Foucault, /Discipline and Punish/, part 2: the factory

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Welcome to Oddly Influenced, a podcast about how people have applied ideas from *outside* software *to* the endless production of draft episode scripts that have to be thrown away, delaying release for way too long. Episode 31: Foucault, /Discipline and Punish/, part 2: the factory.

Last episode was first about an age in which the idea of criminality revolved around an insult to the power of the sovereign. That age gave way to one that centered how a potential criminal thought. That latter age fizzled, and was replaced by an age that was about the power of constraint, and habit. One where the verb “to punish” and the verb “to discipline” were, practically speaking, synonyms.

This episode is about how the new age modeled punishment after factory work, and the prison after the factory, which leads to a brief discussion of what Foucault means by “power”. The problem with Foucault’s conception of power is that there’s not really anything you can *do* with it, not that I can see. It’s not something that you can, as the normal tagline for the podcast puts it, “apply to software”.

I’ll make the next and final episode independent of this one, so feel free to skip it. But you’ll miss my use of the cult horror movie “Cube”, which is the best description of Foucault-ian “power” that I’ve seen.

In addition to the movie, I’m again using Foucault’s /Discipline and Punish/ and Prado’s /Starting with Foucault/.

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To recapitulate, crime was shifting away from violent crime and toward property crime. Property criminals were seen as lazy people whose character needed to be fixed. The assumption was that forcing people to go through the motions of working would literally habituate them to work. As someone wrote in 1808, “compelled to work, convicts may come in the end to like it; when they have reaped the reward, they will acquire the habit, the taste, the need for occupation”.

This was not exactly a new idea. It was backed up by success at using drills and discipline to improve the physical performance of soldiers, students, and factory workers. Correct motion could economically be made into a habit so ingrained it could be triggered at will by a signal: a word or the ringing of a bell, say.

While it might seem peculiar to think that what works for training the body would also work for training the mind, western culture (at least) has a long tradition of believing that. Approximately 2400 years ago, influential guy Aristotle said, roughly, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” More than 2300 years after Aristotle, also-influential guy Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I haven’t found any psychology-psychology evidence in favor of this folk psychology, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence against it either.

So, changing mental habits seemed worth a try.

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One of the ways people reason is by analogy to dominant symbols of their age. Back when clockwork mechanisms were marvels of technology, people analogized the mind to clockwork. Then, quoting Peter Leithart:

“By the nineteenth century, though, steam technology had taken over the European imagination, and metaphors of ‘letting off steam’ and ‘safety valve’ were applied to social and psychological realities, not least by Freud. Perhaps: No steam, no Freud.”

After World War II, the mind became analogized to the computer. As I write, it’s becoming increasingly popular to analogize the mind to a predictive language model with a huge training set and a judicious amount of randomness.

In the time Foucault is concerned with, the factory was a dominant symbol. It was a particular set of technologies for organizing people who are making things. And that set of technologies was wildly successful. People in factories made things far more productively than ever before. So it was natural to extrapolate from that to organizing people for other purposes. Specifically for the purpose of reforming them.

The prior, short-lived, “Age of Reason” approach to punishment had already hoped that punishment-via-work would rehabilitate the guilty, but their approach was more like a chain gang or team that tours the city, visibly doing public works to pay their debt to society and also to serve as a constant reminder of what happens to criminals. That didn’t mesh with the intellectual influence of the new, larger, division-of-labor-style factories and their emphasis on minute control of what Foucault calls “docile bodies.”

Last episode, I mentioned the novel /Too Like the Lightning/. In it, there’s a scene in which the narrator and his fellow criminals are cleaning up after a sewage spill or something equally unpleasant. They were doing it as a team, with all the usual sorts of team banter. That’s kind of inevitable when you’re working outdoors, fixing different problems every day, interacting in random ways with the general public. That experience is *not* what factory work was like. Here’s a quote from 1808:

“It is expressly forbidden during work to amuse one’s companions by gestures or in any other way, to play at any game whatsoever, to eat, to sleep, to tell stories and comedies.” Even during meal breaks, “there will be no telling of stories, adventures, or other such talk that distracts the workers from their work.” Even in their factory-provided homes, workers had to be docile. From 1863: “Cleanliness is the order of the day. It is the heart of the regulations. There are a number of severe provisions against noise, drunkenness, disorders of all kinds. […] The children are better supervised and are no longer a cause of scandal.”

