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Torture me, baby! Yeah!

October 30, 2007 Whew! Foucault sure loved pain, didn’t he? We are reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in theory class right now, and it is easily the most engaging thing we’ve read so far. What? More interesting than Habermas’ The Theory of Collective Action? How can that be? Just kidding, of course. If you’ve read Habermas you’d know that, in comparison, being punished by the torture mechanisms Foucault describes sounds like fun.


Back to torture, though. Foucault opens his book with a detailed description of the torture and execution of someone who made an attempt on the life of the king. I’m a pretty creative person, but could never have imagined acts like what was done to this guy. Even though it shocked and appalled me, I didn’t skip over the section. Like a voyeur, I read every word. Why? If I was watching a movie, I would have closed my eyes and covered my ears (I’m squeamish), and what is happening in the movie isn’t even happening to a real person. What Foucault described, however, was gorier than any scene in a bloodbath movie, and really happened to an actual person. It left me feeling a little dirty. I suppose Foucault would like that.


Reading Foucault is disconcerting. He just makes so much sense (I think, anyway), but agreeing with him means agreeing with all these terrible things about ourselves. We didn’t stop torturing people because we suddenly changed our opinion on the worth of humanity and discovered the ethic of humane treatment. No, we stopped torturing because we changed our collective focus – off of the body of the prisoner and on to his mind. We can own a prisoner’s “soul” through discipline, an ownership much more intense than anything we could do to the body. We can retrain the person to be a contributing member of society (read: productive unit), and release them back into the group. All this “retraining” happens in private, away from the public gaze. This is a much more economical use of power. It is also much more insidious.


As disgusting and inhumane as torture is, the upside of the medieval model was that most people went about their lives, committing the popular illegalities that allowed them to survive, and once in a while (quite rarely, actually) someone would flame out spectacularly and everyone would be reminded of the power of the sovereign. What we’ve got now is that everyone is disciplined all the time. Prisons are overflowing, often with people incarcerated for very minor crimes, crimes which not all of society agrees ought to be crimes at all. Beyond the prisons, though, the disciplinary gaze of power is always on all of us – at school, at work, even at home. We are always being put through exercises and tests, ranked, timed, observed, and controlled.


This is not a defense of torture, of course. Rather, it is a questioning of our motives for abandoning the technique and taking up what we’ve got now. Surely there has to be something better than either of those models.

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