Who is Foucault? Allow me…

Who is Foucault? Allow me…
November 21, 2012 Idea Guy

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.”  Most will recognize this scene from the widely acclaimed film, The Matrix.  Morpheus gives Neo the chance to step outside his reality by simply swallowing the red pill.  After a slight pause, Neo swallows the pill, to which Morpheus responds, Remember, all I’m offering you is the truth: nothing more.”  Some may be inclined to dismiss this Hollywood drama as simply a figment of the Wachowski brother’s imagination; however, the film and its themes are evocative of the world French philosopher Michel Foucault portrays in his groundbreaking book, Discipline and Punishment.  Instead of a pill, Foucault offers a revolutionary account that depicts the metamorphosis of punitive methods used in the West over the past few hundred years.  The book looks back in history to investigate the general process by which the “whole penal operation has taken on extra-juridical elements (D&P 22).  Unlike the Code of Hammurabi, there are influences outside the criminal justice system that affect and determine punishment.  A genealogical analysis can reify these forces from obscurity to fundamentally alter our understanding of reality.  Foucault reorients our cognition by infusing the language we would use for analysis with new meaning.  By re-defining, he is able to describe the past and the present in a way which was previously unthinkable and thus, he is able to sketch out a complex correlative history of power relations.

Starting with the gruesome torture of Damiens in 1757, he begins to build a framework that removes human agency and focuses on illuminating the processes around people to which they are subjected.  This is to say that people are mediums in history rather then actors or as Foucault puts it in a lecture, “individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application” (Power/Knowledge 98).  In the age of the monarchs, people were subjected to a very overt, brute, and centralized form of power from the King or his entities.  Punishment was like that of the torture of Daniens – public and usually consisting of some kind of physical infliction on the body.  In the modern age, with the rise of liberalism and democracy, punishment has moved underground and out of sight.  The body is not the target, excruciating pain is not the objective, and the location is certainly not public as on “the main door of the Church of Paris” (D&P 3).  The practice now invades what Foucault calls the soul of man and represents a more generalized form of manipulation over bodies.  This is much different then the traditional outlook described by most in our age.  Miranda Fricker helps explicate the dangers of our naivety and ignorance in her article “Rational Authority and Social Power.”  If knowledge “provides a means to gaining certain things one might need or want” then is some sense knowledge is an apparatus for power (167).   Using Discipline and Punishment, Lectures on Power & Knowledge, and Miranda Fricker I will show the dangers of this power, connecting ideas, concepts, and unraveling truth to make a theoretical structure intelligible.  The goal is to paint a map of power relations using Foucault as a lens to view the world in whole new dynamic.  For our purposes, we will gaze into the most recent financial collapse in the United States.  With our Foucauldian goggles, capitalism should appear starkly different, subsequently seen as suspiciously proliferating a particular and disguised power structure.  Michel Foucault’s works will be invaluable to this kind of analytical investigation and will provide the basis to understand the hidden contours of our world in a way where there is no looking back.

There are a lot of moving pieces to Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment.  The book is broken up into four parts that intricately endeavor to alter our perception of the world and ourselves.  Each part constructs a new layer on the theoretical edifice of our understanding.  Beginning in the age of monarchial supremacy, Foucault draws our attention to the political technology used in the penal system.  The vivid depiction of the public execution of Damiens introduces us to an economy of punishment used in the 18th century that most recognize as torture.  Torture stands at one end of the penal system in antithesis to the technologies used in our modern penal system.  Foucault gives a detailed account of the transformation from the Kings war on the physical body via torture to the soul and the “machinery of power” that controls it.  By following the historical progression, Foucault is able to imbed the chronicle by simply re-describing the past with a different word choice.  A few of these have already been mentioned, including ‘political economy of the body’, ‘technology of power’, and ‘bodies.’  These changes are tantamount because the language used directs our understanding toward a particular conception, which he delineates in Part III.  In part I and II, he changes our mechanisms for critical engagement, leaving behind the appropriate tools for assessment that lead us to a new conception of the past and present.  However, in these parts the big picture is not in view.  Foucault, rather, builds a foundation to the new conception by evaluating the changes in the penal methodology and ideology over time.  Only after this account, does the strategy make sense and the big picture become apparent.

