Posted on my site michel-foucault.com
Quand je parle de société «disciplinaire», il ne faut pas entendre «société disciplinée». Quand je parle de la diffusion des méthodes de discipline, ce n’est pas affirmer que «les Français sont obéissants»! Dans l’analyse des procédés mis en place pour normaliser, il n’y a pas «la thèse d’une normalisation massive». Comme si justement, tous ces développements n’étaient pas à la mesure d’un insuccès perpetuel.
When I speak of a ‘disciplinary’ society, I don’t mean a ‘disciplined society’. When I speak of the spread of methods of discipline, this is not a claim that ‘the French are obedient’! In the analysis of normalising procedures, it is not a question of a ‘thesis of a massive normalisation’. As if these developments weren’t precisely the measure of a perpetual failure.
Michel Foucault, (1994)  ‘La poussière et le nuage’ In Dits et Ecrits vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard, pp. 15-16. This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell
Random thoughts in response
Foucault takes issue with critics here who have described his idea of the disciplinary society as deterministic. They argue that Foucault describes a dreary and oppressive system from which we cannot escape.
But Foucault makes the excellent point that if populations were perfectly organised there would actually be no need to set up these systems of discipline. The ‘disciplinary society’ is a utopia dreamed up by nineteenth century reformers and bureaucrats who in a kind of mechanistic and obsessive fervour sought to organise the ways bodies behaved, how time and space were divided and the division of tasks amongst a hierarchy of individuals.
It is precisely the resistance of the unruly masses to attempts to organise them which engender the ever more finely detailed plans by the devotees of order at any cost to get them under control. There is a constant strategic interplay between the forces of order and those who wish to think and act otherwise. The constant failure of the disciplinary project leads those bent on its realisation to redouble their efforts which in turn engenders ever more creative efforts to sidestep these constraints.
Brutal methods of repression have been demonstrated to be largely ineffective in the long run and since the nineteenth century we have seen ever more subtle methods of ‘governmentality’ which use the very freedom of individuals to assist in their own enmeshment in these systems. Of course the increasing bureaucratisation of any number of organisations, including universities, is a daily demonstration of this process. One could also undertake an interesting analysis of current consumerist practices and communication technologies in this context.