During my first year of college, after leaving the military, I was assigned to read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in a political philosophy class. Although I struggled with his style and concepts, I was immediately hooked. There was something about the book that I couldn’t let go. I suppose this is the case with many students and that is why Foucault is everywhere. However, Discipline and Punish helped me deconstruct my military training and better understand exactly why I felt so suffocated in the Army and other social institutions.
In the years since that class, I have read this book cover to cover more times than I can remember and have underlined and made notes on almost every page. It does not hold the mystique that it once did, but it is still one of my top three favorite books. It has shaped my understanding of society and culture more than anything else I’ve read. Because of this, I wanted to write a detailed summary of my last reading.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault provides a genealogy of modern disciplinary power. Broadly speaking, power is a productive social and political force. It is political since it governs and structures the lives of those within its domain. And it is an important social force since it ultimately determines the nature of our societies. Throughout history, power has existed in different forms, each with its own technology and techniques.
In this post, I will outline Foucault’s theory of modern disciplinary power. This theory uncovers a technology that has been adopted by institutions like our prisons, hospitals, schools, places of work, etc., and by our society as a whole. Disciplinary technology is an instrument used to control, organize, and amplify the power of bodies; it trains bodies to work together and to be a productive component in a large multiplicity.
This structuring of our thoughts and behavior is the aspect that I believe makes discipline a form of unobtrusive governance. And as I hope to make clear, these disciplinary technologies are embodied in physical artifacts, technological objects, which then shape our lives and actions without notice.
Before immersing ourselves in Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power and the technology associated with it, I would like to briefly provide the general context in which Foucault is working. I will introduce the key aspects of power, and I will address the potentially confusing issue of ‘technology’ and the several meanings it takes on in Foucault’s theory. I will then provide a detailed account of disciplinary technology and how it is an instrument in the production of the “normal,” docile, and obedient individuals that we are. And finally, I will conclude by relating disciplinary technology to the Panopticon, the ideal model of the political technology of the individual.
Power, as characterized by Foucault, is a productive social force. It is political in that it is used to govern or structure the lives of individuals, and it determines the nature of our societies. Societies in different regions and historical periods use power differently, which implies that there have been different regimes of power throughout history. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault focuses on two regimes of power. He traces the historical development of modern disciplinary power from the one that functioned within the society of the spectacle.
Foucault illustrates the techniques of power under the ancien régime with accounts of spectacles at the scaffold. In this historical context, the public execution was a political operation in which the sovereign’s power was publicly displayed and re-established (Foucault, 1975, p. 53). The punishment was to be carried out directly on the body of the condemned in a manner that turns the body into a sign of the sovereign’s power. The criminal’s body was also a site for the creation of knowledge and truth. By openly confessing to his crime and receiving his punishment, the criminal established the truth of his crime and certified that justice was, in fact, being served (Foucault, 1975, p. 43).
Due to political, economic, and cultural changes, a new mode of punitive power began to develop. This new disciplinary power had the benefit of being “more regular, more effective, more constant, and more detailed in its effects” (Foucault, 1975, p. 80). It was able to turn a mass of people into a productive, controlled and organized body by being more involved in the details of their everyday lives. Thus, disciplinary technology is an instrument that directs power towards the ordering of human multiplicities. The techniques it uses increase the docility and utility of all the elements and individuals involved (Foucault, 1975, p. 218).
This ordering function of power presupposes that the human body is directly involved in the political field. Power relations, be they between an executioner and the condemned or between a nurse and patient, always have an immediate hold on the body. As Foucault says, power relations invest in the body, they “mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, and to emit signs” (1975, p. 25). When a society desires to use individuals and their bodies as productive and useful forces, as was the case with the development of modern modes of production, it must create obedient and subjected individuals. But subjected individuals are not only obtained through the use of force and violence. In fact, it is much more efficient to create subjected individuals through the implementation of the political technology of the body, through the disciplinary technologies, which are, again, a form of unobtrusive governance.
The relationship between the body and power in a disciplinary regime, unlike that of the ancien régime, which publicly tortured and branded the body with signs of power, is one in which the body is isolated, submitted to timetables, constantly supervised, and rewarded and penalized depending on how well it conforms to the established norms. Instead of being the direct target of physical force and violence, the body has its freedoms restricted when it is placed in a whole network of normalizing techniques with the end goal of turning it into a productive cog in the social machine.
The reason that these new “humane” punishments work so well is that the punishment “that once rained down upon the body [was] replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (Foucault, 1975, p. 16). Foucault argues that disciplinary power produces the modern ‘soul’ (i.e. subject, psyche, mind, etc.) and brings it into the punitive system in order to avoid having to punish the body. This ‘soul’ becomes the target of punitive powers; it becomes “the prison of the body” (Foucault, 1975, p. 30). Disciplinary power attempts to normalize us and to eliminate irregularities that interfere with productivity. Through disciplinary techniques, power shapes the bodies and minds of individuals, making them “normal,” docile and productive.
We have been talking about power and how it is a governing force that operates in, on, and through our bodies, but power is much more complex than that. Foucault makes five points about the nature of disciplinary power in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, which will help clarify our conception of power before we investigate its relationship to technology.
- First, “power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared” (Foucault, 1978, p. 94). Power is not a possession that one person, class, institution, or state can hold. Instead, it is exercised through relations and interactions. When a patient and nurse interact normally it is not that the nurse has power and the patient lacks it. According to Foucault, they are both in a disciplinary relationship; they are both participating in disciplinary techniques.
- Power relations are not located outside other types of relationships, for example, economic processes, knowledge-producing relationships, and sexual relations (Foucault, 1978, p. 94). Power relations actually occur within each of these relations, as well as countless others. Classifications, divisions, and inequalities within relationships produce a situation in which power can circulate. However, power relations are also the condition required to produce these classifications and divisions. Since the classifications, divisions, and inequalities among humans are the source of human sciences, this claim about power is intended to capture Foucault’s belief that knowledge and power are intimately linked; each is the condition for the other.
- Power is not a possession but it does take place within our normal relationships. Foucault claims that it comes from below (1978, p. 94). It is neither a possession of the state nor derived from conditions of the economy. Rather, power is the play of forces in our everyday relationships with other people, objects, and institutions. In this sense, since it is not something situated “up above” in some superstructure like the state or the economy, it comes from below. It is found in the relationship between a doctor and her patient, between a teacher and student, and between all of these people and the physical structures within society (e.g., hospitals, schools, and prisons).
- Foucault also claims “power relations are both intentional and non-subjective” (1978, p. 94). This means that although power has an orientation and tendencies, such as producing normal and useful individuals, it is not doing so because of someone or some group is in charge of them. There is no central command that directs power relations. Power’s orientation is the result of clashes, interactions, and intersections throughout various historical contexts, which Foucault calls ‘intentional,’ and it is non-subjective since there is no conscious subject directing it.
- Finally, “where there is power, there is resistance” (Foucault, 1978, p. 95). Since power is exercised continuously in our everyday relationships, and since Foucault likens politics and the exercise of power to military strategies and clashes, these relations are always clashes between bodies that allow for resistance or contingency. The resistance, however, cannot come from above since power does not come from above. “By definition,” Foucault says, acts of resistance “can only exist in the strategic field of power relations” (Foucault, 1978, p. 96). This does not imply that our actions are always passive or bound to defeat. In fact, there are many forms of resistance that are appropriate for our many everyday political relations. Each relationship is accompanied by an opportunity to resist through the implementation of different strategies.
The Meaning of ‘Technology’
Technology plays a central role in Michel Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power. If we accept Heidegger’s instrumental and anthropological definition of technology—that technology is both a human product and an instrument—then there are three different senses of ‘technology’ that we will encounter in an analysis of Foucault’s theory: disciplinary technology, the human sciences, and the artifacts that embody disciplinary technology.
The first is disciplinary technology. This will be, to a large degree, the primary focus of this chapter. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault goes into great detail describing the techniques and methods of discipline (i.e., the technologies of discipline). Besides disciplinary technology, he also calls the technology a “micro-physics of power” and “panopticism.” Foucault says, “panopticism represented the abstract formula of a very real technology, that of individuals” (1975, p. 225). Disciplinary technology is a technology of unobtrusive governance; it facilitates the organization and control of individuals and masses without the use of violence or support from the law. It promotes efficiency, productivity, and the automatic compliance to the norms. This makes power a valuable force for any individual, group, or institution wielding the technology to control it.
The second technology that we will be discussing is that of the human sciences (biological, psychological, social). These sciences are also technology, in the Heideggerian sense, since they are man-made instruments. Foucault links the birth of these sciences to the development of disciplinary technology. The implementation of disciplinary technology depends on a system of knowledge about human behavior. Disciplinary institutions use the knowledge produced by these sciences and technologies, which classify, rank, and establish norms, as a standard against which each individual is judged. However, the disciplinary institutions also become laboratories for the human sciences, thereby producing more knowledge about the subjected humans.
