Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Disciplinary power, still a problem

Deleuze got it wrong. In his "Postscript on Control Societies," Deleuze speaks about the transition from disciplinary societies to control societies:
But discipline would in its turn begin to break down as new forces moved slowly into place, then made rapid advances after the Second World War: we were no longer in disciplinary societies, we were leaving them behind. We're in the midst of a general breakdown of all sites of confinement-- prisons, hospitals, factories, schools, the family. (Negotiations, p. 178)

However, there has been no generalized breakdown of sites of confinement and spaces of enclosure. Quite the opposite, we have seen a generalized expansion of sites of confinement. If we take prisons as a privileged example of a site of confinement (and there is good reason to do so), we can see both an extensive and intensive expansion. Extensive in the most obvious way, we have far more people in prison now then we use to. To give a few numbers, in the late 1960s we had slightly over 200 hundred thousand people locked up. Now, we have around 2.5 million people locked up in jails and prisons (this does not include all sorts of other forms of being locked up, like INS detention centers or juvenile detention facilities). Not only do we have have so many people locked up, but we also see an extensive international expansion of prisons, with many countries joining in on trying to lock up more of their populations and some countries opening up their first prisons in recent times (I suggest Julia Sudbury's edited volume Global Lockdown for more on this last issue). But we have also seen an intensive expansion in prisons. We see this in the rise of supermax prisons (also called control units, administrative units, special housing units, etc). In these units inmates are actively lockdown 23 hours a day, allowed out of their cells for one hour period. During this time, they are never allowed to talk to anyone. Cameras are turned on 24 hours a day, as are lights. The walls and plumbing are sound proofed so that zero communications are allowed, and food is given through a slot in the door.

Now, I recognize that Deleuze in his essay is not indicating that prisons or disciplinary power are disappearing, but rather transforming. Moreover, there are many things in this classic essay that I found useful, for example the change of the logic of power from analog to digital. And in this sense, I understand that the opening line of this post is obviously provocative, but provocation is necessary on this point. Too often we see people proceed as if disciplinary power is no longer a present and driving concern, that rather we need to understand how CCTV in London has made it so that we are all prisoners now, or something of the sort. However, those of us that live in the free world, aka are not incarcerated, sometimes greatly misunderstand the importance of sites of confinement in perpetuating the present order (in the same way that some people believe that primitive accumulation is a sin of the past rather than an ongoing process of capitalism).

Along this chain of thought, we have Mike Konczal's excellent post "Is economic freedom another way of saying we need to build more prisons?". Konczal, taking the libertarian CATO Institutes ranking of countries based on their economic freedoms, finds that countries with high levels of economic freedoms correlate with high levels of imprisonments (this is true even if we control for certain outliers, like the US). Now, obviously correlation doesn't imply causation, but that also doesn't mean these are two unrelated data sets. Konczal goes through several interesting possible answers for this correlation, but from a foucauldian perspective there is another explanation, which is that neoliberalism needs and shares the logic of the prison population. This argument ties together Foucault's book Discipline and Punish to his lectures on The Birth of Bio-politics. Economic freedoms, rather than generalizing freedoms to the rest of society, are built upon a militarized and repressive policing apparatus. Perhaps it is time to give up Deleuze's term of a control society, and rather take up Foucault's term of a normalizing society. As he explains in "Society Must Be Defended":
In more general terms still, we can say that there is one element that will circulate between the disciplinary and the regulatory, which will also be applied to body and population alike, which will make it possible to control both the disciplinary order of the body and the aleatory events that occur in the biological multiplicity. The element that circulates between the two is the norm. The norm is something that can be applied to both a body one wishes to discipline and a population one wishes to regularize. The normalizing society is therefore not, a sort of generalized disciplinary society whose disciplinary institutions have swarmed and finally taken over everything-- that, I think, is no more than a first and inadequate interpretation of a normalizing society. The normalizing society is a society in which the norm of discipline and the norm of regulation intersect along an orthogonal articulation. To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century, or to say that power at least takes life under its care in the nineteenth century, is to say that it has, thanks to the play of technologies of discipline on the one hand and the technologies of regulation on the other, succeeded in covering the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between the body and the population. (pp. 252-253)

So, it isn't that the technologies and formations of power haven't changed, but rather that whatever these new diagrams of power that exist, they are able to exist because of an extensive and intensive expansion of sites of confinement.

The normalizing society, especially as it is tied to contemporary models of neoliberalism, should be read against (or at least in tension) with Agamben. As Mignolo has noted, bare life is a legalistic category, whereas disposable life is an economic category. Therefore, in Agamben's work we find a series of fascination over various legal lacunas, the nazi lagers, human experimentation, the comatose patient and the issue of brain death, Guantanamo bay. And yet, the concept of disciplinary power is not mentioned in Agamben's work, and something like the site of the prison is not thought through in his work. Maybe it is because the prisoners in Gitmo exist in a legal limbo, whereas inmates in an American prison have a clear legal standing. However, something like the concept of disposable populations would find prisons to be a necessary problem to be thought and understood.

Consider this post a reminder that disciplinary power hasn't gone away, and that the problems and issues raised by that concept have only increased since Foucault's Disipline and Punish. We need to keep such issues at the forefront of our political thinking and work.