In a span of only a few decades between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “punishment gradually ceased to be a spectacle” (D&P 9).  It moved away from the public execution rituals of monarchial supremacy and into the abstract consciousness “to become the most hidden part of the penal process.”  Torture saw a dramatic decline in the wake of the enlightenment and its liberal and democratic ideals.  A person’s conception of the human body changed dramatically as corporeal punishment became a sacrilege, protected by certain unalienable rights.  Punishments had less and less to do with inducing physical pain and more to do with “constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions” (11).  The body became a vehicle, an intermediary to reach something else.  Foucault calls this something the soul.  Deconstructed it essentially means a particular view of the mind representing our ontological being.  This is one of the first ways Foucault begins to change our conception by attuning us to a shift from the physical body to the modern soul.  These slight adjustments of language act as mechanisms to appropriately convey his claims.  Speaking of the soul and not the body puts our understanding and Foucault’s theoretical super structure in consonance.  But before we reach this culmination of thought, we must evaluate each of the mechanisms he employs to shape our understanding.

In the age of the monarch, punishment was limited by what could be physically done to the body.  These came in the forms of torture and public executions.  But by the 19th century, most of these techniques were a thing of the past.  As the attention moved away from the body, punishment seemed to address something else “which is not juridically codifiable: the knowledge of the criminal, one’s estimation of him, what is known about the relations between him, his past and his crime, and what might be expected of him in the future” (D&P, 18).  These kinds of knowledge about the criminal; his psyche, personality, and consciousness; construct the image of his soul.  The soul did not merely refer to an explanation for a crime, but it was “to be judged and share in the punishment” (18).  So a criminal on trial is judged not only for the action of infringement but also for the nature of his ontological core.  This is not some illusion Foucault asserts; “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” (29).

When the soul undergoes judgment, it is objectified for juridical apportioning of responsibility.  How else could the criminal’s ontological being be efficiently represented for judgment?  This is the essence of language in some sense.  By the very fact that language objectifies thought from the abstract consciousness, language objectifies all that can be cognized.  And since the content of language, as opposed to the ability, is learned; and since there seems to be a way in which the vocabulary behind ideas frames the dialogue in such a way to favor a particular outcome or view; then there appears to be forces that affect the cognition and also objectify the subjective soul in search for knowledge about the soul.  The key point here is there are casually ambiguous forces that essentially establish “a justifiable hold not only on offences, but on individuals; not only on what they do, but also on what they are, will be, may be” (18).  These forces don’t remain ambiguous for long.  Once we understand the non-corporal soul, “born out of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint,” we can begin to point our finger at power (29).  This is simply due in part to how the soul is architected.  The soul, for Foucault, is not a substance but rather, “it is an element in which are articulated effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of power” (29).  So the soul, “the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body” (30).

The modern penal system judges the soul based on knowledge architected by forces by and for the specific relations of the power structure.  Foucault calls this kind of construction the “political technology of the body” (26).  For the purposes of adjudication, the body gets treated as an object of knowledge to be broken apart for scrutiny and as an entity that gets worked on.  Foucault asserts “power produces knowledge; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (27).  So truth gets inscribed on the body, because the body is always being worked on, due to a certain kind of technology of body that produces choice in a particular economy of power.  The part always being worked on is the soul and since the soul is within the body, it imbues power over the body.  Foucault clarifies this in a lecture: “The individual is an effect of power, and at the same time, or precisely to the extent to which it is that effect, it is the element of its articulation” (P/K 98).  Persons have a physical presence as mere bodies among the masses, but their real core, their ontological soul is product of, a continuation of, and manifestation of the particular power structures in place.

