A Foucauldian Hangover

Does the French theorist really help explain the Liquor Control Board of Ontario?

Of all the books in a university library, Michel Foucault’s are always the most battered. Whole pages will be underlined, and the few that are not are sure to be crammed with marginalia in a succession of different hands—“biopower!” (underscored three times), “governmentality” (circled each time it occurs) and, when neologisms fail, question marks and the occasional obscene doodle.

In such ways do academics show love. And when they must write something of their own they show it by parroting back what they have read. Nearly three decades after his death, Foucault remains the single most cited author in the journals and conferences tracked by the Social Sciences Citation Index and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. At just under 16,000 citations he is ahead even of Marx, and well ahead of Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu and Mikhail Bakhtin.

A tall tree is a thing of beauty, but new trees cannot grow and flourish in its shade. And so it has been with the ideas of Michel Foucault: their influence has been so outsized that they have had the unintended consequence of discouraging lesser academics from seeing and thinking for themselves.

The other consequence, again unintended, has been to encourage those same academics to write about things that are not, on the face of it, of general interest. The chaos of human existence—the serendipity, the occasional flashes of genius and, more typically, the sheer mediocrity—is shunted aside in favour of phenomena that can be more readily classified and linked to each other—“the gray sciences, the minor professions, the accountants and insurers” to quote from one list of topics recommended by Nikolas Rose, Pat O’Malley and Mariana Valverd.

In the case of Dan Malleck’s Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927–44, a book that starts with an already slight topic—the first 17 years of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario—is progressively pared down until it is a seeming fit with two of Foucault’s key concepts: governmentality and biopower. Along the way there is a nod or two to Max Weber’s theories of bureaucracy and the ways in which its seeming impersonality serves to legitimize authority in modern western societies.

Governmentality, briefly, is the conduct of conduct, a catch-all for all the techniques and procedures that are used to direct human behaviour. Children, souls, consciences, families, the state, the individual—all can be objects of governmentality. Biopower, a closely related concept, refers more narrowly to the “subjugation of bodies and the control of populations” (in Foucault’s words).

To connect these two concepts to the LCBO requires giving short shrift to the board’s original mandate, namely the sale of alcohol for private consumption, and concentrating instead on a mandate it exercised starting in 1934, and then only for a scant ten years: the licensing of public sales of beer in a limited number of hotels.

Both, Malleck tells us, were examples of biopower, but the second was the more insidious because by shaping where, when and how individuals could drink, the LCBO was in reality shaping their relationships with their own bodies. The ideal, captured under the somewhat awkward term “citizen-drinker,” was a person who “indulges, but responsibly, within the constraints imposed by the state and in a way that does not upset the existing social order.”

The rest of the book is an especially dreary picture of life as it was in Depression-era Ontario, its harassed drinkers joylessly drinking watered-down beer under the panoptic gaze of the LCBO. The story is presumably accurate in its details, but falters in the interpretation. If the LCBO’s bureaucrats, many of them political appointees with no particular qualifications, wrote haltingly in the passive voice, this was, according to Malleck, because they embodied Foucault’s ideas of discipline and Weber’s of “rationalization through bureaucratization”—and not, as seems more likely, because they were simply awkward writers.

Elsewhere we are told that a sure sign that drinkers accepted the LCBO’s rules was that they were constantly breaking them, and that the fact that the province’s few licensed drinking establishments were packed meant that people somehow accepted their legitimacy. Perhaps. But the better bet is that people broke rules because they did not like them, and flocked to licensed establishments because they had no alternative.

Contra Foucault, contra Weber, contra any theory at all, the overall impression the early LCBO gives is one of almost laughable laxity. Proprietors repeatedly run afoul of the LCBO’s rules and just as often have their licences reinstated. Politicians overrule bureaucrats. The food that drinkers are required to order goes uneaten. A blind eye is turned to dodgy establishments when closing them might hurt an already depressed economy.

Nor, in fairness, does Malleck himself seem especially engaged with the theories he invokes. To claim that the LCBO was an instance of biopower raises the question of whether it was the first such instance in Canada, and, if so, why a phenomenon Foucault traces back to the 18th century in Europe was such a latecomer to our country. The shout out to Weber is undercut by a later admission that for the LCBO “to be effective, the periphery needed more oversight than the central administration was willing to give,” and that the central administration itself “was still, to some extent, locked in a pre-Weberian world of patronage and favours.” Then, too, in presenting the results of what was clearly a great deal of archival work the author betrays a certain frustration with their refusal to add up to a theoretical whole. Or so one may infer from the multiplication of sentences beginning with “however,” “whereas,” “though,” or, all too often, “yet though.” And surely it is no accident that the writing relaxes when it has facts for a subject and stumbles when it has theory for an object—“The regulatory discourses of generative and dispositional rationalities confronted the exigencies of context,” for example, or “often in the LCBO’s records, with few exceptions, racial differences occupied the periphery of the regulatory gaze but the centre of a discourse
of deviance.”

If this were the only book of its kind, it would simply be an example of uninspired academic writing. But there are, in fact, so many publications like it that it is now possible to talk about a discourse, a Foucauldian discourse that is not so very far removed from the agenda the LCBO’s bureaucrats are supposed to have been pursuing every time they used the passive voice or otherwise hid behind a language of universality. And given the ambitions of the theory and the smallness of the topics, the reader is too often left to wonder whether an atom bomb has been used to kill an ant.

Put plainly, the more academics write about minor functionaries, the more they end up sounding like minor functionaries.

It may seem petty to single out bad writing when it is the content that is supposed to matter. But that is precisely the point: writing is thinking, and when it blindly relies on someone else’s theories it has ceased to be either. A hundred years from now, academics will still be talking about Michel Foucault’s theories. But they will be using them to make sense of the strange and ultimately sterile discourse they have spawned.