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Journal of Education Policy


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Agile bodies: a new imperative in


neoliberal governance
Donald Gillies

School of Education , University of Strathclyde , Glasgow, UK


Published online: 22 Mar 2011.

To cite this article: Donald Gillies (2011) Agile bodies: a new imperative in neoliberal governance,
Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, 207-223, DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2010.508177
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Journal of Education Policy


Vol. 26, No. 2, March 2011, 207223

Agile bodies: a new imperative in neoliberal governance


Donald Gillies*
School of Education, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK
(Received 25 February 2010; final version received 9 July 2010)
Taylor and Francis Ltd
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10.1080/02680939.2010.508177
0260-1370
Original
Taylor
202011
26
donald.gillies@strath.ac.uk
DonaldGillies
00000March
&Article
Francis
(print)/1464-519X
Journal
2011 of Lifelong
(online)
Education

Modern business discourse suggests that a key bulwark against market


fluctuation and the threat of failure is for organizations to become agile, a more
dynamic and proactive position than that previously afforded by mere
flexibility. The same idea is also directed at the personal level, it being argued
that the agile individual is better placed to secure employment and to maintain
their economic worth within globalized, rapidly changing markets. Educational
discourse, particularly relating to the tertiary sector, is also beginning to
appropriate such concepts and in this paper the discourse is probed from the
perspective of Foucaults notion of governmentality. The paper argues that agility
can be seen to be aligned both with the neoliberal concept of the entrepreneurial
self and also with the governance turn, whereby policy aims are achieved
through the apparently autonomous actions of agents, but actions which are
heavily steered by various control mechanisms. The paper suggests, however,
that the agile self is but one, albeit powerful, response to the current crisis of
capitalism and that counter-conduct is possible by focusing on alternative ethical
and political stances.
Keywords: discourse/analysis; agile; flexible; governmentality; Foucault

Background
The terms agile and agility are increasingly encountered in modern policy
discourse. Their use seems to have become particularly marked since the global
economic downturn originating in 2008. Being agile is presented as a way of resisting recession, a means by which corporations and employees can survive and,
indeed, succeed. While these words are most commonly found in the manufacturing
and business sectors, they are also now permeating the public sector and so the world
of education.
In this paper, this concept of agility will be examined, initially through some
preliminary discourse analysis, and then in more detail from a Foucauldian theoretical
perspective, with the aims of rendering it more intelligible (Foucault 2007a, 64),
suggesting reasons for its current prevalence, and exploring its wider discursive links
and ideological importance.

*Email: donald.gillies@strath.ac.uk
ISSN 0268-0939 print/ISSN 1464-5106 online
2011 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2010.508177
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D. Gillies

Meaning and metaphor


Concrete usage
Agility is almost always a word with positive connotations. In its original physiological sense the word refers to the capacity of a body to move itself in quick, light,
and well co-ordinated ways. In zoological contexts, it is used in a positive sense to
describe the movement and manner of any animal which displays nimbleness,
speed, fluidity, and suppleness typical amongst such being the big cats. In human
affairs, it is notably associated with gymnastic contexts, describing a person with
particular skills in shaping the body in ways that demonstrate litheness, even liquidity. While athletes may also be called agile, it is more often used in instances
where the body needs to move in many different ways and with several limbs
simultaneously. For example, long-distance runners would not be expected to
demonstrate agility although they may well possess it, whereas an acrobat would.
The runner does not require to move the body in sufficiently varied ways for agility
to be manifested, whereas the gymnast does: all parts of the body require to move in
complementary ways for success to be gained. In team sports such as soccer, an
outfield player would not necessarily be expected to possess agility, whereas the
goalkeeper would. Indeed, agility is probably a key criterion in goal-keeping evaluations and terms such as cat-like or nicknames of that sort are not uncommon for
goalkeepers, who require to throw themselves around in innumerable ways but with
sufficient delicacy and dexterity that the ball can be caught and secured at the same
time. The simple capacity to move rapidly or indeed to project ones body in
malleable ways is probably insufficient to be deemed agile: this sense of purpose,
control, and lightness of touch is also required. The ballet dancer must be agile; the
hammer thrower need not.
In summing up agile as an epithet, therefore, the defining features would include
such concepts as movement, speed, fluidity, and lightness. It should be noted,
however, that there is no verbal form of the word: it is instead descriptive of action in
the form of movement or potential movement, of the physical capacity or capability
for certain types of action.
It is important in studies of this sort to beware of the etymological fallacy, of
tying meaning irrevocably to word roots and derivations. Language use changes
and meaning cannot be prescribed. Nevertheless, some exploration of denotation
and connotation is essential in seeking to probe developments in language and
discourse. Of interest in this paper, of course, is the metaphorical use of agility and agile, the ways in which the word has come to be used and valued in
settings far beyond physiological, zoological, biological, athletic or sporting
discourses. Agile is commonly encountered in the language of business, finance,
management, in both the private and the public sector, and within education
itself.
Given what has been unpicked about the concrete use of the term, it is not too difficult to explore the aspects of meaning which have led to its metaphorical or figurative
usage. This paper is particularly focused on probing its use in policy terms, first within
business discourse, and then with educational discourse. In one of his last publications, Bourdieu argued that this is a critical priority: to submit dominant discourse to
a merciless logical critique aimed not only at its lexicon but also at its mode of
reasoning and in particular at the use of metaphors (e.g. the anthropomorphization of
the market) (2003, 20).

