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Foucault's Discipline: The Politics of Subjectivity

Foucault's Discipline: The Politics of Subjectivity

by John S. Ransom


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Foucault's Discipline: The Politics of Subjectivity

In Foucault’s Discipline, John S. Ransom extracts a distinctive vision of the political world—and oppositional possibilities within it—from the welter of disparate topics and projects Michel Foucault pursued over his lifetime. Uniquely, Ransom presents Foucault as a political theorist in the tradition of Weber and Nietzsche, and specifically examines Foucault’s work in relation to the political tradition of liberalism and the Frankfurt School. By concentrating primarily on Discipline and Punish and the later Foucauldian texts, Ransom provides a fresh interpretation of this controversial philosopher’s perspectives on concepts such as freedom, right, truth, and power.
Foucault’s Discipline demonstrates how Foucault’s valorization of descriptive critique over prescriptive plans of action can be applied to the decisively altered political landscape of the end of this millennium. By reconstructing the philosopher’s arguments concerning the significance of disciplinary institutions, biopower, subjectivity, and forms of resistance in modern society, Ransom shows how Foucault has provided a different way of looking at and responding to contemporary models of government—in short, a new depiction of the political world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822318781
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/14/1997
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 9.06(w) x 5.91(h) x (d)

About the Author

John S. Ransom is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dickinson College.

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Foucault's Discipline

The Politics of Subjectivity

By John S. Ransom

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8206-5


Confronting New Forms of Power

All political theory is concerned with the conundrum of power. Two questions can be asked with regard to power. First, how does it function? Borrowing an old definition, we can say that power is the ability of individual A to make individual B do something that B would not otherwise have done. It turns out, on closer inspection, that this process is anything but straightforward and that there are all sorts of strange and unexpected ways in which individuals exercise power over others. This first question —the "how" of power—is the one Foucault is most interested in.

The second question is asked most frequently in traditional treatments of political theory such as those provided by Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Rawls, Habermas, and others: What makes the functioning of power legitimate or acceptable? What (good) reasons convince us to accept this or that operation of power? Parents discipline children and see to it that they are educated. Good reasons can be adduced that legitimate such exercises of power—which is not to say that these good reasons cannot be called into question or their specific applications criticized.

Once justifications for the exercise of power are shown to exist, we see the simultaneous emergence of rational restrictions on power. If power is justified because it gets us on our way to widely desired goals, then power is unjustified when it is exercised without regard to those goals. For instance, a range of coercive measures is available to parents so that they may redirect the behavior of children in ways that, it is argued, benefit them. But punishment meted out not for the good it does but only to satisfy the parent's desire for raw and unrestricted exercises of power is not justified. It is "illegitimate" and can be rationally and justifiably opposed.

Consider now the same phenomenon first in relation to government and then in the context of what is often called civil society. Both Hobbes and Locke imagine a "state of nature" where formal governmental powers do not yet exist. They then ask what reasons individuals might have for exiting this state of nature. Both conclude that individuals in the state of nature will agree to establish governments to protect their interests in preserving their lives and property. The power thus conferred is legitimate for two reasons: it results from the common agreement of the members of society, and its purpose is to protect the interests of the members of society.

In the traditional liberal model, power's origins and goals are publicly acknowledged and understood. The way in which exercises of power might be unacceptable are equally clear. Power that does not have its origins in the consent of the governed or that violates the purposes for which it was erected is illegitimate.

Of course, many have found this classic liberal account of political power to be incomplete at best. John Stuart Mill is perhaps the best-known theorist—but by no means the only one—who worried about the kinds of power exercised informally by society over its members. Mill believed it would be unfortunate if unpopular opinions were restricted by law, but even when the law respected minority and individual views, one had to be concerned about the harmful effect of public opinion on free thought. In democracies, majorities made up the ruling class. The potentially tyrannous effects of majority rule could, in fact, be more easily curbed by statutory or constitutional fiat than throughout society as a whole. Government action could be effectively restrained through a conscious effort to undermine its efficiency. This restraint is part of the purpose of constitutions and the American "division of powers" concept of governance. Something like the American Bill of Rights could also be used to restrict government's fields of action with regard to private individuals and groups. But there is no way to legislate against popular disapproval of minority viewpoints and lifestyles and ostracism or discrimination as weapons against nonconformity. In this area of culture and lifestyle, then, there existed a kind of power that was not subject to legislative restrictions.

We need to notice the opposing assumptions and effects of the two kinds of power reviewed above—governmental and societal. In the social contract tradition, individuals are aware of themselves as individuals with rights and property to defend. They know why they are entering into a contract with others. The aims of the political association they agree to form are publicly acknowledged. If goals other than those agreed to are pursued by the newly created governmental power, the social contract is breached. We have, then, a group of individuals with clearly perceived interests who wish to enter into an association with one another for obvious reasons so as to achieve the equally obvious goals of security and peace. Power's origins and purposes are pellucidly clear.

