Episode 49: Foucault on Power and Punishment

Discussing Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1975), parts 1, 2 and section 3 of part 3.

Are we really free? Kings no longer exert absolute and arbitrary power over us, but Foucault's picture of the evolution from torture and public executions to rehabilitative, medical-style incarceration is not so much a triumph of liberty but a shift to more subtle but more pervasive exertions of power. Read more about the topic and get the book.

Featuring guest participant Katie McIntyre, doctoral candidate at Columbia.

End songs: Two short, stinky tunes from the Mark Lint album, Black Jelly Beans & Smokes, "The Zoo Song" and "Solitary Drama," both from 1991.

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  1. Tim says

    It’s cool to see you guys finally tackle some “continental” philosophy/”critical theory”. Foucault is an interesting place to start – his influence is massive, but I’ve always thought of him as more of a social historian than a philosopher per se… his approach to politics is certainly very different from the other political philosophy you guys have talked about. Anyway, I’m excited to listen to this.

  2. Ethan Gach says

    More subtle and pervasive forms of power like the imposition of politically expedient lables like “terrorist.”

    This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of terrorists, and plenty of acts of terrorism. But there is certainly a double standard enforced by existing power structures (the U.S. and those nations wose militaries it bankrolls), when a plot by rogue Iranian agents to assisante a Saudi ambassador is reported by all the mainsteam news outlets as a “terrorist plot,” but the the penchant of Iranian scientists to be gunned down or blow-up is not considered the same.

  3. Tim says

    Listening now I was struck by Seth’s comment about the “flip-flopping” of the public and concealed stages of punishment. It made me wonder what Foucault would have had to say about the current paradigm of secret torture by the US military (Guantanamo, etc). In these cases modern ideas of habeas corpus don’t apply, and the punishment is inflicted directly on the body, yet it’s also deliberately hidden from view. I suppose one could argue that this is less about punishment than information extraction (which has its own long history), but the line is definitely blurry and there are instances where things slip very definitively into the retributive (one example being Bradley Manning’s year long solitary confinement without charge). Surely there’s been a bunch written about this stuff from a “Foucault-ian” perspective, no? (Maybe if Katie is going to make a followup blog post she could recommend some secondary lit!)

    I appreciated Dylan’s skepticism (glad that he’s a regular participant now!), but I’m surprised no one brought up the issue of intentionality – i.e. if Foucault’s historical analysis is correct, just how conscious were the powerful in designing this new system of punishment? (And how conscious of its origins and intricacies are those who maintain and expand it today?) This is something I constantly wonder when discussing political philosophy, and Foucault’s sometimes inflammatory rhetoric brings it to the surface. But just asking a question like “why didn’t they just use slavery?” I think also foregrounds the issue, as it assumes that “they” are implementing this program in a highly deliberate and systematic manner, when in reality it’s more piecemeal and complex, the reasons for and ideologies behind its design vary widely among its many many architects, and its consequences are often unintentional, unpredicted, and unrecognized. Obviously you guys realize this – you’re not conspiracy theorists – but it’s interesting how the common shorthand for talking about this kind of stuff carries all that baggage with it and frames the conversation. For me, I think one of the most interesting aspects of all this is the fact that Bentham intended the panopticon as a progressive reform.

    Oh, and lastly, a suggestion, about listening to previous episodes being helpful: what do you think of the idea of listing “related episodes” or “suggested prerequisites” or some such at the bottom of each episode post?

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Tim,

      One possible answer about what Foucault would have said about Guantanamo is…nothing. The French government was routinely torturing Algerian students during Foucault’s adult lifetime. Whether Foucault was genuinely or willfully ignorant of this fact says something about his failings as a historian.

      In any event, Foucault’s assertion that modern France had evolved away from the use of torture is a bit of a fantasy.

