Nature, Nature, Everywhere.

I’ve not read Foucault in a couple of years, and that was limited to excerpts from The Order of Discourse. (Don’t quiz me on it, please.) I mostly remember being confused, although that may have been because I was also reeling from having my head dipped in Derrida at the same time. At any rate, I was excited and a bit intimidated to pick up Discipline and Punish. Thankfully, I seem to be a better reader of philosophy than when I was a Master’s student, as it wasn’t as textually difficult as I’d feared. That, and I like gore. This is something I probably should already have read (but then, that list is far too long already), as I’m jumping at the bit to pound my regular theorizing about naturalness and with a Foucaultian hammer of discipline. (But no physical violence in the Panopticon, of course.)

I’m not sure I’ve really considered the implications of discipline this way before, though as . Thinking about what I do in terms of disciplines (and sometimes lack of disciplines), or the very fact that we call these groups of study themselves “Disciplines” brings on a good bout of self-recrimination–as watcher and as watched. My syllabi? At my university we use standardized university templates, in school colors and everything. I just had my annual evaluation last week with my dean. I almost religiously keep office hours, not because it’s my favorite environment to work in, but because it’s a private space and it’s where I’m “supposed to be.” Though perhaps not as extreme as many of the examples Foucault gives, my daily teaching life is fully filled with examination, analysis, investigation, and observation. Even in FYC writing workshops, I’m the personified wandering norming gaze, searching for behaviors to correct. But oh, never punish: “No, you’re not a bad writer, you just need more practice.”

Beyond educational systems, though, if you really want a study in the panoptic discipline, read some John Wesley. To be a Methodist is to be fully disciplined. The Wesleyan system, with bands and classes and groups and spiritual disciplines, has as its goal the perfect, docile, spiritual body. Important to Methodist theology (as opposed to Baptists, for example) is the fact that perfection, or “holiness,” is a real, attainable state (Foucault’s “rank”). And I’m a proud Methodist, so framing my own daily practice within Foucault’s disciplinary framework is making me a little squirmy…

At any rate, I’d like to go back to naturalness:

“in order to make rights and laws function according to pure theory, the jurists place themselves in imagination in the state of nature.” (199)

There are a lot of insights in this text, but this one stuck out to me. They imagine themselves operating out of a state of nature. When power-systems (not exactly power-holders, as Foucault describes) define the disciplinary norm as “natural,” they make a powerful rhetorical pronouncement for the essentialism of that system. The disciplined, docile body is natural, so it is ‘true’ and ‘perfect.’ (Or vice versa, it is true and perfect, so it is natural–I’m not sure who’s the chicken and who’s the egg in this little circle.) Either way, this definition of natural is what F argues, a “great instrument of power.”
It’s interesting (and theoretically helpful for my own work) that this power is strongest when invisible; the surveillance-wrought penality of discipline, when it works perfectly, is invisible as such. This makes sense; the strongest holds on an individual are those he or she cannot see. This is all over the Marxist critique of invisible ideologies. This buttresses my own theorizing as well, about writing technologies. When writing technologies become ubiquitous, they become invisible as technologies. When they become invisible, users chalk them up as ‘natural’ (or having some essential level of naturalness that makes them better than other technologies). This is no big deal, that is, until WE become the abnormal, until the institution that has traditionally wielded the power to delineate natural/unnatural comes up against an undermining social change (perhaps one with its own disciplinary markers of normal and natural).
When two different disciplines (or technological cultures) collide, what happens? When there are two competing definitions of natural, how does one overcome another? How can one incorporate another? Or assimilate or substantiate or commodify or _________ another?


One thought on “Nature, Nature, Everywhere.

  1. I hadn’t really understood Foucault much until I had to summarize his theories for my dissertation. But, Discipline and Punish is one of my favorite of his books. (For the gore, too.) But, it doesn’t illustrate how much of our lives are an evaluation. Even when I’m sure that I would receive a favorable evaluation–like at work–I’m constantly thinking, “Am I going to get fired? Would I get into trouble for this?”

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