labor, then to decentralized work and entrepreneurial initiative, but instead the struggle against the pace imposed by the boss in the factory, and the struggle against the union... It is only on the basis of the 'refusal of work' as the motive force in this flight from the factory that one can understand certain characteristics initially taken on by decentralized labor." M. Lazarrato, Y. Moulier-Boutang, A. Negri, G. Santilli, Des entreprises pas comme les autres: Benetton en Italie et Le Sentier à Paris (Publisud, 1993), p. 46.

23. Piore and Sabel did, of course, grasp the importance of programmable manufacturing tools in flexible production (cf. The Second Industrial Divide, op. cit., pp. 26-20). More generally, they remark that "the fascination of the computer-as documented in the ethographic studies-is that the user can adapt it to his or her own purposes and habits of thought" (ibid., p. 261); but they did not predict just how far this would go, i.e. how much of the new economy could be based on such a fascination.

24. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1999); for what follows, cf. esp. pp. 208-85. The authors use Weberian methodology to propose a new ideal type of capitalist entrepreneur, "connectionist man." They do not systematically relate this ideal type to a new sociopolitical order and mode of production/consumption, nor do they grasp the full ambivalence determined by the origins of the flexible type in the period around 1968; but they provide an excellent description of the ideology that has emerged to neutralize that ambivalence.

25. Andrea Branzi, one of the North Italian designers who led and theorized this transition, distinguishes between the "Homogeneous Metropolis" of mass-produced industrial design, and what he calls "the Hybrid Metropolis, born of the crisis of classical modernity and of rationalism, which discovers niche markets, the robotization of the production line, the diversified series, and the ethnic and cultural minorities." "The Poetics of Balance: Interview with Andrea Branzi," in F. Burkhardt and C. Morozzi, Andrea Branzi (Paris: Editions Dis-Voir, undated), p. 45.

26. In L'individu incertain (Paris: Hachette, 1999, 1st ed. 1995), sociologist Alain Ehrenberg describes the postwar regime of consumption as being "characterized by a passive spectator fascinated by the [television] screen, with a dominant critique marked by the model of alienation." He then links the positive connotations of the computer terminal in our own day to "a model of communication promoting inter-individual exchanges modeled on themes of activity and relationships, with self-realization as the dominant stereotype of consumption" (p. 240). Note the disappearance of critique in the second model.

27. The phrase "selective tradition" is from the essay "When was Modernism?" in Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism, op. cit.; this text and the one that follows constitute what is perhaps William's deepest meditation on capitalist alienation in the historical development of aesthetic forms.

28. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 141-48.

29. In the text "Immaterial Labor," Maurizio Lazarrato proposes the notion of aesthetic production: "It is more useful, in attempting to grasp the process of the formation of social communication and its subsumption within the 'economic,' to use, rather than the 'material' model of production, the 'aesthetic' model that involves author, reproduction, and reception.... The 'author' must lose its individual dimension and be transformed into an industrially organized production process (with a division of labor, investments, orders, and so forth), 'reproduction' becomes a mass reproduction organized according to the imperatives of profitability, and the audience ('reception') tends to become the consumer/communicator." Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, eds. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966), p. 144. The computer is the key instrument allowing for this industrial organization of the author function, in constant feedback relations with the communicating public.

30. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (London: Blackwell, 1996), p. 67.

31. Manuel Castells, ibid., p. 374.

32. Michel Foucault, "L'éthique du souci de soi comme pratique de la liberté," interview with H. Becker, R. Forner-Betancourt, A. Gomez-Mueller, in Dits et ecrits (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), vol. IV, p. 728; also see the excellent article by Maurizio Lazarrato, "Du biopouvoir à la biopolitique," in Multitudes 1, pp. 45-57.

33. David Lyon, Surveillance Society (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2001), p. 44.

34. For an analysis of the ways that (self-) censorship operates in contemporary cultural production, see A. Corsani, M. Lazzarato, A. Negri, Le Bassin du travail immateriel (BTI) dans le métropole parisien (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1996), pp. 71-78.

