Made You Think Podcast

Apr 10, 2018
Where Does Power Come From? Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
Part of

Traditionally, power was what was seen, what was shown and what was manifested and, paradoxically, found the principle of its force in the movement by which it deployed that force. Those on whom it was exercised could remain in the shade; they received light only from that portion of power that was conceded to them, or from the reflection of it that for a moment they carried. Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen.

In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and I discuss Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. In this book Foucault discusses the history of, and differences between, discipline and punishment. We find that, despite being one of the founding fathers of postmodernism, Foucault’s ideas are reasonable and well thought out.

“In monarchical law, punishment is a ceremonial of sovereignty; it uses the ritual marks of the vengeance that it applies to the body of the condemned man; and it deploys before the eyes of the spectators an effect of terror as intense as it is discontinuous, irregular and always above its own laws, the physical presence of the sovereign and of his power.”

We cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Freedom of speech vs. Freedom from offense
  • Whether language is interpreted by the speaker or the receiver
  • Hierarchy in modern society
  • A gruesome public execution
  • How obtuse writing is intellectual signalling by serious philosophers

And much more. Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault!

Links from the Episode

Mentioned in the show

Books mentioned

People mentioned

Show Topics

00:55 – We broke a record! Up to now, every book we’ve done we’d recommend – this one we don’t recommend. We would not wish this book on other people.

01:20 – We’d intended to read a postmodernist book, having been so negative about them in the past, but it turned out this wasn’t so much about postmodernism. While it doesn’t have a lot of the key themes we see today in postmodernism, the ideas are still very relevant to the conflicts that are talked about. Big focus on power-dynamics.

02:35 – Foucault’s not really arguing for anything in particular, it’s more his interpretation of the history of punishment. The language is very verbose, it’s almost unreadable. Derrida and Foucault are both famous for being difficult to read. Intellectual signalling. There’s a temptation in philosophy to write like this.

05:30 – Fallacy of correlation: just because great people happen to have bad habits does not mean you must copy them to become great yourself. They were great despite the bad habits.

06:20 – The idea that if something is easily understood it’s not suitable for teaching at uni.

07:40 – Kept pushing this episode back because it was a slog to get through the book. There are interesting ideas in it, regardless.

08:20 – The evolution of the prison system. The book is a four part history of discipline and punishment.

09:16 – This is said to be Foucault’s best work. The writer was born in France and moved to Berkeley to teach, he was gay, and an early advocate for gay rights. He later moved to the San Francisco area to be around that scene. He eventually died of HIV/AIDS.

10:15 – Foucault’s book The History of Sexuality book is very supportive of the non-heteronormative lifestyle which is where the postmodernists get a lot of their ideas about sexuality from.

10:50 – Sign up for our email list, we send out what books we are going to cover ahead of time and because of that we feel obliged to always finish a book. Sign up to help pressure us, it’s a great email list.

12:00 – Possible follow-up episode for this that’s more about postmodernism in general. Would be interesting to see a pro argument for it.

13:30 – Let us know on twitter (@nateliason) (@TheRealNeilS) if you’d like us to try out a slightly different format for the podcast where we do more of a deep dive into a school of philosophy, find out where it came from and its key ideas.

13:50 – The history of punishment. A brutal public execution with fireworks. One of the last public executions in France. Very graphic, an all day event that people traveled to see happen, in the 1750s. It was gruesome and every part of it got botched.

16:00 – In this section, Foucault says that punishment was historically a warning to others. Punishment was a way of the sovereignty speaking to the masses, saying to them what would happen if they out-stepped their boundaries.

17:30 – Part of what Foucault is arguing is that in the transition to prison, society moved from pure punishment – in which the person who commited the crime serves as a broader example to society – to rehabilitation of the individual.

18:00 – There is a thread of humanism in the book. The idea of rehabilitation is linked to the idea of every person having a soul that can be redeemed. The idea of making a person pay in life so that God would judge them less harshly in the afterlife.

19:00 – Believing in the value of people seems to be a major shift in humanity in the last 2-300 years, but this could equally just be a function of telling history. Previous societies more communal than the modern-day, individualistic US.

22:55 – Foucault points out here that while punishment was confined to those who did wrong, discipline became a part of life. All elements of society were built around these disciplinary structures.

23:40 – Punishment started as crimes against the sovereign and shifted to crimes against others. An individual has a place, but a place also has an individual. Everybody is integrated but also interchangeable and expendable.

25:35 – The strict imposition of hierarchy in all parts of life. Before, people could be punished for breaking the law but now you could be punished for only breaking societal norms. Start of a class system. Foucault suggests these are all artificial constructs imposed on us but that we all go along with. The postmodernist idea that the patriarchy is an artificial manifestation of power rather than an emergent result of inequality.

