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Michael Power is Professor of Accounting at the London School of Economics. He was the first to write about Audit Culture with his Demos Pamphlet 'The Audit Explosion', published in 1994. Since then he has continued to publish on the subject and his book The Audit Culture, 1997, was the inspiration for Marilyn Strathern's collection, which appeared in 2000. Michael's work has evolved to include the topic of Risk Management, which turns out to be the 'other side' of Audit Culture. He welcomed Roger Litten, of the London Society of the New Lacanian School to his office on The Strand and began a fascinating conversation between the philosophy of accounting and Lacanian psychoanalysis. We present the first part of this below.
MP: How did I get here? Well, we might go back to my days as a student when I did a PhD on Habermas and the Frankfurt school. There were some sensitivities and some sensibilities developed there, but, perhaps rather surprisingly, there was then an abrupt jump when I became an accountant for five years. There were very few philosophy jobs in those days - it would be good to say there was a plan, but there was no design, it was a bit prosaic, plenty of contingency, and after all one needs to earn a living! After five years in accounting I rejoined LSE armed with quite a bit of practical and technical knowledge, plus a lot of the older interests and ideas which were not totally forgotten, and which were capable of reactivation, and this has been my platform for the last twenty years.
Habermas, although I know him inside out, gave a lot less traction on the kinds of problems and practices that I was interested in. It was a very great disappointment when I realised that this huge investment was simply not as interesting as the one made by my colleagues who had chosen Foucault and related thinkers. Here there was a lot more at stake in the minutiae, in the detail of practice. One finds one’s way as an academic, experimenting with a few pieces here and there, but the technical accounting and audit was very interesting because, well, knowing the practice I felt there was something interesting that had not been addressed. It was not so much about the technicalities of the work, it was rather that no one had asked questions about the effects of auditing either on auditors or auditing itself.
RL: A question that you have made your own.
MP: Yes, and so, without any precedents I had to feel my way into the agenda and by stages I came to the realisation that there was something systematic going on in the world out there and had been for a few years - since the late 80s or early 90s. I’d done some work in environmental auditing, making comparisons with financial auditing, and once that comparison had started to be made a much larger agenda and set of issues came to the fore: I could see that the word if not the practice was very much exploding. It had become a kind of common currency.
Although audit exists in different fields there is a transference of a logic. Certain of my colleagues and commentators say ‘well, this is different, it is only the word that is common’…
RL: They are not etymologists.
MP: …but I’ve always said no, there is a logic that connects them, and trying to reconstruct it, to do an archaeology of the logic, and to trace it as it mutates into risk management, has really been my project.
The ‘behavioural effects’ has been an agenda that I suggested and which has been taken up by others. I’m not really an empirical social scientists, I make connections across fields, and figure out the logics. So far, there’s a market for that kind of work. Some people have done some very worthy work tracking down what the effects of this have been. Marilyn Strathern and her students have done some interesting work on this. Onora O’Neill, perhaps more as a philosopher, has pushed issues of trust. Other people have done very specific studies inside hospitals and schools on the effects of being evaluated.
The other dimension that I’ve become more aware of (and looking back I wish I had been more aware of before) was that auditors and audit practices evaluation practices are not in themselves that interesting. They are not as interesting as the processes by which the people concerned prepare for it, internalise it, fear it, and pre-emptively respond to the idea that they might be audited at some future time. This is a sort of realm of contingency and potentiality rather than of what actually happens when you are inspected. It is the pre-processes that are my target. To my knowledge that is terra incognita. It is undiscovered territory for social science. This is one of the big themes I’m thinking about at the moment.
One of the papers I’ve been working on for a long time (which means that I really care about it) is called Organisations and Auditability: a theory. I’m trying to get at the principles of what an organisation is, what is the constituent fabric, and what that has to do with what one might call the first order ethos etc. I think that speaks to you and to your colleagues’ interests.
