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Individuality as a Mechanism of Control

ericafenton's picture

     This week I had some wonderful opportunities to bring concepts from our class into other classes, so want to use this post to share some of those cross-disciplinary reflections. In the class "Social Change: Institutions and Organizations" (with Professor Shannan Hayes, who is so amazing), we recently read sections of Foucault's Dicsipline and Punishment  and Security, Terriroty, Population. Among other arguments, Foucault discusses a shift of the ruling class: a shift from ruling over territory to ruling over populations in the form of biopower, or government involvement in the "private sector" such as influencing our food, sexuality, habits, and health. According to Foucault, this biopower (and all power, for that matter) is imposed by our surveillance of ourselves and each other. Without going too deep into explaining the theory, Foucault believes that power is something that circulates, cannot be pinpointed upon any one person, and is produced and reproduced through our performance of "norms." The shift from ruling territory/land to populations/people, then, required the creation of norms and individuals to compare to that norm. Previously, the population was considered as one body, its individual members managed by the patriarch; meanwhile, the King was individuated. With this shift, the population becomes individuated, each individual member comparable to the "normative" individual, while the centralized power becomes decentralized; punishment occurs not through public displays of violent power, but through subtle or passive forms of violence (for example, this is the difference between beheading someone for stealing and imprisoning them). 

     As we have discussed over the past couple of weeks, disability was born through the creation of "normalcy"; though bodily differences have always existed, many became debilitating only when placed in comparison with an "average", when individuals were expected to contribute a standardized amount rather than contributing to the best of their ability [EDIT: the word "debilitating" was not thoughtfully placed; what I meant was: "many became viewed as debilitating]. I have been thinking about mechanisms of the state's biopower over reproduction, in line with our conversations about the violence of statistics and eugenics. One such mechanism is Freak Shows, which we talked about at length in the Clare reading. These shows were visible, public, and loud reminders that bodily differences are Freaks, and straying too far from normalcy can land you in a show yourself. This is the self-surveillance Foucault talks about-- the state is not directly imposing norms, but is promoting these shows of norm imposition. Heteronormativity and the gender binary are another mode of undercover state biopower. These are concepts that the population at large internalizes, holds as true, and can be used to assess individuals' proximity to normalcy. I find the intertwining of disability, politics, the economy, social norms, and institutional change very interesting-- perhaps a point of exploration for my mid-sem project (maybe).