‘Technology’ also includes the human artifacts that embody these disciplinary technologies. Since disciplinary power operates on and through bodies and gazes, these disciplinary technologies are embodied in all sorts of objects and artifacts. When this occurs these material things then serve as instruments in the disciplining and governing of our body.
Foucault on Disciplinary Power, Technology, and Unobtrusive Governance
Discipline is oriented towards knowing, mastering, and using (Foucault, 1975, p. 143). In this sense, it is similar to Heidegger’s conception of the essence of technology, which challenges forth reality as standing reserve, as something to be organized, studied, and used. Generally speaking, discipline is able to take an unorganized crowd and transform it into a multiplicity—an organized body composed of many smaller bodies. It promotes efficiency and amplifies the power of its subjects without relying on physical violence, support of the law, or general will. In other words, discipline, as a structuring force, operates inconspicuously in our lives as a form of unobtrusive governance.
I will now turn to Foucault’s analysis of discipline (the power) and disciplinary technology (the system of knowledge that facilitates the successful implementation of disciplinary power) in order to show how technology is involved in our gentle subjection. First I will explain the result of the investment of disciplinary power on an environment and the individuals within it. After that, I will explain the instruments involved in the disciplinary apparatus. However, this is not a clear distinction since the results of disciplinary power are quite often more refined instruments. And of course, throughout all this, I will be focusing on technology’s contribution to the structuring of our minds, bodies, norms, and social environments.
The products of disciplinary technologies: cellular bodies
Discipline distributes individuals in a mixed space, one that is both material and ideal. Architecture is the primary technological object used to ensure that we are properly distributed in material space. In a method left over from old architectural and religious practices, modern disciplinary power uses variants of the monastic cell to enclose individuals in assigned spaces (Foucault, 1975, p. 143). It would be maximally efficient and eliminate unwanted inconveniences, communications, and disruptions if each individual was physically enclosed in a cell in which they could be easily observed. The physical buildings within our disciplinary society, particularly the layout of the rooms within each, are the technological objects that govern our location in space, and thus also our behavior, for example, by isolating us and preventing unproductive communications. And the effect of this isolation, without necessarily being aware of it, is that we are likely to feel differently about the situation and the options available to us than we would if we were able to freely associate with others. Ultimately, we feel like there are fewer actions available to us and it is actually much more difficult to organize collective action on our own.
Though this is an effective technique applied in some disciplinary institutions, such as the cells in prisons or the offices at work, it is neither a constant nor a sufficient technology for the successful disciplining of an individual (Foucault, 1975, p. 143). The partitioning of physical space is another technique used when full enclosure is not practical. Partitioning space, establishing a fixed location for each individual, is more flexible than enclosure but it still allows the supervisor to easily locate and identify individuals, and it prevents unproductive communications amongst the subjected. The technological objects that disciplinary institutions have implemented to help control our behavior are such things as individual desks for students or the cubicles and workspaces for workers. These pieces of furniture and architecture make it more difficult for the individual to do anything other than that which is desired. The physical layout of our environment and our designated space within it coerce or unobtrusively govern our mentality and behavior. It is much more unlikely for a student to act out and start an unproductive conversation with a friend if they are both sitting in fixed and separate locations with a teacher supervising them. Eventually, if the student is well disciplined, the thought or desire to interacting with that same friend during class will either not even occur to them or will be immediately dispelled as something one should not do.
Besides the distribution of bodies in physical space by the disciplinary techniques, there is also the distribution of bodies in ideal spaces. An ideal space is one that is a characterization, an grade, or a rank; it is a category. Like the physical cells created by the techniques of enclosure and partitioning, the disciplinary techniques create ideal cells and assign individuals to them. Each ideal cell, a category, type, rank or classification, is a means of identifying its inhabitant within a network of relations. At once, whoever is classified as having a certain rank or position is immediately distinguishable in measurable ways from the other subjected individuals.
Foucault explains that in the organization of “’cells,’ ‘places,’ ‘and ‘ranks,’ the disciplines create complex spaces that are at once architectural, functional and hierarchical” (1975, p. 148). Discipline creates conceptual spaces and fixes values to them. Then when individuals are assigned to them, these ranks and values “guarantee the obedience of the individuals, but also a better economy of time and gesture” (Foucault, 1975, p148). Now ‘guarantee’ might be a little too strong in most cases, but in a place like the military where there is great value attached to rank, and where there are strictly defined rules about how individuals within the different ranks are allowed to interact, there is a strong coercive force that nearly guarantees the defined “normal” interactions. This, in turn, promotes greater efficiency in time and energy throughout the whole institution.