RL: It cuts across our logic
MP: One might call that the unconscious of modern organisational life if you like. I’m interested in the micro traces that make that kind of logic visible. So, the audit trail is about as mundane as ever but the real mechanics of it, the way we build trails that we leave behind us. My filing cabinets are full of trails that could be displayed to a legal audience, an inspector or something. And I’m very pleased to say that! The ‘just in case’ trail! The kind of trail that is being constructed is interesting in its own right. The contingent need: that you might need to prove what you did in the past, you may have to display it in a particular way.
This is why the audit trail is so interesting… the ‘primary act’ of making something visible. In terms of archaeology this is the fundamental process of turning nothing into something. Question: when is something recognised in the accounting mechanism? Answer: when it is recorded in the day-book; something very mundane. It becomes real in the institution when it is in an incident log; it gains a portability when it is recorded in this way. There is a kind of capture of these things, which then gives them an organisational life. I’m very interested in these things.
RL: Being capable of putting something into circulation again your work on the borders of Habermas and Foucault, your sensitivity to the epistemological thresholds, of making visible a field of problematic. I came across your paper very recently on Accounting, Calculation and Control which goes very close. The way that metrics precede the practice...
MP: You might enjoy Peter Miller, an early paper called Accounting and the Governable Person. It’s Hacking-esque we all work a bit under the shadow of Ian Hacking. We’re very attracted to the idea that accounting practices become, well, that the subjects think of themselves performatively. Peter is kind of an international exponent of that in a number of different settings. He and I together, I think, are associated with this kind of position.
RL: Certainly just from within the field of psychoanalysis it is clear that we need a number of different perspectives and positions with which to approach this terra incognita, this unformalised field. It is not at all clear that it can be done from one discourse or from one theoretical point of view. Certainly, the basic Foucauldian epistemology that Hacking builds on, and that Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller are working with comes at us from outside our field, but the metrics of practice, the material traces, that’s something more intrinsic to the matter that we work with.
That’s why I find it fascinating to explore the nature of the articulation, because there is a common logic where one folds onto the other. The paper trails that you speak of are imposed from outside, but they construct us as subjects from the inside. We are susceptible, we…
MP: …we create its conditions of possibility
RL: …create the conditions of possibility. It’s not about ‘oh this is terrible’, the question, rather, is: why are we so vulnerable to it? What doors have we left open to welcome this in? There is a point where this is almost the inverse of our own discourse…
MP: There’s a big complaint about the burdens of red tape and audit, it’s easy to collect data on it, but I don’t trust it. If it were so terrible it would not be so durable, but actually the audit trail, the way we keep these various bits of data (and this is very similar across different practices) speaks to a certain kind of need that is being triggered. I’m not saying it is entirely self generated, there is a kind of stimulus that has created a need for a security that some of this stuff in the filing cabinets provides.
RL: What need does audit answer to? That is a good question. That audit is not just imposed, but demanded and asked for. One way of bridging it is to consider the logic of anxiety at stake in the problematic of risk: unmastered and uncalculable forms of risk. Probability and the mathematisation of uncertainty are increasingly the discourse of our times, and at that point, the point at which audit and regulation provides a promise of security, which is actually false, there’s the point at which we find something that cuts across the grain of our practice. Lacanian psychoanalysis certainly operates on a grain of uncertainty, not of certainty…
MP: The concepts that come up quite a bit are Assurance and Comfort. Comfort is used quite a lot by people practicing in this field. It’s what I try to capture in the title of my book: Organised Uncertainty.
RL: Turning organisations inside out. An attempt to involute, turn inside out. It is not clear that our practice can operate in that involuted form. It works against the grain of what we do. It renders us powerless. But we can’t just say ‘hey, you can’t do this to us, it doesn’t suit us’, we have to symptomatise what is being asked for.
MP: I couldn’t agree with you more.
RL: It is an exploding cultural phenomonen that tells us something that we need to know about the subjectivity of our times. It threatens to impose a different form of subject, which is not the subject that psychoanalysis has traditionally operated upon. So we find that it is possible to remove the conditions of our practice from the outside. By reorganising the managerial and epistemological framework around us we find that the point of traction within the clinic is somehow eroded. That’s why the material and the logic of your work is one we can build on and elaborate: it is something knocking on the door of the consulting room.