      • Tim says

        Was he really ignorant of that, though? Seeing as how he was involved in leftist politics throughout his life, and the Algerian Revolution was THE cause celebre among French lefty intellectuals at the start of his career, I’d have a hard time believing he was neutral on the issue, even if he didn’t write much on the subject. I think part of that has to do with timing – Foucault’s activism mostly took place in the late sixties, and by the time of Discipline and Punish, Algeria had been independent for over a decade. If he wrote about Algeria, it would have been well before he achieved notoriety.

        But yeah, even though he does seem to recognize that the two modes (punishment and discipline) do overlap quite a bit historically, I completely agree that he seems to totally underestimate just how much the former is still present in modern society.

        I’m mostly interested though in the way which torture has moved from being highly public to highly secretive, and how (or if) that fits into his schema.

        • dmf says

          Foucault was actively against the war in Algeria tho he didn’t accept the far left equation of France’s policies with Facism, he also wasn’t suggesting a total end to torture (or anything like Pinker’s imaginary evolution towards less violence) he was just noting the general trends from public torture as spectacle to more subtle forms of control, hard to see how this isn’t so in modern democracies (and even in many other large centralized, non-tribal, govts) even as we have rare cases of govt endorsed secret torture. The more complicated case for Foucault was his early support of the Iranian Revolution but unlike say Sartre in relation to various communist states he was not committed to denying that things went badly wrong.

          • Tim says

            thanks for the info re: Algeria

            So would you say then that Foucault would have seen the move from public to private torture as being a part of the shift from punishment to discipline? Or would he consider torture in the context of interrogation to be separate from that schema?

            I think without a doubt there’s something worthwhile in Foucault’s analysis if taken loosely (as a “general trend,” as you say). But I also think he overstates the dichotomy.

          • Daniel Horne says

            Hi dmf,

            I didn’t mean to suggest that Foucault endorsed the war in Algeria. I’m unconcerned with his political views. I do think his thesis in D&P is flawed. I find Foucault too selective with his historical evidence in suggesting we’ve switched from public displays of torture on the body to more subtle mental forms of control via “discipline”.

            Yes, democratic societies have moved away from public displays of torture, but that’s only trivially true. If Foucault’s more sophisticated point is meant to be that the the pre-modern public displays have been “replaced” with modern “discipline”, I don’t think he made the case very well.

            Early modern (indeed, pre-modern) societies also relied upon discipline as social control. It’s just that those older forms of discipline have become somewhat neutered by today’s anonymous urban society. Pre-modern societies used to have religious preaching, village gossip, ostracism, etc., to enforce social order. You don’t need a panopticon when everyone is minding everybody’s business. Conversely, modern democracies (France and the US alike) are willing to resort to torture to bend or break enemies of the state. I don’t think we’ve made quite the kind of “A” to “B” transition that D&P would suggest.

        • Daniel Horne says

          Hi Tim,

          Yes, I suspect he wasn’t ignorant of it. So given the fact that he didn’t address it in his book (which pretty specifically dealt with the government’s use of torture), then we have to question his sincerity.

          If Foucault was ignorant of the use of torture during the Algerian War (which seems unlikely), then we have to question his competence, or at least part of his thesis. It seems incredible that by the mid-1970s anyone in France was unaware of the use of torture by police during the 1950s and 1960s. I agree that there’s a difference between public uses and private uses of torture.

          But your original question related to how Foucault might react to the kind of secretive torture in Guantanamo. My response was that Foucault had an excellent opportunity to address the use of secretive torture (given the recent history of the Algerian question) at the time he wrote Discipline and Punish, and yet he didn’t. Either he didn’t find the question interesting, or he found it inconvenient for his thesis.