The distribution of individuals into material and ideal spaces is one of the primary techniques of discipline; it is one of the ways in which we are subjected to disciplinary power and turned into objects of knowledge. By creating these distinctions, systems of knowledge about humans can be collected, which then allows for further, more accurate distinctions and classifications. With improved human science comes an even more refined form of unobtrusive governance. The distribution of bodies in material and ideal spaces, which is facilitated by both technological objects and the human sciences, is both “a technique of power and a procedure of knowledge. It was a question of organizing the multiple, of providing oneself with an instrument to cover it and to master it; it was a question of imposing upon it an ‘order’ (Foucault, 1975, p. 148).
Besides controlling the distribution of bodies in spaces, discipline imposes order on individuals by regulating bodies in time. In other words, discipline controls actions. One way this is done is through timetables and schedules. Timetables are a disciplinary technology aimed at “constituting a totally useful time” (Foucault, 1975, p. 150). Controlling the activities of individuals is a way of placing them, their body, in a particular temporal cell. To impose more precise order on individuals and to ensure that they are maximally efficient, the importance of time and the precision in its measurement increased
This can be seen in many wage-earning jobs where, in order to clock-in, the individual has to check in with a computerized clock. Many of these jobs measure their time so precisely that that clock will not allow a worker to clock in even several seconds early from a lunch break. And another disciplinary institution, the school, also relies on the precise partitioning of time. Many schools issue punishments for being tardy. Technological objects like clocks that allow for the precise measurement of time contribute to the governing of our behavior. But so do the disciplinary techniques of constructing timetables and schedules that assign us to specific places in time.
The products of disciplinary technologies: organic bodies
Another way in which our activities are governed is through the instrumental coding of our bodies. This is a sort of obligatory coordination between our body and the technological objects we operate. Discipline breaks down the body-machine complex into two distinct series. It deconstructs the gestures and the parts of the body used in an action as well as the parts of the object being manipulated. Then the parts of the body are coordinated with the appropriate parts of the object. And finally, there is a strict succession of the different body-object contacts, which promotes the most efficient meshing of the two distinct elements. Foucault cites a French military ordinance as an example of this phenomenon.
Bring the weapon forward. In three stages. Raise the rifle with the right hand, bring it close to the body so as to hold it perpendicular with the right knee, the end of the barrel at eye level, grasping it by striking it with the right hand, the arm held close to the body at waist height. At the second stage… (1975, p. 153)
Through this technique discipline “constitutes a body-weapon, body-tool, body- machine complex” (Foucault, 1975, p. 153). And when we are continually trained to be body-object complexes, it becomes increasingly more difficult and “unnatural” to interact with the object in a different manner, especially when this technique is combined with other disciplinary techniques, like surveillance, spatial distribution, and enforced exercises. The disciplined body thus tends to automatically behave as an efficient and productive body-object complex.
Though this example is from the military, there are many other examples where this instrumental coding of our bodies takes place. For example, when an individual is learning to use a new tool, the instructions are usually a more or less detailed version of this disciplinary technique.
The products of disciplinary technologies: genetic bodies
A third way in which we are governed by invisible forces, in addition to the distribution of our bodies in space and in time, is through the organization of geneses. A genesis is a way in which something comes to be. In this case, Foucault is elaborating the origins of the modern, disciplined individual. Therefore, the organization of geneses involves social coordination and organization of all the individual geneses. To get a better understanding of this we need to recognize that the disciplinary techniques “must also be understood as a machinery for adding up and capitalizing time” (Foucault, 1975, p. 157). If the goal is to organize a confused mass of people into a productive and efficient multiplicity that works together as a coordinated whole, as is the goal of any large factory, prison, hospital, or university, then detailed and specialized exercises are going to have to be put into practice. Time must be divided into successive and parallel segments. It must be divided up into successive segments so that one individual passing through time within a disciplinary institution will pass through periods with specific exercises, specific repetitive activities that are catered to the individuals rank or skills, which come to an end at a specified time. When the time comes for the exercise to be completed, there must always be another subsequent exercise designed specifically for the individual with the new and hopefully improved skills. Meanwhile, parallel to this segment of time there are many other subjected individuals passing through their own series of determined exercises. And the disciplinary techniques, if they are implemented properly, will allow for the individuals in all these parallel and subsequent segments of time to operate in concert, producing a whole that is more powerful then the sum of its parts.
