Power Relations and the Socially Constructed Self: What does this say about “belief”? Part III: Michel Foucault

Matthew Blarney
Matthew Blarney

This is the third in a series, in which I will present a partial summary of systems for three theorists and then apply them to a question in the final post. 

To read the previous post, regarding Louis Althusser, read here.

To jump to the first post and read from the beginning, read here

This post focuses on Michel Foucault:

Foucault argues that all forms of discipline are tied to production and submission. By examining the history of the penal system to demonstrate how the related processes moved from torture and public execution to reform and diffused systems of judgment and punishment (aimed at reaching the “soul”) Foucault argues that the body can be examined as the modern locus of struggles over power and authority.

Just as the social accoutrements associated with a king may make the man far superior to his physical body in the social world, Foucault argues that the systems that share treatment of the modern prisoner likewise create a social being far greater than the body those structures have imprisoned. In trying to reach the mind, habits, psyche, etc., of the prisoner for reform, the modern prison system has, according to Foucault, trapped that body in the “soul.”

In another writing, Foucault parallels this study of the penal system with a short summary of self-discipline among soldiers and monks of the medieval period. The soldier conditioned his body to move in particular ways, both in order to excel at fighting and to display his rank and character through honed physical habits. The monk prayed, meditated, fasted and studied on a daily schedule according to the social structure of the monastery. The ultimate result of these disciplines is an understanding of how the body can be shaped by habit and ritual, effects now seen in the education system.

Foucault says there was a shift from “wholesale” to “retail” systems of discipline to cultivate smaller scale structures for cultivating economically productive traits and inculcating bodily submission. Schools indoctrinate individuals with rank and class, producing “cogs in a machine.” Where once, the philosophical model was that man was the machine, now man is a portion of it.

Foucault argues that power is a transaction at the point of interaction in any relationship.

According to rank, one subject may have social authority over another, yet power can shift with contact. However, rank and class are embodied as natural and difficult to overcome in daily life. “Ideas,” says Foucault, come from habitual behavior, rituals whose genesis is the social structure that shapes behavior.

Belief is behavior, in other words, and behavior is shaped by processes of discipline, to simultaneously cultivate productive aptitudes and engender habits of submission. The goal is to produce economically productive bodies for society.

This is interesting to me, because I know someone who professes to not believe in ghosts, yet is inexplicably afraid of them. Experiences have resulted in the physical embodiment of fear, which would seem to indicate belief, yet this individual holds on to the idea that “belief” is a free choice and one can simply choose not to believe, regardless of the evidence.

For the next post, on Pierre Bourdieu, jump here.


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