Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Disciplines

One of the most profound ideas in Foucault's Discipline and Punish, which I am at this time teaching in all of my three classes, is built on wordplay. It is play of the best sort, like poetry, aimed to communicate extremely complex ideas with a few multi-purpose words, rich in meaning, a sort of verbal compost. These are the words "discipline[s]" and "intelligence."
We have all heard the old saws about knowledge and power. These are the ones that the students want to fall back on, comfortable and comforting. However, Foucault turns these ideas on their head.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault examines what he calls "the history of the present," the system of justice, punishment, and how it connects to just about everything we hold sacred in the west--the much vaunted Enlightenment values and rights, the "humane" system of judgment we have developed, and which has replaced the "spectacle of punishment" and torture prevalent in the ancient world.
When Foucault connects knowledge and power, he does not mean what we usually mean by that connection. As a teacher, I have always been heavy into the notion of knowledge as empowerment, but I have never thought about the origin of this system I am part of.
As Foucault points out, the democratic system of government as well as the academic system of disciplines arise alike out of the techniques of the Inquisition, minus the physical torture. The word discipline applies not only academic topics of inquiry, but also to the panoptic methods of control our governments have developed, which permeate our societies and which grew in tandem with and because of what Foucault calls "the sciences of man," the social sciences that make human beings their subject. This is why Foucault pluralizes the word, "the disciplines," those twins, knowledge and power.
As for "intelligence," there are other old saws, jokes really, about military intelligence and cognitive intelligence being mutually exclusive. But they aren't. They're connected too.
It is no accident that the Soviets used the old ruse of psychiatric hospitals to eliminate subversives and dissidents. Psychiatrists are provide the basis of the current system of punishment and discipline we now have.
This is a difficult connection, and we naturally resist it, so no wonder the students are not getting this concept.

1 comment:

marlyat2 said...

Is this also one where you read something fictional to illustrate? If so, what?