A good example of this is the university. Each student is passing through his or her own series of time segments—class periods, weeks, quarters, and years. But parallel to each of them are all the others that are simultaneously passing through their own series of time segments. Ideally, the university has its geneses organized so that, for example, a graduate student can be put through teaching exercises for a period of time that coincides with a period of time that an undergraduate should be put through an learning exercise. Then these individuals can work together to strengthen each other. If the whole university is organized in such a way to maximize these exercises, then its productive powers as a whole, as a multiplicity become far greater than the sum of all the individuals. When this occurred “the school became a machine for learning, in which each pupil, each level and each moment, if correctly combined, were permanently utilized in the general process of teaching” (Foucault, 1975, p. 165).
However, before these separate forces can truly be transformed into a multiplicity, before the body can be transformed into a component in a multi-segmentary machine, a precise system of command must be put in place. Foucault explains, “all the activity of the disciplined individual must be punctuated and sustained by injunctions whose efficacy rests on brevity and clarity; the order does not need to be explained or formulated; it must trigger off the required behavior and that is enough” (1975, p. 166). In other words, the signals that coordinate the combination of forces need to be such that they are automatically understood according to some prearranged code. For each signal, there needs to be a specific and automatic response. The disciplined driver automatically responds to such signals constantly. When a stoplight turns red the driver automatically slows her car to a stop at the intersection; when it turns green she automatically continues on her way. Also, in the multi-segmentary learning machine, i.e. the school, the disciplined student will automatically respond to the school bell by proceeding to class, or whatever the prearranged code indicates that should be done when the bell sounds.
Thus the body is placed in a “little world of signals,” and it is usually technological objects that emit these signals. These seemingly innocent technological objects play a pivotal role in the arrangement and deployment of disciplinary tactics, which are “the art of constructing, with located bodies, coded activities and trained aptitudes, mechanisms in which the product of the various forces is increased by their calculated combination.” Tactics “are no doubt the highest form of disciplinary practice” (Foucault, 1975, p. 167). These technological objects and our disciplined responses to them are the tools through which disciplinary power governs everyday behaviors.
To summarize what we have covered so far, we have seen that Foucault claims the following:
- Power creates docile bodies with discipline.
- A docile body is cellular. This is a body that is situated in an enclosed or partitioned space as well as in an ideal space, like a rank or classification. In doing this, discipline produces a table out of the physical and ideal space on which we can locate the individual and receive knowledge about him or her.
- A docile body is organic. The coding of activities, prescribes positions, actions, and movements to the body in relation to objects, tools, or its environment as it passes through time.
- A docile body is genetic. This means that it is located in a series of time that corresponds to that of other individuals, and this genetic individuality is a result of the imposition of specific successions of exercises.
- A docile body is a combinatory individual. It is an individual who is a part of a large multi-segmentary machine, a multiplicity. Its forces are easily coupled with those of other disciplined bodies to form larger machines. This combination and cooperation of forces is accomplished by the careful arrangement of disciplinary tactics.
In short, we have covered the product of disciplinary technologies (i.e., docile body, the disciplined individual) and the techniques used in this social production. Now we will turn our attention to what Foucault calls the means of correct training. And since discipline is an art of correct training (Foucault, 1975, p. 170), what we will be turning our attention to are the three instruments of discipline: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination.
Instruments of discipline: hierarchical observation
The first of these is hierarchical observation. Any exercise of discipline, which is an unobtrusive governance, “presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation” (Foucault, 1975, p. 170). The mechanism that we are talking about here is an architectural structure that supports surveillance. Because the distribution of bodies in space makes it easier to supervise and identify those bodies, and because the knowledge gained from supervision facilitates a better distribution in physical and ideal spaces, and because ensuring both the distribution of bodies and surveillance depend on the physical layout of the building, these two disciplinary techniques are closely related and in fact support one another. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of the physical building in these techniques of distribution and supervision.
The building itself is a technological object that permits “an internal, articulated and detailed control—[it] renders visible those who are inside it; in more general terms [it is] an architecture that would operate to transform individuals: to act on those it shelters, to provide a hold on their conduct, to carry the effects of power right to them, to make it possible to know them, to alter them” (Foucault, 1975, p. 172). Disciplinary technology’s concern with surveillance is embodied in architecture and many other technological objects. The smooth functioning of discipline requires intense and continuous surveillance. Thus the ideal disciplinary apparatus would be one that allows nothing to go unseen.
