Thursday, January 14, 2010

Aimless Reading: The F's, Part 19 (Michel Foucault)

Foucault, Michel
Discipline & Punish
The Birth of the Prison

I think I must have first heard of Foucault from my college friend, J. I think I have mentioned him before. He finished his undergraduate studies a year before the rest of us and went straight into the graduate program at Fordham. He was the only person I knew in college with an interest in critical theory, and his passion for it made it seem quite interesting.

I remember one night meeting another graduate student there named P. J. had spoken of P. often, but we had never met before that night. This was probably early 1992. The presidential campaign was in full swing and it wasn't at all clear that Bush would lose. I am not sure Clinton was yet even the nominee. Anyhow, it all seemed pretty bleak to us. In the midst of a rambling conversation we began to joke about presidential assassinations.

This quickly turned into a discussion about whether or not, in the abstract, it would be possible to assassinate a president without sacrificing yourself (or your freedom). We concluded it would not be possible. I have a vague recollection of J. talking about Foucault and the Panopticon that night and that P. and I thought that was really cool, even though we had no idea what he was talking about.

As the evening wore on, P. revealed that he was planning to leave graduate school, that he couldn't stand the sanctimoniousness of the other grad students, etc. J. began to tease him about this -- I can't remember what he said, but it got P. a bit pissed. Eventually he became very angry at J. for having embarrassed him in front of a stranger, i.e., me, and that he could no longer bear to hang out with us that night. After a several minutes of angry recriminations, he stormed out of the apartment and into the night.

J. and I sort of laughed it off as a product of the alcohol and went roaming around the streets of Soho and the West village until all hours of the morn. The night made a big impression on me, as I recall, and I think I even went home and wrote a poem about it, which I thought really captured the importance of the evening. Funny, the outcome of all of that is that I became quite good friends with P. (we are still friends to this day), while my friendship with J. went through years of ups and downs and ins and outs, but has slowly faded, except for the occasional visit or email.

I don't think I read Foucault until several years later, and Discipline and Punish was, to be sure, the first book of his I read. I remember being totally captivated (good Catholic that I was raised) by Foucault's positing of the existence of a soul, albeit one that, far from being trapped in a physical body, is an external entity, created by the institutional powers-that-be, in which the body itself is trapped. Quite a clever fellow, that Foucault.

I think I bought this copy Talking Leaves Books.

from Discipline and Punish

It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished -- and in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives. This is the historical reality of the soul, which, unlike the soul represented in Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint. This real, non-corporal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power. On this reality-reference, various concepts have been constructed and domains of analysis carved out: psyche, subjectivity, personality, consciousness,etc.; on it have been built scientific techniques and discourses, and the moral claims of humanism. Bot let there be no misunderstanding: it is not that a real man, the object of knowledge, philosophical reflection or technical intervention, has been substituted for the soul, the illusion of the theologians. The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection much more profound than himself. A 'soul' inhabits him and brings him into existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.

1 comment:

RD Pohl said...

Great book and good place to start reading Foucault. The Archeology of Knowledge has had a greater impact, but requires a deeper immersion in issues of epistemology and theory of history/science. This passage, for instance, is indicative of the inversion Foucault unmasked in Western thought and Bentham's Panopticon is his metaphor for the society our idealization of the soul imposes on us.