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Business metaphor
In its metaphorical usages, agility is applied at both group and individual levels. It
can thus be a collective or personal description. At the collective level, it typically
refers to a company, or a discrete part of a company, in respect of its mode of operation. In its earliest manifestation around the beginning of the 1990s it seems to
have been solely linked to manufacturing or production processes (Yusuf, Sarhadi,
and Gunasekaran 1999), although some suggest that this itself drew on the notion of
flexibility in economic discourse (Seethamraju 2006). Since then, the concept has
been applied to information systems, knowledge management, to software design
where it has become a brand name (Highsmith 2001), and to human resource
contexts. In recent years it has become a highly prevalent concept in corporate
discourse, and ever more so in relation to the current recession. Much of this
discourse is hortatory or even prescriptive in tone: in times of economic difficulty and
a rapidly changing globalized market, only the agile business can hope to survive,
far less succeed (Cheese, Silverstone, and Smith 2009).
There is limited empirical evidence produced within these texts of an agile business. Much of it is predictive or speculative in tone, suggesting that agility is what
will be required, or what ought to be in place. Some early analysts did detect corporate evidence of this transition to agility (Kantor 1992; Martin 1994) but much of the
literature lacks exemplification. Even within the manufacturing sector, the earliest to
adopt the metaphor, there is no fixed understanding of what agility is or how it
manifests itself.
Nevertheless, a number of studies have sought to outline the key features of an
agile company (Dyer and Shafer 2003; Amin and Horowitz 2007; Sherihiy,
Karwowski, and Layer 2007; Holsapple and Li 2008; Bernardes and Hanna 2009;
Ganguly, Nilchiani, and Farr 2009; Ribeiro and Fernandes 2010). In manufacturing
contexts, the distinctive features of an agile company are said to be that it can respond
effectively, and speedily, to changing circumstances by adapting existing products or
developing new ones to meet changing market demands. This also has to be conducted
in a lean manner so that changes are achieved efficiently, eliminating waste. In
general corporate usage, a company can be seen to be agile to the extent that it can
respond to environmental change in due time, can exploit and take advantage of such
changes as opportunities, can effect innovative reactions, and can thrive in unpredictable environments. These environments include the political, the legal, and the social
and not just those of the market per se. The agile corporation will anticipate and plan
for any such changes which may affect its practice in terms of regulation, for example.
Agility seems to be distinguished from flexibility in relation to this idea of unpredictability. While flexibility is a prerequisite for agility, the agile company is one that
has the capacity not simply to cope with known factors but is one that can thrive in an
environment of continuous and unanticipated change. Given the recent economic
downturn and the march of globalization, one can see how such a concept as agility
can become more prized than mere flexibility. Bernardes and Hanna (2009, 42)
suggest that while flexible organizations may adapt responsively within current
configurations, the agile company has the capacity for fundamental reconfiguration
in the light of contextual change. This applies to all aspects of the business: agility
presupposes thathuman, organisational, and technical components can be changed
in a timely and cost-effective manner (Amin and Horowitz 2007, 13). A second
distinguishing feature is that agility is seen to be more proactive than reactive: while