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      The new website design will have a ‘related/suggested’ section alongside each new episode. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Profile photo of Jeff says

      Concerning your question “what Foucault would have had to say about the current paradigm of secret torture by the US military (Guantanamo, etc)” I would highly suggest the essay “Indefinite Detention” by Judith Butler (third chapter in the book “Precarious Life”). She actually uses Foucault’s works on Governmentality more so then his conception of power in Discipline and Punish. His writings on Governmentality came later in his life and provide a more expansive, flexible view of power and self in society, and are more adaptable to the globalized world then Discipline and Punish. Here is a free online copy of the Judith Butler book, the essay starts on pg.50: http://www.scribd.com/doc/71852612/Butler-Precarious-Life

  4. Katie McIntyre says

    As for prerequisites to this episode, I’d suggest listening to the Nietzsche and Heidegger episodes.

    I think we even specifically mentioned the passage from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in which he talks about breeding an animal with the right to make promises.

    Also, in this episode I had stated that I didn’t know much about Heidegger’s influence on Foucault. It turns out, Foucault actually said, in his last interview, “For me Heidegger has always been the essential philosopher … My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger.” I’ve recently read some very interesting short articles by Bert Dreyfus on connections between Heidegger and Foucault. Unfortunately, I don’t have bibliographical information for them (bootleg copies). Hopefully I can find that and post it soon.

  5. dmf says

    it’s hard to know what to make of Foucault’s uses and abuses of history but I find them most useful as intuition pumps not unlike say Wittgenstein’s imaginary builders. His work on say madness is a pretty flawed historical work but than it led to real reforms in how many psychiatric hospitals are organized so is it more important to get it right in a scientific sense of details or to be genuinely moving, to help people to see something new? Was Nietzsche giving us a literal genealogy of morals? The role of poetry and myth in philosophy is a very large topic that perhaps we will get to hereabouts some day.

    • Tim says

      it’s funny to hear the phrase “intuition pump” used positively haha
      not familiar with “imaginary builders” – could you say more about what you mean by that?

      but yeah, in a sense I think you’re right. Deleuze was actually very upfront about this. not only were his interpretations of other philosophers deliberately unconventional or even outlandish, but he also said many times that he’s a lot more concerned about what people DO with his philosophy than with how other academics interpret it (that’s the pragmatist influence in him).

      when you stop talking theory and start talking history though, I’m a bit more hesitant to endorse that kind of approach

      • dmf says

        not a fan of D.Dennett’s work? Witt practiced a kind of armchair anthro thought experiments with scenarios like building or shopping to get people to think thru various “as-if” examples that might lead to an aspect-dawning. Deleuze was not intentionally “outlandish” but he came from a tradition of philosophers that saw philosophy as something that one does and not just the history of philo which is an ongoing tension in the academy to this day. The question is does one read Foucault as a historian or as a philosopher? I read him in the tradition of Nietzsche but even he probably took his own research too seriously/literally.

  6. David Buchanan says

    When Katie described public punishments in terms of torturing the body for crimes committed against the body, Freud’s little book (“Civilization and its Discontents”) came to mind. The conflict between our biological instincts for sex and violence and society’s demands for civilized behavior is built right into the basic structure of the Freudian mind (Id vs. Superego) but that little book says this tension is necessary to the maintenance of civilization. And it really does seem to be the main purpose of nearly all of our laws against vice and most of what we’d call church morals. We see this restraint of physical desire, of course, in the various forms of asceticism too. In other words, historically speaking, most of our laws and morals are all about taming our inner animals. Eating was the original sin. Then they knew they were naked. That’s why it’s so funny to see a chimp in a tuxedo or to watch those videos of dogs saying grace.

  7. parrhesiastes says

    FWIW, Bentham’s Panopticon Writings (available freely here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1925&Itemid=27) is well worth a read and even a possible discussion topic at PEL. Bentham also discusses the finer aspects (architectural, social, economical, political, etc) of the Panopticon in great details, for example:
    “When the ground thus dearly wrung from the grasp of luxury came to be covered…over and above nine hundred roomy chambers for so many persons to lie in, three other different classes of apartments were to be provided…for them to work in, to pray in, and to suffer in!” — Panopticon Writings, Letter XV: Prospects of saving from this plan, 1843.