The fact that power functions through physical apparatuses, lines of sight, and bodies, indicates that power is not a possession; those in the supervisory position do not hold it. It is the apparatus as a whole that operates as a disciplinary machine. Through the distribution of bodies and establishing maximum visibility the disciplinary apparatus induces “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 1975, p. 201). In effect, the individual’s knowledge that he or she is potentially always being watched traps the individual in a situation where they internalize the disciplinary power and try to normalize him or herself in order to avoid punishment. Thus, as a result of disciplinary technology and the techniques of surveillance, which are embodied in things like architectural structures and furniture, the individual who is caught up in this disciplinary machine is coerced into assuming “normal behavior,” their mentality and behavior is unobtrusively governed by their external environment and the forces at play therein
Instruments of discipline: Normalizing Judgment
The second instrument for disciplining individuals, for creating docile bodies, is normalizing judgment. Foucault claims, “at the heart of all disciplinary systems functions a small penal mechanism” (1975, p. 177). Although the penal system as we normally think of it punishes infractions of the law, discipline punishes the small “crimes” of everyday life that escape legal jurisdiction. “Micro-penalties” are distributed for infractions concerning one’s use of time, activities, behavior, speech, the body, sexuality, and so on. These micro-penalties are directed towards normalizing the fine details of one’s personal life.
These deviations are liable to a whole system of small punishments, such
as humiliation, minor deprivation, and stigmatization. The aim of the
disciplinary techniques concerning these micro-penalties can be summed up as
It was a question both of making the slightest departures from correct behavior subject to punishment, and of giving a punitive function to the apparently indifferent elements of the disciplinary apparatus: so that, if necessary, everything might serve to punish the slightest thing; each subject finds himself caught in a punishable, punishing universality. (Foucault, 1975, p. 178)
In other words, the subjected individual must feel that absolutely everything is punishable in the sense of these micro-penalties, that everything one does can potentially lead to some sort of social humiliation, ridicule, deprivation, or devaluation of one’s status.
Furthermore, the individual must feel that absolutely everything is potentially a source of punishment. The disciplinary apparatus ideally creates an environment where micro- punishments are everywhere. For example, in a functioning disciplinary apparatus, if a worker is given an office in the basement, he should feel like he is being punished for not measuring up to the standard in some way.
This system of punishments presupposes that there is a system of knowledge, a technology of normal human behavior, and that it supports and shapes what is accepted as normal and what is productive or socially desirable behavior. This system of micro-penalties also depends on the existence of technological objects and the social value attached to them. For example, the punishment of being given an office in the basement depends on the technological object, the office, but it also depends on the value attached to the office. Whether or not the office is actually any less comfortable or practical than others, there has been an ideal space, a value, projected over the physical space, and it is the combination of the real and the ideal spaces that define the individual within it. The real and ideal space of the office in the basement is like a table or chart that immediately associates an object in a position with a value.
However, this has only been one side of the story. In discipline, punishment is only one part of the punishment/reward system, which is needed to correct and normalize individuals. Foucault argues that rewards are a required element in a punitive system aimed at correction. Because of this, disciplinary regimes must avoid negative punishments whenever possible and strive to distribute rewards frequently.
The punishments and rewards of the disciplinary system accomplish two things. First, it defines human behavior on a scale of opposed values: good and bad. This is important because, “instead of the simple division of the prohibition, as practiced in penal justice, we have a distribution between a positive pole and a negative pole; all behavior falls in the field between good and bad marks, good and bad points” (Foucault, 1975, p. 180). And when behavior can be situated on a scale, rather than simply defined as permitted or prohibited, this allows for a system of quantification to be attached to the scale, which then allows for an economy of punishments and rewards. And by this economy of punishment, “thanks to the continuous calculation of plus and minus points, the disciplinary apparatuses hierarchize the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ subjects in relation to one another” (Foucault, 1975, p. 181).
Since the economy of micro-penalties establishes a hierarchy of subjects, it is closely related to the distribution of bodies in ideal spaces, as was discussed above. Each level or rank in the hierarchy is an ideal space; it is a classification that defines the subject situated within it. When the individual is classified or ranked, they are situated in a discourse or a table of information that immediately provides knowledge about how they compare to others. It defines differences. Foucault tells us:
Through this micro-economy of a perpetual penalty operates a differentiation that is not one of acts, but of individuals themselves, of their nature, their potentialities, their level or their value. By assessing individuals with precision, discipline judges them ‘in truth’; the penalty that it implements is integrated into the cycle of knowledge of individuals (1975, p. 181).