The real danger to Foucault’s account is beginning to become clear.  Once we have this scheme of power, the kind of persons that we are takes a backseat to the structures around us that work to structure us.  Foucault calls these “methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility,” disciplines (D&P 137).  He goes into explicit detail of disciplines in Part III, but essentially discipline is a kind of power.  “It is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of applications, targets; it is a physics or an anatomy of power, a technology” (215).   The concept of discipline help us understand what Foucault calls the art of the body.  This art is “a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviors” (138).  Torture was a kind of art of the body.  Now, the body is no longer subjected to corporal afflictions but rather the forces of discipline and control.  This makes discipline a kind of art on the body that is constantly affecting and continually running like a machine.  It is a technology of power that assigns rank and then “coerces by means of observation” (170).  It organizes people by fixing them in a certain time and space to achieve “maximum speed and efficiency” in society and in the individuals themselves.  Disciplines coerce us in a particular direction, toward a particular ideology and ontology.  It’s like a predisposition that becomes are fate.  The art of punishing created a structural system for people to be classified through objective scrutiny and be place into a particular time and space relation.  Ironically, this was an outcome of “the Enlightenment” (222).  The same ideas that allowed for progress and democracy were responsible for placing individuals in a particular place.  That place is the standard or norm for which inevitably all people aim.  And with the presence of a norm, persons’ deviance from it can be assessed.  Once it can be assessed it can be taught; “the normal is established as a principle of coercion in teaching” (184).  Disciplines normalize us by introducing a particular set of values and not others.  These values permeate through our souls to our bodies which act as mediums to carry on the particular morality.  This is then maintained through visibility, a facet of the panopticon, and the “learning machine” (147).

The panopticon is the theoretical structure of a prison envisioned by Jeremy Bentham that ensures all people are observable constantly without knowing when.  Foucault uses the panopticon as a metaphor to modern society and as an example for how decentralized power can affect people through observation.   “In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen.  Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised of them. It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection” (187). In this sense, disciplines reproduce particular power structures, power produces disciplines, and thus, “power produces reality” (194).

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of Foucault’s narrative is the relationship between truth and power because “we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” (P/K 93).  To help us better explicate the importance of truth, we turn to “Rational Authority and Social power” by Miranda Fricker.  In this article, Fricker is basically concerned with who can be a knower and depending on that, where they will be placed in the social scheme.  “The argument is that a norm of credibility governs epistemic practice in the state of nature, which, when socially manifested, is likely to imitate the structures of social power” (Fricker 159).  She builds the idea that there is something known as a good informant when it comes to knowledge.  This concept develops from the idea that society is in a cooperative venture to possess true beliefs.  It is for this reason that “knowledge is a collective good. In securing our knowledge we rely upon others, and we cannot dispense with that reliance” (159).  Social contract theory relies on this idea that in the state of nature we are first individuals and then we come together to better suit our well-being.  But it does not anticipate the corruption of knowledge that Fricker explains.   If knowledge is in essence produced from a community then that leaves “plenty of room for parasitic practices of misinformation, imposture, and epistemic dysfunctionality” (168).  This goes back to what she calls rational authority, which is when a person “is both competent and trustworthy,” and credible (166).  A person has credibility when they have the appropriate indicator-properties.  These “are prototypically detectable by the inquirer, and indicate that the potential informant is likely to be right” (163).  By defining a good informant she is attempting to show that there is a certain bias in truth.  This is the norm of credibility that “governs who is picked out as a good informant” (168).  The norm relies completely on the working indicator-properties that people actually value and not the ideal conceptions using competence and trustworthiness.  Given that these properties in someway are socially manifested, then “there is likely to be some social pressure in the direction of the norm of credibility’s favoring the powerful in its control over who is picked out as credible, and thus in who is picked out as a good informant” (170).  This is the key aspect of Fricker.  There is a way in which the particular power structure in place will determine who decides and what truth is.  Foucault describes this as “a regime of truth” (P/K 133).  Unlike Fricker though, there is no agency.  “Truth is merely a thing of this world,” produced and facilitated by a force of discipline given from “the formation and development of capitalism (131).  This is what Foucault has meant by the power structures all along and will be invaluable as we move on to consider the current economic recession.