But no one "agrees" to the functioning of nongovernmental social powers. Indeed, the interests and rights of the individual are not at all the standard by which this form of power regulates itself. The particular danger associated with this form of power is that it in part shapes the subjective states of the individuals it affects. One of democracy's insidious effects is its tendency to reduce large numbers of individuals to the same intellectual level. Under the "old regime" an elite class — such as the nobility or the monarch and his or her court — set the cultural standard for taste and intellectual and artistic achievement. In a democracy, the ruling class still sets the standard, but it is no longer a minority elite with high standards but a common majority class with moderate or low standards. It was this kind of power—one that can decisively influence the subjective self-assessment of the individuals it affects—that Mill (Tocqueville can also be mentioned here) wanted to make us conscious of and therefore capable of resisting.

In classic liberal theory, then, there is a consciousness of the kinds of power that escape the original formulations of power by Locke and Hobbes. What was lacking in Mill's argument, however, was a discussion of how these two forms of power—nonformal social control and state power—-supported and interacted with each other. This deficiency was made up by members of the Frankfurt School, who argued that through both a kind of widespread bribery and an active suppression of oppositional ideological elements, potentially rebellious factors in Western societies were robbed of the capacity to resist what was in fact an oppressive system. The educational system, the economy, the press, and cultural outlets—all nongovernmental means of persuasion—shaped individuals' expectations and self-perceptions to such an extent that they no longer saw the need to reshape the world around them. The problem now was not the potential for tyranny by the majority but the capacity of a cultural, political, and economic elite to create pliant majorities.

The dilemma of the Frankfurt School and others is that they provided an analysis of power whose explanatory force was achieved at the cost of effective opposition to power. If our very subjective states are molded by forces that work in support of dominant social powers, where can opposition be anchored?

But before moving on to the Frankfurt School's answer to this last question, we should note the importance of its contribution to social theory as it concerns Foucault. Foucault agrees with the Frankfurt School on two points: (1) political power is far from the only or necessarily the most important kind of power for theorists to consider, and (2) not all exercises of power (in or out of the political arena) have the form of sovereignty. "What we need," Foucault says, "is a political philosophy that isn't erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the king's head: in political theory this has still to be done." Clearly, the Frankfurt School goes at least part of the way toward achieving this goal. What it challenges is the dominant view in political theory as to the site of power. This is the view associated with Hobbes (mentioned frequently by Foucault) — that is, power resides in a centrally located sovereign. In principle, all the activities of power will be traceable to this source. It follows that this centrally located sovereign will be accountable for the effects of its operation. To regulate this power, traditional political theory has developed the notion of consent to describe the relationship of the subjects of power to its operations. There can be no consent to the workings of power if it is not visible and identifiable as to situs. It is in this context that rights and duties are defined. Coercion is consent's opposite and is just as identified with the existence of a sovereign as is consent. If rights are unjustly transgressed, if force is inappropriately applied, subjects will have both the right to rebel against a now illegitimate sovereignty and a knowledge of where to direct the rebellion: against the sovereign. In this version Foucault notes, "the conception of power as an original right that is given up in the establishment of sovereignty, and the contract, as matrix of political power, provides its point of articulation. A power so constituted risks becoming oppression whenever it over-extends itself, whenever —that is —it goes beyond the terms of the contract. Thus we have contract-power, with oppression as its limit, or rather as the transgression of this limit." For both the Frankfurt School and Foucault, this is simply an inadequate picture of power. Pointing to the ways in which individuals are conditioned by diverse operations of power such that consent is either manufactured by forces outside the individual or never becomes an issue enables the critical tradition that Foucault and the Frankfurt School share to move beyond the poles of consent and coercion and the limited critical range that they embrace.

We might think of Foucault's point this way: not all kinds of power can be described by the terms "legitimate" or "illegitimate." These terms refer to a previously agreed purpose for the exercise of power. If Janine is elected president of the Chess Club and proceeds to use club funds to organize backgammon tournaments, we can reasonably say that she is using her power illegitimately. If, however, Janine is put in charge of a group of bored and troubled young teens at the local YCWA and teaches them how to play backgammon as a way of keeping them off the streets and out of trouble, she has exercised power, but the terms "legitimate" and "illegitimate" do not apply to it.

To illustrate this idea of form of power that escapes the consent-coercion duality of the social contract tradition, imagine a young man who agrees to enter a monastery. Through long periods of training this individual is "subjugated" to the monastic life. That is, he is molded into a "subject" of a certain kind—one very different from the subjectivity he possessed when first agreeing to enter the monastery. At the same time, he is "subject" to a strict set of "governmental" controls that both limit his options and develop his capacities, thus enabling him to participate competently in a structured existence that gives his life meaning. The powers of this individual are certainly developed, but only in a specific direction. In addition, the intent is that the powers the individual develops will be put at the service of the order.

