Paul Michel Foucault, a French Philosopher

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Michel Foucault, generally in his philosophy, has created a system wherein he examines the relations of power as they are transmuted down in a society (not one that it is held by individuals—and, indeed, it is not so perpetuated), wherein the refinement of discourse over time allows for the normalization of behaviors and then that individuals are encouraged, as docile bodies, to adhere to this program of normalization. Foucault locates the origins of this process in asylums and prisons, and considers them an Enlightenment technological development, which he calls “technologies of the self”:

But I became more and more aware that in all societies there is another type of technique: techniques which permit individuals to affect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies, their own souls, their own thoughts, their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection, happiness, purity, supernatural power. Let us call these kinds of technologies technologies of the self. (Foucault “Sexuality and Solitude 367)

Foucault locates these technologies of the self at the center of the process of normalization that has shifted the process of punishment from an outward display of power as in medieval executions to an internal process in which the prisoner becomes complicit in his own punishment. By employing these technologies of the self an increasingly analytical and ever more refined manner power is able to normalize almost all of life and make the distinction between punishment and education trivial.

In attempting to diagnose the evolutionary trend of the manner in which punishment has been historically meted out throughout the ages, Foucault suggests that there has been a gradual evolution from tactics of raw displays of power to more subtle forms of control. While this might suggest a certain amount of progress in that it is a progressive movement towards a less obvious brutal form of maintenance of the status quo it is nonetheless  a pervasive manner of social control and thus the obfuscation of means of social control over the passage of time, especially since the enlightenment, should not be mistaken for true liberation or the work of real progress toward a deeper goal of recognize some eternal truth about human rights.

Whereas medieval society employed the public display of punishment in intricate and executions of the most excruciating form (such as beheading, drawing and quartering, hanging etc.) to help maintain social order by showing the direct result of a failure to comply with law, contemporary society uses more indirect and less overt methods for encouraging its subjects to adhere to the traditional social order. Indeed, where medieval societies used overt displays of brute force, modern society prefers processes of normalization, which are less intrusive: Another instrument used to achieve discipline is the normalizing judgment.

Instead of punishing offenders for wrong doings, the administrators with power choose to rehabilitate them to attempt to normalize problem individuals and make them a functional and law abiding.  This type of corrective attempt is used through training techniques including the use of repetition.  This could be used in the classroom for a student that could not write cursive well enough to pass to the next level.  For a punishment, they could be required to write cursive sentences over and over again.  Additionally, to provide the society with this normalization or conformity, rewards become more frequent than penalties.

For those students that tend to fall behind, the prospect of a reward could be more appealing to do well than the threat of yet another punishment.  This gives individuals something to strive to achieve and creates incentives for being disciplined.

“What Is Discipline?”

Here, we see the ideas of punishment couched in the language of teaching and rehabilitation. What is a deviant behavior is simply a mistaken approach to learning basic social rules that can be corrected and analyzed and subjected to extensive discourse.

Moreover, in this instance, there is not only the issue of negative reinforcement via the coercive measure of the threat of punishing action in response to a putative misdeed, but, moreover, there is the extension of a metaphorical “carrot” being extended to the perpetrator of a violation should he manage to conform to the exact processes that the captors. In this movement, this ability to make the punished complicit in his own  

punishment, is the real power of the indirect method revealed because not only does it not 

require an exercise of power, but allows those being punished to aid in their own punishment.

This idea of creating “docile bodies” by means of indirect punishments that seek to examine and to “rehabilitate” rather than to torture is their chief use. Indeed, for docile bodies are effective because they are given the illusion of freedom, in being offered a choice between two possibilities they have the trappings of volition but when it has been  

ordained ahead of time for them to choose one of the options of the other this merest veil 

of volition is quickly revealed as just another discursive element rather than an effectively “real” choice with meaning and consequence.

Docility is a major advantage because it allows the docile body to assist in his own rehabilitation and normalization and, by extension, his own punishment per se: The term docility, or to be docile, means to have a certain amount of control exercised over you. Foucault says; “a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved” (Foucault Discipline and Punish, 136). Docility was the way in which someone was trained, a way in which someone cold be molded like clay to fit the needs of those that are in control. This was done in the army, the schoolhouse, basically anywhere people were subjected to control on an everyday basis.

