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

87: Michel Foucault IX:
The Carceral & Space, Knowledge and Power

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

January 22, 1840 – the date in which our modern carcearl system became complete. The official opening of Mettray Penal Colony, a private reformatory for the rehabilitation of young male delinquents, the first juvenile detention system, is the moment when the “disciplinary form at its most extreme” was fully deployed. At Mettray, they successfully and simultaneously imposed the discipline of 5 different models: the family, the army, the workshop, the school and the judicial court. The five models meant that the person in charge (be it the chief, his deputies, or the head boys) had to act at various times like a judge, teacher, foreman, officer, or parent. In this way they were better described as “technicians of behavior: engineers of conduct, orthopedists of individuality. Their task was to produce bodies that were both docile and capable.”

From the moment the boys first arrived they were interrogated and their life examined; an expanding file was created; they were subjected to constant observation and tasked with constant observation. “They were taught the art of power relations. It was the first training college in pure discipline.” Its significance for Foucault was that it 1) made politically docile boys (so much so that in 1848 when revolution – even in reformatories – ended the Orleans Monarchy and ushered in the Second Republic the “inmates of Mettray were calmer than ever”); 2) made boys who were very efficient and capable (Mettray was virtually self-sufficient); 3) used all the new technologies of power (i.e. hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and examination); 4) referenced the new branches of knowledge (psychology and sociology were starting to distinguish themselves as subjects of study at this time); and 5) produced the records and data need to perpetuate these branches of knowledge.

In the interview, “Space, Knowledge and Power,” Michel Foucault gives us his take on the relation between the technicians of space on the one hand and Knowledge and power on the other; on a history of architectural and engineering thought. His main point is that in the 18th century the politics of architecture began to change. It became a “function of the aims and techniques of the government of societies” – for the first time broad political literature started to look at architecture as a tool of order and governance. This was a change in the minds and techniques of political men; not of architects. (Q1)

At the beginning of the 17th century the city state was clearly in decline versus the larger state. But the cities still were wonders of organization compared to the country side so as the states grew to encompass the country side between the cities, the rationality of the city was applied to the whole territory. Whole treatises on utopian states were written on how to govern large territories on the model of cities. The goal was said to be: “a state will be well organized when a system of policing as tight and efficient as that of the cities extends over the entire territory.” Today, the term “police” has shrunk to the notion of law enforcement: in the France of the 17th and 18th centuries it referred to “a program of government rationality….a project to create a system of regulation of the general conduct of individuals….and to render almost automatic all the mechanisms of society.” (Q2)

This older notion of “police” was challenged by revolution: it seemed that if one tried to govern too much one did not govern at all. The French and American revolutions brought to mind a new reality: society. Society is a “complex and independent reality that had its own laws and mechanisms for reaction.” Government, if it wanted to govern, had to deal with more than its territory and its subjects; it had to deal with society in its own space. (Q3) This was the birth of a new rationalized urbanism (or as it is called here today: urban planning) which was designed to face the problems of cities like epidemics of disease and most importantly revolution (or the subdual of revolution if it had already started: i.e. maintain law and order). Urbanism was to light the streets, remove the sewage, protect the people and property etc. as a means to reducing the likelihood of revolution. (Two other new relations of space, knowledge and power were the railways and electricity – but they did not have the length of history of architecture.) These new relations could not work on the older power relations of a police state (in the 17th and 18th century sense of police state) because they were new, technologically unpredictable and therefore socially disruptive. Architecture lost out to engineering and became merely a supporting tool in the three great variables of territory, communication and speed with which the new governance model had to concern itself.

Foucault stresses that the new building and engineering ideologies that affected and controlled behavior were not in and of themselves anti-liberty. “Liberty is a practice….it can never be inherent in the structure of things to guarantee the exercise of freedom. The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (Q4)

Q1 Foucault claims that in political works prior to the 18th century not one talks about architecture but in the 18th century they start considering the effects of architecture. Is this a major shift or a minor development?

Q2 How does this older notion of “Police” strike you? Has the older notion of “Police” really shrunk as in we do not do that anymore; or has it been successful and therefore shrunk because we don’t need to do that anymore? Recall from an earlier session that the police were used in Paris to hunt down the idle and put them in the General Hospital, does this old notion of police fit with his definition?

Q3 Foucault claims that the modern concept of society as a subject of study with its own rules, laws and properties is only a few hundred years old. Prior to that people were thought of as subjects on an individual basis or as territory when considered collectively (i.e. like we treat wild life in a development zone). How do you feel about the newness of “society” as a subject of study? This is now one new prison for the human soul. Has the power relations created and perpetuated by the notion of society been helpful or a hindrance to your life?

Q4 Is the best guarantee of freedom really freedom? Is Liberty a practice? Must liberty be exercised to have meaning and worth?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren