Concepts in Focus: Docile Bodies

Michel Foucault’s genealogical work is both that of history and political philosophy, for this reason it is often difficult to condense the vast array of material analysis present in his work into a simple conceptual argument. What I will try to do here is to expound on one particular concept in his work Discipline and Punish that I believe is crucial to understanding his broader political framework, the “docile body”. Through this, one can better understand Foucault’s project and contributions.

What makes a good soldier, a good student, a good doctor, a good postal worker, a good long shoreman, a good teacher? Strength? A propensity towards obedience?  Is it something inherent in the individual that propels them to a state of productivity?

Foucault opens his chapter on docility with an extensive description of the ideal combatant in the seventeenth century. The soldier was someone who could be “… recognized from a far.” The soldier of that era bore certain physical attributes that signified their unique status as a violent tool of the state. The soldier displayed not only the sign of their own physical capacity, but the capacity of the state whose banner he fought beneath.

According to Foucault, this changed in the eighteenth century. No longer were a strong physical constitution and a propensity for obedience prerequisites for a soldier employed by the state, these were now traits that could be fostered and firmly developed in each singular human being. Bodies that are productive, and can be propelled toward a collective goal, can be produced, Foucault writes:

By the late eighteenth century, the soldier has become something that can be made; out of formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required can be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it […] in short, one has ‘got rid of the peasant’ and given him ‘the air of the soldier’.

Discipline and Punish, 135

In Foucault’s historical analysis, the classical era was one defined by the discovery of bodies as the quintessential target of technologies of power. The erecting of constraints on bodies entered the human being into a machine of “… power that explores it, breaks it down, and rearranges it.” The better a state could regulate the bodies within its population, the more productive it could be. The inertia of physical routines eventually becomes self-maintaining. Disciplinary institutions, healthcare facilities, and schools all play a role in this production of power. The military uniquely relies on this power over flesh. It must control and subsequently correct the most minute elements of the body, such as slight imperfections in posture or gait.

Regimen and routines are the cornerstone of conventional training techniques, military or otherwise. These physical actions are intended to become imprinted on the brain and body. At the advent of the Napoleonic era, militaries were formulating methodologies targeted at a complex coercion of the mind and body. No longer were bodies of mass necessarily needed. Instead, systems of organizations were needed – battalions, regiments, and divisions. Technology plays a crucial role in the birth of disciplinary procedures. As both Marx and Sartre contend in their work, the introduction of a new violent technology—the rifle—mandated a new formula for dominance. Ranks of soldiers needed to be fluid, flexible. And thus, new forms of training were born. The body needed to be treated mechanically, reduced to muscles. Training a soldier in the modern era is a process that rivals that of the disciplinary aspirations present in Plato’s Republic. This methodology needed to be meticulous. It needed to produce an individual who could respond to particular stimuli immediately and do so with intense precision – firing a rifle or marching with the proper posture is no small matter to an army.

Docility sits at the center of Foucault’s analysis of power and governance. The creation and maintenance of docility is what ensures that utility is consistently extracted from a populace.

Every act to partition space, or to place or move bodies is intended to maximize output. If this is sounding like “workplace synergy”, that is because it is! But it exists far beyond the beige walls of the cubicle. In order for this maximization to occur, Foucault argues, governments needed to ensure that this promotion of docility occurred far earlier than the conscription of a new rifleman.

For the sake of explanation, let us stick with the soldier. This creation of a “docile body” is not a simple process of domination or the result of an instantaneous or direct execution of overt physical power. Long before the soldier ever enters a barracks, they have been introduced and are accustomed to these technologies of discipline. They exist everywhere, the school, the hospital, sports field, even in the home. These carefully organized schemas proliferated throughout the 17th & 18th century, all under a comparable operational goal, the maximization of efficiency.

It is not simply that space is partitioned and that bodies are compelled to move within those spaces, it is that an individual efficiently compels themselves to operate within these spaces. The structure, organization, and compartmentalization of these spaces are crucial in the disciplinary society.

Beginning first with structure, it is essential to Foucault that we analyze the physical arrangements within which we socialize. This alone provides an insight into the underlying social nature of the machines that promote docility. There is a remarkable inertia that comes with consistently waking up at the same hour, driving the same car to the same location, sitting at the same desk, repeating the same tasks, having same conversations with the same people, and always in similar spaces. These spaces must serve a myriad of roles; however, they primarily serve one the promotion of obedience among individuals. The final function of disciplinary technologies is to link the individual to the multiple, and this goal can only be efficiently achieved through the creation of docile bodies.

The next elements that must be analyzed are the management of time and use of repetition. Each body must be able to work individually, but cohesively towards a collective goal. This is where the repetition of action increases productivity and efficiency. The repetition of movements or tasks under the gaze of the instructor, or the stringent eye of the drill sergeant, or the view of a manager are all work towards the engenderment of docility within a subject.

These repetitions can create specific self-imposed identities. When I say “I am a student” it may seem like a minor statement of fact, but it is laden with assertions about a network of relationships I have, where I go, and what I do. In fact, Foucault argues that all docile bodies are situated somewhere within a hierarchy. That it is those relations, either of dominance or subservience, that define one’s social existence.

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