    One aspect of “are we free?” that was touched but didn’t expand in the discussion was the so-called production of soul via the technologies of power i.e., foucault talks about the soul is the prison of body (page 30) which shows the scope and mechanism of our freedom in terms of power-self relationshop. In his later works, he defines the destruction and creation of self in terms of exomologesis and exagoreeusis, respectively – where the former is christian tradition, the latter has roots in Stoics. Details here http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html and at extremely interesting lectures by Foucault in UC Berkley Audio archives http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/foucault/mfaa.html

  8. lou says

    ok. i would agree with the bad feminist saying how much cognive energie a girl consumes trying to brake free from a feminist political correctness. On the other hand how much vital energie has to be consumed for a girl not to be in the position of being questioned as and to what degree she is a feminst or not, during a conversation on foucault. critisism is never neutural, that’s why the departure and the end of the above critisism on feminism didn’t have the same qualitative ends as it departed from differnt strategic points. the bad feminst used her strategical position badly and didn’t manage to change the discursive flow on her right (as she mantained the position of the questioned). the good critics of feminism yes they did as they created and mantained the position of the questioner. It is never a matter of what you say alone, it always has to do with how you use your sayings “in order to”. there’s always a stratigic play of discourse “towards”. the same kind of critisism could be used for different goals. and in order to be the winer you have to be in the position to understand yours and others goals and positions in the play. kant said that philosophy is a battle field and spinoza didn’t hide it, naming his ontology “ethics”.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Are you speaking hypothetically/generally, or are you implying that we fellas brought up Foucault-influenced feminism in the discussion to diss it, whereas Katie’s joining in with us was making a subtler point that inadvertently supported our dissing?

      I think the aim in both of our cases was to kvetch about the seemingly purposive obscuritanism displayed in some of that work, which all too often can hide vapidity.

      Naturally any guest is going to be in the role of questioned for much of the time, though I hope that this is less the case for our format than for a straight-up interview show. She had plenty of room to steer the conversation.

      Or am I misunderstanding you completely?

  9. lou says

    No, you are not misunderstanding me at all. In fact you did rephrase me quite accurately. You have missed me only with the use of “or” between generally and specifically. Speaking specifically, the way that critic is being displayed just on the above comment is totally different from the hilarius and undermining encopassing of it (the critic) in “herstory” and “you’re not gonna find a real job”. And in that way put, in the room that has been created here i can say ‘i am in agreement’. Saying “she had plenty of room to steer the conversation” seems to me like feminism = political correctness. Room is not there, room is seeked, grasped, determined, and sometimes shared. Right now i think that this room has been under the above forces.

  10. dominic says

    I hope I dont annoy anyone with this, because my point is about Madness and Civilization, and it is about Foucoult as a poor historian, two things you expressly avoided talking about! I will make it brief, and if no one bites, then I will see my error.

    I came to philosophy in order to better understand some of the underlying motivations/reference points for the people involved in my primary intellectual interest: history. Secondly, professionally, I am a Registered nurse, and have studied and worked closely with the “clinically insane,” “mentally ill,” “mad,” etc. I have to say that I am routinely dissappointed with the weak and, honestly, very unprofessional approach philosophers have taken to dealing with history, medicine, and science. Examples are rife, and specifically I have problems with Hegel, Nietzche, Foucoult, and Manual DeLanda (I must admit, Hegel was on to something regardless).

