The Individual and Society Essay


The Individual and Society Essay

Power and knowledge, according to Foucault, are co-constitutive. Through knowledge, which it utilizes and reproduces, power recreates its own techniques and fields of action, including forms of discourse and pleasure. Power is relational to its historic time as an exercise that is in continuous transformation, as is knowledge, which can therefore never be neutral. The implementation of the prison system that occurred across the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries marked a transition in the fields of power. Incarceration replaced public executions, torturing and other `spectacles,' adopting instead correctional discipline and the deprivation of liberty. This exemplified the disappearance of one type of social order, based upon “the representative, scenic, signifying, public, collective model,” and the emergence of another, “the coercive, corporal, solitary, secret model of the power to punish.” The discipline and surveillance key aspects of the prison pervaded to a range of other social organizations and institutions. Contrary to the traditional practices where the body was marked, or publicly branded in some way, Foucault claims the new discipline dissociated power away from the body, shifting it towards the “internalization” of power. Individuals who comply with this new technology of power invisibly exercise disciplinary power. Compliance, therefore, is an essential part of the new technology. Yet the counterpart of this power's invisibility is surveillance, the sustaining mechanism. Compliance reaches full maturity when individuals watch themselves, acquiescing, or internalizing, self-surveillance.

Being subject to constant observation manifests itself externally by the regularity of conduct by “docile bodies.” However, discipline and surveillance inevitably require physical layouts and specified enclosures of space. The partitioning of space according to criteria of identification or activity, lead to “fixing” and defining individuals within discourses of knowledge that construct a personal identity. This is why for Foucault offices, families, hospitals and schools, and the human sciences with their increased dependence upon inquiry, measurement, and classification, all resemble prisons. Giddens adds that the reorganization and expansion of these technologies of power is closely bound up with the perceived needs of state authorities to construct new modes of controlling miscreants in large urban spaces, where the sanctioning procedures of the local community could no longer apply. This is undoubtedly true but perhaps it is more important to focus on Foucault's point that the true disciplinary force lies not in the development of new modes of control, but in the uniform extension of small, minute Panopticons throughout all levels of human life.

Systems of knowledge and surveillance are doubly imposed upon the individual. First as a participant of a social community that maintains continuous watch over its members. This applies to families, schools, clubs, hospitals, the work place, ethnic and religious groups, village, city or suburbia neighborhoods, and to the nation-state itself. Secondly as the individual acts through these spaces he internalizes the system of knowledge and power therein produced. He must therefore build himself as the subjector and the object to be disciplined. Marx's famous phrase is perhaps very applicable here: humans “make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing.”

It is this paper's objective to describe some individual responses to the discourses of truth that operate through power and that allow power to operate by its association with these discourses. Two cases will be examined, one on the micro level and one on the macro. The first involves the notion of two selves as it applies to the individual: an inner, core self, and an outer, relational body. The macro level analysis will focus on the formation of communal identities and the individual as both distinct and part of a social body, that is itself a space for continuous interpretation and reinterpretation. Both the micro and macro examples will show power, not in a central unitary approach, but as it constitutes the field, playing out in the periphery as it is performed in its real, continuous practices, creating space and knowledge, and instilling itself upon and subjecting a multiplicity of bodies.

Does the panoptical eye have much to do with the positioning of the visual gaze? Every individual experiences his world and life to be something that is unfolding around him, independent of him, yet which he can witness from a privileged central point. This center makes him feel like the main protagonist/character, increasing the sense of self - importance in two ways. The first is in the strength of his actions, and the extent/degree to which they can have an effect upon his surroundings. The second is the sense that one is extremely vulnerable/sensitive to actions/attacks from the world in which he is in, but in a subject - object relationship. Therefore his observations of externalities reflect only upon himself, and he is the target or victim of any events. Nothing is external to the individual, for everything takes place in front of him, the individual looking out through eyes that are not identified with the external body finds itself at a certain distance from everything he sees out on to. This places him on a slightly superior plane but also on a more vulnerable one.

The disassociated individualism that Foucault argues has arisen since the nineteenth century, maintains in place certain self-surveilling systems of power that created the disassociation in the first place. The individual nourishes himself apart from society, and the inner self, one could call it the true individual, nourishes itself apart from the outer body. This “apartness” produces a sense of power in the inner self, such that the governing knowledge/power structure is not questioned and functions smoothly without having to use openly repressive means. This is an example of the “productive” side of power. The result is an egocentric view of the world, literally as the individual places an “inner self” as the focal point from which information is received and values made. This central positioning also allows him to take in the entire field surrounding him, the environment, for consciousness rationally grasps what it sees or knows to be around. To escape the field requires high detachment and withdrawal, creating the need for a private space, the boundaries of which cannot be touched by the field, and in which the body can be relaxed.

