- The Well-Tempered Self: Citizenship, Culture, and the Postmodern Subiect
In The Well-Tempered Self, Toby Miller presents a dazzling analysis of how citizenship is produced through the diverse cultural relations of the modern capitalist state. Drawing extensively from Foucault’s accounts of subjectivity and the processes of normalization, and demonstrating ample knowledge of other theorists as well, Miller argues that a dichotomous subjectivity emerges as an effect of the discourses and practices of cultural capitalism. The “ideal citizen” is forged as divided between two opposing kinds of subjectivity. On the one hand, the citizen is disciplined to be a selfless and community-minded individual; on the other hand, s/he is trained as a selfish and appetitive consumer of goods and services. This paradoxical split subjectivity is achieved through adherence to civility as a prime virtue. As the title of the book suggests, civility means that the loyal citizen is to be well-tempered—hence maneageable. Miller contends that the modern state’s form of democracy ushered in new codes of civil conduct, ones that emphasize indeterminancy or incompleteness as endemic to the nature of citizenry itself. It is this indeterminancy that feeds the paradoxical split subjectivity requisite for capitalist logic and market expansion.
The particular strength of this book derives from three (of five) chapters in which Miller documents how civility serves technologies of public and private commerce and governance. Chapter 3, “Nation, Drama, Diplomacy,” surveys reactions to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in regard to free trade in television programs. Here Miller links nation-building, citizen-making, and market competition by showing how certain nations, primarily Australia in this case, resisted U. S. domination of their airways by employing a narrative of cultural identity constituted through requisite incompleteness. Chapter 4 furthers demonstration of the split subject by focusing on debates about televising parliamentary democracy. Although the rhetoric of these debates invariably insists that the value of making parliament available to viewers resides in the enhancement of electoral knowledge, Miller astutely argues that “this is as much about refashioning the politician as it is about detailing and remedying the inadequacies of the elector.” The effect on both the elector and the elected is cultural training [End Page 928] of the citizen. In this case, he takes up notions of authorship and speech writing to show just how deeply at odds and yet intimately linked the disinterested citizen and selfish consumer are.
After treating the technologies of subject formation that produce a divided individual, Miller turns to a technology of the self that serves as an alternative to the citizen/consumer split. Chapter 5, “New Technologies to Form New Selves,” the most exciting and innovative portion of the book, analyzes instances of incivility that challenge the deployment of cultural subjection. Combining Foucault’s insights on ethics and Lyotard’s notion of the differend as a site of linguistic instability, Miller proposes that cultural analysts should attend more carefully to what he calls “differends de soi,” forms of autoinvention that resist disciplinary regimes. In a fascinating discussion of clashes between forces of civility and incivility, he focuses on “unruly” political protests waged by the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence / an order of gay male nuns,” occasioned by the visit of Pope John Paul II to Sydney University in 1986. His reading, which situates both papal policy and sexual politics within a complex historical framework, shows how such parodic politics keeps citizenship itself more dynamic and therefore more responsive to exercises of freedom.
This work will be of great interest to students of cultural studies and philosophy. It also has implications for literary theory, and draws deftly from it, but the portion of the text explicitly devoted to textual theory (chapter 2) is overly dense and less well focused than the rest of the book. This is a minor point in an otherwise well-written and important contribution to cultural theory.