Hyper Obedience, Malicious Compliance and NYC Cycling

In Security, Territory, Population Foucault analyses a number of themes of counter-conduct in relation to the Christian pastorate. Choosing counter-conduct, rather than dissidence, Foucault is drawing attention to the way relations of power shape and invest the body, postures, comportment and conduct. To resist these relations, they need to be countered with practices and strategies that “redistribute, reverse, nullify, and partially or totally discredit pastoral power in the systems of salvation, obedience, and truth”.

One such strategy is hyper-obedience – an “exaggerated and exorbitant element” of obedience. This is not merely disobedience against an authority, but an intimate work of the self on the self that disrupts the pastors authority.

Foucault describes this strategy as  “a sort of close combat of the individual with himself in which the authority, presence, and gaze of someone else is, if not impossible, at least unnecessary.” In adopting the countering-conduct of hyper-obedience the individual or group “stifles obedience through the excess of prescriptions and challenges that the individual addresses to himself.”

The logic of hyper-obedience is articulated more precisely by Gary Ransom, a change management consultant. When asked “What kind of obstacles should business leaders anticipate as they endeavour to manage change?” Ransom responds:

[T]here are even worse things than outright resistance. One of our financial services clients coined the term “malicious compliance”… essentially, doing exactly what’s asked of you – no more, no less. Malicious compliance can be a killer because it’s hard to reprimand and because it undermines the credibility of the whole process. People come back to you and say, “See? I did just what you asked, and look at how it screwed things up”.

In doing the very thing that is being asked, the employee frustrates the goals and processes of the authority asking them to act in a particular way. A similar approach has been suggested by Matthew Woessner in response to Penn State University’s wellness plan. According to Woessner the plan requires all staff to

“complete an online wellness profile” as well as undergo a “preventive physical exam” designed to “help employees and their spouse or same-sex domestic partner learn about possible health risks and take proactive steps to enhance their well-being.”

Failure to do this will result in a $100 monthly surcharged deducted from the employees paycheck. Woessner calls on his colleagues to resist not through disobedience, but compliance. He proposes that employees fill out forms with volumes of irrelevant “lifestyle” information and use personal doctors rather than the insurers mobile medical teams. According to Woessner,

if ten thousand Penn State employees set up previously unscheduled doctor visits, (particularly if they are scheduled as full check-ups) it will have the effect of frustrating the university’s narrow budgetary objectives, making the cost of implementing these “basic biometric screening” simply unsustainable. (More details here).

Woessner calls this approach civil disobedience. I would suggest it is hyper-obedience. But whatever it is, I hope it works.

Here is another humorous example:

Gary Ransom and Tom Knighton, “Stepping up to the challenge of change,” Managing Service Quality 6, no. 5 (1996): p.13.

see Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Arnold I. Davidson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. (p. 200 – 201)

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3 Comments

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  1. So … bike lanes to encourage bicycle riding or as revenue enhancement?

    Bicyclists can use any street in NYC; they don’t have to use a bike lane and most streets don’t have them anyway.

  2. Love the bike lanes guy.

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