    I dont want to be long winded, so unless someone wants to engage this subject, I will conclude: Foucoult, as far as I can tell, doesn’t even really try to take an approach to mental illness in any concrete way, rather he does a pretty lazy interpretation of the way people respond to “madness” (granted this was his goal, its the laziness I have a problem with). He also, by my estimation, doesn’t really care about what actually happened in the past, but rather in his approach to history and madness it seems, to me anyway, that he has a hypohosis and loosely researches/interprets the facts and then claims they somehow enhance his thesis. He is not the worst offender, but he is quite the windbag (read his “debate” with Chomsky, his mostly baseless claims about history are on full display from the jump)

  11. dominic says

    I do apologize for posting again, but I just re-read that, and my neurosis/need to be loved insists that I mention I love your show, thought you did an excellent job with Foucoult overall, and have listened to about 20 of your shows, with particular appreciation for the one on Hegel and the one on Heidegger (and by the way, i feel Heidegger has a better grasp of history and epochs than Foucoult)

    • dmf says

      while I share your frustration at how many philos misuse mental illnesses to make their political points for Foucault this comes out of the idea (I think a mistaken one) that there is a history of Ideas to be surveyed and this is literally the same error of thinking that leads Heidegger to speak of “epochs”.
      see what you think of Ian Hacking’s work after Foucault or Bruno Latour’s.

  12. dominic says

    well i think they are all on to something, so to speak, but i think its the “Idea,” as you put it, in a general sense, that they are relevant. My problem is in the details: rare, if ever, any citations; sweeping generalizations about large groups of specialized or otherwise delineated peoples (doctors, religious professionals, “mentally ill,” “proletariat” and “bougois”) over long periods of time, grouping entire civilizations under certain attitudes or perceptions, and those are usually enunciated by the philosopher in question (i still consider Nietzche the worst offender). I dont want to ramble so I will close in saying ive done a lot of internet reading and it seems many people have a similar, potential mis-reading of Foucault, as described under the final sub-heading of his wikipedia page. And I really don’t understand at all the relevance of the youtube link, can you point me to a particular moment in the video?

    • dominic says

      sorry, the final sub-heading of the Madness and Civilization wiki page. Anyway, im going to continue to explore all the links you have on the website

      • Ryan says

        Notions like ‘doctor’, ‘mentally ill’, and ‘proletariat’ are too far reaching and should only be carefully employed in between ironiquotes? How have they come to be so well defined that you find it necessary You don’t seem to have a problem with Nietzche’s grouping of entire civilizations under certain attitudes, but take its having taken place, right or wrong, is still going to remain offensive to you. Let’s try not to conflate a wikipedia subheader with the entirety of the internet’s beliefs concerning some philosophy.

        • Ryan says

          Deleted part of my reply before I had hit submit, meant to write “necessary to combat their common usages?” Out of all of them I think the bourgeois couldn’t be more well-defined, and I’m not sure how a misreading of it is fatal toward understanding mental illnesses?

          • dominic says

            well i was branching out to a discussion of philosophy and philosophers as a whole, which maybe i shouldnt have done. Also, my point is these people are not doctors or scientists themselves, and therefore must be careful in discussing the implications or practices of said professions (big difference between say “attitiudes” and say, testing on animals as grounds for criticism). And my point about the wiki entry is that there seem to be many others with my opinion, one that may be based on a misread. I actually think Foucault has a lot of very useful, and true, things to say

  13. dmf says

    Foucault marks for some of us a shift from a history of Ideas to the sociology of institutions and practices, and yes very much brings into question the use of our terms like “mentally ill” or “proletariat”, how accurate are such generalizations and do they sometimes create fictional characters/groups who we mistake for the real individuals involved?
    can we make useful/accurate generalizations in the social realm?
    are there really common ideologies/logics/ideas at work in our lives and how do we come to share them, even to be possessed/controlled by them?
    all good questions I think.

    • Ryan says

      dmf :
      how accurate are such generalizations and do they sometimes create fictional characters/groups who we mistake for the real individuals involved?

      Yes, that is precisely whereever generalizations can be replaced with more accurate reference to real groups rather than fictions, and not because generalization itself lacks the possibility for making accurate claims whatsoever. Foucault can only take issue with the colloquial use of these words where he finds that they might be better employed toward other novel generalizations. If there are no actual differences to manifest, then there is no problem of accuracy at hand.