So, this micro-economy of punishments and rewards classifies individuals, distributing them into ideal spaces, which then establishes knowledge and ‘truths’ about them. And the categories in which we are placed, which define us, influence the way we think of ourselves, the ways others treat us, and our general experience of the world. Through the value-giving nature of the micro-economy of punishments, the individual feels “the constraints of a conformity that must be achieved” (Foucault, 1975, p. 183).
The distribution of bodies into value-laden ideal spaces through the practice of normalizing judgment is an important practice of disciplinary power. It, in one sense, imposes conformity on society by normalizing power; but, in another sense, it individualizes people, “making it possible to measure gaps, to determine levels, to fix specialties and to render the differences useful by fitting them one to another” (Foucault, 1975, p. 184). Through the use of surveillance and the other instruments of discipline, the individual is coerced into internalizing this power and this knowledge. Disciplinary power, therefore, governs the behavior and personalities of those who are subjected to its normalizing force. It governs without resorting to violence or physical force, and without considering the will of the governed.
Instruments of discipline: Examination
We have seen that disciplinary power unobtrusively governs our behavior through the use of hierarchical observation and normalizing judgments. The third instrument for disciplining individuals is the examination. It is a combination of the techniques of surveillance and judgment, with the additional technology of writing, or keeping records.
Foucault claims that disciplinary institutions become places of almost constant examination. In the school, there are formal examinations, such as assignments and tests, which allow for a comparison, classification, and ranking of the students according to their abilities. With this ranking, which is a system of reward and punishment, comes a normalizing pressure. But there is also an informal examination that is taking place in the education-machines. This is the examination that occurs when a student’s behavior is observed and noted by those in a hierarchical position above him. Things like attendance, aptitude, obedience, and general docility are observed by the teachers and written in the students’ school records. These details are used to distribute micro-punishments or rewards, and to classify the student within a hierarchical and normalizing scale.
“The examination,” Foucault argues, “enabled the teacher, while transmitting his knowledge, to transform his pupils into a whole field of knowledge” (1975, p. 186). So, it is the examination that transforms hierarchical surveillance into a form or normalizing power; it is the examination that turns the disciplinary apparatuses into factories of knowledge. Through the use of examination and the disciplinary techniques supporting it, the sciences of man were born (Foucault, 1975, p. 191). These disciplinary techniques form the condition for the creation of the human sciences, which are then used to refine the disciplinary technologies, setting them on the path towards an ever more detailed and perfect control.
In order for examination to be an effective instrument in the control of subjected bodies it must make use of a technology of writing and record keeping. Those subjected to a disciplinary examination find themselves introduced not only into a field of visibility but also a network of documentation. The examination “engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them” (Foucault, 1975p. 189). Disciplinary institutions require that each individual is easily identifiable and that the results of their examinations can be compared with the results of others and with their own results from earlier examinations. In short, the individual needs to be captured and fixed by forms of documentation, such as identification cards, identification numbers, report cards, personal files, transcripts, driver’s licenses, medical records, etc.
The technologies of writing and documenting make each person into a case. Each case is the subjected individual as a collection of knowledge produced from examination and surveillance. Foucault says that the case “the individual as he may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc” (1975, p. 191). These facts about the case, about the individual as he is captured in writing, indicate that it is simultaneously an object that can be studied by the human sciences to produce more knowledge and a tool to assist power with its disciplining and normalizing ends. The examination, by turning the individual into a case, by pinning him down and fixing in writing all his idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses, is “at the center of the procedures that constitute the individual as effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge” (Foucault, 1975, p. 192).
The various technologies of writing and record keeping are, therefore, central to disciplining individuals. Documents like medical records and transcripts are essential tools in our unobtrusive governance. The accumulation and comparison of these documents makes it possible to form classifications, determine average behavior, and fix norms. And all this will be used to define who we are, thereby influencing our conception of ourselves, the world, and possible courses of action.
Foucault sums up the technology and techniques of disciplinary power, which produces knowledge and reality (Foucault, 1975, p. 194), by reference to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. The Panopticon is an ideal prison. It is an architectural figure that maximizes disciplinary power’s ability to produce docile individuals, to govern the thoughts and behaviors of the subjected individuals, without the use of violent or “heavy” physical force. Although Bentham’s Panopticon is an architectural structure, Foucault explains that it should be understood as more than this.
The Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is, in fact, a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use (1975, p. 205).