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a flexible organization can react well to change, the agile organization uses market
intelligence to foresee and predict change and so positions itself even more nimbly to
cope with, and exploit, changing circumstances. Hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations, or those bound by regulations (such as those relating to workers rights), are
unlikely to demonstrate agility: flatter systems with more horizontal structures are
said to be better suited. The agile company is robust, resilient, responsive, flexible,
innovative, and adaptable, this being most starkly demonstrated by edge organizations, ones where power for informed decision-making and competent action is not
retained at the centre but pushed to the very edges, the points where they interact
with their environment and their market (Alberts and Hayes 2003; Holsapple and Li
2008).
Current corporate literature is replete with the concept, fed by a rich diet of
management consultant rhetoric, all with the energy and alarmism of the crisis narrative (Doz and Kosonen 2007). Survival depends on agility: unless your firm is agile
you risk failure and ruin. Cheese, Silverstone, and Smith (2009) reintroduce the
athletic metaphor, arguing that the company must imitate the multi-skilled triathlete
so that it is agile in all its facets. The agile company demonstrates internal agility, for
example, in its capacity for nimble workforce redeployment through rapid reskilling while decisions to make redundancies and effect job losses can be given an
agile makeover in the following terms: a comprehensive planning process
[producing] a blueprint for a phased right-sizing of staff according to performance
and strategic fit (2009, 4). The agile company must have a mindset of continuous
renewal (2009, 11), enabling it to change ahead of the curve (2009, 3). If it is of a
multinational nature, then help is at hand: the World Bank and others have developed
a predictive model which enables corporations to detect likely employee attitudes to
change acceptance in different national contexts. In this way, agile companies can
align themselves with agile workforces worldwide and, by the same token, avoid
cultures seen to lack sufficient enthusiasm for change acceptance (2009, 10).
The agile worker, like the agile company, is one fit for a modern, unpredictable
market: proactive, alert to change, can respond quickly and efficiently to any such
change, exploits rather than adapts to change, can initiate and improvise (Dyer and
Shafer 2003). While the agile company is configured in a particular way, it is the
agility of its workforce which determines the success or not of this potential.
Agile in educational discourse
Much of the educational usage of the term agility, although as yet quite limited, is
to be found in reference to the university sector (Teitelbaum 2005; Stamp 2006, 2008,
2009; Duderstadt 2008; Gallagher et al. 2009; Newby et al. 2009). This should be of
little surprise as the university sector is the one part of the education system which is
most aligned to the business model. Indeed, well over a decade ago, Readings (1996)
was arguing that the university was no longer simply aping the corporate sector but
now was a corporation in its own right. Encouraged and, indeed, compelled by
government to reduce its reliance on public funding, the university has more and more
been developing as a private body. In England, for example, it is interesting that the
university now comes under the remit of the Department of Business, Innovation, and
Skills but across the European Union a much closer alignment between the university
sector and the world of business and commerce is also emerging, particularly since the
Lisbon Agreement.

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This can be attributed to two main sources. One of these is the concept of the
knowledge economy which is posited on the notion of economic survival and
growth through intellectual prowess rather than the physical brawn of the old
industrialized model. As knowledge producers, the universities are key elements
in this recalibration of the economy: their graduates are the foremost of the new
knowledge workers on whom economic prosperity is said to depend. The university thus becomes an essential element of the economic strategy: as Tony Blair
claimed, education is the best economic policy we have (DfEE 1998, 1). This
economic rationalism positions the university sector as instrumental to the economy
both for providing the workforce but also as the source of the innovation, creativity, and imagination which can drive and optimize economic success. In this sense,
graduates are not simply of value in terms of the uses to which their intellectual
abilities can be put, but of value for the content, the products of that intellect.
Graduates are not expected merely to operate with others ideas but to produce and
generate these economically profitable ideas themselves. This knowledge worker
is not merely adaptable and capable but creative and proactive. Ideas that can be
exploited economically are new ways of generating surplus labour value (Cole
2008).
Of course, much of this is questionable. Just as the agile company may be more
of an ideal than a fact, so the knowledge economy may also be somewhat difficult
to substantiate from current trends. Ball (2008, 24) points out that the service sector,
and the hospitality sector in particular, may well be a greater employer than the socalled knowledge economy but few would suggest tailoring tertiary education to that
end. The knowledge economy may be seen as more of a goal or policy imperative
rather than empirical fact. Edwards (2008, 21ff.) argues that it needs to be read as part
of discursive struggles to inscribe certain meanings rather than others in social practices. The discourse of agility can be viewed in the same light: it serves as one way of
fabricating and representing, of constructing, that which it wishes to see realized
(Edwards, Nicoll, and Tait 1999, 626; Sennett 2006, 10).
As well as being instrumental to this economic objective, the university sector is
also re-shaping itself in commercial terms. Thus, there is increased emphasis on
knowledge exchange which sees university activity in market terms, the most
advanced, and profitable, version of which is the spin-out company. In addition, the
increased emphasis on impact in relation to research and scholarship carries with it
an expectation of not just human benefit but economic benefit also. A university sector,
backed by less government money, needs to maximize its income, and achieving
impact without profit makes little corporate sense (Boxall 2010, 26).
There is a second influence which has served to align the university sector with the
world of business and commerce and that is the emergence of lifelong learning. The
concept of lifelong learning can be seen as very much in tune with recent changes in
western economies. It is said that developments in globalization such as technological
innovation and high-speed communications have decreased significantly the life
expectancy of certain jobs: the idea of labouring at the same job for 40 years is now
predicted to become a rarity. As employees will expect to change job several, perhaps
numerous, times in a working life so lifelong learning becomes an imperative. The
capacity to find new jobs in an ever-changing economy will depend on the workers
capacity to learn new skills regularly. Fast capitalism or hot capitalism presents a
considerable challenge to the worker: flexibility and lifelong learning become the key
(Sennett 1998).

