Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Foucault pg 135-141

Michel Foucault
Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Pg 135-141
Abstract by Patricia Helen Little

In the first few pages of the chapter entitled “Docile Bodies” Michel Foucault explains his theory on discipline. Discipline is a word he uses that describes certain methods that are used to dominate ‘docile bodies’, meaning humans who are able to be dominated, namely all of us.

Foucault starts his chapter explaining when he feels this idea of ‘docile bodies’ was first discovered. To do so he uses the example of the soldier. For a long time soldiers were men who were basically born to be soldiers. These are men who physically fit the needed criteria. But some time in the 18th century it was discovered that soldiers could actually be made. Special training and other approaches were used to make a man who was not perhaps naturally inclined to become a soldier. It is at this time that humans are discovered to be docile.

Foucault writes, “A body is docile that can be subjected, used, transferred and improved” (136). This is an important concept because with the realization that people are docile, then the inclination to rule upon these people is also realized. They (who they are is not clear, Foucault never classifies them but I believe we are meant to see them as the subjugators, those who oppress or try to rule others) found that they could have a lot of control over others. While this is not a new concept, (Foucault reminds us that there have been people oppressed since the beginning of time) different methods to oppress presented themselves in new ways. First, they realized that it was more beneficial to exert control over the individual as opposed to lumping everyone together. Also, they would use their power to control other by their “efficiency of movement, their internal control” (137). And lastly, this new theory on control was focused on the process rather than the product. This would ensure control throughout and therefore would be total.

Putting these three ideas together you have what Foucault defines as discipline.
“These methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility, might be called disciplines” (137). Basically these disciples are used to dominate people.

Foucault makes it clear that this domination is clearly different from slavery, which deals “on a relation of appropriation of bodies” (137). He feels it is also different from a monastery type of domination because a monastery’s main goal is not utility. “The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful, and conversely” (137-138). It seems that what separates discipline from other forms of domination is its ultimate utility and usefulness to the oppressors.

This utility is ultimately realized because “discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies” (138). When the masses are individually dominated you have complete control. Foucault does not feel that this was a sudden discovery. He is not painting a picture of a bunch of evil men together in a room devising a plan to rule the world. Rather, it was discovered and used, as it was needed. He writes, “on almost every occasion, they were adopted in response to particular needs” (138).

Because they were discovered and used in very separate ways the whole body of discipline has to be looked at by reviewing specific disciplines that are generally used. These are “small acts of cunning endowed with a great power of diffusion, subtle arrangements, apparently innocent, but profoundly suspicious, mechanisms that obeyed economies too shameful to be acknowledged, or pursued petty forms of coercion…” (139).

Foucault believes that “discipline is a political anatomy of detail” (139) and so we must look at the little things in order to understand the big picture. Foucault uses the next two pages to clarify why the details are important to study. He uses quotes from scholars that proclaim the truth of his method. For example, he quotes Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, “How dangerous it is to neglect little things” (140). The rest of the chapter is a detailed account of some of these ‘little things’.


I decided to do this little section because it is very important in order to understand the rest of the chapter. I admittedly ran though these first few pages and was lost and frustrated when I tried to keep going and was not understanding some very key terms. I had to start over and really follow what he was saying to understand the entire chapter.

I feel that this is a strength of Foucault’s writing. He lays everything out piece by piece. This can be bad if you are not reading closely and miss a piece because you will be hopelessly lost. However, he puts his argument out there so that if you are doing a close reading you will be able to follow him, and following Foucault through this difficult material deserves a big pat on the back.

I was especially interested in the way he describes what to me is ultimately the human condition. We are ‘docile’. We can all be led, and we are all led every single day. I have not read enough of Foucault to know what his meaning is overall, if there is one. Does he feel that knowledge is power, and by realizing that we are being subjugated and dominated that we can do something about it? Or is this just the nature of life, something we must resign ourselves to? Did smarter people figure out how to rule and now there is no way to stop it? I am in my end-of-the-semester-paranoia phase and would really like to know where I stand as a human being. Too much to ask? Probably.

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