With Foucault and Fricker fresh on our mind, I will now give a comprehensive overview of the financial collapse and recession that started in 2002.  I will leave the analysis for after.  Starting around the late 1980s, Wall Street, generally speaking to refer to those in the financial industry, began innovating on the bond.  A bond is a promise to make interest payments on borrowed money or simply a loan with interest, usually from a government or corporation.  Out of the 1980s came the mortgage bond, which became a financial product bought and sold by Wall Street investment banks.  The mortgage bond aggregates thousands of home mortgages purchased from banks and lenders into one product.  The mortgage bond is structured slightly different in that it was stacked into layers called tranches.  This is a system where the lowest layer represents the first mortgages to be paid off while the highest layer represents the last mortgages to be paid off.  The deal would work out such that investors seeking higher returns on their investment could invest in the higher tranches while those wishing to avoid risk (less returns) could invest in the lower ones.  Traditionally, this would have been fine, but in 1999 the Graham Act removed the clear distinction between a bank and an investment firm.  This became a problem because of how banks operate.  Banks are given a legal status to exist by the state.  The traditional relationship between the bank and the state is that the bank buys treasury bonds with consumer deposits.  Banks help the state with its debt, thus they get license to loan out deposited money keeping only a small fraction on reserve.  The loaned money then goes to businesses, which then deposit it right back into the bank.  This is a form of money creation that allows banks to increase profits.  In the late 1990’s, Wall Street began to make mortgage bundles that included subprime and alternative +.  Subprime and alternative + are mortgages with much higher risk, meaning the person holding the loan is more likely to not be able to make payments.  Not only were subprime consumers included, they were actually encouraged by lenders to take on mortgages they couldn’t afford, offered such products as Adjustable Rate Mortgages that started with low interests rates that jumped to much higher and often unaffordable levels.  From the banks perspective, they didn’t care about the repayment of the mortgage because it wasn’t on the bank’s books.  They would sell it as a MBS.

In the early 2000s, banks created another kind of financial product called the Collateralized Debt Obligation.  These were packages of the bottom tranches of hundreds of different mortgage bonds.  These inherently carry a much greater risk because they are a bundle of the mortgages most likely to default.  Yet the rating agencies gave CDOs a AAA rating.  This is the same rating as a US Treasury Bond, which is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government.  This allowed investment firms to sell CDOs to private and public pension funds despite the high risk (legally allowed to only purchase AAA).  This is only the beginning of the lunacy.  Banks and investments banks (now they same thing) found a way to leverage more money out of the money creation process.  They created entities called structured investment vehicles.  Banks would loan money or sell their debt to these entities which were more often then not owned by themselves and operating out of US jurisdiction.  The SIVs would then go to money markets and invest in MBSs and CDOs.  The money market cycle would run through and the SIVs or banks would profit, collecting all the interest.  However this kind of revenue depends on the appreciating equity that the mortgages are based on.  Meaning, if the value of the mortgages depreciated in this process, there would be huge losses for the investor.

The problem gets even worse when a few individuals foresee the coming collapse.  The Big Short tells the story in 2003 of Mike Burry who recognized that the high demand of mortgages, which drove the lending process, created an unsustainable real estate bubble.  Mike and few others that had a similar realization purchased insurance against the mortgage bonds defaulting.  This created the Credit Default Swap – an insurance policy against something that you don’t own.  These few paid large premiums to insure some of the riskiest financial products from the world’s largest insurer, AIG.  A couple years later and the banks too began selling CDSs and then packaging them into new CDOs.  But then, around 2008, real estate prices began to drop.  Americans who had mortgages worth more then the equity of their house or just couldn’t afford it began to default.  The profits that SIVs were able to get by purchasing CDOs from the money markets ceased and resulted in huge lose.  Banks loaned money to cover the losses, which left banks bankrupt.  Mortgages everywhere continued to default, essentially stopping the stream of revenue that the entire financial industry relied on.  People around the world lost their jobs, their savings, and their retirements.  With AIG about to go under and many of world’s largest financial firms facing insolvency, the US government stepped in.  It paid off their debts, assumed their liabilities, and added a huge amount of debt on the American people.

This is just supposed to be a general overview of the economic collapse so that we can answer two important questions: who caused it and who is suffering from it?  The answers are obvious.  Those on Wall Street were bailed out while the rest of the American people continue to be in the largest and longest stretch of unemployment.  The government clearly allowed this kind of financial gambling to occur since this kind of market is only possible because of legal permission.  Now consider that recent US census data and OECD statistics that estimate roughly 17% of the American population falls below the poverty line and it’s increasing with each year (OECD 2008).  The distribution of wealth presents a picture in which the top ten percent own about seventy percent of wealth while the bottom fifty percent has two and a half percent (OECD 2008).  Since the 1980s, the inequality of income has been enlarging almost three-fold; “urban poverty has increased by 27.3%” (Fox 362).  It would appear that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer.

The chronicle of the financial collapse affirms value to Foucault’s argument.  Understanding the way in which the power structures affect us is essential to an accurate description of the economic failure.  Foucault points to the system of Capitalism as the particular power structure to which we are subjected.  Following the logical progression, this means that we are all merely bodies to serve in the for-profit ideology.  Our whole way of being is fundamentally tethered to the constructs and ideals of Capitalism.  Modern society is a direct affirmation of this claim and the financial collapse just proves the point.  As Foucault asserts, “the economic system that promotes the accumulation of capital and the system of power that ordains the accumulation of men are, correlated and inseparable” (P/K 125).  Capitalism has instilled one value in most of us, and that is money.  Money is what we all aspire for, money is what makes our way of life better (at least, easier and more comfortable), and money is what provoked those on Wall Street to risk the stability of the entire worlds economy for more profit.  A Foucauldian analysis of the collapse helps us see that it’s not about morality or about the specific person.  It’s easy to say that those on Wall Street are morally corrupt in light of what they did, but a better description would point to the way “it’s the person occupying a specific position – but whose specificity is linked, in a society like ours, to the general functioning of an apparatus of truth” (P/K 132).  In almost an invisible way, our economic ideology permeated through everything else and became a new hierarchy of power.  It became like Fricker’s norm of credibility, “like the gravitation of bodies, a secret force compels us ever towards our well-being” (D&P 104).  In capitalist society, lots of money secures at least a good living.  It is the technology of power that creates the powerful and proliferates the greed.  This stands in stark opposition to a democracy committed to equality such as ours.  With economic inequalities getting more substantial, the power structure is creating a society where more and more people are become worse off and voiceless in the political arena.  This becomes a cycle with both power and money: money leads to more money; power leads to more power Foucault’s account is invaluable in helping us to see this, but it is not infallible and certainly not final.  There are many subtleties that don’t quite map on to reality, but this does not take away from its worth.  Its real worth is in its ability to attune readers to a concept that has disguised itself.  Capitalism has hidden behind the pretenses of democracy and freedom, asserting that for-profit is better for everyone.  But Foucault helps us see that really the economic system seems to be a manifestation of power at all levels.  It puts us in a hierarchy based on socio-economic status and works to keeps us there.  That is not to say we can’t push back against the forces, because we certainly can.  Foucault leaves out human agency, but I do not believe it was with the intention to claim that people are stuck and there is no way out.  The truth is our way out.  We can push back as individuals by not prescribing to the truth production given by the power structure, essentially “constituting a new politics of truth” (P/K 133).  Using Fricker, it would seem that this is a matter of changing the norm of credibility or in colloquial, taking the red pill.


Works Cited –

Discipline & Punishment, Michel Foucault

Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault

Fox, Richard and Jennifer Lawless. “Political Participation of the Urban Poor.” Social Problems, Vol. 48 No. 3, August 2001. University of California Press. Pp. 362-385

Information on economic collapse is from my lecture notes for PLCP 3120, “The Political Economy of a Welfare State” with Herman Schwartz

OECD.  http://www.oecd.org/



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