MP: It becomes a strategic question for your practice.
RL: The call for accountability immediately transforms the axis of our practice.
MP: One of the ways that it is unhelpful to discuss this, one of the dominant modes, almost posits a golden age where education, for instance, is now being interfered with from the outside. Well, firstly the golden age is mythical, these processes were always latent, existing in some form or other. But it also doesn’t capture the fact that it was demanded; certainly there has been a shift of some kind where this was demanded and accepted. The crude, Habermassian terminology of decolonisation is quite inadequate here. There wasn’t a golden age that has been taken, but some kind of logic has changed systemically. We need, as social scientists, some kind of purchase on the phenomenon that does not just end up as an angry critique.
RL: Protest doesn’t get you very far, saying we resist, we oppose - we have to find a different, a symptomatised reading, a new point of political intervention, because the usual means of political intervention are crumbling away.
MP: Yes, and this is where we have to do more hard thinking, because I don’t have any hard tactical ideas to hand to you. We will have to get to grips with the real self-defeating nature of it. It is only glimpsed in policy circles through people getting worried about red tape, which is really only an epi-phenomenon.
RL: The futility of protest leaves us theoretically embarrassed. The phenomenon is not yet ready for theory, we are still at the stage of tracking the logic of what has happened: it is a retrospective process. If we want to have something to say that would have a prospective affect well that leaves a difficulty.
Your work of seeing points of connection between various fields has an echo in psychoanalysis. We have the same kind of stock in trade: we are thinking about pockets of discontent, pockets of conversation, tapping into people who experience this stuff in their practice and in their body and getting them to say ‘what it has been for me’. Points of articulation, clinical and political, will have to be pursued.
MP: But there’s a problem of scale, to put it crudely.
RL: As psychoanalysts we are practitioners of speech. In attempting to formulate some kind of political strategy, some kind of political intervention, I don’t think we can stray too far from our practice, our practical resources. The means are inadequate but the logic has to be pursued, or else we land in the charade of apathy, compliance, and the whole second order of defence mechanisms.
MP: One of the difficulties of the faithful projection of the talking therapies onto the political, is, well, the encounter between the analyst and the patient is one to one. What possible legitimate projection of that could ever have scale effects?
RL: I understand something of what you are saying. At what point does the logic of what we do in the clinic fold out to provide a logic of political intervention? This is where the work of Lacan is so useful to us; we have to be able to formalise what is at stake in the clinic to find a level where the two discourses of the clinical and the political become transferable.
This is why we must go back to the question of auditability, accountability, and responsibility. We have always taken an ethical responsibility for what we do in the clinic because our position is one of an ability to respond, to hear, to audit! That is our position; not one of mastery, not to tell people what to do, we are there to listen.
The demand from outside for third party accountability immediately transforms that position, and the whole axis of trust, confidentiality, accountability and responsibility shifts. The moment it seems that someone else may be listening at the door, throws the work out of kilter. One of Lacan’s basic developments over Freudian psychoanalysis is that the unconscious is the third party; this is Lacan’s theory of the Other as an always vacant third party. The moment the government wants to step in and occupy that third point of address and to demand accountability to it, this undermines the very ethical and clinical efficacy that they ask to us to demonstrate. It is not that we are unable to account for what we do, but we cannot do it on those terms.
MP: I couldn’t agree with you more. One of the things that now seems necessary is to re-appropriate audit, re-signify audit.
RL: That’s why I picked up on the etymology (and this is in both Freud and Lacan) - it is one of the tools of our trade. We have to pay fine attention to the internal veracity of words.
MP: Quite a lot of people have written about the original meaning of audit, which is to hear, no-one to my knowledge has followed that through. We have to re-discover the logic of listening and hearing and...
