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Why We’re Less Free in the Modern World

Does more advanced technology lead to greater freedom? Michel Foucault characterizes the modern world as a decidedly less free place than in previous eras.


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Meredith Kirby

4 months ago | 5 min read
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Foucault on discipline, punishment, and sex.

Does more advanced technology lead to greater freedom? Michel Foucault characterizes the modern world as a decidedly less free place than in previous eras.

As evidence for his claim, he points to the rise of disciplinary technologies (collectively called “biopower”) which are designed to encourage subservience and conformity in the population.

Discipline Before the Modern Era

Before the dawn of the 19th century, retribution and deterrence were the central functions of punishment. Gruesome consequences were given to criminals in public in order to deter the populace from such behavior through direct threats of force.

While executions and other public, theatrical punishments provided strong incentives to toe the line, modernity’s methods of keeping people compliant are far more subtle and manipulative.

Modernity doesn’t punish with vengeful goals in mind, but rather with the goal of normalizing human behavior.

While modern discipline still acts on the body to achieve the desired results, the dramatic blood and gore of the Classical age are subdued, and the focus begins to shift towards controlling the mind.

Instead of being guillotined or burned alive, those who exhibit deviant behavior in the modern era will likely enter the disciplinary system, which offers two choices: correct the behavior and potentially receive rewards or risk becoming increasingly hobbled by the consequences that are incrementally imposed in response to the nonconformity.

Discipline in the Modern World

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault vividly illustrates the un-free designs of institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons. He argues that they all resemble one another and that this resemblance is intentional.

He sees them all as fundamentally structured in resemblance to Bentham’s Panopticon– a resemblance which is never stronger than in actual prisons.

If a prison is constructed so that cells surround a central tower, a situation can be created in which the prisoner will never know with certainty whether they are being watched, and they will regulate their own behavior accordingly.

This strategy of placing people under uncertain surveillance is combined with the strategy of normalizing moral judgments about human attitudes and behaviors, ultimately forming the strategy of the “examination,” which exists in a different form within each institution.

These establishments all work together, and they all share a common purpose: to “train” human beings to behave in a manner that is non-threatening to the ruling hierarchy.

Observing The Observer

In modernity, humans are both subjects and objects. The social sciences are the consequence of self-aware humanity turning the microscope back on itself, and their close surveillance and examination of their creator is the source of modernity’s fractalesque Panopticism.

Foucault is skeptical of the credibility of the social sciences relative to the “harder” sciences and sees their true purpose as aiding in the maintenance of hierarchical structures of power.

Social scientists are the architects of the disciplinary apparatus governing society, constantly developing and improving upon the technologies necessary to intimately regulate human behavior.

When describing the disciplinary system, Foucault emphasizes the attention given to the psychology of the individual. The social sciences provide convenient folders into which deviant human attitudes, behaviors, and beings can be neatly filed.

Foucault explains how the methodologies of the institutions guided by the social sciences are similar, analyzing and evaluating human behavior and then altering it through many small humiliations, deprivations, and other coercive incentives.

Encouraging Conformity

Ultimately, the study of human behavior is what allows for the establishment of standards for what human behavior ought to be. Without these standards, there would be nothing normal from which to deviate and no abnormal behavior in need of correction.

The student will be rewarded with good grades for their efforts, and flunked or expelled if they fail to meet certain standards. An office worker’s productivity will earn them a promotion while sloth might lead to their termination.

Excited irrationality might land somebody in a psych ward, and calm rationality might make the case for their release. A criminal might be let out of prison for “good behavior,” which is seen as an indicator of a desirable change in fundamental beliefs.

Even if they repent, these people will be branded; as uneducated, as unemployed, as criminals, or as insane. They will be rejected by society, and it will become far more difficult for them to affect change within it.

They will struggle to survive, and their preoccupation with survival will distract them from the tasks necessary to becoming a revolutionary threat.

The Repressive Hypothesis

In The History of Sexuality Volume I, Foucault criticizes the “Repressive Hypothesis,” or the idea that sexuality had been repressed in the Victorian era and that discourses about sexuality had been subsequently discouraged or had decreased.

He argues the opposite– people are talking about sex more than ever before, and the Victorians had most definitely been getting their freak on.

Foucault theorizes that the religious ritual of confession has been appropriated by the social sciences, replacing the priest with the analyst and encouraging impassioned carnal testimonials in secular settings.

He warns us of the highly disturbing nightmare that follows: “Not only will you confess acts contravening the law, but you will seek to transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse.”

This type of regulation does not seek to censor sexuality or to render sexuality itself taboo, but rather to vivisect and analyze sexuality in a manner that is far more obscene than any particular sexual behavior on its own could ever possibly aspire to be.

The Perverse Implantation

Foucault then describes a phenomenon that he calls “The Perverse Implantation.” He argues that, through the transformation of sex into discourse, the culture instills deviant sexual behavior in the populace .

This process treats sex similarly to how the justice system treats criminality. The goal is not to discourage entirely the pettier “crimes,” but to create an inescapable cycle in which the “offenders” find themselves perpetually guiltier and guiltier, and thus subject to further and further disciplinary measures.

The persecution of “peripheral” sexualities leads to an equation of normalized sexuality with health and with moral worth. Various paraphilias are documented and cataloged: “Not the exclusion of these thousand aberrant sexualities, but the specification, the regional solidification of each one of them.”

Power then “takes charge” of sexuality to create a reciprocating feedback loop of sensual power exchange between the confessors and the questioners. The questioners are intrigued by the “intensity” of the confession. The confessors are flattered by the attentions of the questioners.

Foucault characterizes this as a “game” played continuously throughout the nineteenth century by pairs that exist at opposite sides of power imbalances, like doctors and patients or students and teachers. He illustrates this lewd, problematic carnival as “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure.”

This technology extends to the built environments of modernity.

Adult institutions are designed to mirror the disciplinary constraints we experienced as children, like the surveillance of the state resembling the surveillance of our parents, or the forbiddenness of their bedroom replicated in the spaces that are “off-limits” to us in educational or medical facilities. Common sexual appetites begin to fixate on features of the disciplinary apparatus.

To put it in simple terms, we find ourselves aroused (whether we like it or not) by anything that is subconsciously reminiscent of the same oppressive system which has already been administering its stern discipline on a daily basis.

Thanks to endless conditioning, this can be quite a lot of things.

“Modern society is perverse,” Foucault declares, “not in spite of its puritanism or as if from a backlash provoked by its hypocrisy; it is in actual fact, and directly, perverse.”

The unique formidability of modern authority lies not in its ability to punish, but in its ability to make us beg for our punishment.

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