The body is the surface upon which power encroaches. Foucault's concept of the individual is as follows:

“Man is a mode of being which accommodates that dimension - always open, never finally delimited, yet constantly traversed - which extends from a part of himself not reflected in a cogito to the act of thought by which he apprehends that part; and which, in the inverse direction, extends from the pure apprehension to the empirical clutter, the accumulation of contents, the width of experiences constantly eluding themselves, the whole silent horizon of what is posited in the sandy stretches of non-thought. Because he is an empirico-transcendental doublet, man is also the locus of misunderstanding”

Whether or not the widespread notion that the individual self consists of an inner self that is the true or “real me” and an external self with which we interact with other people and project an impression onto them, is true or false is not the purpose of this paper. However, the consequences of such dissociation might act as “a language of mystification, obscuring the actual processes of social domination and helping to produce the subjects of those processes.” Therefore, according to Foucault this belief should be rejected because alongside the disciplinary regime, through which it is sustained and in turn helps to uphold, the technology of power is constituted. Power's subjection of the external body, seen in continuous self-policing to not deviate from what socially constitutes `normality,' ultimately pierces the inner space that is vigilantly guarded and hidden. There are two effects of this. On one hand more knowledge discourses are created that seek to span the entirety of human experience, digging deeper into the core self's realm. A clear example of this is observed in psychiatry and therapies that inquire into the thoughts and perceptions that “are not spoken,” in an attempt to document and report this space for better social understanding, thus increasing its visibility and subjection to surveillance.

On the other hand, and in response to the above, the inner self increasingly withdraws to protect its sanctity. The creation of a physical space that struggles to remain private becomes an illusion that is harder to maintain. As its borders are pierced by an infinity of organizations and social knowledges, the norms that are learnt and internalized become more and more enforced upon the core. By definition what is hidden is not clearly known and what follows is a myriad of struggles between the external and internal bodies. It would be interesting to study the numerous pathologies classified as ailments of “modernity and postmodernity” under this light. Most of these involve an actual spatial withdrawal from communal activities: depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, intense fear of losing control, alienation, secret binge eating, secret purging, refusing to eat in public, hidden sexuality, drug use, social apathy and adolescent “spacing out,” could perhaps be a few examples.

What is completely foreign from the concept of “us” is not granted the premise of having an inner self, or is viewed as possessing a degenerate or base one. Take for example animals, extremists and fundamentalists, delinquents and addicts, or the initial responses of colonizers to natives across the world. The axiom “knowledge will make you free” formulated as the search for truth about man, is according to Foucault, necessarily unobtainable. An individual cannot both empirically and transcendentally grasp the depths of the humanity residing in himself. What Foucault calls “unthought,” or the Other, is that aspect of being that the concept of man attempts to harness by either assimilating the Other into the Same, which relies upon a forced integration of differences, or by excluding the Other as a type of error or deprivation.

Nancy Fraser's comments about Foucault's treatment of sex can be applied to the discussed duality of selves: the inner self then, “ is the name a particular historical power regime gives to an illusory object that it posits as existing outside all power regimes and as subject to repression and distortion by them. [The inner self], therefore, is an illusory object through which the current regime channels protest so as to integrate and feed that protest into the mechanisms of its own functioning. Protests in [its] name merely continue to articulate the organization of [selfhood] proper to the regime.” Contingently, bodies, the external selves, are historically “invested,” and visible examples of the ways in which power/knowledge regimes institute the body as an object within their particular practices. For example Foucault names the tortured/spectacle body of the centuries prior to the Enlightenment, and the useful “docile bodies” of the present.

The model herein discussed has important consequences for spatial analysis. Dominant social theory treats the spaces defined as “political,” “economic” and “domestic/private” as being distinctly separate from each other, as if they operated solely within delimited boundaries. The inner and external self are supposed to hold dominance in one or the other. Furthermore, the individual is supposed to possess maximum power in one, namely the domestic sphere, vis-à-vis society. However, if these labels are treated as cultural classifications and practices of the dominant power/knowledge regime, instead of as a designation of structures or separate spheres, the fusing of all three reveals an infinitely vast field of space. Thus, what is considered as outside the political power system is actually founded and regulated from within.