Docility is nothing more then discipline, where “discipline is a political anatomy of detail” (Foucault Discipline and Punish, 139). The body was no longer beaten and abused rather it was explored, broken down and rearranged.  Rather then being destroyed the body was being entered into a political machine that produced docile bodies. Foucault talks about docile bodies because he is trying to explain the shifts that took place from the practice of torture and the spectacle to the building of the prisons. Thus, the issue here is that by this method the body is forced to undergo a process that, while substantially different from an experiential perspective than torture, has, as its object, a surprisingly simple aim, which is of course the same ends of enforcing the stability and standard of behavior that is normative and therefore beneficial to the institutions of power.

Through the creation of such docile bodies who no longer need to be tortured but instead can be subtly goaded towards the process of rehabilitation and ergo normalization, the standards of normalcy can be entertained and reinforced within the individual by the individual. Indeed, even more ingenious is that, by such a method, in which punishment is rehabilitation, the very distinction between the two begins to break down. Punishment becomes a sort of identical with the very processes of  

identification, analysis, and education. Part of the reason for this is that possibility of an 

end telos of this process, of any sort of true enlightenment, per se, becomes an impossibility, because such refinement and enlightenment leads only further into the constricting web of discourse.

Indeed, since the entire project of enlightenment refuses to end in any categorical liberation (which is indeed an improbability if not an impossibility) that can be demonstrated, this should be no surprise. Advances in rationalization and logic only serve to further refine the methods by which processes like normalization take place, allowing them to be now couched in doctrines of ethics, psychology, and criminology where they can be used for the creation of docile bodies when in the past the only recourse would have been the use of raw and terrible amounts of force: The enquiries have their methodological coherence in the at once archaeological and genealogical study of practices envisaged simultaneously as a technological type of rationality and as strategic games of liberties; they have their practical coherence in the care brought to the process of putting historico-critical reflections to the test of concrete practices. I do not know whether it must be said today that the critical task still entails faith in Enlightenment; I continue to think that this task requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty. (Foucault “What is Enlightenment?” 50)

Here, we see that the capital-E Enlightenment has resulted in little more than a refinement of the “strategic games of liberties,” which, of course, serve to do little else  to confine one to the rules of the game rather than allow for the possibility of a true exit, and, similarly the possibility of little-e enlightenment for the individual is equally impossible when each enlightenment only furthers the discourse and increases the process of education which is the form of expiation in the principle order of things anyway.

Thus, enlightenment is an increasingly remote quantity whose value remains unknown and unknowable, while the reality of the increasing and encroaching science of punishment is advanced in discourse in such a way that the process of discipline is reinforced through the further and stronger normalization of every single social act, since the discourse about these acts also multiples, creating possibilities for discourse where no such possibility even existed before.

Thus, the teleological goal of the penal system then seem to be one in which it is almost impossible to distinguish between education and punishment and, indeed, prison and the outside world. Through the creation of bourgeois docile bodies, prisons increasingly do not require walls because the normalization of every activity makes it such that the mere examination of the entirety of one’s existence links one to the very concept of the punishment that looks less and less like a punishment:  The ideal point of penalty today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgment that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity. (Foucault Discipline and Punish 227)

Thus, the conclusion we reach at the end is that the goal of increasing discourse since the enlightenment is to make power’s reach ever more diffuse but ever more pervasive—the inclusion of discourse into previously verboten areas allows for the normalization of those areas and with that normalization comes control such that the ideas of punishment and rational consideration seem to come within a hairsbreadth of merging at the distance of an infinite regress.


  1. Foucault, Michel. “Sexuality and Solitude.” On Signs. Marshall Blonsky ed. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins Press, 1985.
  2. Santos, Tomas. “Foucault and the Modern Day Panopticon.” Retrieved January 05, 2008, at
  3. Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment.” The Foucault Reader. Paul Rabinow, ed. Catherine Porter, trans. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
  4. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: Vintage, 1979.

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