Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, we have Samantha and Morgan in the booth and we’re all three of us different people—why?


Who determines who you are? Why do you pursuit the things that are important to you, whther they be published articles, a thin and athletic physique or a reputation of being a decent human being? Michael Foucault addresses the idea of forming “docile bodies” in Discipline and Punish.

This book starts with a graphic, contemporary description of someone being drawn and quartered and ends with the declaration that “The judges of normality are present everywhere [...] and each individual, where ever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements” (304). It’s a chilling progression. But if you think about it, there are things that we do because of “judges of normality” that we couldn’t be forced into by a tortuter. Can you imagine a prison where it would be moral to force you to wake up at 4:30 and run 10 miles and then lift weights, and then to relax with a glass of mysterious green smoothie? But if you think you need to look a certain way then you might do these unpleasant things to satisfy the “judges of normality.” The link between old-style torture and contemporary judgemental attitudes trace through this text.

Here are the highlights along the way: torture as public spectacle (7). body as intermediary between people and sovereign (11). But a change occurs: punishment stops being about whether or not the accused commiteed the crime and more about whther the accused is guilty. That sounds like teh same thing, but really it’s a little different because justie began to consider “to what extent the subject’s will was involved in the crime’ (17). Accordingly, punishment became to be about straightening out taht will “the expiation that once rained down up on the body must be replace by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (16) and “a general process has led judges to judge something other than crims; they ahve been led in their sentencing to do soemthing other than jsut and the power of judging has been transferred, in part, to other autorities than the jduges of the offence” as sociologists, preachers and other just eh will and the inclination of the accused (22).

Soverign maintains “right to punish” like the “right ot make war” (48) but “the role of the people was an ambigous one” as they also “caimed the right to conserve the execution” and “had the right to take part” of the specacle (58). This made executions a battle between the power of the soverign and the power of the people: “In these executions, whih out to show only the terrorizing power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed inot heroes” (61). So, “this hand-to-hand fight ebtwen the vengence of the princ aand the contained anger of the people, through the mediation of the victim and the executioner, must be concluded” (73). So reformers had to “define new tactis in order to reach a target that is now more subtle but also more widely spread in the social body” (89) not just committing a certain crime. ‘A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of (102) their own ideas; it is at the stable point of reason that he secures the end of the chain” (103).

So bodies in prisons are made docile, “subjected, used, transformed and improved” (136) as “working [the body] retail indivdually, of exercising upon it a subtle coercion, of obtaining holds up on it at the level of the mechanism itself—movements, gestures attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body” (137). And this is by no means restricted to the prison: the classroom, the military camp and the hospital all begin to prescribe this level of control over the bodies to be made docile. “Like surveillance and with it, normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age” (184) “In a system of discipline, the child is more individualized that the adult, the patient more than the healthy man, the madman and the delinquent more than the normal and non-delinquent” (193).

The panopticon, of course, features heavily. DESCRIBE “In short, it reverse the principle of the duneon; or rather of its three functions—to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide—the preserves only the first and eliminates to other two” (200). “There are two images, then, of discipline. At one extreme, the discipline-blockage, the enclosed institutions, established on the edges of society, turned inwards towards negative functions: arresting evil, breaking communications, suspending time. At the toher extreme, with panopticism, is the discipline-mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve tehe xercise of power b making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come” (209). “At first they were expected to neutralize dangers, to fix useless or disturbed poulations, to avoid the inconveniences of over-large assemblesi; now they were being asked to play a positive role, for they were bceoming able to do so, to increase the possible utility of individuals” (210).

“‘Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, prcedures, levels of application, targes; it is a ‘physics’ [...] of power” (215).

Difference between illegality and delinquencies—a delinquent is subset of illegal: defines and specifies the delinquent, which can be used by prison and authority forever afterwards. It creates a three-fold system—prison, police, delinquent (282)

Eventually, the prison mentality escpaed the prison. “As a result, a cetain signifcant generality moved between the least irregularty and the greatest crime; it was no longer th offense, the attack on the common interest, it was the school, the court, the asulum or the prison. It geeralise in teh sphere of meaning the function of carceral generalized in the sphere of tactics’ (299) “The carceral network does not cast the unassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outisde. it takes back with one hand what it seems to exclude witht he other” (301) prison continues, on those who are enslaved to it, a work begun elsewhere, which the whole of society pursues on (302)each individual through innumerable mechanisms of discipline (303). “We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it it on them that the universal reign of the normalitve is based, and each individual, whereever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his beavior, his aptttudes, his acheivements” (304).



So what does all of this mean for rhetoric? Some theorists, like Edward Said and Richard Miller despair at ever standing outside of the panopticon, that the power relations are too deeply entwined and too dispersed to be opposed. Instead of just stickin’ it to the man, or rescuing Robin Hood from the corrupt Sherriff of Nottingham, would-be revolutionaries have to change the entire system. And what makes the revolutionaries think that they have a better perspective when they, too, are implicated in the self-policing power structure?


In 1992, Barbara Beisecker examined Foucault’s influence for rhetoricians. Initially she was skeptically inclined (especially in the early 90s!) to say that Foucault was just being invoked in order to embrace the fashion for post-modernism without losing our traditional perspectives on power dynamics. However, foucault’s focus on theways that communities construct individual positions opens up new views of rhetoric. Biesecker concludes that because of Foucault, “We might say, then, that a critical rhetoric is a timely discourse whose task is not, as we have heretofor thought, one of changing what’s in people’s heads.” Instead it is about turning the grid of intelligibility that organizes the present in such a way that it becomes possible to transform the crituqe conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical crituqe that takes the form of a possible transgression out of which new forms of community, co-existence, pleasure” will emerge” (362). Rhetoric becomes less about individuals than the whole community, all focused on creating docile bodies, prioritizes.

It may be daunting to think about changing an entire community with rhetoric instead of one person., but as young John Muckelbauer in 2000 argued, there are still ways to effect change even in Foucault’s self-policing view of culture, as long as we “debundle what we mean by resistence his articulation of resistanceis clearly something quite differentfrom a traditional understandingof resistancewith its connection to “agency”. […] the concept of power functions differently(as primarily productive),and the relationshipbetween power and resistanceis not one of binary opposition. On a more practical level,anothermajordistinction isthat this versionprovidesno central concept, no preexisting category—such as identity—around which to mobilize collective action. Instead, political action is itself transfigured, emphasizing strategic local ac- tivity and transitory alliances as opposed to traditionalconceptions of mass collective movements.”

So we’re not entirely subsumed by predetermined roles because of the judges of normalicy all around us, but neither are we free when we are unfettered.


Direct download: 15-08-12_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Discipline_and_Punishment.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT