Tag: disciplinary society

The social utility of art and scholarship

Links via Stuart Elden’s blog

Geoffrey Galt Harpham notes the following (citation via JJ Cohen at In the Middle)

[Research is] an immense undertaking in which countless people performing the most tedious small tasks are able, collectively, to liberate the modern world from the grip of doctrine, authority, and myth. The value of each contribution can, he says, be measured only in the aggregate, and in many cases only much later: many scholarly or scientific projects are like abandoned mines, awaiting rediscovery by future generations. … Redundancy is the price we pay for other, less measurable but very real benefits. But we should be concerned about the mind-set that sees the past as inert, the humanities as old knowledge, and scholarship as the problem. [1]

I find this a wonderfully inspiring and optimistic statement. Often one worries as a writer or researcher that one has nothing to contribute to an already massively overcrowded field and that neither can one ever hope to measure up to the standards set by major artists and scholars who stand out through their innovation and immense productivity. Further to this, are the problems of navigating the enormous bureaucratic and ideological pressures exercised on those teaching and conducting research in universities at present.

Harpham argues that every little bit counts and is worth the effort: an approach that one also finds in Foucault’s work. It is the optimistic view that every human action, every human investigation makes a difference, no matter how tiny. Certainly, at present, concerted mass efforts are required to resist the logic currently in evidence in every social sector: a logic which seeks to organise systems into immovable and well-oiled mechanisms which work well for a few, but less well for a great majority. A logic which also seeks to convince people that their contributions are of no value, reducing them to inaction and despair – a condition which makes them easily tractable – ‘passive and docile bodies’ indeed!

[1] Geoffrey Galt Harpham “Why We Need the 16,772nd Book on ShakespeareQui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 20, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2011, pp. 109-116)

Foucault and the disciplinary society 2

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

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.

Foucault and the disciplinary society

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) [1980] ‘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.

The Amber Spyglass

My rating: *
Spoiler Alert

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book 3) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My review

This book is well written and the story really hooks you in, but I really disliked the philosophy Pullman is pushing. This philosophy seems to be a kind of Nietzschean materialist version of gnosticism (phew!). His is a universe which allows only of one interpretation, a place where the event is nothing but the intervention of chaos and the void and must be negated so the status quo can be restored in the full glory of its disciplinary order. It is a universe where the human curiosity for knowledge leads to ruin and annihilation (although the author overtly claims the opposite) and where the fluidity of identity must be replaced by the supremacy of the rational and by fixed identity.

Just to break down those abstractions a bit. The ‘event’ is the opening up of windows to other worlds by scientists – Lord Asriel and the scientists in the Cittagazze. This leads to the beginning of the breakdown of the universe and the potential annihilation of consciousness. It is scientific curiosity about what is out there and other worlds that leads to this situation.

Views on identity centre around daemons (souls). Children have daemons which can change shape until they reach puberty. After that, they become fixed which Pullman indicates several times is a good thing and a sign of maturity and wisdom. This identity also appears to maintain the social order. Once a servant always a servant. As Lyra explains in The Amber Spyglass the daemons of servants are usually dogs, indicating that these are people who need to be led and ordered around. One is not a servant due to unjust social circumstances or questionable social hierarchies but because that is what one’s nature is and one must remain as ordained. Entire armies of Tartars have wolf daemons. If one is not happy with one’s daemon – too bad – you are stuck with it. So much for social justice or working on the self as a project.

Lyra, when she hits puberty, loses her intuitive ability to read the alethiometer and must then be formed by the disciplinary institution of the (boarding) school in order to develop rational techniques to read it. It is the Modernist idea that fantasy and intuition are the province of childhood and are properly replaced by adult ‘rationality’. C. Wright Mills provides a classic example of this kind of thinking in his 1959 work The Sociological Imagination.

Dust appears to be conscious matter which works in sync with humans – it is both attracted to humans and generated by humans. It relies on humans to aggregate into a conscious form. Angels are beings who can’t quite pull it off in terms of really existing because they have no real material body. They are half existences (even if they are powerful) and envy the body of humans.

A propos this angelic nature, Will is content to ask entities such as angels whether they are stronger or weaker than humans. When the first angel he meets, Balthamos, replies he is weaker than humans, Will bluntly tells him that he has to do what he orders him to do in that case. This theme of exploiting his position as the strongest emerges again and again. If Will thinks he can exercise power over somebody or something he doesn’t hesitate to do so. The Nietzschean hero indeed.

‘God’ or ‘the Authority’ is an evil being who only wants to dominate and control Man and is frightened of the power of the latter. What we have here is an old-fashioned modernist anthropomorphic view of the universe. Humans (and the equivalents thereof) are the centre and the raison d’être of all conscious being.