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This demand for lifelong learning had a particular resonance for the university
sector because if everyone can be expected to engage in learning at any stage of their
lives, then the university is required to change its profile to meet this new environment. It is not the traditional population of school-leavers with little or no work
experience who can be expected to engage with universities but anyone at any time.
It is this new understanding of lifelong learning which has forced the university
sector to become flexible: new approaches and new configurations of courses and
qualifications are required to suit this new population (Edwards et al. 2000, 2).
However, with decreasing public money on offer, universities are now being
encouraged to develop this flexibility into agility (Leadership Foundation for Higher
Education 2010, 2). Management consultants such as PA Consulting Group (2009)
argue that the university must become agile if it is to survive. Cut adrift from public
money, the university needs to operate as a private company, in competition with
other universities for market share, with the likely risk that some universities will
fail (PA Consulting Group 2008). If flexibility can be seen as the capacity to adapt,
the new imperative for agility develops this much further in the sense of being proactive, of anticipating changes in the business environment, of honing the organization
to its optimum efficiency, of being lean, responsive and alert. The big blocks to agility are seen to be tradition, bureaucracy, and regulation. The modern agile university
is now no different from the agile corporation: in the battle for economic survival,
agility is seen to be critical and any blocks to its realization must be addressed and,
preferably, removed.
It should, of course, be recognized that agility has always been an educational
goal in the particular sense of mental agility, especially in relation to mathematical
computation. The agile mind has been much prized within education, and beyond.
However, this modern usage of agility, now becoming detectable in university
management discourse, is quite different. It is not about cognitive processes but about
ethos and culture, about a whole way of being at both personal and institutional levels.
The agile university involves the capacity for total reconfiguration, for complete reformulation to meet and anticipate external demands and trends. It means, essentially, the
elevation of the economic above any sense of moral purpose and academic principle:
what matters is corporate survival and feasibility, in whatever form that may take
(Thomas 2010).
From flexible to agile
One of the most interesting facets of the figurative concept of agility, is the way in
which the term has displaced its lexical neighbour flexibility. The notion of flexibility has been recognized as a key one in neoliberal discourse. A rapidly changing
market and the desire for minimum labour costs lead capital to demand more from
each employee. The presumed necessity for individuals, at all levels, to be flexible
has, paradoxically, become an inflexible requirement (Swan and Fox 2009, 149). Each
must have a range of skills, be capable of learning and absorbing new ones, and be
easily redeployed as corporate need demands. Flexibility is manifested both as
employee capacity and in worker deployment: employees must posses the inner flexibility to cope with learning new skills and work demands, but must also be able to be
moved flexibly from task to task by management, as and when required. It is this
malleability and relative passivity that led Bourdieu (1998) to coin the term flexploitation: flexibility under duress, for others benefit.

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The agile worker can be seen as a further mutation of the concept of flexibility,
and one that is deemed to hold more positive connotations. The pejorative overtones
which Bourdieu identifies are transformed in a number of ways. The first of these is
that the agile worker is given an active role. Flexibility had the suggestion of being
manipulated by others, of willing passivity, even docility. Agility suggests agency.
The new agile worker will be active as well as flexible. The agile worker will not
just be able to respond to change but will anticipate change and seek out opportunities
to exploit changing circumstances (Glasgow City Council 2010). The agile worker
will mirror the agile company, therefore. In a changing and threatening market, the
agile worker will be proactive and responsive (Lemke 2001, 203).
The second development is in relation to responsibility. Just as neoliberal governance shifts much more from society and community to the individual, so agile
workers become much more responsible for their own fates. If only agile companies
can survive in the new fast market, then only agile workers can hope to survive
too. They can no longer rely on merely being flexible in relation to company changes,
they need to seek out these changes themselves, be alive to context, and alert to its
developing nature (Simons and Masschelein 2006a, 296).
Thus, while agility can be presented as empowering the worker, it also brings its
burdens. The agile worker takes on some corporate, and all personal, responsibility.
Moynihan outlines the bargain: flexibility and operational authority are increased in
return for results-based accountability (2006, 79). Success in the market is down to
the agility of each worker: the company depends on worker agility and, as the worker
depends on the company for employment, the worker takes on responsibility, therefore, for her or his own economic fate. Insecurity is embodied and any sense of stable
employment relies paradoxically on change and the capacity for rapid change.
While this neoliberal angle must be addressed, it should be acknowledged that
aspects of flexibility have been of benefit to some workers too, particularly in relation
to flexible shift patterns which have suited some with childcare responsibilities, for
example, and in relation to homeworking. Yet, as Sennet (1998) argues, there are costs
to this way of working. Similarly, agility may offer some specious reward in terms
of agency and autonomy for the worker but this too comes with considerable cost, as
noted above.
Despite its apotheosis in modern business literature, agility could be viewed as,
at least, implicated in the recent banking crisis. The demands of fast capitalism
have led to extremely short-term investment practices (Sennet 2006), where immediate returns are demanded with little sense of long-term effects and with little
regard for fundamental economic principles. This could be viewed as very much
typifying agile investment and yet, while it seems clear that some form of regulation will be instituted to counter any similar recklessness in the future, the overall
status of agility within the business and corporate sector seems to have emerged
undiminished.
Agility, governmentality, and care of the self
The work of Foucault is particularly well-suited to probing this discourse of agility.
First of all, his concept of governmentality sees the notion of government as a continuum which involves both self and others. Government as the conduct of conduct
(Foucault 1982) can be exercised on the self, the individuals rational control of their
own conduct, and can also be exercised on the conduct of others. Governmentality,

