Tag Archives: Foucault

Thoughts on Foucault

Discipline and Punish

Discipline and Punish

Does the soul, as represented in contrast with the duality of the King (temporal body vs. eternal sign of monarchical rule) in fact represent the eternal nature of man? Thereby endowing the designs of subjection within the construct of Foucault’s punitive power with a universality equal and opposite to the universality of the king’s subjecting power exercised in the name of supporting the kingdom (i.e. political economy that privileges and stabilizes the interests of the ruling class).


One problem with Foucault’s analysis is his incomplete understanding and treatment of the notion of the “Christian” soul. Foucault’s conception of the soul, unlike the Christian soul is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but born out of methods of punishment, rules and constraint. His argument that the Christian theological notion of the soul as born into sin, and subject to punishment is incomplete. Foucault uses the term “Christian Theology” as if it were a simple unitary document, but it is really a complex community of ideas. The soul in Christian theology also represents a source of a power that mitigates the punitive power of the ruling class. The “Christian” soul is, like that of the King, recognized as eternal, subject to the authority of the deity.


In Christian theology the soul is free except in relation to God – Foucault fails to understand the implications of being born in sin (at least theologically). Furthermore, in this conception, the Christian “soul” rejoices in the sufferings of this age, which are identified as signs of their freedom in Christ. There is an injunction to obey God rather than man – and at least among the children of the reformation – that frees them from arbitrary church authority as well. While God, does require obedience to authorities – the soul is free with regard to them in that they are only given outward obedience.  The ultimate power to punish – death – is not considered a punishment but rather a release – so it is unmasked (Wink 1984) as powerless. The punitive power of the ruling classes are then transferred back, solely to the body, thereby limiting its effect as temporary, and the authority is likewise then diminished.


One might argue that the other primary Christian theological position with regards to the relationship between the authorities in power and the subjected body (remember, the soul is not subjected to the rulers “of this world”), contradicts this notion, as disciples of that faith are charged to obey the authorities of the land. But again, there is a context within which that commandment is given, that might also easily be ignored or misunderstood. By submitting to the authorities of one’s, the argument continues, one lives a life above the reproach of the authorities, thereby avoiding punitive measures taken by the ruling class. Furthermore, in this act of legal submission, the Christian again understands this as a bodily, temporal act. Foucault’s flaw is that he is ultimately a materialist – and thus cannot consider the nature or capacity for freedom of an eternal soul.


Yet, the source of Foucault’s misrepresentation (or exclusion) of the Christian understanding of the soul arguably demands such an interpretation. The religious leaders (often intertwined with political leadership) that he portrays in his discussion about judicial torture and public punishment and execution offer no indication by their actions that they represent a God interested in anything but divine retribution. These “inquisitors” and judges demonstrate a corrupted misinterpretation of the judgment of God, and of their positions as the carnal manifestations of that blood-thirsty God. God, and by extension the religious authorities, are fierce in their judgments, which are dispensed as signs of absolute power. Their interpretations of this God were shaped so as to secure His absolute power for themselves; by claiming privileged and exclusive access to the knowledge of God, they retain that power by creating and maintaining a culture of fear that is expressed in the political economy of the body through torture and execution. Foucault states that the body “is an essential element, therefore, in a penal liturgy, in which it must serve as the partner of a procedure ordered around the formidable rights of the sovereign, the prosecution and secrecy.” (Foucault 1977: 47) It is Foucault’s basis on these examples of misguided corruption in religious authority for the understanding of the “Christian” soul that ultimately creates the hole in his argument.


This does not dismiss Foucault’s basic argument – as far as it goes in an existential and material world. What it does do is demonstrate a hole in Foucault’s theory that ignores another interpretation of the nature of the knowledge-power relationship. It is irrelevant whether or not he, or subsequent readers, agree that this Christian doctrine is “true.” The fact that there are a great number of individuals located within the political economy of the body (more than half in the US) that believe, perceive, or argue that they experience this to be true, radically alters Foucault’s equation.  It requires Foucault to address this radically different understanding of the relations of, and imposition of power, which he does not.