Foucault understands the Panopticon as a model of a political technology that produces and governs individuals, knowledge, and reality. And it is a model that can be adopted throughout society and adjusted to fit any disciplinary purpose.
We have already seen in some detail Foucault’s sketch of disciplinary technology, including its instruments and what it produces. I would now like to turn our attention to the Panopticon, to show why it can be seen as an ideal model of disciplinary power. In so doing, I hope to review the ways in which disciplinary technology can be seen as a form of unobtrusive governance.
The Panopticon is a circular building with prison cells along the parameter and a guard tower with a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view situated in the center. It distributes the bodies of the prisoners in the most effective way, by fully enclosing them in cells where they cannot communicate with others, and where they are always visible from the guard tower.
The tower is constructed in such a way that the prisoners can never tell if there is someone in the tower watching them or not. Their visibility is potentially constant but always unverifiable. The subjected individuals thus never know if they really are being observed or examined at any moment, but they know that at any given moment they could be. This feature of the Panopticon captures the idea of disciplinary power’s use of hierarchical observation. In this way, visibility becomes a sort of trap for the prisoner in the cells. His inability to communicate or interact with other individuals in the system, along with being subject to permanent surveillance and the punishments and rewards that follow, all nearly guarantee his conformity and obedience to the established rules. Thus the Panopticon is an effective tool in transforming an unruly mob into an organized multiplicity.
The Panopticon is an effective and efficient tool for organizing bodies and maximizing their powers since it produces an environment where normalizing power functions automatically. The individual is isolated in an observable space and subjected to a strict timetable, governing his body and motions in each measured block of time. The supervisor in the tower can, from his position, observe all the different individuals almost simultaneously, carefully record their performance, compare the findings, and distribute penalties or rewards as needed. This environment “induces in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 1975, p. 201).
When the individual is conscious of their surveillance they begin to internalize the constraints of disciplinary power, resulting in a docile and disciplined mindset. The subjected individual is coerced into governing him or herself, which reduces the amount of external physical force needed to govern their behavior. But it is not only the prisoners that are coerced into behaving correctly by the disciplinary apparatus. Even the supervisors (i.e. teachers, doctors, work supervisors, prison guards, etc.) are subject to supervision, and thus they are also coerced into assuming the “proper” behavior. Foucault explains:
This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole. (1975, p. 207)
The fact that disciplinary power operates on and through everyone within its field of play shows that there is not someone in charge. There is not an individual or class that has power while others do not. Power is diffuse and autonomous. It governs bodies and minds through the implementation of disciplinary practices, and the subtle arrangement of surfaces, bodies, and gazes. No single source of disciplinary power can be located. However, even though there is no central external source of this power, it is operating autonomously in the direction of greater and greater control of the details of our everyday lives.
This autonomous direction is due to the fact that the cause and effect of disciplinary technology are related in a self-refining loop. A basic knowledge about controlling and organizing bodies led to the creation of technological objects embodying disciplinary power and the implementation of disciplinary practices. These in turn created more detailed knowledge of the individuals caught up within the system. And this more refined and accurate knowledge allows for more efficient disciplinary practices and more efficient organization of disciplinary space, which then will produce more knowledge, and so on. In short, knowledge causes an increase in power and power causes an increase in knowledge. It is a positive feedback loop.
These techniques of power and knowledge fabricate individuals by situating the person within a network of classifications. In the disciplinary regime the person’s classification, which defines them, allows for immediate and quantifiable comparison with the others. The differences among the various people are defined; the individuals with all their peculiarities are pinned down in writing. “Truth” is produced. And the strategic arrangement of technological objects, buildings, walls, surfaces, furniture, and gazes, along with the practices of hierarchical observation and the micro-economy of punishment coerce the subjected individual into internalizing these externally imposed classifications, these “truths,” and the projected values associated with them. This process of being gently forced to internalize the means to one’s own subjection creates what Foucault calls the modern soul. This soul (i.e. personality, subject, self…) is a product of the modern disciplinary techniques. These techniques create the individual soul and use it to govern the body for political, moral, and economic reasons. In this sense, it would not be wrong to claim, as Foucault did, that the Panopticon represents “the abstract formula of a very real technology, that of individuals” (1975, p. 225).
Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage.
Foucault, M. (1985). “Final Interview.” Raritan (summer 1985) (pp. 8). “Le Retour de la morale.” Interview by Gilles Barbadette, Les Nouvelles (28 June 1984).
Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality: An introduction. New York: Vintage.