Problem (part 1/2)>>Reading Distraction through Foucault's Docile Bodies

<< In order to push on our unease with distraction in the context of the connection of literacy to schooling, I draw on Michel Foucault’s concept of “docile bodies.” In Discipline and Punish, Foucault theorizes the docile body as a malleable object on which disciplinary force is acted, a node in the complex field in which power is organized and arranged. For Foucault, the body is an object that we can read in order to determine how fields of power are organized during moments in history: its movements, its postures, its positionality reveal the discursive forces that have shaped it.

How Does Foucault Contextualize the Docile Body?

The idea of the docile body comes from Foucault’s reading of a particular historical moment—the eighteenth century and reforms in practices of punishment—in which bodies became texts on which to inscribe dominant ways of doing things. In order for the body to be disciplined in this way, it must be receptive and accept powers that work on it. The docile body, then, is “something that can be made; out of a formless clay, an inapt body [from which] the machine required can be constructed” (135). The words Foucault further uses to describe this body cast it as unformed and willing to be shaped: it’s “pliable,” capable of being “manipulated, shaped, trained” (135, 136). “Training” is an important facet of the operation of power upon the docile body, and Foucault focuses on a range of institutions from prisons, to the military, to schools as he describes the settings in which docile bodies are disciplined. Within these institutions, bodies are made to respond to signals that are implicit and yet tightly organized through the networks of relations that maintain order. The effect of this arrangement, as Foucault describes it, is “a ‘political anatomy’” and a “mechanics of power” that “defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines” (138).

What Can it Help us Understand?

Foucault’s concept of docile bodies illuminates the sense that bodies must be positioned receptively in order for logics of arrangement to act upon them. Furthermore, he constructs bodily processes and operations as the object of applications of power. It is the act of controlling how bodies move, the processes they perform, and how they enact them that Foucault refers to as the “modality” through which disciplining works. Foucault shows how the modality of control “implies an uninterrupted, constant coercion, supervising the processes of the activity rather than its result and is exercised according to a codification that partitions as closely as possible time, space, movement” (136). Notably, the “processes of the activity rather than its result” become the focus of an embodied exercise of power (136, emphasis mine). >>