35. Paolo Virno, "The Ambivalence of Disenchantment," in Radical Thought in Italy, op. cit., pp. 17-18.

36. Lyotard, La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979), esp. pp. 13-14 et 31-33.

37. Paolo Virno, "The Ambivalence of Disenchantment," op. cit., p. 17. Compare Sennet's discussion of a 1991 U.S. government report on the skills people need in a flexible economy: "in flexible forms of work, the players make up the rules as they go along... past performance is no guide to present rewards; in each office 'game' you start over from the beginning." Richard Sennet, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 110.

38. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, op. cit., p. 44.

39. Can research work in cultural studies, such as Dick Hebdige's classic Subculture, the Meaning of Style, now be directly instrumentalized by marketing specialists? As much is suggested in the book Commodify Your Dissent, eds. Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (New York: Norton, 1997), pp. 73-77, where Frank and Dave Mulcahey present a fictional "buy recommendation" for would-be stock-market investors: "Consolidated Deviance, Inc. ('ConDev') is unarguably the nation's leader, if not the sole force, in the fabrication, consultancy, licensing and merchandising of deviant subcultural practice. With its string of highly successful 'SubCults?,' mass-marketed youth culture campaigns highlighting rapid stylistic turnover and heavy cross-media accessorization, ConDev has brought the allure of the marginalized to the consuming public."

40. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 198-201: "The triple imperative of the Empire is incorporate, differentiate, manage."

41. Piore and Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide, op. cit., pp. 16-17; cf. the section on "Multinational Keynesianism, pp. 252-57.

42. Jagdish Bhagwati, "The Capital Myth," Foreign Affairs May/June 1998; electronic text available at <>.

43. "Une crise sans precedent ebranle l'informatique mondiale," Le Monde, June 13, 2001, p. 18.

44. The ultimate reason for this tolerance appears to be fear. In Souffrance en France (Paris: Seuil, 1998), the labor psychologist Christophe Dejours studies the "banalization of evil" in contemporary management. Beyond the cases of perverse or paranoid sadism, concentrated at the top, he identifies the imperative to display courage and virility as the primary moral justification for doing the "dirty work" (selection for lay-offs, enforcement of productivity demands, etc.). "The collective strategy of defense entails a denial of the suffering occasioned by the 'nasty jobs'.... The ideology of economic rationalism consists...-beyond the exhibition of virility-in making cynicism pass for force of character, for determination and an elevated sense of collective responsibilities... in any case, for a sense of supra-individual interests" (pp. 109-111). Underlying the defense mechanisms, Dejours finds both fear of personal responsibility and fear of becoming a victim oneself; cf. pp. 89-118.

45. The story of the Yes Men is told by RtMark, Corporate Consulting for the 21st Century, at <>; or go directly to <>.

46. The notion that contemporary transnational capitalism legitimates itself and renders itself desirable through a "culture-ideology" is developed by Leslie Sklair, in The Transnational Capitalist Class (London: Blackwell, 2001).

47. Hence the paradoxical, yet essential refusal to conceive oppositional political practice as the constitution of a party, and indeed of a unified social class, for the seizure of state power. Among the better formulations of this paradox is Miguel Benasayag and Diego Sztulwark, Du contre-pouvoir (Paris: La Decouverte, 2000). It is no coincidence that the book also deals with the possibility of transforming the modes of knowledge production: "The difference lies less in belonging or not to a state structure like the university, than in the articulation with alternative dynamics that coproduce, rework and distribute the forms of knowledge. That must be done in sites of 'minority' (i.e. 'non-hegemonic') counter-power, which can gradually participate in the creation of a powerful and vibrant bloc of counter-power" (p. 113).

48. The notion of a new emulation, on an ethical basis, between free and independent subjects seems a far more promising future for the social tie than any restoration of traditional authority. Richard Sennet doesn't hide a certain nostalgia for the latter in The Corrosion of Character, op. cit., pp. 115-16; but he remarks, far more interestingly, that in "the process view of community... reflected in current political studies of deliberative democracy... the evolving expression of disagreement is taken to bind people more than the sheer declaration of 'correct' principles" (pp. 143-44).

49. For a glimpse into the way intellectuals, activists, workers, and artists can cooperate in dissenting actions, see Susan George, "Fixing or nixing the WTO," in Le Monde diplomatique, January 2000, available at