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D. Gillies

therefore, as a concept can be brought to bear on both the ways in which the individual
is encouraged to be agile, interpellated as such by those in power, and on the way in
which individuals come to act on their own selves to become agile.
Indeed, given the focus of Foucaults (1998, 139) later work, it is worth noting the
ways in which the body is used so widely here as a metaphor. Already acknowledged
has been the physiological roots of the agile metaphor, but it should also be recognized how the business world is already replete with such imagery. Groups of people
in a single enterprise are already referred to as a body and business conglomerates
are also referred to as corporations, drawing from the Latin word corpus the
body. Thinkers such as Plato and Hobbes made significant use of the image of the
human body in their conceptualizations of the body politic. Indeed, Platos fundamental concept of the state is as a human body with all parts functioning as appropriate to purpose. The call to agility can, therefore, be seen as very much in keeping with
this dominant physiological metaphor within social action.
Foucaults main concern with the ways in which the subject is constituted is also
highly relevant to agile discourse. Foucault argued that the central, unifying interest
in his studies was the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are
made subjects (1982, 208; 2000a, 224). This concept of agility can usefully be examined in this light also: What are the effects on the subject of this call to agility? Finally,
Foucaults focus on the care of the self is also highly relevant. The ways in which
agility is to be exercised by the subject can be viewed from this perspective: What
action of the self on the self is expected in this re-constitution of the subject as an
agile body? In his lecture series of 19811982, Foucault addressed no fewer that 24
lectures to this concept of the care of the self, seeing it as fundamental to the constitution of the subject and the ways in which the modern human is to be understood
(Foucault 2005).
Some writers such as Fraser (2003) suggest that Foucaults work has less relevance in modern post-Fordist economic structures. It is true that Foucaults (1977)
examination of discipline is particularly suited to industrial Taylorism, but his later
work, seen now in the wake of the recent publications of his lecture series, is very
much relevant to modern neoliberal governance (Binkley and Capetillo 2009).
While docile bodies was the industrial default subjectivation, we can trace in
Foucault an understanding of modern agility in relation to his work on governmentality and on neoliberalism in particular. He himself recognized that the focus
on (Fordist) techniques of domination needed to be supplemented by an equal attention to techniques of the self and this is what his latter work does (Foucault 2000a,
225; 2000b, 177).
Agility, first of all, can be linked to the neoliberal concept of the person as an
enterprise. The entrepreneurial self is a neoliberal concept of the deployment of the
self as an infinitely flexible product re-shaped to meet market demands (Simons and
Masschelein 2008, 54). Agility is a more active call than flexibility: it is a call to
agency in a particular way and as a thoroughly marketized self so that life is to
become a continuous economic capitalization of the self (Rose 1990, 226; 1999,
161). The agile self-reconfigures itself in anticipation of market changes, the value of
this identification judged in so far as it secures economic survival and success. As
Adkins and Lury (1996, 219) suggest: this call to flexibility actually suggests a
market in self-identity. The self selects the identity which suits the market: so the
agile self anticipates the market and reshapes itself accordingly (Peters 2001, 60;
Bauman 2005, 8).

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The agile company, encouraging individual selves to be agile, might be seen to be


adopting a high risk strategy. The company cannot guarantee that employees as
empowered agents will exercise their powers in such a way as to meet its desires as
well as their own. This is where a Foucauldian perspective can be helpful: the strategy
is for the agile self to embody corporate desires also, to become one with it, to be
captured by the discourse. This need not follow in some juridical way, it is not
contracted to do so, as it were: instead, the agile self appropriates, as its own, corporate
desires, its very agility allowing for this to be repeated endlessly in any context. It
marks the neoliberal dream: the worker as physical and mental embodiment of the
enterprise (Lemke 2000, 12; Foucault 2008, 242). As Edwards (2002, 358) suggests:
by fashioning and shaping peoples values and norms in line with corporate principles,
the prospects for successful organizational transformation are hugely increased.
Modern governmentality works through infiltrating regulation into the very interior
of the experience of subjects (Edwards 2008, 26), creating a speculative, creative or
innovative attitude to see opportunities in a competitive environment (Simons and
Masschelein 2008, 53).
This can also be interpreted as a development in neoliberal governance (Kooiman
2003, 117ff.; Ball 2009, 537). Instead of docile bodies, subjected to surveillance and
discipline, this form of direct government gives way to a more subtle, insidious, form
of governance where ends can still be aimed at merely through shaping actors own
choices (Miller and Rose 2008, 42; Lemke 2009). Governance achieves its goals
through what Ozga terms the disciplined self-management of the individual or group
(Ozga 2009, 152). This phrase neatly encapsulates this fused governmentality where
the self subjectivizes itself in the image of the state or the institution (Simons and
Masschelein 2006b, 419). Thus, actors agency does not entail an escape from power
but a specific exercise of it (Nicoll 2008, 167). The insidiousness lies in the illusion
of personal freedom and control (Wain 2004, 286; Miller and Rose 2008, 39). And, as
Martin notes, after the experience of the Foucauldian disciplinary society, it is no
wonder that moving gracefully as an agile, dancing flexible worker/person/body feels
like a liberation, even if one is moving on a tightrope (1994, 247).
In Foucaults lengthy and detailed examination of the concept of care of the self
can be traced the various ways in which the subject is called upon to exercise this
self-government (Foucault 2005). The agile self is one fitted to survive and thrive in
the modern market. That becomes the measure a permanent economic tribunal
(Foucault 2008, 247; Simons and Masschelein 2008, 54). This economic evaluation
also allows for dividing practices to be introduced which identify the successful individual and the failure, the good, and the bad, the right and the wrong, the affiliated
and the marginalized (Miller and Rose 2008, 98). In the neoliberal world where
market forces are universalized, it is the agile, marketable self which is treasured and
valorized. In the old Christian economy it was man in the image of God that was
sought: now it is the human as the image of the market, the economized, entrepreneurial self (Foucault 2008, 241). The sustainability of this neoliberal paradigm is
that any enterprise may, and does, fail but the resilient, entrepreneurial self can
always renew itself in new contexts. Market failure besets, but thus need not defeat,
the agile self.
Foucaults analysis of care of the self recognizes its aleatory role (2007b, 29).
The aim in the Hellenistic era was to afford the self the equipment to withstand
lifes unpredictability and its threats. Foucault explores at length how askesis, the
exercise of self on self, could develop paraskeue, equipment, with which to with-

