discipline and punish

Discipline: Docile bodies

Reading Foucault is like going on an archeological dig with an expert paleontologist. He is relentless in providing the reader with historical examples documenting the emergence and evolution of the concept of discipline and how that in turn evolved into a new paradigm of absolute power.

He begins with the example of the soldier and how their use of their bodies evolved over time. Good soldiers used to emerge from sheer will and survival but by the eighteenth century a soldier was a thing to mold, move, and deploy, like a machine.

The manifestations of discipline are first explained in terms of space. Disciplines are forged within an enclosed, partitioned space. Further, as these spaces grow specialization and interchangeability of the constituent pieces develop. Foucault exemplifies these spatial processes through their manifestations in military barracks, monasteries, classrooms, hospitals, and factories.

The manifestations of discipline are then explained in terms of time. A timetable organizes actions temporally and within that timetable rhythms and efficiencies of action can be discovered and perfected. Through these efficiencies an individual’s production is maximized and no effort is wasted. Foucault primarily uses examples from schools and the military in this section including curricular schedules and the logic and evolution of military drills and marches.

The spatial and temporal means of discipline can be further organized. One maximizes efficiency and outcomes by having groups of docile bodies perform training activities in parallel, break their tasks down into component pieces for learning, enact examinations to assess learning outcomes, and subdivide the performance of activities to reflect and reinforce the hierarchy the individuals belong to. This is refined and perfected through repetition, examination, and predictable progress through the ranks. Again, the examples here rely on school and military primarily to make their points.

In sum, these processes form a fractal means of control. Each part of an individual is made to follow a prescribed spatial and temporal rubric, whether the individual be a student, a soldier, a worker, a member of a social group. Moving up the fractal chain of command, individuals, groups, and various units or factions are mobilized, strategized with, and ultimately controlled.

The excerpt sums up most of the chapter from a high-level perspective:

To sum up, it might be said that discipline creates out of the bodies it controls four types of individuality, or rather an individuality that is endowed with four characteristics: it is cellular (by the play of spatial distribution), it is organic (by the coding of activities), it is genetic (by the accumulation of time), it is combinatory (by the composition of forces). And, in doing so, it operates four great techniques: it draws up tables; it prescribes movements; it imposes exercises; lastly, in order to obtain the combination of forces, it arranges ‘tactics’.

The notion of the individual here is counterintuitive to our modern understanding of the term that emphasizes uniqueness. For Foucault, the individualizing process doesn’t respect differences. Instead, the process of “disciplining” the individual turns it into an part that fits inside and operates within a social machine. The individual has no agency or meaning outside this machine; instead, the individual is an object through which power is exercised.

Discipline: The means of correct training

This next chapter deals with the wholesale application of power through the disciplining of the populace. Despite the seemingly insignificant rituals of the individual, disciplinary power accomplishes more than any war tribunal or sovereign could:

These are humble modalities, minor procedures, as compared with the majestic rituals of sovereignty or the great apparatuses of the state. And it is precisely they that were gradually to invade the major forms, altering their mechanisms and imposing their procedures. The legal apparatus was not to escape this scarcely secret invasion. The success of disciplinary power derives no doubt from the use of simple instruments; hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement and their combination in a procedure that is specific to it, the examination.

As such, the normalization of judgement (sovereign or otherwise) occurs through punishment which in part is determined by assessment/examination.

Punishment has many forms and within this power system should be deployed in any way it might be available, whether that be through corporeal means (physical punishment) or symbolic means (loss of rank, ostracization). Further, punishment suggests a there is a “natural order” for the way things are within a power system and as such serves a corrective purpose when it’s deployed. It does this by reinforcing notions about rightness and wrongness and reinforcing hierarchies found within the power system. Punishment as normalization makes thus makes outliers within a social system stand out and provides a means to move them towards the ideal or demote them down (or even out) the social hierarchy.

The exam is the ultimate way to normalize a system of knowledge. Through exams, the individual peacefully yields their power to the sovereign by buying into the power system the sovereign proposes. This is a radical change, since the way sovereign power asserted control before relied on force and might. Now, the individual is understood relative to its peers, can be summarized in a neat table, and can be ranked and analyzed. Prior to the exam this granular level of control was unimaginable.

If people become quantifiable when power consolidates at the level of the body moving through space and time, then a science to best perform and maximize the decisions of power is necessary. As such, the quantification of people and consolidation of power through knowledge of the individual coincides with (one might even say that this process serves as a doula for) the birth of social science. Foucault deals a solid blow to logical empiricist ideals built on positivism and objectivism in social science. His suggestion is that social inferences built on data are built on power systems in the service of a sovereign power of some sort. As such, they can never be purely objective.

Discipline: Panopticism

Foucault contrasts the Eye of Sauron type surveillance as an operating principle with plague abatement procedures in the 17th century and somehow makes Bentham’s Panopticon seem scarier than the plague. This happens through the generalizability of the panopticon to most aspects of society. At first, disciplinary processes serve society in a contingent manner since they are employed to solve a particular social problem whether that be military organization, schooling, hospital administration, or manufacture. Over time, the fruits of discipline create a demand for more discipline and the contingent solution slowly ossifies into society. Ultimately, the state takes control of these disciplinary functions and asserts its power granularly, utilizing the “all-seeing-eye” of the panopticon to perpetually surveil its people.

Though breaking the rules in plague time was a crime punishable by death, the arbitrary power system put in place during the plague had a defined outcome, namely the abatement of the plague. Eventually, the contingent application of discipline (and thus, power) would run its course and community activities could return to “normal.” When it comes to the panopticon, the only “normal” that exists is the normal the sovereign power is curating.

This last quote is especially frightening in its tautology, suggesting how prisons self-perpetuate in this power system:

The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

Prison: Complete and austere institutions

I had a much harder time grasping the last chapter. There was something confusing about how Foucault interweaved the discourse on prison/penitentiary best practices with the analysis of the institution itself. In terms of the idea of prisons, Foucault asserts how easy and obvious it is to understand their purpose in that they take our most valuable asset—freedom—and use its removal to apply a correction to our behavior. As such, discourse about prisons was more likely to be about the merits and methods of particular types of punishment than about the abolishment of the institutions themselves. Regardless of the outcome of these discourses, social critics then and now seem to suggest that prisons themselves as institutions are inevitable.

In terms of power, prisons isolate and reinforce hierarchies, they use work as rehabilitation through the control of the bodily means of production, and they determine the time and punishment that is fit for an arbitrary crime. In these three dimensions, prisons have an absolute control over an individual. Given this level of control, wardens and prison administrators have a responsibility to their prisoners, lest they become absolute, arbitrary despots.

Through this responsibility, Foucault suggests that prisons should instead be thought about as penitentiaries (i.e. places to commit penance) and convicts are instead delinquents (i.e. people that can be put on the righteous path). The end goals of penitentiaries and delinquents are to reform and be reformed; the process by which this happens is by absolute discipline under the panopticon of the benevolent judge/warden/administrator.

Foucault’s last suggestion is perhaps the most powerful and damning of the penitentiary power system. By creating delinquents and treatments, systematic punishment creates a concept of crime and criminology. In other words, prisons create prisoners, not solve social woes.

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