At the beginning of this process, remember, the individual gave consent. But when looking back on his years of training, the monk hardly recognizes the young man who agreed to enter the monastery. He is simply not the same person that he was then. He may have given his consent to the rigorous training of the monastery, but in a very real sense the relevant individual was not present when that consent was given. It is only after one is "disciplined" in a certain way—only after one's subjectivity has been shaped and certain powers developed, while others are pushed to the side, that individuals can meaningfully give consent to what the structures of power will do to them.

The power exercised over the monk falls somewhere between "consent" and "coercion" and can be neither captured nor criticized using those terms. The result is an oppositional dilemma. If we take the liberal tradition seriously, it is only when the need for consent is ignored that power acts illegitimately. An act of "regicide" is required in political theory and practice precisely because it is not equipped to describe — much less provide critical criteria for—this important "growth industry" in the area of power formations, which Foucault calls disciplines.

At one time, perhaps, the sovereignty model might have more closely approximated the actual operations of power than it does today. The question for Foucault is not how anyone could ever take the sovereignty model seriously. Rather, he asks: "In a society such as ours, where the devices of power are so numerous ... in this society that has been more imaginative, probably, than any other in creating devious and supple mechanisms of power, what explains this tendency not to recognize the latter except in the negative and emaciated form of prohibition? Why are the deployments of power reduced simply to the procedure of the law of interdiction?" The sovereignty model presents itself as an exhaustive description of the nature and functioning of power. In turn, every conceivable form of opposition to power is said to wait on the transgression of the border separating consent from coercion and oppression. The inadequacy of this model, on Foucault's account, is that its poles of consent and coercion fail to capture the existence of "power at the extreme points of its exercise, where it is always less legal in character." By "less legal" Foucault means those exercises of power that are not captured by rights and their violation or recognition. The emergence of this kind of power is a relatively recent event: "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we have the production of an important phenomenon, the emergence, or rather the invention, of a new mechanism of power possessed of highly specific procedural techniques, completely novel instruments, quite different apparatuses, and which is also, I believe, absolutely incompatible with the relations of sovereignty."

Disciplines do not function through consent-—they do not derive their legitimacy or their goals from the individuals who come into contact with them. What disciplinary power does is normalize. As an example, Foucault points to the invention of the nineteenth-century classroom. Rectangular desks arranged in a rectangle allow for the formation of "a single great table, with many different entries, under the scrupulously 'classificatory' eye of the master." The student's "progress, worth, character, ... application, cleanliness and parents' fortune" would all be reflected in the pupil's position on the table. As a result, a mass of individuals is dispersed, individualized, and organized. The goal, however, is not to maintain a static distribution. Instead, a standard of performance is set. Individuals are evaluated and arranged according to that standard but also subjected to exercises that will move them closer to the norm. As students' performances improve or decline, their position on the "table" changes accordingly.

In guiding individuals to strive for optimum performance relative to some norm, disciplines cannot be said to employ coercion in any straightforward sense of the word.

Disciplinary power ... refers individual actions to a whole that is at once a field of comparison, a space of differentiation and the principle of a rule to be followed. It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected or as an optimum towards which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the "nature" of individuals. It introduces, through this "value-giving" measure, the constraint of a conformity that must be achieved

A power that achieves its goals through the "constraint of a conformity that must be achieved" is simply a different kind of power that cannot be understood as a traditional model of political power. For the latter, if some act or organization is consented to, then the operations of power are legitimate and unobjectionable. If, on the other hand, power acts without securing consent from the relevant subjects or in violation of the terms whereby government and the law have been legitimized, then power has acted illegitimately and may be opposed. As Locke comments, "When Men by entering into Society and Civil Government, have excluded force, and introduced Laws for the preservation of Property, Peace, and Unity amongst themselves; those who set up force again in opposition to the Laws, do Rebellare, that is, bring back the state of War, and are properly Rebels." This kind of clarity—one is tempted to add "unfortunately"—is lacking in a disciplinary regime. Locke presents a picture of self-conscious agents who seek to protect recognized attributes through the establishment of government. Disciplinary power, however, does not protect preexisting "properties" of the individual; rather, it inserts such qualities into individuals. "Individuals" do not precede disciplinary power—they are produced by it.


Excerpted from Foucault's Discipline by John S. Ransom. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION Rethinking "Critique",
I: Confronting New Forms of Power,
II: Discipline and the Individual,
III: Governmentality and Population,
IV: Genealogy in the Disciplinary Age,
V: The "Plebeian Aspect",
VI: Politics, Norms, and the Self,
Introduction: Rethinking "Critique",
1. Confronting New Forms of Power,
2. Disciplines and the Individual,
3. Governmentality and Population,
4. Genealogy In the Disciplinary Age,
5. The "Plebeian Aspect",
6. Politics, Norms, and the Self,

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