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Foucault & COVID-19: How Discipline Is Necessary to Create Order in Times of Disorder

In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault shows that the modern penal system has become one of discipline and punishment rather than one of correction. We can turn to Foucault’s ideas to show how society is returning to a sense of order during COVID-19, even if this means that we are subjected to compliance within a greater system of surveillance.

In Short:

  • Foucault argues that citizens have become subjects of power that are able to be shaped, disciplined, and taught. The state is that which manipulates what he defines as Docile Bodies.
  • Through the panopticon, the state has found a way to structure and maintain these docile bodies through punishment, or the potential for punishment so that they remain loyal, observant and docile.
  • This system of discipline, punishment, and surveillance, was fully developed during the Plague in the 17th century.
  • This system is necessary to return to a sense of order and normalcy.

Now, we are revisiting it during COVID to stop the spread of another plague-like virus.


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Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French historian and philosopher associated with the structuralist and post-structuralist movements. These are methodologies that argue meaning is found in sociological, psychological and linguistic structures and institutions that govern society.

  • Foucault challenged the institutions that held up society and worked against the hegemony of any societal system.
  • His ideas explored the shifting patterns of power within a society and how individuals exist within these systems of power.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, published in 1975, aimed to examine the way society orders individuals by training their bodies. This book is an attack on the nature and role of the prison system but also seeks to define the disciplinary nature of modern society.

  • The prison is just one way societal disciplining of individuals manifests itself.

Discipline:

  • Discipline, Foucault argues, produces subjected or “docile” bodies. It dissociates power from the body and turns it into obedience. It results from a multiplicity of organizational efforts implemented for the sake of and in response to particular needs.
    • An example of this is the response to an outbreak of a certain epidemic disease.
  • Right now, we are in a state of obedience by practising disciplinary measures among ourselves and following the disciplinary measures coming down from people of authority.

Discipline in a time of COVID19

  • The system functions through a series of different forms of discipline:
  1. The art of distributions: This refers to the general division of labour and the distributions of individuals in space. This includes enclosure or partitioning, and sanctioning spaces where individuals can exist in.
    • During COVID, we are aware of what public spaces can be open or not. 
    • We are encouraged to physically distance from ourselves. This includes avoiding crowded places and non-essential gatherings and keeping a distance of at least two metres from each other.
  2. The control of activity within time: This suggests establishing rhythms, habits, imposing a division of labour and regulating cycles of repetition.
    • This can be applied to the CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit), a benefit for those who have been laid off work due to the pandemic based on a biweekly reporting system for 24 weeks.
    • Those who are working are considered essential service workers.
  3. The composition of the forces: Everyone is acting, in the same way, to work toward a common goal.
    • One individual is just a part of the whole machine.
    • Collectively, our society is following the orders of the government to prevent more people from getting sick and return to a sense of normalcy.

The Great Plague in the 17th Century

Fear of the plague in the 17th century created new systems and institutions of management, control, and supervision that we have seen implemented (to a lesser extent) in the era of Covid-19.

  • There was strict spatial partitioning and people were forbidden to leave their houses with death as the punishment.
  • There was a strict division of labour where some people had the job of moving the dead. Others were assigned the roles of officers and guards to implement observation and punishment to ensure a measure of discipline and observation.
  • They also kept a detailed reporting system to keep track of the dead, living and diseased.

“[These measures] lay down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power…”

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

The Panopticon

Jeremy Bentham introduced this architectural figure as a system that represents sustained surveillance and discipline, observing the docile bodies through non-violent disciplinary mechanisms.

Surveillance: A close monitoring and observation of each other both online and in public to ensure we are complying with rules and expectations.

“…The principle was this. A perimeter building in the form of a ring. At the center of this, a tower pierced by large windows opening on to the inner face of the ring. The outer building is divided into cells each of that traverses the whole thickness of the building…All that is then needed is to put an overseer in the tower and place in each of the cells a lunatic, a patient, a convict, or a schoolboy.”

Foucault, 1977
Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a disciplinary concept used for complete surveillance within a prison.

The Panopticon was a way to bring back order and management in a prison in a systematic way:

  1. Omnipresence: permanent visibility between both the prisoner and guard
  2. Visible but unverifiable: prisoners always have the illusion of being watched.
  3. Designated places for the body: prisoners are placed in cells while guards are in the watchtower.
  4. Hierarchical authority: The prisoners are placed under the guards in order for them to be watched and disciplined.
  5. Surveillance: Close and constant observation of the prisoner.

In the same way, the lens of social media assumes this panoptical gaze on contemporary society.

  • Pervasive surveillance is now ingrained within our societal system without us even noticing.
  • People are sharing the protocols they are following while simultaneously monitoring others to ensure their compliance as well.

For example:

  • Mask wearing
  • Social distancing
  • Staying home
  • Getting tested if you feel symptomatic
  • Self-quarantining for 14 days after returning from out of the country

This means that those who are breaking social distancing rules and posting on social media are either subjecting themselves to judgement or encouraging others to do the same. We tend to justify our actions by seeing others on social media behave similarly.

Order in a Disciplinary Society

Foucault and Bentham’s methods of discipline are necessary to maintain a sense of order and normalization in times of disorder.

  • The loss of order is found primarily in the fear of getting sick. The boundaries of security are blurred because anyone can get sick or pass the virus on to others.
  • Fear of the plague created new management, control, supervision of arrangement and institutions. Similarly, we are finding new ways to implement order in our society. The panopticon in our society now is social media and societal expectations of self-isolation.

The Bottom Line:

Creating order in times of disorder is necessary.

  • To navigate the pandemic, we must follow rules and guidelines set out for us and practice self-discipline to ensure the spread of the virus is put to a halt.
  • In a time of disorder, the ways we seek to retain order can help us reflect on aspects of our society that may be necessary for a healthy and working society.  
  • COVID-19 has brought society together in a global experience. Social media acts as a tool to both unify and discipline us.
  • In times of crisis and uncertainty, we can turn to basic historical systems to reveal the effective ways in which society is governed, and the expectations of order we hold against ourselves.
  • We have already seen the fatal consequences of ignoring social distancing. If we continue to ignore the disciplinary systems put in place for us, a return to order and normalcy will become less and less attainable.

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