Skip to content

Foucault, Discipline and Punish

I’d like discuss the issue of agency in Discipline and Punish.

The reaction of my Historiography class, which I gladly re-read this book for, was somewhat mixed. One student argued that “Foucault dismisses personal responsibility and the willful choice of an individual to commit a crime.” Meanwhile, another argued that Foucault’s departure from Marxism “is evidenced by assigning a sense of free will to the individuals discussed…”

This isn’t a new debate. Since his rise to academic prominence in the US, at least, people have been debating whether Foucault presents a view of people trapped in multivalent matrices of power that leave them with little or no agency or choice, or if his work represents a radical imbuing of power to all, even those traditionally considered to be powerless in society.

Is this a view of a world where we are constantly being disciplined, punished, and robbed of choices, or is it one where the subaltern can not only speak, but act? Personally, I fall into the latter camp. I’m going to try to explain why here.

The key to this view, to me, is Foucault’s construction of power. He describes power as a “perpetual battle,” as a thing “…exercised rather than possessed, , it is not the ‘privilege’, acquired or preserved, of the dominant class, but the overall effect of its strategic positions- an effect that is manifested and sometimes extended by the positions of those who are dominated.” (26-27)

The traditional concept of power coming from the top down, embodied physically in the figure of the king, with what Foucault repeatedly describes as his “super-power,”* (e.g., 57) is out the window.  Where popular notions of power had been forces like Newtonian gravity, Foucault’s power is like quantum physics—unpredictable, unstable, constantly shifting, everywhere, and appearing in quantities too small to see. Foucault discusses “infra-penalty” and “infra-politics,” (pgs 214 & 222) concepts that, along with his concept of power, likely are the main source for Robin Kelley’s concept of infra-politics—political acts on a small scale taken up by the supposedly powerless.

It may be easier to take an optimistic view of power when looking at the “bad old days” of torture, when you’re looking at this book. Foucault almost puts the criminal and the king on equal footing (47-48) in his argument that the criminal’s power to break the law is a direct affront to the power of the king, whose will is law. It’s harder to see this sort of power at work later in the book, with the advent of modern penal reform. Part of this is probably a result of having to spend a lot more time inside prisons, after punishment ceased being a public spectacle and became a cloistered, private affair between the state and the body—or the soul—of the individual subject.

Yet even under the régime of panopticism, there is hope in Foucault’s construction of power. Think of it this way: the utility of the panopticon is based on its efficiency—the uncertainty of whether one is being watched leads to an internalization of discipline, and thus to the disciplining of one’s self. As this technology increased, it spread out, became more generalized, and became a prevalent method of social control.

But the beauty part of this is, most of the time, we are policing ourselves. We discipline ourselves. This means that within the modern world of discipline and biopower, if one feels denied the opportunity to exercise ones agency, all one really needs—most of the time—is the strength and the courage to stop doing the work of the warden for him, and go out and do what you want.

Because Foucault is essentially a Neitzchian. That’s why he writes genealogies rather than histories or metaphysics.

Of course, it’s also why Chomsky dismissed him as “amoral” after their televised debate, but I’ve just opened a couple cans of worms I don’t have the time or space to close right now.

______________________________
*I don’t have the book in French, but I have a suspicion that this term is a translation of puissance supérieure—a phrase that gives a sense, again, of top-down-ness. Just a thought, really.