Patricia Mooney Nickel on Culture, Politics and Governing

Culture, Politics and Governinglogo95x95Culture, Politics, and Governing: Contemporary Ascetics and the Pecuniary Subject

by Patricia Mooney Nickel

In Culture, Politics, and Governing, the study of contemporary ascetics provided me with a way to approach the practice of knowledge production and its intersection with cultural production that was able to take into account the institutionalization of authors and artists and the ways in which their practices were both governed and governing, often through valorization. My contention in that study was that it is important to understand the ways in which, as the production of ontological bases for action, cultural production also functions as a form of knowledge production. Written between 2007 and 2014 as I moved between university systems in North America and New Zealand, this book focused on academics and artists as governed subjects who also contribute to or resist contemporary relations of governing. In order to understand these intersections of ascetics and governing, I turned to Max Weber, Michel Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and to later critical theorists whose work could be situated at the intersection of critical cultural and political theory.

Recently, I have worked to extend this framework to settings that are less obvious as sites for the production of governing knowledge: what Max Weber (2002) and Foucault (1982, 2005) discussed as ascetics, generated through what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1989) called the culture industry. The contemporary culture industry produces an art of living genre that encourages pecuniary subjects who treat the self as a site for the production of value from which to practice valorized ascetics (Nickel, forthcoming). My thoughts about the pecuniary subject were inspired by William Leach’s (1993) notion of “pecuniary space.” Leach (1993) uses “pecuniary space” to describe Times Square after it was transformed into a commercial arena.

Although I take care to distinguish my view of the subject from Thorstein Veblen’s (see Nickel, forthcoming), the modifier pecuniary, in the tradition of Veblen, helped me to understand pecuniary relations more generally. It was the intersection of this exploration of the art of living genre with my thinking on ascetics and governing that led me to the notion of the pecuniary subject.

The political significance of the ‘art of living’ was detailed in Foucault’s (1992) inquiry into ‘the use of pleasure’ and ‘the care of the self.’ The contemporary art of living genre includes the technologies of the self promoted through circuits such as HGTV’s House Hunters, where homes are profit-generators, the BBC’s Come Dine with Me, in which dinner parties are competitions, or web portals such as Goop, which instructs us in how to ‘shop, go, be, do, see, make, get’. The conduct encouraged by scenes of pecuniary achievement – ‘winning’ dinners, ‘exclusive’ purchases, and promoted-personas – hints at the way in which the contemporary art of living genre centers value as a source of self around which to develop a domain of pecuniary practices. To criticize such practices is not to find fault with those who want to eat a pleasant dinner or live in a comfortable home. However, the political implications of these practices remain uncontested to the extent they are successfully embedded as an ascetic fitting for the contemporary needs of governing. These theaters of conduct collapse the pursuit of value and the pursuit of the self and thus foster both a “pecuniary aesthetic” (Leach, 1993, p. 39) and a pecuniary ascetic: a guide to the art of living and a guide to the ethic of the self, both of which are often embedded in hierarchies (Nickel, forthcoming). While many recognize these productions as fictional forms of entertainment – what Timothy W. Luke (2002) calls entertainmentality – they are nonetheless important targets of critique because our conduct in relationship to pecuniary aesthetics is precisely what is at stake in governing.

My hope is that this conceptualization might focus new critical attention to those political aspects of subjectivity that exceed the neoliberal framework. As Johanna Oksala argued, “it is imperative to also theorize these new forms of the subject and the political potential they hold for radical social transformation.” Although I have focused much of my own energy on neoliberalism and still consider it to be an important focus of critique, neoliberal subjectivity increasingly seems to me to be unable to fully account for the subject of knowledge/culture production who practices resistance. As Terry Flew points out on this site, neoliberalism explains some things, but it cannot explain everything; nor, as Oksala points out, does it exhaust the question of subjectivity. The immutability of the neoliberal subject is challenged not only by practices of resistance, but also by the fact that even the so-called ‘utility function’ cannot fully account for the ‘philanthropic subject’ who practises acquiescence under the guise of resistance (Nickel forthcoming). In my reading of Foucault, governing depends upon more than the self-interested neoliberal subject because governing depends upon more than ‘economic science’ (Foucault, 2008, p. 286). The ‘Zen consumers’ cultivated by Goop are not actively practicing, nor fully governed, by the singular logics of homo economicus or homo juridicus (Foucault, 2008, p. 276). In the tradition of Foucault, as well as Weber, the Frankfurt School, and later critical theorists, I am interested in investigating under what conditions a particular subjectivity becomes valuable as individuals practise an ascetic that encourages a hierarchy of subjectivities (e.g. good homeowners, savvy shoppers, healthy eaters, self-aware beings), which often is a form of practice that contributes to the maintenance of the present pecuniary ontology (i.e. well-being is achieved through the production and promotion of valued-selves in the market). In its production of a pecuniary subjectivity, the art of living genre stabilizes an ascetic that, to the extent that it is not resisted, restricts the opportunity for most people to live in a manner that does not involve the production of value for others.



Patricia Mooney Nickel is Assistant Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and core faculty in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program at Virginia Tech. She is the author of Culture, Politics, and Governing: The Contemporary Ascetics of Knowledge Production (2015), Public Sociology and Civil Society: Governance, Politics, and Power (2012), and the editor of North American Critical Theory after Postmodernism: Contemporary Dialogues (2012).




Flew, T. (2015) “Foucault, Weber, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Governmentality.” TCS Open Site, April 20, 2015.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Translated by C. Gordon, L. Marshall, J. Mepham, K. Soper. Edited by C. Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. (1988) “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom: An Interview with Michel Foucault on January 20, 1984.” In The Final Foucault. Edited by J. Bernauer and D. Rasmussen. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1-20.

Foucault, M. (1992) The History of Sexuality Volume Two: The Use of Pleasure. Translated by R. Hurley. London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (2005) The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by F. Gros. New York: Picador.

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1989. Translated by G. Burchell. Edited by A.I. Davidson. New York and Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (1989) Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Translated by J. Cumming. New York: Continuum.

Leach, W.R. (1993) Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Pantheon Books.

Luke, T.W. (2002) Museum Politics: Power Plays at the Exhibition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nickel, P.M. (2012) “Philanthromentality: Celebrity Parables as Technologies of Transfer.” Celebrity Studies 3(2): 1–19.

Nickel, P.M. (forthcoming 2015) “Haute Philanthropy: Luxury, Benevolence, and Value.” Luxury: History, Culture, Consumption.

Oksala, J. (2015) “Foucault, Marx, and Neoliberal Subjects.” TCS Open Site, February 16, 2015.

Weber, M. (2002) The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings. Translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin Books.


Readers may also be interested in:

Other Open Access material on the TCS Website on Foucault and Neoliberalism:


In Theory, Culture & Society:

The TCS Special Issue on ‘Michel Foucault’, edited by Couze Venn & Tiziana Terranova:


Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism: Thinking Through and Beyond Michel Foucault’s Lectures on Biopolitics’:


Nicholas Gane’s ‘Review Article: Trajectories of Liberalism and Neoliberalism’:


Neoliberalism: A Bibliographic Review

  • William Davies

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 309317., first published on September 16, 2014


A Response to Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism’

  • William Davies

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 299302., first published on September 16, 2014


Thinking Historically about Neoliberalism: A Response to William Davies

  • Nicholas Gane

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2014; vol. 31, 7-8: pp. 303307., first published on September 16, 2014



In the TCS Book Series:

You may also be interested in reading more about William Davies’s forthcoming TCS Book The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition:

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