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stand lifes vicissitudes (Foucault 2005, 320ff.). In the ancient world it was a word
or a verbal formula, learned through the parrhesia of the guide, to which the self
could have recourse when troubles arose. It was a means of maintaining self in the
face of trial (Foucault 2005, 366). By contrast, the stultus, the foolish person,
becomes prey to the external, unable to resist environmental pressures (Foucault
2005, 131). This paradigm is not so far removed from modern agility. The capacity
to be agile is the way in which we can withstand market unpredictability and
change. The infinitely entrepreneurial self develops the agility to cope with whatever the market demands. In the neoliberal world, everything is a market and so
this agility is a permanent and all-embracing weapon. In both cases, it is the desire
for security that underlies the governmentality at play. Agility is rationalized as a
means of establishing security in the face of unpredictable threats, nullifying the
risk (Foucault 2007b, 47; Olssen 2009a, 85).
Problematizing agility
It is important when employing a Foucauldian perspective not to be tempted to utilize
Foucault as a way of judging the rightness or wrongness of some practice (Foucault
2002b, 456; Biesta 2008). Foucault himself was very clear that his approach to
critique is not of that form but rather a means of probing, and challenging, what is
presented as self-evident, essential, necessary (Foucault 1984a, 50). Thus, in critiquing the discourse of agility, this paper is not attempting to make judgements other than
to suggest the ways in which such a discourse may have emerged and some of the
philosophical and ideological factors which may have contributed to its formation.
Foucault did suggest, however, that his approach to critique can be used as resistance,
as part of a reaction which refuses to be subjectivized in such a way, which resists the
neoliberal self: critique should be an instrument for those who fight, those who
resist and refuse what is (Foucault 2002a, 236).
Problematization is a central concept in Foucaults genealogical studies. On the
one hand, it relates to the emergence of problems within a discourse problematics
which render a consequent course of action as rational (Foucault 2000e, 256). Thus,
within neoliberal discourse, it can be argued that the concept of agility is a means of
addressing the problem of rapid changes within globalized markets which have led to
numerous business failures, financial losses, and unemployment. The notion of agility
is thus presented as a solution to such a problem. However, problematization can also
be used in a more active sense and this involves utilizing Foucauldian critique to raise
problems about the discourse of agility (Foucault 2000c, 114). Foucault is notoriously
accused of contenting himself with criticism and not formulating substantive alternative models. In a sense, this sort of criticism fails to recognize the nature of the
Foucauldian project (Sawicki 1996; Foucault 2000c, 118; Butler 2002; Biesta 2008).
To accuse him, as some do, of failing to present a totalizing alternative displays a lack
of understanding of Foucauldian thought, of his theoretical stance which problematizes the very nature of the totalizing accounts that some paradoxically demand of him.
Nevertheless, Foucauldian critique can open up spaces for resistance and, indeed, for
counter-conduct (Foucault 2007b, 196). And one way this can be done is through
problematizing (Miller and Rose 2008, 15).
The first way has already been suggested which is that the discourse of agility is
fundamentally rooted in neoliberal thinking. Thus, if one wishes to resist such a
view of humanity and society, then one ought also to resist the call to agility. The

