Foucault's Discipline & Punish
may be the most important book I've read in years.
In it, Foucault discusses the transition between the sovereign mode of power and what replaced it. He takes us from the public torture and execution to the modern prison. He documents in meticulous detail how the new "modality of power" manifested itself through several institutions: the prison, the military, the hospital, the asylum, and the school. Foucault documents how new methods of control quickly spread from one institution to the others, in the ultimate service of creating a "disciplined society".
The thesis of Discipline & Punish, put briefly, is something like this: We did not abandon the old ways because they were cruel. We abandoned them because they were ineffective. The new modality of power which followed the French Revolution is much more subtle and pervasive. We help operate it. Power is no longer held by a singular sovereign who can be overthrown, it's been distributed in a way to disguise its locus. Modern power does not manifest itself in a way that can be resisted. It's pervasive in that it fills every interaction we have, it expresses itself through what Foucault calls a "microphysics of power". We're the ones observing each other and applying the pressure of normalization.
Just to illustrate the above (dense) paragraph -- let's look at the Jury. It used to be that "justice" flowed from some noble, then it was handed to judges because nobles kept getting decapitated by the families of the "guilty". Then it was handed to a "jury of peers", so that people would feel like they
were responsible for a lawful society. It's not that a "jury of peers" is inherently good at ruling on matters of justice - it's there so that you believe the verdict came from your peers and not the state. You can't lynch a jury. And if you did, it wouldn't change anything.
And that is a microcosm of how power is distributed and maintained. Nobody really holds any power, but what little they have is a tool to reenforce a greater structure of power. Look at Occupy Wall st
- there was a public acknowledgment that the bankers are cutthroat bastards who have been systemically screwing us. So what now? Do we lynch the bankers? It would make no difference. The bankers hold no power. They would just be replaced by more bankers who are beholden to the same power structure and would therefore pull the exact same shit. If you talk about changing the banks, the people you're talking to will tell you all the reasons we need banks and the current institutions and hierarchies need to be maintained.
The executioner's face is no longer hidden - Vader's mask came off and Luke's face is staring back at him.
One of the main concepts in Foucault's description of power is discipline
. There is this idea of the "disciplined society".
: control that is gained by requiring that rules or orders be obeyed and punishing bad behavior
: a way of behaving that shows a willingness to obey rules or orders
: behavior that is judged by how well it follows a set of rules or orders
The goal of disciplining a soldier is to turn him into an extension of the officer's will. Just as a soldier's gun should be a part of him, something he can control as effortlessly as his own limbs, a soldier is a similar instrument to his leader. And that leader is an instrument to another leader, and so forth up the hierarchy.
The goal of a disciplined society is that the lowest tiers are in harmony with the values of the upper tiers. Prison, mental health, education -- the goals of these institutions are to produce docile subjects who are extensions of the current power structures.
At some level, that's all that "homework" is, right? A way of getting the child to internalize the values of the institution while he's not actually there? It takes discipline
to do your homework. And we tell students---this is preparation for the workplace. We are turning you into parts of a machine which produces ... itself.
I'm really just scratching the surface here, there's a lot in this book worth discussing. But what's been on my mind recently is this idea of Discipline, and how we individuals should relate to it. (individuation in the context of power, btw, also worth talking about, but let's save that for another time)
On one level, being disciplined is worthwhile. There are a lot of rewards for being able to focus and get shit done, being respectful of the hierarchy, being able to internalize a set of rules, etc. I don't think you can really get anywhere in western civilization without discipline.
But on another level, being disciplined is dangerous. It means you're under control, an object of power. If you're not
disciplined, you're more skeptical and critical about the Mission Statement, the War, the Hegemony.
Sometimes I'm sitting in some corporate training and I just want to excuse myself and never come back. I can't help but think about the power and personal control I give up for that paycheck and 401K. We've all gotta do it. Which makes me wonder, was I doing myself a disservice by reading all this Foucault? Is being undisciplined something I should actually strive for? Am I just confusing myself and making myself less effective at my job by brewing up all this cynicism and criticism? To what degree am I served by being an iconoclast? Isn't it better to be focused on acquiring more power?