Friday, September 6, 2013

Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault


Discipline and Punish (1975), is a genealogy of power based on particulars of penal history, and is considered Foucault’s “out-of-the-ordinary,” “intellectually charismatic,” and “soundly subversive” work, in which he also reveals his passionate empathy for the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, and a desire to trace the overt and covert networks of power, which underlie modern societies. Highly interdisciplinary and thought-provoking in its content, the book is at once a work of history, sociology, philosophy, penology, legal analysis and cultural criticism, therby making it difficult to categorize in any given literature or tradition.
Foucault, who is hailed as a “theorist of paradox” by highly acclaimed critics, was influenced by some of the greatest European philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Beaufret—Martin Heidegger’s major interpreter in France—and Louis Althusser. He earned his License de philosophie in 1948 and DiplĂ´me de psycho-pathologie in 1952, and taught in Sweden, Poland, and Germany before his appointment as the head of the philosophy department at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. The range of his creative (and massively subversive) thought knows no bounds but throughout his many studies, on subjects as varied as madness, medicine, modern discourse, sexuality, there is a definite tendency to reverse “taken-for-granted” understandings and to discover, not unlike Freud, the latent behind the manifest--especially when it come to the nature of power and its pervasive effects in the human condition.
Moreover, Foucault in his major works, has undertaken a sustained assault upon what he regards as the myths of "the Enlightenment," "Reason," "science," "freedom," "justice," and "democracy"--all these salient features of modern civilization, and has exposed their “hidden side.” Foucault has also argued that the hidden side usually stays hidden because the “production of discourse” in modern societies is controlled, selected, and organized according to certain behind-the-scenes procedures. He suggests that when an idea appears before us repeatedly through different modalities, we are unaware of the prodigious machinery behind, which is diligently doing discourse selection and dissemination.
To make sense of this incredibly crucial work for our times, please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk and share your views about matters of power and punishment, and their subtle manifestations, which ought to concern us all, if we are to leave this world a little better than the way we found it.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

While reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, I was often reminded of the Latin phrase: “Homo homini lupus est.” German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer also asserted something similar: “Everywhere in nature we see strife, competition, conflict, and a suicidal alternation of victory and defeat. Every species fights for the matter, space, and time of the others.” Human nature is designed to be blind to the unending power game, it seems.

Nomi said...

Foucault would argue that unawareness of pervasive technologies of power make people blind to the power game. The social and political environment in cultures represent the processes of “power-knowledge-discipline” mechanisms, which Foucault named as “mildness-production-profit,” and the invisible yet “calculated technology of subjection.”

He rightly elucidates that when an idea appears before us repeatedly through different modalities, we are unaware of the “prodigious machinery” behind, which is diligently doing the selection. Repeated reinforcements of specific ideologies can indeed make mind and body “docile.” The nationalistic and religious fervors that are shown in times of conflict between antagonistic nations verify Foucault’s insights about the effects of technologies of subjection. Mass media are mostly saturated with religious and nationalistic messages and propositions, which are presented as if they were absolutely “true” and “self-evident.” The mainstream media in modern cultures also promote ethnocentric and mostly patriarchal discourses on regular basis, without offering any space to opposing points of view. Such partial discourses have certainly “trapped” the majority of the people, as those discourses are constantly repeated and reinforced by the will and design of a small but highly resourceful power-elite.

Nomi said...

What is repeatedly selected and reinforced and hence considered “self-evident” in any given culture, also exerts a coercive and censoring force on alternative epistemic, interpretive and behavioral possibilities, and largely determines the nature of power politics on the planet. World military expenditure in 2012 totaled $1753 billion, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Therefore, the “calculated technologies of discipline and subjection” definitely work, as Foucault would have predicted. I am persuaded that repeated and sustained exposures to selected and parochial meaning systems are pivotal in creating a “specific subjectivity” and hence the “corresponding” interpretations of the world, which usually serve the power-elite, be it the Occident or the Orient. Foucault was indeed a genius and a philosopher-sage for our times.

Anonymous said...

Foucault's idea of "parrhesia" is his finest contribution to understanding cultural change but it is not so easy to practice parrhesia in the wake of overt and covert terror.

Nomi said...

Foucault’s idea of parrhesia can be approached from multiple perspectives such as: cultural (Biblical, Quranic, Capitalistic, Communistic, liberal, conservative, etc.) relativity involved in practice of parrhesia; multiple causes of parrhesia; multiple effects of parrhesia; personal and cultural components of parrhesia; evolutionary and existential functions of parrhesia; value of parrhesia to personal and collective problems and predicaments; efficient and effective ways of practicing parrhesia in public and in private life; current contexts (personal, political, religious, cultural, ecological etc.) that urgently call for parrhesia; and more importantly, developmental stages (egocentric, ethnocentric, world-centric) behind “parrhesiastes” of one culture or another, and so on.

Nomi said...

Most importantly, parrhesia can cause narcissistic injury. The notion of narcissism comes from the myth of the self-obsessed youth who after “seeing his own reflection in water cannot take his eyes off himself; unwittingly, he desires himself; he praises, but is himself what he praises, and while he seeks, is sought.” In the voluminous literature on the biology, psychology, sociology and history of the concept of narcissism, writers use the term in a variety of ways. However, in relation to personal and cultural parrhesia, the following stipulations from DSM-IV are quite illuminating: obsessive self-absorption; pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior); need for admiration; expectations to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements; preoccupations with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love; belief that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions); need for excessive admiration; sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations; show of arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Nomi said...

From a librarian’s perspective on parrhesia, one can note that ethnocentric meaning systems are in a wide “circulation,” and thus inevitably create an “ethnocentric will” that shows up in preferences for “similar” books and friends, and media and politics, which reinforce narcissistic propensities. An “ego-centric, and ethnocentric will,” is more explanatory of why some books become bestsellers and why some are banned, in Biblical or Quranic cultures, and why war and violence have been a constant in the human condition. Perhaps only a planet-centric meaning system, parenting and education, and a healthy respect for varieties of parrhesia can create the conditions for genuine human growth. Keeping hope alive.