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imperative to be agile is founded on a view of existence as a market, on the individual as a marketizable self, and life as a means of reaping profit from investment in
oneself.
A second way of problematizing agility is in reference to its ethos, the way of
being that it involves. The image of humanity it promotes is of an ever-changing,
nimble self, reinventing itself in anticipation of market changes, permanently alert to
opportunities to exploit and to profit from. Now there is a sense, in which this is what
marks the animate from the inanimate the capacity and will to use the environment
to survive (Dewey 1916, 1). Yet, at least one way which distinguishes agility from
Deweyan survival is that the social core at the heart of the Deweyan world is entirely
missing. The neoliberal self is individual, not social; and, secondly, its agility is for
continued survival as an economic entity and not for any sense of community, or the
more abundant life. It is this absence of an ethical substance, this apparently unscrupulous expediency, that leaves the concept of agility with a significant problem
(Ardagh 2000, 3). Over history, the moral vacuum at the heart of this sort of protean
opportunism, is one that has been readily disparaged. In England there is the notorious
Vicar of Bray, in Scotland the figure of Bobbing John, each adjusting himself effortlessly to suit diametrically opposed political or religious ideologies, and thus exposing
himself to public contempt and ridicule. This sort of unprincipled character is known,
and abhorred, in every culture: the turncoat, the time server, the quisling. But all of
these disreputable figures could be said to have demonstrated remarkable agility,
indeed their lives were founded on it.
Thus, the agile person, the agile organization cannot be afforded unconditional
endorsement. Human experience suggests that it needs to be tempered, that it needs to
be constrained in certain ways, for it to be judged favourably. To take the case of the
university: is its goal to be simply of survival at all costs, endless agile repositionings
but to have no core, no fundamental rationale, with which to guide and anchor its
activities? The same can be said of the students and young people called to agility: is
it to be a life of agility at all costs, or, if not, on what grounds and for what reasons
ought one to resist this interpellation? For the university sector, then, and for
academic staff, a key challenge is to determine if agility is to become a dominant
operating principle which elements of the university and which aspects of the
academics work have sufficient value that they cannot be refigured, which parts
represent the backbone, the inflexible.
In simple lifestyle terms, the work of Sennett (1998, 2006) gives ample evidence
of the costs of endless flexibility. As Martin (1994, 249) argues, there is also the
human interest in stability, in being rather than in endless becoming. In the face of
incitement to be nimble and in constant motion, we need to remember the common
human need for stability, security, and stasis Martin (1994, 249). In problematizing
agility, therefore, one can legitimately point to its lack of meaningful telos, and its lack
of apparent sympathy with common human goals (Lemke 2000, 6).
In terms of counter-conduct, while Foucault may not offer a template for action,
there is surely a work to be done to establish that ethical core, that moral spine. Simply
preparing young people for lives as agile economic agents is a travesty of the state
education system. In a postmodern world we may lack the conviction to promote one
set of values, one moral code, but that does not mean that we should not promote the
need to develop such if life is to be in any sense human and rational. Preparing learners for life in a democratic society must mean more than merely preparing them for
agile self-survival. Secondly, the empirical evidence of the human effects of flexibility
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cannot be ignored. The evidence is that agility of this sort is self-defeating on its own
terms. The lives which can be led in such a paradigm do not seem to be attractive to
the people who lead them: indeed, they would appear to be profoundly unsatisfactory
(Sennett 2006).
Foucault, aesthetics, and agility
There is a perverse sense in which the discourse of agility could be seen by some to
resonate with Foucauldian theory. Analysis of this odd phenomenon is worth pursuing
if only to clarify some of the issues that may lead one to see in Foucaults position
something akin to sympathy with agility. There are those who see in Foucault a dilettante aesthetics which might be seen to valorize a perpetual reshaping (Hadot, cited in
Olssen 2006, 172ff.). Indeed, such a charge has been laid at postmodern and poststructuralist positions generally: that they flirt with a sort of value-less relativism
which may give succour to this sort of rootless agility (Callan 1998, 153; Ericsson
2003).
In dealing with this, it should be noted that although Foucault, notoriously, avoids
the normative, there are some ways in which his work can be read as promoting
certain values. The first of these is in terms of freedom: it seems clear that much
Foucauldian critique can be read as relating to a refusal to be as others wish us to be
and this must be founded on a belief that personal freedom is at least preferable to
external control or direction (Biesta 2008, 204). Foucaults work can be seen to have
as one of its themes that of domination and resistance to such. However, his refusal to
set out any broader sense of the good life, or what is to be done, could lead one to see
his position as one that endorses a form of agility. His position of permanent critique
involves one apparently adopting no solid principles other than that of refusal to be
constrained in this way, or to form oneself as a subject in that way. Personal freedom
to live as one sees fit might appear to be the only principle.
However, this view can be countered by the fact that Foucault does promote
certain elements as central to ethical life. He expressly rejects the sort of discontinuous
drift which a life of endless agility might entail. Dismissing the Philosophy of the
Cyrenaic School which valorized flux, for example, he writes: not only are they
doomed to discontinuity and flux, they are also doomed to dispossession and emptiness. They are no longer anything. They exist in nothingness (Foucault 2005, 467).
One element which Foucault clearly presents as central relates to domination and a
desire not to subject others to it: one must be against nonconsensuality (Foucault
1984b, 379). The second follows from the earlier commitment to freedom which is
that if one adopts the position of reserving the right to construct oneself and ones life
in ones own way, then such a freedom must extend to all (Olssen 2009b, 47). These
two principles, therefore, do provide some kind of core to any sense of agility that
might be seen to reside within Foucauldian philosophy. He wrote of his own approach
in this regard: I do knowwhat I have committed myself to : to having a brain as
supple as possible and a spinal column thats as straight as necessary (Foucault
2002c, 473). Those who see in Foucault endless suppleness are clearly missing this
central core.
However, there is a second sense in which the entrepreneurial self might be seen
to resonate with Foucauldian ideas. The sense that one makes a business of oneself,
that one develops and produces profit from ones life which can be seen as symptomatic of neoliberal, human capital approaches (Miller and Rose 2008, 97), could be