      • dmf says

        well that leaves open the question of what makes for a “real” group, what/who is in or out etc. ,and how do we know that we are being accurate enough in terms of representing the most vital/relevant aspects of some person/thing/situation ?

    • dominic says

      thank you! you just said in one post what i’ve been trying to convey the whole time!

      now i feel i can let it rest, except to ask do you agree that there is still room for me to agree with the “big picture” of foucault?

  14. Matthew says

    As a Law and Society major in college, which meant I had to read quite a bit of Foucault’s work, I have always been interested in the correlation between the philosophy of Foucault and Marxist influenced materialism (and maybe in some sense Hegel’s philosophy of history). Particular when it comes to the workings and manifestations of power.

    While Foucault really puts emphasis on the discursive nature of power, this would seem to be in opposition to the materialist view which says that power is something much more…material. An example of this would be to say that I have power over people because I have a gun and I can make them do what I want. While someone else might say that the gun only has power because we live in a society where guns are allowed to exist. Or one could argue that they have power because they own a factory or a means of production. Where someone else could argue that they only own a factory because society allows them to.

    It seems to me that this kind of discussion opens up a Pandora’s Box about why certain social movements throughout history have failed or succeeded, including Marxism. I just finished reading some stuff on early Anarchist philosophy. I think it would be interesting to triangulate there ideas with Foucault as well.

  15. areg says

    I’m not a fan of the Deleuze+G hating toward the end of this discussion. Deleuze wasn’t a crackpot, his writing is a natural extension of Foucault, in fact Foucault said: ‘Perhaps one day this century will be known as Deleuzian.’

    You may want to grasp Deleuze in order to fill in the remaining blanks for Foucault – as you said, that lack at the end of D+P. It is not “stoner nonsense” – it may be the future of thought. It is a “microfascism” or a “microphysics of power” to laugh at Deleuze and write it off as “stoner humor” (though it initially does have that aspect on first glance – as a superficial aspect, which admittedly is what drew me in) – this is the idea. The writing off of the “troll” and the embarrassment of the cluster.

    Deleuze’s philosophy in and of itself manages to break through this kind of collective shame-thought of the serious, which is the very kind of disciplinary thinking which leads to the panopticon, or whatever.

    Haha. Deleuze is fun.

  16. Frank Callo says

    So excited about this episode.

    Right at the start you all struck on some thing that interested me about critiques of Foucault-the idea that he makes our relationship to power too “deterministic”. I remember reading an essay by Nancy Hartsock called: “Foucault and power-a theory for women?. She accuses Foucault of being another example of “the transcendent voice of the enlightenment”, sort of Newtonian in his view of power relations and therefore contrary to various reformist or revolutionary programs, specifically feminism.

    I thought then, as I do now, that his theory of power was in fact deterministic in the same way that a theory of weather might be. Meteorological phenomenon ARE, in fact, highly deterministic (although complex to the point of chaotic in the chaos theory sense). This, however, doesn’t imply that we must take a fatalistic view toward power relationships. If I know what the weather is, how it works and what might happen within the next few days or weeks, there is a lot I can do in terms of working within that system in order to create effects that I want. I don’t know, perhaps my view of this is too much colored by my work as a raiser of vegetables:). This is why I “thought better of” doing philosophy “professionally” and decided that I wanted to be a farmer instead.

    • dmf says

      frank, it might help to think of “power” more in terms of our capacities to exert force and, other forms of influence/action, than as some-thing akin to a force of nature like say gravity (tho obviously there are some relations in these matters), not unlike say how you have to do work to influence/manipulate the development of your vegetables (which have their own powers to use elements and such for their growth/reproduction). Nothing “transcendent” about it…

  17. Frank Callo says

    Agree. I in fact didn’t see any thing transcendent in Foucault’s work either. In fact, the sort of interactional notion of power that you suggest with me and my veggies seems to be what Foucault was getting at in later work.

