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May 10, 2005

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Alain

Jodi

I really appreciate this great discussion on an often ignored subject. I have not had time to go through all the comments so forgive me if someone has already brought this up. I was wondering if anyone has referenced Foucault’s discussion of torture at the beginning of Discipline and Punish. Besides its gruesome account of an execution, it touches on the fact that such juridical acts were a public spectacle, there to be both deterrent and entertainment. In what I think is of relevance to the present discussion, Foucault points out that at some point around the turn of the 19th century, the “economy of punishment” gets redistributed along the lines of normalization and therapeutic cure. Instead of the cruel punishment of the flesh, we now have the more humane treatment of the soul. Foucault finds that this change is not really more humane, but simply the displacement of power relations. In one of his more striking observations, he claims that “the soul becomes the prison of the body.”

His view on power, and its relationship to the production of knowledge, seems to link up with your discussion as well. Cruel acts never occur in a vacuum; they always take place within some larger context. What Foucault brings to the discussion is an historical analysis that looks at the institutional and social changes that make certain cruelties possible, and even acceptable. It has been many years since I have read Foucault but it seems that he could be a useful source of insight.

Jodi

Alain, thanks for the suggestion. Good idea, especially re considering the institutional and social changes that make certains cruelties possible and acceptable--that's exactly what I'm interested in it. I've wondered if there is a way that the current formation is best understood from within the Deleuzian 'society of control' as one that does not operate through a disciplinary logic. I tend to find this convincing, that there is a decline of discipline as a normalization and a rise of a more brutal, directly punitive form of social crucial. Some find the opposition between control and discipline to stark and unconvincing. So, it would be a good idea to go back to Discipline and Punish and check.

Alain

Jodi

I tend to agree that the distinction between controll and discipline is not either/or but both. We are overwhelmed with the more brutal aspects of our society all the time. But it seems to me that the current configuration still presupposes a certain type of normalization that is not all that different from what Foucault describes as the carceral society. The question today is not whether or not normalization takes place, but how is it implemented in order to make the current hegemony possible.

I think your discussion of cruelty is a start in this direction. Cruelty at some point became part of normalization; not only are we desensitized to it but it becomes a necessary aspect of our self-defense as a nation. Recently, I heard Bill O'Reilly talking about the need for torture against our enemies, that those who denounce it are traitors. Of course he is an idiot but many people take this point of vew seriously. Why? Because torture (and cruelty in general) have become part of our self understanding. It is no longer an obscene supplement to our liberal democracy but an essential part of who we are.

I think this links up with your discussion of vulnerability. We condem or exclude those that remind us of our own weakness. The fact that the United States is "getting tough" reflects our discomfort with our own mortality. As Zizek said "We are the victims now!" Cruelty can be viewed as a displacement of the anger we feel at our fraility.

Alain

Jodi

Just a quick afterthought. The Nietzsche quote you site occurs within the larger discussion of the slave revolt in morality and "ressentiment." Ressentiment is more insidious than mere revenge because it sublimates the impotence of the weak, allowing them to express their anger. They cannot act out in the world against those they hate or resent, but they can change the values upon which they are judged.

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