On another topic, the idea of a romantic interlude between two twelve year old children resulting in the salvation of the universe both present and future is both tacky and unconvincing. Why should ‘Dust’ (aka conscious matter particles) find such an event to be the stabilising point?

There is no room for multiple interpretations of elements within Pullman’s cosmology, which makes it a very closed and small universe. At the same time it is hard to pin down what is actually going on satisfactorily and it all seems very confused and self-contradictory at the edges. It would appear that both scientific and spiritual forms of experimental knowledge are dangerous to the well-being of the entire universe and that the best we can do is conform to a rigid disciplinary status quo which will preserve our nature and protect us from the danger of annihilation. There is nothing but a gaping void beyond or outside of this status quo. Even when you are dead you are recycled to guarantee the ongoing existence of this ghastly stasis.

In conclusion, one is left with nowhere to go at the end of Pullman’s trilogy but that would appear to be the author’s aim in any case.

Code 46 (2003)

code46My rating: **
Imdb link

The characters and story in this science fiction film directed by Michael Winterbottom are of no real interest and the film doesn’t offer much that is inspiring either on what appears to be its main themes of memory and identity and otherness. But what is interesting about this film are its incidental depictions of forms of biopower and notions of territory.

It is set in a society which regulates the geographical movements of its population via a computer system called ‘The Sphynx’. This system offers no explanations to individuals as to why it restricts their travel to places they wish to go. But we see one individual who obtains an illegal visa to visit Delhi die when he contracts a disease to which he is susceptible. The Sphynx had not granted him a visa due to this biological vulnerability in that geographical region but he is never told the reason.

But the Sphynx doesn’t govern all the territories – there is a large outside zone which is inhabited by the poor, the marginal and those designated as criminal. This territory is a harsh desert outside the urbanised centres. In this society the criminal is banished to the exterior rather than incarcerated. But mind control is used on more valuable members of the society if they transgress so that they can remain integrated and functional.

There are also interesting viruses available for public consumption, one that allows you to speak Mandarin for example – but if the speaker is understood by others they can’t understand their own speech. The main character has taken a virus for empathy which allows him to perform a job of unmasking criminals via psychic insight.

The notion of Code 46 is also interesting. In a society where the human population is reproduced via cloning, IVF and other forms of genetic manipulation as well as by more conventional means, there are strict rules to preserve the gene pool and couples have to have their DNA checked so as to determine whether or not they are ‘related’ by too much common DNA. There are severe penalties for transgression of this code.

Also of interest is the language the characters speak: an English base with lots of French and Spanish words and phrases thrown in. Science fiction films rarely speculate on how language evolves over time and this is an original feature of the film.

Great ideas, but the central story – an illicit love affair which is dealt with by an all-pervasive and disciplinary Panoptic system – is probably the least interesting thing about the film.

Definitions from my Foucault site


Foucault argues that biopower is a technology which appeared in the late eighteenth century for managing populations. It incorporates certain aspects of disciplinary power. If disciplinary power is about training the actions of bodies, biopower is about managing the births, deaths, reproduction and illnesses of a population.

Panopticon, panopticism and surveillance
The Panopticon, was a design for a prison produced by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century which grouped cells around a central viewing tower. Although the prison was never actually built the idea was used as a model for numerous institutions including some prisons. Foucault uses this as a metaphor for the operation of power and surveillance in contemporary society.

Cube (1997)

Spoiler alert cube1
My rating: ***

Imdb link

This film about a group of strangers, inexplicably trapped in an interlocking network of connected cubes and their efforts to escape, is gripping from beginning to finish. It also raises some interesting questions.

What if we were trapped in a disciplinary mechanism which has gone way beyond any necessity for Panoptic surveillance and simply relies on the complexity of its own mechanism to keep people in place? Worse, there is no reason for the mechanism, it has simply arisen as the anonymous result of collective labour, each worker producing part of the machine in ignorance of others, until its original purpose – if there ever was one – is lost. The people trapped in the cube are there for no ostensible reason we can see. Perhaps there is still a residual bleak comfort in the notion of the Panoptic society. At least somebody cares enough to want to watch what we are doing, even if only to exercise punitive measures. Nobody (as far as we know from the film) cares what happens to the people who are seemingly placed at random in the cube. It would appear the only reason they are there is simply because the cube exists and something needed to be done with it.

The only person who escapes is the idiot savant who has no purpose, no capacity to wonder why, and whose contribution to his own escape is not willed but simply the result of instinctive action which others have been able to harness even if they themselves do not survive. And to make this grim scenario even darker, as the director’s commentary points out, the people are in far more danger from each other than they are from the deadly but logical workings of the cube.

The film’s intellectual and somewhat abstract approach, gives the viewer enough distance not to be dragged down into a gloomy morass and it works extremely well.

The famous soliloquy from Macbeth is clearly more than a little apposite here.

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”