Part of the success of the factory was that it was a single place:

“The factory was explicitly compared with the monastery, the fortress, a walled town; the guardian ‘will open the gates only on the return of the workers, […] a quarter of an hour later no one will be admitted; at the end of the day, the workshops’ heads will hand back the keys to the Swiss guard of the factory, who will then open the gates. […] The order and inspection that must be maintained require that all workers be assembled under the same roof, so that the partner who is entrusted with the management of the manufactory may prevent and remedy abuses that may arise among the workers and arrest their progress at the outset.’”

(By the way, they mean abuses *by* the workers, not abuses *of* the workers. That latter wasn’t a huge concern for factory owners and designers.)

Reasoning by analogy to improving workers, to improve prisoners you want a factory-like prison, not the chain gang outdoors. An interacting group is too hard to control in the desired amount of detail.

However, a single undivided space isn’t enough. Space must be partitioned and different subspaces should have different functions. That could be seen in hospitals as well as in factories.

Apparently, prior to this period patients just sort of wandered around the hospital. There wasn’t the notion of, say, an infectious disease ward where people with infectious diseases should *stay put*. There wasn’t even the idea of an individual patient having an assigned bed. I imagine my wife would have been a less effective doctor if, during morning rounds, she didn’t know where to find her patients.

The endpoint of the partitioning of space is the one-person prison cell, consciously modeled after a monk’s cell in a monastery. A monk’s cell is a place where he prays or meditates in order to become less sinful, and the prisoner’s cell was to have the same purpose. From 1831: “Thrown into solitude, the convict reflects. Placed alone in the presence of his crime, he learns to hate it, and, if his soul is not yet blunted by evil, it is in isolation that remorse will come to assail him.”

Monasteries were also “masters of time”. They had long had the strict schedules that factory owners craved. Much preferable to, say, the shipyards of England at roughly the same time. There workers would knock off work toward the end of the day – at a time of their own choosing – to collect the scrap wood that they were traditionally entitled to as part of their pay. (See the PDF of Linebaugh’s chapter, “Ships and Chips: Technological Repression and the Origin of the Wage”, given in the show notes.) Our ancestors were casual about time – everything, really – in a way that seriously creeps out my strict German upbringing.

I think of this partitioning of time as being akin to the partitioning of space: there is work time and non-work time. Non-work doesn’t happen during work time. And the transition between the two happens at the same moment every day. Scheduled time periods don’t bleed into each other any more than rooms have ambiguous boundaries. I speculate this goes along with a society-wide increased policing of boundaries, including the boundaries of concepts. The idea that concepts have definite necessary and sufficient conditions dates back a long way, but it seems fuzziness of concept boundaries was more acceptable back in the day. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have an episode covering two marvelously-named books: /Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things/, and /The Big Book of Concepts/.

This sort of regimentation was also adapted to the prison, where people were to move according to the clock, under the constant observation of guards who could “prevent and remedy abuses that may arise”.

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It’s worth noting at this point that all this didn’t *work*, and they knew it at the time. Sure, some prisoners were rehabilitated, but there was nothing like the success that armies and factories had seen with similar methods. As you would expect, there was some explaining of the “you didn’t try hard enough” or the “you just didn’t do it right” variety. And they might have been right (as such explanations are sometimes right today). For example, here’s a comment from 1842: “Between 1000 and 1500 convicts live under the surveillance of between thirty and forty supervisors, who can preserve some kind of security only by depending on informers, that is to say, on the corruption that they carefully sow themselves. Who are these warders? Retired soldiers, men uninstructed in their task, making a trade of guarding malefactors.” In the slang of my youth, the governments cheaped out, and they got what they paid for.

However, it does seem that the idea of “reprogramming prisoners’ wetware” via the creation of habits largely went away. But – and this is important – that’s about *all* that went away. Those who knew Pennsylvania’s 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary would easily recognize its modern-day equivalent, except that not *everyone* is in solitary confinement and prisoners are allowed to have books other than the Bible.

Why did the prison linger on once its original justification went away? It’s easy to blame it on people. I could point to Upton Sinclair’s quote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” and say that *of course* prison wardens, prison guards, prison funders, and the like would react to the failure by tweaking the way prison works, not by wanting their jobs replaced and prisons done away with. Or I could point to episode 7 on Lakatos and his claim that people don’t give up theories just because theories fail: people need to be wowed by a competitive theory’s positive results.

Foucault, however, has an alternate explanation, which I’m going to illustrate with the horror movie “Cube”. The movie starts with a person awakening in a cube-shaped room. He walks through a door into another cube-shaped room. A wire mesh zips out, slices him into pieces, and then retracts into the wall.

The plot then follows a group of people who wander through this structure – cubical rooms with other cubical rooms on all six sides – trying to stay alive. To do that, they have to solve puzzles that indicate which adjoining cubes are safe. Of course, the puzzles keep getting harder.

I couldn’t find the final version of the screenplay, but on page 41 of draft six, the character Worth reveals he had a hand in drawing plans for a shell around a giant cubical structure – the one they’re in – not knowing what was going to be inside that shell. Naturally, they want to know who hired him. He says,

“I didn’t ask. I never even left my office. I talked on the phone to some people, other guys like me, specialists, people working on small details. Nobody knew what it was. Nobody cared.”

Another character, Holloway, claims there must be a secretive conspiracy employing ignorant dupes like Worth. But Worth corrects her:

“This may be hard for you to understand, but there *is no conspiracy*. No one is in charge. It’s a headless blunder operating under the *illusion* of a master plan. Can you grasp that? Big Brother is *not* watching you.”

They object that *somebody* had to have intended to build such a death machine. Worth replies,

“Somebody might have known sometime, before they got fired, or voted out, or *sold* it. But if this place ever had a purpose, it got miscommunicated, lost in the shuffle. This is an accident. A forgotten, perpetual public works project. Do you think anyone wants to ask questions? All they want is a clear conscience and a fat paycheck.”

The Quentin character objects, “It can’t be accidental. Look around. It’s *perfect*.”

Worth: “That’s the funny part, the really sick part: This turkey *works*.”

I take that to be Foucault’s model for the prison and, indeed, all of modern society. Some specific people had some intentions, sure, and that caused them to take actions. Those actions affected the actions of other people: some later actions became more possible, others less possible. Our society is an emergent property of this network or graph of actions forever acting on other actions. Because this graph has cycles, it can be self-reinforcing.

Think of the way gift exchanges are described as sustaining societies in episode 13. A Tiv woman will give another woman a gift and expect a return gift – not immediately, but later – and *not* with something of the same value. It has to be a little less or a little more. That way, every gift brings with it the need for another gift, and the interactions that make up their society never stop.

Foucault thinks that, in the century spanning 1800, we happened to blunder into a self-sustaining network of actions encouraging or discouraging other specific actions. Put differently, we wandered into a local minimum. The turkey *works*.

That’s a pretty chilling idea. It’s a vision of humanity as a *substrate* upon which modernity grew because ideas like the disciplined factory, and a particular kind of expertise (next episode), and panopticism all happened to land on fertile soil – us – at the right time.

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Foucault unfortunately uses the word “power” for this slippery idea of actions affecting actions. It’s unfortunate because we’re used to thinking of *people* exercising power. We’re like Holloway in “Cube”, thinking there’s always a shadowy “someone” behind the scenes making things the way they are. Foucault’s power is way more indirect and impersonal than that. Let me quote this from Prado: “[Power] is not anything anyone has or controls, and it serves no ends or goals.”

Moreover, Foucault writes: “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (French intellectuals sure love their wordplay.)

This makes it seem pointless to do anything and Foucault is credibly accused of nihilism. However, I want to finish by refusing to stare into that abyss, with two points.

1. Even if Foucault is right, he’s dealing on the scale of entire societies. Sure, my actions are constrained by “power”, but not completely. Foucault allows that I can still make choices. And sure, I can’t predict how my actions will ripple out to society as a whole, and how they will encourage or inhibit other actions far removed from me. But the narrower the scope, I have to believe the better my chance of controlling effects, especially as I respond to feedback.

2. I want to highlight the “I have to believe” in what I just said. Something I got from both Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty is: you can be talked into nihilism, into thinking that there’s no intellectual reason to believe anything or to do anything on the basis of a belief. Their response is: so? We as a species aren’t built for that. We just *do* believe things, and we act on those beliefs. Foucault was a political activist. People frequently pointed out that really didn’t square with his theory of power and change. I haven’t seen what his response was. I like to think it was an eloquent Gallic shrug.


Thank you for listening. Next episode, panopticism. I promise.

Foucault, /Discipline and Punish/, part 2: the factory
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