28:32 – Taleb said in Skin in the Game that it’s not how close together wealth classes are that a society uses to measure its equality it’s how easily there is movement between those classes. In Florence, the same few families are at the top of society since the 1600s.

29:15 – 80% turnover in the richest people in the last 20 or so years. Also above 50% of people will have at least one year of being in the top 5 income.

30:26 – Possibilities of a return to city-states.

31:28 – Any idle time is a waste. Punishment punishes you for not being somewhere you’re supposed to be according to a timetable but discipline allows you to make a greater use of that time. Through discipline you can multiply your positive output, like negative reinforcement vs positive reinforcement.

32:15 – Apprenticeships are still around in the modern day only not codified as they were previously. Cold calling/emailing firms can work as a way in if you can offer them something valuable. Like Andrés, who puts together the podcasts.

39:58 – Some of Foucault’s sentences are so long you need Eminem’s lungs to read them out loud.

40:00 – Foucault says that buildings become designed to maintain control over the people within them. Cities that have emerged organically are very much unknowable from the top. So they are redesigned to zone them or make them into grids.

43:00 – Washington DC was designed from the top-down to be more organic feeling. Apparently they designed it to be hard to navigate to prevent invasions. In places like India, the cities have been constructed from the bottom up and so eCommerce is difficult as deliveries are really hard to do.

44:20 – Question of how self-driving cars will change the layouts of cities.

45:10 – There’s no great way to take skyscrapers down or even deal with them when they age, they were never planned to be taken down. In Munich there are a lot of pedestrianized areas with pop-up bars and cafes.

46:55 – There were a few main groups who founded America including the Puritans, the Quakers and Catholics, a lot of whose beliefs are codified in law, leading now to a more socially conservative country compared to much of Europe.

49:50 – Ranks and hierarchies play on our nature as social creatures and our in-built desire to know where in the hierarchy we fit in. This can be seen in the importance of titles in big companies, how it’s taken so seriously on the inside that from the outside it can seem almost funny. Titles are a cheap form of compensating somebody, like giving kids gold stars.

54:08 – Division is a big theme in the book. Among the Postmodernists the oppressor is like the entity that has the plague. Foucault calls out that humans have always had this distinction between good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. A tribal view. This is one of his ideas that we see the most in the modern day.

59:07 – Nietzsche was not a nazi, you can see how some of his ideas led to nazism but there is not a complete match up.

59:46 – There are a lot of things we think are normal now but were thought of abnormal in the past.

1:00:50 – Aristotle said that women can’t think well enough to vote; he wasn’t sexist, that’s just what people thought at the time.

1:01:10 – People take Foucault’s basic ideas too far when they say that all distinctions between individuals have to be disregarded. Foucault would say that it’s wrong to say one difference is abnormal where the other is normal but differences in themselves are fine. The difference can’t be argued but any judgement made on those differences is subjective.

1:03:00 – There was nothing objectionable in this book besides the writing style.

1:03:35 – The word “normal” is very loaded. Supermajority and outliers. Distribution judgements vs. value judgements. Gender normative views. It’s all about terminology.

1:06:32 – Words shape people’s thoughts, the use of words can change opinions and win arguments. People’s interpretations of language shapes their worldview.

1:08:00 – Postmodernism treats language as interpreted by the receiver whereas in most of life we have to treat language as interpreted by the speaker.

1:09:36 – You don’t have a right not to be offended. You can’t have freedom of speech and freedom from offense. Freedom of speech is not there so people can talk about the weather.

1:10:40 – Germany has so many anti-Nazi laws meaning that people can go to prison for things they say. It is thought of as a free country but the interpretation of freedom is very different to that in America.

1:11:50 – It’s strange that freedom of speech is something that needs to be defended.

1:13:44 – Virtue signaling with upper-middle class white kids feeling the need to do walkouts to defend minorities from being offended. Very patronizing and even offensive.

1:18:30 – Postmodernists say you have to not assume anyone’s gender because gender is fluid, and people who decide to change gender are now that gender. Logic is a patriarchal concept! These ideas are not from Foucault so the modern postmodernists must be getting them from somewhere completely different.

1:19:30 – Jordan Peterson and Foucault would get along.

1:20:00 – The issue a lot of philosophers have where their ideas get taken way further past where they themselves drew their conclusions. Karl Marx, towards the end of his life recanted some of the more extreme ideas of Das Kapital.

1:20:44 – If there is something we are missing about these arguments, please let us hear about it, tweet us (@nateliason) (@TheRealNeilS)!

1:21:36 – A lot of the most post-moderny kids on campus are the outcasts.

1:25:40 – Racial jokes used to be part of bonding but now it seems that people are too afraid to say things.

1:28:12 – Closing thought: anytime you see a modern philosophy it’s worth going to the original source.

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