Foucault seems to believe in a freedom that upholds the difference of every self, a positive difference in contrast to synthesized differences. Furthermore these differences should not be situated and gazed at through the lenses of dominant social relations and values, which would result in the ordering of others so that the existing order prevails. All reformists are subject to a critique by Foucault once they are named and applied in science and political affairs, when they become part of the power structure. Yet this does not lead to nihilism nor is it an argument for anarchy. It is a call to recognize that truth is not outside of power, nor lacking in power, it is a thing of our world: “truth isn't the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves.”

Foucault's deep commitment to freedom and truth are not only ideals, but also values that are repeatedly called into question, whose meaning is constantly subject to interpretation and reinterpretation, through which we uncover competing values and determine our allies and enemies. He uses the analogy of war to describe this, inverting Clausewitz's dictum to “politics is war by other means.” The role of political power, in this hypothesis, is to perpetually reinscribe relations of power that were determined in a specific historic moment, “in war and by war… through a form of unspoken warfare; to re-inscribe it in social institutions, in economic inequalities, in language, in the bodies themselves of each and everyone of us.” This implies that the entire development of political movements and values, the creation of physical spaces, of words and language, and of normative claims are in Foucault's words: “episodes, factions and displacements in that same war.”

Nancy Fraser points out that for Foucault, “the subject is merely a derivative product of a certain contingent, historically specific set of linguistically infused social practices that inscribe power relations upon bodies.” The rights and needs that bodies claim for themselves are in this case manifestations of the current “disciplinary power/knowledge regimes.” Likewise, their counterparts are true: “body disorders” and failures; abnormalities, or shortcomings of the body in comparison to the desired “normal;” and claims to “universal rights” that are not an objective reality, because they are not granted and enforced for all, are embodiments of forms of opposition or failed internalization of the dominant power/knowledge regimes.

The incongruence between social and cultural movements that demand rights, which are based upon Enlightenment and humanist ideals, and state and other class apparatuses whose power is based upon other forms of domination, is the driving force that has extended the Enlightenment power and repression throughout the world. Globalization has accelerated the conflicts that arise from the disjuncture between societies that have internalized this knowledge and states which function on more traditional forms of power. However, the discourse produced in these conflicts mold the values and norms that form “another knowledge, another power,” that are equally totalizing and normalizing. In this way power and knowledge are flexible and adaptable, capable of shaping all spaces and bodies. The individual is not repressed by the systems of knowledge and power, but “fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.” Through minute panopticisms that act out every day at the foundation of society, power and knowledge techniques extend and reinforce themselves, “such that any mechanism of objectification could be used in (the disciplines) as an instrument of subjection, and any growth of power could give rise in them to possible branches of knowledge.” The regeneration of power is that “in its exercise [it] goes much further, passes through much finer channels, and is much more ambiguous, since each individual has at his disposal a certain power, and for that very reason can also act as the vehicle for transmitting a wider power.”

It is therefore, impossible to speak of universal rights, or the lack thereof, before the historical age of the Enlightenment, and likewise, of neurosis before Freud, and dirty or unsanitary modes of life before the labeling and identifying of health standards and cleanliness. This is not however an argument for relativism, instead a call to not regard social revolts and individual disorders, such as eating disorders, as universal; rather as consequences of their corresponding power/knowledge regimes, without detaching them from current political and economical dialectics. Foucault's unmasking of the invisibility of power and the disguised “subjugated knowledges” is really a concern with the “historical knowledge of struggles.”

One needs to ask how the individual is involved in power relations and what conception of individuality is at stake in such power relations. If the nature of politics uncovers disagreement over beliefs and values, such as truth, freedom and individuality, these values cannot be seen as absolute, as transcending these conflicts. Less so because this would stem from constructed pre - given moral principles. Individuality, freedom and truth are to be found within the conflict itself, for they are not fixed but shift according to the form and circumstances of the conflict and the side of the conflict a person is on. Furthermore, in this way freedom and truth by being part of power and politics are not a possession but a form of exercise. Differences that emerge out of conflict serve to avoid the proclamation of one form of individuality, one that should be imposed upon others in normalization techniques, such as surveilling egalitarianism.

A widespread view of freedom limits it solely to negative freedom, to the belief that there is a private space in which the interference and gaze, or surveillance of the State apparatus and other individuals cannot act. “Freedom from” having someone else telling a person what to do is unnecessary if power is internalized within himself, such that “he becomes the principle of his own subjection.” The understanding of freedom as a separate space from power is inaccurate, for freedom too is a form of knowledge, and as such an ordering mechanism. It is a clever one, since freedom becomes realized only when one has complete power over everything around oneself, as a form of universal monarch or god, or when the individual does not desire power, views freedom as lying outside of power. If the latter view is true then there is no practical, earthly way for freedom to be realized, and if earthly power must be confronted in order to exercise freedom, then the premise that freedom is a private space free from intervention from and with others, not concerned with holding power is broken. This incongruence thus reflects that freedom consists only in personally taking over Bentham's panoptical tower. This, however, poses no threat to the architecture and mechanisms of the surveilling structure. “The Panopticon may even provide an apparatus for supervising its own mechanisms.” Foucault calls this fascism: “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

In a republic this freedom that allows for acceptance of punishment is formulated in a social contract that states the “fiction of a juridical subject [that gives] to others the power to exercise over him the right that he himself possesses over them.” The creation of a sense of “a people” that constitute and are constituents of a law eventually create the Law to which every individual subjects his behavior and his body. This Foucault would call the rule of normalization of the social over the individual. Everyone thus becomes in a way a judge and executor of the normal. Modern power, by diffusing throughout the social body certain forms of knowledge, behavioral standards, values and norms, normalizes individuals. The efficiency of modern power increases as its visibility decreases; as such it is made anonymous. The invisible internalization of power in modern times results in an individual who is subject to constant social-scrutiny through institutions and places of social normalization, and an individual subject to repeated self-scrutiny, to a search to comprehend itself that gives birth to an identity that contains the internalized values and forms of behavior.

The power of bureaucratic registration and of identifying and defining, or more precisely naming, individuals, actions and behaviors, both conscious and subconscious, is explained clearly by Nietzsche: “The lordly right of giving names extends so far that one should allow oneself to conceive the origin of language itself as an expression of power on the part of the rules: they say `this is this and this,' they seal every thing and event with a sound and, as it were, take possession of it.” A form of proportionality arises: as modern power increases its capacity to name, individuals increasingly become tied to intervening knowledges and disciplinary practices. The failure of integrating strategies is seen when individuals try to increase the scope of actions and relations not susceptible to observation and interpretation, in a struggle or exercise of freedom. This is the path upon which social systems become modified. Yet these actions and relations are a social problem not because they imply danger or harm, but in the space where they take place, outside the vision of the power to designate. Herein lies the threat of social withdrawal, and in a self-reclusion that does not acknowledge or recognize the knowledge and power systems present within itself. Jean-Paul Sartre's famous statement “hell is others” is realized, but only because hell is present within oneself. Thus, the individual does matter and there is no final victory for modern power, but a continuous struggle of power and human life. Freedom thus cannot be negative, but participation, and in conflict of participations, modification occurs.

Foucaultian analysis is most useful as a counter discourse or, ironically, a critical examination at modernity's examinings and definitions. Fraser calls him the “muckraking, Socratic Foucault, the Foucault who has done more, perhaps, than anyone since Marx to expose and warn against the enormous variety of ways in which humanist rhetoric has been and is liable to misuse and co-optation.” In an interview Foucault describes “the battle `for truth', or at least `around truth:'”

The political problem is not to criticize the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that (one's) own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth. The problem is not changing people's consciousnesses - or what's in their heads - but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth.

It's not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural within which it operates at the present time.

The political question, to sum up, is not error, illusion, alienated consciousness or ideology; it is truth itself. Hence the importance of Nietzsche.”

From the French Revolution onwards the boundary between what is political and private has been a subject of continuous social conflict. Obviously there are differences between the “private” and “public” sphere, however “both enclave certain matters into specialized discursive arenas; both thereby shield such matters from generalized contestation and from widely disseminated conflicts of interpretation; and, as a result, both entrench as authoritative certain specific interpretations of needs by embedding them in certain specific, but largely unquestioned, chains of in-order-to relations.” If public discourses and knowledge systems categorize and normalize certain forms of behavior and of dominance and subordination, they tend to group behavior that does not fit the official model as deviant. Therefore they reproduce dominant discourses within the power model. Furthermore as Fraser points out, the members of subordinated groups as a result of these processes, internalize interpretations that work to their own disadvantage. The interaction between the two groups characterizes and ensures the redefinition of the “private” and “public” boundaries.