Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Posted on my site

What is to be understood by the disciplining of societies in Europe since the eighteenth century is not, of course, that the individuals who are part of them become more and more obedient, nor that all societies become like barracks, schools or prisons; rather, it is that an increasingly controlled, more rational and economic process of adjustment has been sought between productive activities, communications networks, and the play of power relations.

Michel Foucault, (2000) [1981] ‘The Subject and Power’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, p. 339.
Random thoughts in response
I have posted a slightly different version of this comment before, but seem to want to keep returning to it!

Critics have often read Foucault’s notion of a disciplinary society as meaning that people subject to its effects behave like automatons. That is certainly the aim of the disciplinary regime, but not necessarily the result in practice. In fact, people continually resist attempts to rationalise and organise their behaviour whether with a deliberate program of resistance in mind, or piecemeal in specific situations just because they don’t like it. Unfortunately as disciplinary regimes become more refined, people have to become more and more creative – or just simply destructive – in their attempts to get around these regulatory systems.

Foucault’s ideas have often been blamed – particularly by conservative commentators – for the perceived contemporary breakdown in social order and for fostering the resistance to traditional seats of authority which has marked ethical systems in the post World War II period. I would argue, rather, that Foucault’s work – as was the work of other thinkers who emerged in the 1960s – was in fact a warning about certain directions in social organisation which have now become all too apparent. The disciplinary society is not something that had its heydey in the nineteenth and up to the mid twentieth centuries and now only exists in Charles Dickens novels or the histories of totalitarian regimes. It has evolved using sophisticated techniques of governmentality to become a system of extraordinary complexity and regulatory effectiveness.

What is perhaps most disturbing at present (but then perhaps nothing has changed!) is the high degree of volontary and unquestioning compliance by individuals with mechanisms which seek to restrict their freedom. Mechanisms of social order are, of course, essential to the survival of human beings at all levels, but the question becomes, and indeed has always been, where to draw the line between rules essential for harmonious social function, and regulation that simply enslaves people, locking them into inequitable relations of power.

Much of Foucault’s work focuses on this dangerous narrow and wavering line and seeks to warn people that they must be constantly alert to the dangers this line entails. Foucault and other thinkers of his generation who lived through the modernist debacle which was World War II and totalitarianism were determined to see that this never happened again, but the lessons of history are soon forgotten (particularly when the study of history has been wiped off both school and university curricula) and the re-emergence of old problems in new guises is frequently not recognised for what it is.

2 thoughts on “Foucault and the disciplinary society 2

  1. Chathan Vemuri says:

    I think Stuart Elden did a good job in some of his work criticizing the near exclusive focus on the panopticon as the model of Foucault’s theory of power.. Foucault saw the panopticon merely as an illustration of the general logic of the disciplinary regime rather than its culminating logic in practice, though of course panoptic power remained incredibly important.

    Do you know of any work utilizing Foucault’s disciplinary analysis, aside from that done in security studies?


  2. Chris says:

    Hiya Clare,
    Foucault’s quote has much relevance today. I am doing a post grad qual in planning and this ‘line’ between power/control and social organisation is a constant in deliberations. Planning has a strong history of scientific and more recently economic rationalism. People can easily get lost in it.
    From Chris in Castlemaine


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