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construed by some as having echoes in Foucaults work. One of the oddly normative,
but never full developed, elements of Foucauldian thought is this concept of transforming oneself (Foucault 1992, 1011; 2000d, 130ff.). Foucault seems to think of it
as something to be endorsed, indeed as an implicit purpose to life. Given his reluctance to set out any normative code it does seem odd that this lies so openly within his
work. Indeed, the same observation can be made about his related point about the
possibilities of life becoming an art form. While he may not explicitly present this as
a good, an end to be desired, he does raise it in the sense that it is floated as a possibility: But couldnt everyones life become a work of art? From the idea that the
self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to
create ourselves as a work of art (Foucault 2000e, 2612). However, this is quite a
different sense from that proposed under the neoliberal agenda: Foucaults lecture
series on the birth of biopolitics (Foucault 2008) offers an extensive critique of the
neoliberal project that turns the individual into an entrepreneur of himself (2008,
226) and his life into a sort of permanent and multiple enterprise (2008, 241).
Foucaults transformation is about ethos, an art of living, the relationship of self with
self, a wholly different concept altogether.
Now, if Foucault concedes that being other than one was, transforming oneself is
a good, then it does not seem to be beyond the Foucauldian pale to suggest that designing oneself as a marketable entity is perfectly legitimate. The point here, however, is
that while Foucault may not take a position on this being right or wrong in some
sense, he would certainly critique any such construction which was forced on others,
or which was established as a norm, or indeed which depended on its fulfilment on the
exploitation or dominance of others. As has been noted, Foucaults task was not to
establish some kind of discipline by which good, bad, right, and wrong could be
employed. His position was the very opposite and if, by one process of interpretation,
the entrepreneurial, agile self can be seen to be permissible within Foucauldian
thought one must be very cautious about the lengths to which such a view can be
taken. A very short length would appear to be the answer: it certainly was never
Foucaults purpose that his work be used in such a way.
Foucauldian critique was never designed as a means by which we should come to
the light of truth (Foucault 2002a, 236). His work does offer the possibility of counterpractice: his critique illuminates the contingency of social practice, shows that there
is no necessity for it to be as it is, and leaves open the possibility of alternative
approaches the undefined work of freedom (Foucault 1984a, 46; Biesta 2008, 201).
Thus, being agile is but one way of proceeding: there are many other, innumerable,
ways of being and what Foucauldian analysis allows is for this to be exposed.
e[m]acr

Conclusion
The discourse of agility is firmly rooted in neoliberal ideology and is recognizable as
a form of governance, a contemporary governmentality which promises to shape the
conduct of diverse actors without shattering their formally autonomous character
(Miller and Rose 2008, 39). Yet, some caveats need to be acknowledged in such an
analysis. First of all, it seems clear that the call to agility is a form of discursive action,
it is hortatory, more an imperative injunction than indicative description. At most, agility
is one element which may be detectable in current social practice. It is not universal,
not all-consuming, and nor is it inevitable. In that sense, probing governmental discourse
does not equate with probing empirical fact (McKee 2008). Nevertheless, Foucaults

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concept of governmentality can serve to make the diachronic emergence of agility intelligible, and can serve to illuminate its synchronic links, and may even be an exercise
in teaching people what they dont know about their own situation, their working conditions, and their exploitation (Foucault 2000f, 296). It highlights one current way in
which humans are called upon to construct themselves as subjects and by problematizing
such constructions alerts us to the potential for alternative forms: situations can always
give rise to strategies. I dont believe we are locked into a history (Foucault 2002d,
397). Thus, while alive to dangers and they are real for those for whom discursive
capture, workplace pressures, economic status, and personal circumstances provide
powerful constraints on agency Foucaults position leads not to apathy but to a hyper
and pessimistic activism (2000e, 256), to the critical task of working on our limits,
that is, a patient labour giving form to our impatience for liberty (1984a, 50).
Notes on contributor
Donald Gillies is a lecturer in educational studies at the University of Strathclyde. He is the
compiler of A brief critical dictionary of education, a free online source launched in March
2010 (www.dictionaryofeducation.co.uk).

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