More on Foucault, discipline, and the individual

This post continues some earlier reflections on Foucault, Luhmann, and the individual. Under the heading of normalizing judgments, Foucault writes,

At the heart of all disciplinary systems functions a small penal mechanism. It enjoys a kind of judicial privilege with its own laws, its specific offences, its particular forms of judgement. The disciplines established an ‘infra-penality’; they partitioned an area that the laws had left empty; they defined and repressed a mass of behaviour that the relative indifference of the great systems of punishment had allowed to escape. ‘ [. . .] The work­shop, the school, the army were subject to a whole micro-penality of time (latenesses, absences, interruptions of tasks), of activity (inattention, negligence, lack of zeal), of behaviour (impoliteness, disobedience), of speech (idle chatter, insolence), of the body ‘incorrect’ attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness), of sexuality (impurity, indecency). At the same time, by way of punishment, a whole series of subtle procedures was used, from light physical punishment to minor deprivations and petty humiliations.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, p. 177-78)

The disciplinary system Foucault describes is distinct from the legal system; it fills in the gaps in the legal system but is also independent of the legal system. It covers areas of life that the legal system ignores–e.g., “inattention, negligence, lack of zeal.” This system operates in the schools, hospitals, the workplace, and the military. Foucault argues that it becomes inseparable from these areas of society. Surveillance is woven into the fabric of education, for example. There is a machine metaphor at work, as individuals are seen to have defects that need correction. “Disciplinary punishment has the function of reducing gaps. It must therefore be essentially corrective” (179).

Discipline is a two-sided form:

In discipline, punishment is only one element of a double system: gratification-punishment. And it is this system that operates in the process of training and correction. The teacher ‘must avoid, as far as possible, the use of punishment; on the contrary, he must endeavour to make rewards more frequent than penalties, the lazy being more encouraged by the desire to be rewarded in the same way as the diligent than by the fear of punishment; that is why it will be very beneficial, when the teacher is obliged to use punishment, to win the heart of the child if he can before doing so’

p. 180

It is essential to avoid the use of punishment as far as possible because the two-sided form of punishment/gratification has to be maintained. If a person is constantly punished and there is no hope of escape, then the discipline doesn’t work. What is the point of reforming one’s behavior if the punishment is endless. This is why token or point systems are used to shape behavior. Prisoners can earn a reduced penalty for good behavior.

The Brothers of the Christian Schools organized a whole micro­ economy of privileges and impositions: ‘Privileges may be used by pupils to gain exemption from penances which have been imposed on them. . . For example, a pupil may have been given four or six catechism questions to copy out as an imposition; he will be able to gain exemption from this penance by accumulating a certain number of privilege points; the teacher will assign the number for each question. . . Since privileges are worth a certain number of points, the teacher also has others of less value, which serve as small change for the first. For example, a child has an imposition from which he can redeem himself with six points; he earns a privilege of ten; he presents it to the teacher who gives him back four points, and so on’ (La Salle, Conduite . . ., 156ff).

Foucault, p. 180-81

We can speak of a twin horizons. The punishment/gratification form has a crossable boundary between opposing horizons. Discipline can approach these horizons but never cross them. The boundary is crossable–and indeed must be crossable–but the horizons are not crossable; they keep receding and eventually discipline must turn back to the opposite horizon.

As noted above, discipline opens and fills gaps; it creates defects in order to correct them. It doesn’t simply discover defects; it creates them. Before the disciplinary system made things like idle chatter, inattention, laziness, and poor handwriting punishable offenses they were, of course, not punishable offenses. Offenses are created so that they may be regulated, and new offenses must constantly be invented to replace those that lose their disciplinary value. The same process happens in the health system as new disorders are constantly invented–e.g., Erectile Dysfunction (ED), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Hypersexual Behavior Disorder. But only those disorders with an available treatment (not necessarily cure) are created.

Rather than the simply binary code of legal/illegal or good/evil, discipline invents a whole grid of offenses, filling in all the gaps. A table can be drawn up with offenses arranged in a hierarchy on the y axis and severity on the other x axis.

This mechanism with two elements makes possible a number of operations characteristic of disciplinary penality. First, the definition of behaviour and performance on the basis of the two opposed values of good and evil; instead of the simple division of the prohibition, as practised in penal justice, we have a distribution between a positive pole and a negative pole; all behaviour falls in the field between good and bad marks, good and bad points.

Foucault, p. 180

The ranking system is a very important factor here. For example, the ranking system of assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor is a disciplinary mechanism created by the university to maintain control over faculty.

We tend to think of ranking as being a very medieval phenomenon (think of the Great Chain of Being), but it only became really important and pervasive in the 17th to 18th centuries. The idea was that the anonymous mass of people needed to be organized, much like animal and plant species. People are individualized and placed on a disciplinary grid. Individualism is not all about freedom. When Enlightenment thinkers talk about “the mob” they are referring to the undifferentiated mass, and this mass is very hard to control; individuals are much easier to control.

The distribution according to ranks or grade has a double role: it marks the gaps, hierarchizes qualities, skills and aptitudes; but it also punishes and rewards. It is the penal functioning of setting in order and the ordinal character of judging. Discipline rewards simply by the play of awards, thus making it possible to attain higher ranks and places; it punishes by reversing this process. Rank in itself serves as a reward or punishment.

Foucault, p. 181


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