Discipline and Punish

July 25, 2011 § 7 Comments

He knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake...

Occasionally I’m faced with the sometimes amusing and sometimes disturbing realization that my Work has Changed me — not deep down in my soul, but certainly in terms of my aesthetic responses. I had such a moment whilst reading Micky Foucault’s other seminal (jesus grow up) work, Discipline and Punish. As with The History of Sexuality, I read this book as an undergraduate and have a whole host of sense memories to accompany said reading. In this case, I remember being just horrified by the opening section, which describes in excruciating detail the botched 1757 execution of one Damiens. It really is quite revolting, the state executional embodiment of Murphy’s Law — he won’t catch on fire enough, the pincers specially designed to flay his chest are only taking out little bite-sized chunks, the horses charged with drawing him can’t get their shit together, it’s just a mess. I remember reading this section and feeling ill throughout, the mental picture alone was enough to make me vom. This time, however, I was struck by how absurd the whole story was — like slapstick torture porn. “Is this…funny?” I wondered, a far cry from my first encounter with the text. Not to say that I now think torture is fun, or that I’ve lost the ability to empathize irl. It’s just that, ten years later, highly mediated horrifying things tend to elicit a certain kind of ambiguous (read: trollish) laughter, as opposed to a visceral/emotional reaction. I have every reason to believe that three straight years of deliberately seeking out that which cannot be unseen has slowly retrofitted my formally-tender countenance with an iron gut. At least when I encounter something that’s not quite real life.

The argument itself, though, that’s why we’re here. As always, Foucault says a lot…about a lot…many times in a row. Also as always, his basic question is “how did we get here?” -in this case, how did we (eh “Western Culture,” he never spends too much time defining his first-person pronouns) arrive at this particular juridical and disciplinary system? How did we go from torture to incarceration? The answer in a nutshell is that the world (interpenetrating economic and political and social systems) began to change, thus necessitating symbolic evolution, and these evolving symbols subsequently reinforced the new world order. Basically: torture was a way to assert the monarch’s power; incarceration is a way to keep the body politic in line. No matter what or where or when, however, discipline and punishment has always been about power. The question is whose interests were served and for what reasons and through which social mechanisms did this power flow.

Power: that which maintains. Foucault moves away from a negative understanding of power, one which posits restriction as its defining feature. Instead he advocates a generative account. Power creates the world that its subjects take to be natural and necessary; it is hegemony in the purest and most elegant sense (209). Those elements which threaten to unseat whatever (assumed) ideological givens are then subjected to an almost magically self-regulating process of social pruning. Thus power is not and cannot be conceived as inhering exclusively within one person, one institution, one node of any sort. It’s a spiderweb of uninformed consent; we agree to participate, though we don’t realize to what exactly we’re agreeing, or even that we have agreed. Ultimately, then, power is the panopticon. We “behave” because we can’t be sure we’re not being watched, or what might happen if we’re seen.

Yet again Mary Douglas can be brought into the picture, particularly in terms of secular dirt-rituals — that is, the ways in which unsavory (“dirty”) elements are driven from a given culture. Or in this case, the ways in which unsavory elements are prevented from ever arising. This is Foucault’s contribution to the discussion; through discipline and punishment, that is, through power, a culture’s political and economic underpinnings are both engendered and strengthened. Anomalies, cultural irritants though they may be, only serve to reinforce these borders.

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