RL: Maybe it is for psychoanalysis…
MP: …maybe you have a responsibility to do this.
RL: A responsibility to rework the etymological roots of audit. If we promise the analysand anything, it is that we will listen to them. In a basic way it is our ethical motto speak what you like, I will listen. The less we promise the more chance we have that something effective can be done. So the government’s insistence that we list all our qualifications and competencies makes it impossible for us to proceed. Without knowing it they are chopping away at the roots that make it possible to have an effect with the patient.
MP: Politically, I think that what you have just said actually also applies to teaching, and social work and so on. It could be that only the people in the talking therapies, really, can represent all the others. You are experiencing in a more fundamental way what is experienced in those other areas. But unlike those other areas you have a conceptual framework with which to fight back on behalf not just of your own field, that’s the political point, but to act as representative of adjacent types of sensitivity which should exist in the education field, and other areas of the caring fields, etc.
Maybe the task ahead, to put it crudely, is a series of multiple engagements, encounters…
RL: And who would you suggest we speak to? Because in a way this is the kind of conversation that we are hoping to seed, with people who know far more about it than we do. We know that it is not us who have all the answers, we’ve been buried in our consulting rooms, not looking out of the windows to see this thing coming.
MP: You need to do what you do, which is to help people speak, so you need to find the tactic to seed, to enable, numbers of individuals to speak this counter discourse.
RL: Which is not far from the Socratic logic of psychoanalysis. Our job is to listen in such a way as to enable people to speak a knowledge they didn’t know that they possessed. Not to add another layer of knowledge on top of that, but to facilitate a logic that is there already.
MP: You could do worse than talk to the accountants themselves! I was just reading about how miserable they are. Why are they miserable? Because they are both perpetrators and victims of their own system. The thing they were attracted to has been distorted and crushed in exactly the way you are frightened will happen to you. It has already happened to them, and isn’t that a wonderful place to start?
RL: It’s not the first thing that springs to mind! But the way you put it, agent and victim… everyone tied up in the process, even the government itself. It is not that there is someone else out there pulling the string and prodding us all with the stick. We are all caught up… In the police force, in justice, it’s those who are tasked to implement a system that they can see having absolutely paradoxical and counter productive effects.
MP: We are seeing a kind of growth of two kinds of conversations. What you say in the committee; what you will say privately. Policemen, my colleagues in the audit office itself, they all have huge private reservations. One tactic is to give voice to this private discourse that exists in potentia, out there. It is not explicitly repressed, it is quite open when they meet each other at dinner, in the evenings...
RL: Politicisation, the possibility of political intervention is perhaps already carrying us a step too far. Maybe for us it is producing a politicisation. Providing at least some kind of logical base or point of intersection, where the experience of practitioners and people in other fields can have some kind of voice.
There is some kind of stifling effect. The calculable subject doesn’t have a say. It is statistically manipulated. Maybe if we can return some of these people’s experience into speech, this can have a political effect. If we can create some kind of field of discourse where it is possible to communicate those experiences: those who have been audited in education, the political voice of medicine...
MP: It’s very interesting what you say. I’ve been presenting papers for a long time, and inevitably someone usually says well, ok but this is very pessimistic, what will you say, what will you do, will there be a revolution? I’ve tried to say that I haven’t been interested in this question, but in the end you can’t ignore it. But I have felt that there might be a catalytic event or a community that might change the discourse so that some of the gains might be preserved, but the fundamental effects on the first order might be reversed. The only way that there would be this catalytic change, would be if the talking therapies acquired a visible voice (plus some allies) to begin to mount a counter discourse which had a growing momentum, the very antithesis of the kind of standardisation: not a revolution but a growing counter weight.
RL: Psychoanalysis is not the first discourse to be subject to these processes and effects. The question for us is precisely ‘what is it that we can contribute in this that maybe no-one else can?’
MP: I’d put it slightly differently, thinking in this last 20 minutes, I almost think you have a tremendous responsibility, if you can’t do it, no-one can.
Janet Low | Blog