  18. Ron says

    I can’t listen to your podcast when my kids are at home (most of the time during the summer) because of the frequency with which people say “fuck” in every episode I’ve listened to.

  19. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Are you aware that having strictures/scruples/rules, such as against the use of “fuck,” reveals a position which is critical, closed and suggestive of censorship, restriction, and anti-philosophical principles. I never thought of PartiallyExaminedLife as a community involving children. Thus, you are responsible for including your family in PartiallyExaminedLife.

    For a proper philosophical understanding of the use of words such as “fuck,” including six more, I suggest you listen to George Carlin’s message on this You Tube Video.


    Really, Ron, you obviously are an intelligent person with philosophical values and interests. I suggest you trust your values to be picked up naturally by your children, not by being isolated from the negatives of society, but by being inoculated through observing your own way of dealing with the negatives which arise. Sincerely, Wayne

  20. Kyle Thompson says

    While I very much appreciated this episode and learned some new things from it, I was very frustrated as a Marxist listening to this episode and hearing point after point that Foucault inherited from Marx mentioned without any mention of Marxism at all. Certainly Foucault himself was partially responsible for the false dichotomy between Marxism and Foucault-style inquiry, but I prefer to think that he did a lot to further the broader project that Marx laid out in the Grundrisse but never was able to accomplish in his lifetime, and that Marxists to some extent failed to take up (Hence the frustration of intellectuals like Foucault with the PCF and other Marxist groups).

    I would suggest reading chapters 10, 13, and 26-33 of Capital: Volume I, which should make the connection between Marx and Foucault quite obvious with their discussion of how the proletariat was disciplined into becoming “variable capital” and how the affect of workers is integral to the operation of capitalism.


    There are many other connections that could be drawn between the two thinkers’ work.

    I was also surprised that no one made the connection between Hegel’s concept of spirit, Marx’s concept of the social, and Foucault’s concept of power. They are all different inflections of the same process-based ontology hostile to the Kantian notion of the subject.

  21. James Padilioni says

    There are some interesting connections that you all came close to but missed in your discussion of slavery. At the period Foucault examines, the European powers are also engaging in the African slave trade in their colonies.

    The Enlightenment zeitgeist centered around discovering universal liberty and natural rights, but these all predicate upon self-government vs. public government. Thus, surveillance and the human sciences develop out of the Enlightenment, but not in cynical ways as merely tools of power, but generative ideas from the Enlightenment itself. The problem here becomes hyperrationalism and positivism.

    The argument in defense of black slavery hinged upon the lack of black propensity for self-government, and as a result questioning the nature of humanity as it existed within Africans and blacks vs. Europeans. Similar questions existed about the working class at the same time period at the emergence of the Modern Era and biopolitics deployed to control them in cities reflect similar trends (sexual reproduction, agriculture and meteorology becoming state regulated areas, public plumbing and city urbanization and zoning, etc.).

    You *can* enslave blacks during the Enlightenment and 19th century if blacks are not equal humans fit for self-governing liberalism. You can’t enslave the working class in a liberal capitalist order, so you need to surveil and discipline them instead. These are all related and Foucault’s thesis, while not dealing directly with slavery, helps explain it as well. The post-slavery focus on miscegenation in the United States is another reflection of biopolitical law and regulation in this age of industrialization.


  1. […] I’ve been chatting on and off with Scott at Philosophy Forums to try to synchronize one of our episodes with the Book of the Month over there, and despite my basically having given up on doing this as too hard to coordinate, I see that the book for February is Discipline and Punish, which we recently covered. […]

  2. […] Following on from my first post, this is the second part of ‘Things I’ve learnt from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish’, an examination of the interesting and little known ‘knowledge gems’ to be found in his challenging and insightful work on prisons and power. In addition to the book itself, I highly recommend listening to the ‘Partially Examined Life”s Podcast on Discipline and Punish,  which nicely draws out some of the more complex and confusing issues in easy to understand and accessible language. You can find the Podcast here. […]

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