Foucault, Luhmann, and the individual

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes,

Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that
regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise.


This is an important part of Foucault‘s argument. He argues that in the classical period, the mid-17th to late 18th centuries, major changes happened in western Europe, though he focuses mostly on France and Prussia. Prior to this historical shift, people were treated as a mass, as in warfare where a mass of men functions like a wall or battering ram. But in the classical period, soldiers were distributed in a systematic, organized, or machine-like way:

In an army of pikes and muskets – slow, imprecise, practically incapable of selecting a target and taking aim – troops were used as a projectile, a wall or a fortress: ‘the formidable infantry of the army of Spain’; the distribution of soldiers in this mass was carried out above all according to their seniority and their bravery; at the centre, with the task of providing weight and volume, of giving density to the body, were the least experienced; in front, at the angles and on the flanks, were the bravest or reputedly most skilful soldiers. In the course of the classical period, one passed over to a whole set of delicate articulations. The unit–unit, regiment, battalion, section and, later, ‘division’ – became a sort
of machine with many parts, moving in relation to one another, in
order to arrive at a configuration and to obtain a specific result.

The classical period was when soldiers starting being arranged in ranks and files, like a chess board or cells a spreadsheet table. Every body has its assigned position in this spatial distribution. This is what tactics means. The Greek taktike means the art of arrangement. Each person could be given an assignment and held accountable. When soldiers are assembled in formation for inspection, one soldier can be called out and disciplined. The highest expression of this kind of discipline might be the marching band that performs at football games and parades; they move in a synchronized, machine-like way. The same disciplinary measures were applied in the schools, prisons, and hospitals.

The novel, the literary genre that explored the individuals, was also invented in the classical period.

We like to think that being treated as an individual means you are respected and left alone to do what you want within limits. This was the view of the utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill. However, the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham invented the panopticon, which is a kind of machine where every individual person can be constantly watched.

What does systems theory say about the individual? The individual does not even belong to society except as a topic of communication. This theoretical move subverts the part/whole paradigm where the individual is part of society, or the smallest unit of society. Society consists of communication, not individuals. Thus, Luhmann was not really interested in the individual, other than as a semantic issue, and he would never have done the kind of historical research Foucault did.

In functionally differentiated society, the individual (at least upon reaching adulthood) is cut loose from the family. She/he must make their own way in the world. The more functionally differentiated the society, the more the individual is on her/his own. In a functionally differentiated society, children are treated as individuals. In cases of child abuse or neglect, the legal system can also step between parents and their children.

But how did the semantics of the individual emerge? In linguistics, the field of semantics investigates meaning and syntax investigates structure. Luhmann argues that semantic innovations accompany changes in social structure, as a society tries to make sense of the new structures; thus, there must have been social changes that led to the development of the modern concept of the individual. Indeed, functional differentiation was the great structural change that led to the semantics of the individual, which is what allows us to discuss and think about the individual.


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