Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

84: Michel Foucault part VI:
The Body of the Condemned & Docile Bodies

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In “The Body of the Condemned,” the first chapter of Michel Foucault's book “Discipline and Punish,” the purpose of his book is given: a genealogy of “...the modern soul and a of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications, and rules....”(Q1) However, the book is not merely a history of the evolution of legislation or penal procedures for then we would not know how, why or when the social sentiments that facilitated these evolutions changed. Nor is the book merely a history of the social forms of discipline and punishment for this will likely lead to the reversal of cause and effect (for example the “principle of greater leniency in punishment”(Q2), which is an effect of the new tactics of power not the cause of change).
         To apply the genealogical method to arrive at an effective history four changes in perspective are required: 1) Punishment is a complex social function that is not only negative or restrictive (punishment would be a total failure if its only purpose was negative or restrictive: i.e. to prevent or reduce crime) but positive (empowering, productive and very useful for other things) as well; 2) Punishment is a political tactic (for example to create in groups and out groups) not merely the result of legislation; 3) “...the technology of power [is] the very principle both of the humanization of the penal system and of the knowledge of man.” or in other words it is the changes in science and technology that have made the changes in the punishment possible and 4) look to the transformations of a politics of the body for “...a common history of power relations and object relations.” It is in how the body is controlled that science has made facilitated leniency in punishment.
         In all times and places, for the political power relations of parent-child, teacher-student, boss-worker, sovereign-subject etc. it is the body that is at stake. For the dominator it is the body of the underling that must be productive and controlled. The political technology of the body is the term Foucault uses to describe the numerous manifold ways in which the body is subjugated. Among these political technologies are language, culture, sentiment, instinct etc. as well as the apparatuses (desks, tables and room layouts etc.) and procedures (lineups, chain gangs, work hours etc.) of institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, offices. (Q3) Foucault focuses on the formal apparatuses and procedures of institutions which he refers to as the microphysics of power (a sub-class of the political technology of the body). “...the study of this microphysics presupposes that the power exercised on the body is conceived not as property, but as a strategy; that its effects of domination are attributed not to 'appropriation,' but to dispositions, maneuvers, tactics, techniques, functionings; that one should decipher in it a network of relations, constantly in tension...take as its model a perpetual battle, rather than a contract.... In short, this power is exercised rather than possessed....”
         The last concept developed in the first chapter is the modern soul. The soul is “...produced permanently around, on, within the body by the function of a power.... it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a a certain type of power and the references of a certain type of knowledge....The man described for us, already in himself the effect of a subjection....A 'soul' inhabits him and brings him to existence,...the soul is the prison of the body.” The modern soul is the bases of the new knowledges of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, penology and the justification of power relations created by those sciences. These sciences have the effect of creating, regulating and dominating us as we are today in an analogous way to how the medieval theological notion of 'soul' was the bases of the sciences of theology and philosophy and the justification for the creation regulation and domination of the medieval bodies.(Q4)
         In the chapter entitled “Docile Bodies,” Foucault writes about new developments in French military training during the late 17th and 18th century. Prior to the late 17th century soldiers were born; there was a certain disposition of body and mind that made someone a good fit for military life. Such a man only required his weapons, weapon's training and a relatively small amount of organizational training. During the late 17th century a revolution in military training took place such that soldiers were no longer born; soldiers were made: any profession could be turned into a soldier. The body was discovered as a docile body that is an object and target of power. Even before the invention of the spinning jenny the body became a machine: a subject of detailed analysis and experimentation in training. 1) Where previously the scale of control was over large populations, “Wholesale,” it became individualized or working in “retail.” 2) the sign of control moved from merely committing certain acts to the economy and the efficiency of movement in those acts. 3) the development of a constant function of coercion that supervised the activity rather than the result. “These methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed on them a relation of docility-utility, might be called 'disciplines.'”
         Foucault wants to say that this new kind of discipline, which soon found its way to all fields of life, was different in kind and degree from anything that came before in that it had the dual goal of increasing the skill of the body in concert with its docility and subjugation. Other forms of discipline or subjugation were less effective or focused with a different purpose: 1) slavery produced decreasing marginal production with increasing marginal costs of discipline: it was a dead end compared to the new discipline; 2) older style military service was like wise inefficient: as armies under the new discipline easily defeated older armies; 3) vassalage was too strict and coded to be useful beyond its code: it was stagnant and fixed; and 4) monastic discipline, or asceticism, was designed to decrease worldly utility and increase individual mastery over one's body: the exact opposite of the new discipline. This new “Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience).”
         This shift in focus to the details of training and to the multiplication of points of focus had an earlier theological basis. There is a branch of theology that emphasizes God's attention to detail; where no detail is too small and everything happens for a reason; where the true believer elevates everything no mater how small to an act of worship to God. The new bourgeois values of the Renaissance appropriated and secularized this attention to the details of one's life and directed it to the economic realm for the sake of profit and wealth. “For the disciplined man, as for the true believer, no detail is unimportant,...The meticulousness of the regulations, the fussiness of the inspections, the supervision of the smallest fragment of life and the body will soon provide, in the context of the school, the barracks, the hospital, or the workshop a laicized content, an economic or technical rationality for this mystical calculus of the infinitesimal and the infinite.” The supreme master of his time in this laicized attention to detail according to Foucault was Napoleon Bonaparte who tried to “...arrange around him a mechanism of power that would enable him to see the smallest event that occurred in the state he governed; he intended, by means of the rigorous discipline that he imposed, 'to embrace the whole of this vast machine without the slightest detail escaping his attention.'”
         It is often taught that it was philosophers and jurists made the modern world with their theorizing about rights, democracy, freedom and government, however while they were doing this “...the soldiers and with them the technicians of discipline were elaborating procedures for the individual and collective coercion of bodies.” Today we live in a world that is unbelievably coercive relative to the past while at the same time it speaks most eloquently of rights, democracy and freedom.
         Q1 What in your opinion is the purpose and justification for the justice and penal systems?
         Q2 It is commonly assumed that all forms of discipline and punishment are becoming more lenient. Do you agree or not. If you agree, why is there this general trend?
         Q3 Foucault claims that everything around us is invested with the ability to create a power relation between people in a never ending battle for supremacy. Is this extreme, sort of true or nonsense?
         Q4 One of Foucault's aphorisms is that there is no progress only change. Does such a statement hold any truth in you opinion?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren