And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity III – Foucault: Discipline as Power

Discipline: To investigate and take care of the movement, of the posture; to position and relate, to hierarchize; to invest in an aesthetics of regularity; discipline arises across the places where the bodies are governed, and it is constituted as a non-centralized form of power through which surveillance is constant, multiple and ubiquitous.


Between the clash with the new world of Cambridge and the depression that took me hostage for a year, this is what I was able to write about Discipline, its subjugating grips, and the fake transformation that goes by the name of Interdisciplinarity.

This essay is divided in three parts. This is the third and last. You can read the first and second here & here.



But within the same context, confronted with the same situation and the same problems, the response was not homogeneous, and other ways of thinking discipline were being drawn. On December 2nd of 1970, Michel Foucault gave his inaugural lesson at Collége de France entitled L’ordre du discours.[1] In what was certainly one of his most explicitly reflexive interventions, questioning the nature of his discourse as an explanatory laying down of his subject, Foucault describes the procedures of limitation and control of the discursive act. He postulates that “in every society the production of discourse is simultaneously controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to purge its powers and perils, to dominate its random occurrence, to dodge its heavy, dreaded materiality”; and then goes on identifying the several procedures, among which discipline is to be found.

Discipline is defined both as a “domain of objects, a set of methods, a corpus of propositions considered to be true, a game of rules and definitions, of techniques and instruments” and as that “which is required for the construction of new statements”, therefore presupposing the possibility of infinitely formulating  new propositions about the same set of objects. Foucault presents both notions by contrast: discipline is a mold of coherence to be found on a different plane from that of authorship; and it is a vertical and progressive principle of knowledge, contrarily to the one presupposed by the commentary, which works horizontality, peripherally, inside the space of secondariness.[2]

Discipline appears to have here a different nature from the ones found in previous conceptualizations. It certainly does not conform to the notion of a domestic and powerless division of knowledges in branches. But the performativity that it is to be found in it can’t also be categorized as purely limitative or constraining. Discipline is here an “internal procedure of control and delimitation” that classifies, orders, distributes.

It is discipline that establishes the conditions by which a certain proposition is or isn’t recognized as belonging to a theoretical horizon, i.e. that allows or forbids a proposition to have a truth-value, be it positive or negative. Outside of discipline a proposition cannot be “within the truth”. Its performativity is therefore constructive in the sense it is constitutive: it not only classifies the constructed, it is a condition for the classification itself. As we will see, it is discipline that allows the construction of the familiar subject.

But its performativity is also reiterative. Discipline “establishes its limits through the game of identity that has the form of a permanent re-actualization of the rules”, of a permanent reconfiguration and renegotiation.[3]

This presentation of discipline does not render it to an immediate or transparent judgment, either as positive or negative, a trait derived from what will later be known as Foucault’s perspective on critique. The subject who critically inquires about the system of truth of which she is part is not to be placed in the locus of judgment, the site of immediate corroboration or accusation. Beyond good and evil, there is a suspension of movement that seems to work not as a search for a value judgment, but rather as a needed condition for the profundity of the assessment.

Foucault’s investigation on discipline went on, and in 75 he published Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la prison in which he describes it as a new type of power[4]. Looking into the genealogy of modern hospitals, schools, factories and, specially, of prison he describes disciplines as “methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility”[5]. To investigate and take care of the movement, of the posture; to position and relate, to hierarchize; to invest in an aesthetics of regularity; discipline arises across the places where the bodies are governed, and it is constituted as a non-centralized form of power through which surveillance is constant, multiple and ubiquitous. Through these distributions, the ordering of human multiplicities allows their maximum productivity and becomes one of the central traits of the new anatomy of power “which includes a range of tools, techniques, procedures, application levels, targets”.[6]

The comprehensive account of the invention of discipline as a technology serves Foucault’s purposes of understanding how we got to be in a society which can no longer be described as a society of spectacle but is rather a society in which “we are neither in the amphitheater, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we ourselves reproduce given we are part of its mechanism.”[7]

In a first sketch of what he would later call biopolitics, Foucault uses discipline to show how that “it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.”[8]

The elusive descriptions of how discipline organizes, classifies and categorizes bodies, ordering them according to space and time, its minutia and detail and its processes of hierarchizing, quantifying and normalizing gave space to the interpretation that Foucault also had in mind discipline in the academic sense. Michael Walzer, for example, thinks this use as a pun with two different meanings of discipline – that of a branch of knowledge, and that of a “system of correction and control”.[9]

But Foucault’s writings on discipline are far from being an elaborate wordplay. His work is grounded on a triangular analysis: that of the systems of knowledge, that of the modalities of power and that of the relations of the self with itself.[10] Across this triptych we can find what Foucault calls the process of subjectivation, “the set of performative techniques of power that incited the subject to act and operate modifications on her soul and body, thought and conduct, aiming to bind the subject to an activity of constant surveillance and permanent adequacy to the moral principles of its epoch.  Subjectivation (…) therefore encompasses exercises of inhibition of the self, linked to the political dynamics of government and to the development of shapes of scientific knowledge”.[11] The disciplinary process constructs the mechanism of self-government.

We can extend this framework to the point in which the academic discipline can no longer be thought without the process of disciplinarization of the subjects, and in which the regulatory discipline cannot be thought as separate from a production of knowledge.




Fig.3 Among the several images presented in the original that weren’t included in the English translation, the one which shows orthopedics as a custodian and a ruler is probably the greatest loss. And of all of them, it is the one that best illustrates the idea of discipline: the caretaker is also the one who imposes order, the norm is both rigid and solicitous, the power of the ruler resides in its own body, in its form, in its posture, and it tends to diffuse itself through the incorporation in undisciplined bodies. Discipline is the ruler that both straightens up and measures. Image 1 in Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, Michel Foucault, 1975, Éditions Gallimard.

Discipline is a technology of power that produces knowledges and is produced by them. As such, its nature is intrinsically related with a set of emerging practices.

One of these practices is the execution by the organized subjects (be them pupils, prisoners, military men, etc.) of an ‘ever-increasing rigorous exercises’. The diffusion of this method, with the emergence of discipline, shows us its new role: by imposing on the body repetitive and graduated tasks, orienting it towards a certain ideal, a certain model, the ‘exercise’ is able to bend ‘behaviour towards a terminal state’. It hence ‘makes possible a perpetual characterization of the individual’, tending ‘towards a subjection that has never reached its limit’. We can see, then, how discipline is iterative and continuous: it reproduces and broadens itself through a repetition and replication of movements, postures and procedures which are, by this perpetual performative mechanism, constantly being renegotiated.[12]

It also becomes clear why indiscipline fails to question this logic. Indiscipline is the characteristic of that on which the discipline has yet not taken effect. It is a deranged space, but a coordinable one. The undisciplined body is already part of a disciplinary regime in the sense that it is already categorized and thought by it; and it is mainly on it that discipline is capable of showing its effects. To some extent, the existence of the unruly body is so fundamental to discipline as the disciplined body itself.

‘Exercise’ is part of a broader logic of observing that is propelled to render transparent the bodies into which it looks.  This transparency, however, is even more evident in another technique: ‘examination’. Foucault describes it as “a normalizing gaze, a surveillance gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them.”[13]

But examinations do not work simply as a unidirectional method of judgment. The relation of power it stablishes has in its core the production of knowledge by the examiners and by the examined: it has to do not only with the examination of the subject regarding a certain issue, but with the constitution of the subject herself as an object of knowledge.[14]

Looking at the way subjects are constructed and at how the disciplinary machine results in a process of continuous self-construction – subjectivation and self-government – renders clear discipline’s constitutive nature. Discipline creates the subjects: it creates those who study the object and the object itself. It constitutes different matrixes of construction and different regimes of validity.[15] Discipline not only creates knowledge, but is nowadays the condition for the possibility of its creation.

The disciplinary regime is methodic, transparent and constitutive. And it is precisely because adjectives like ‘repressive’, ‘constraining’ or ‘limitative’ do not suffice to account for the disciplinary regime, that the discourse of interdisciplinarity falls short on the attempt to challenge it. Foucault recognized this inadequacy during a short intervention on the distinction between philosophy and history:  he said that “the principle of intelligibility of relations between power and knowledge passes rather through the analysis of strategies than through that of ideologies. It seems to me it is this notion and its possible use which could allow not an ‘interdisciplinary encounter’ (…) but work in common by people who seek to ‘de-discipline’ themselves.”[16]  He did not develop this idea further, but since discipline is based on a strong process of construction of subjects, de-disciplinarization can be seen as a particular case of de-subjectivization.[17]


From the ideas developed here, we can now see how disciplinarity can no longer be thought of as a set of tactics for managing fragmented sections of knowledge; it is an entire regime. However, for those who do not agree with this perspective, for those who still think of discipline as a partition of knowledge, interdisciplinarity will appear to have fallen short of its original project: the disciplinary regime remains unchallenged if not more robust. But indeed it seems clear now how interdisciplinarity does not challenge at all the regime of knowledge production. In fact, the opposite seems to stand: the function of the rise of the discourse on interdisciplinarity did not so much threaten the disciplinary disposal, as it actually renewed it. With its prescriptive-descriptive duality, interdisciplinarity was able to maintain the importance of disciplines while expurgating their alleged restrictive nature, their disciplinarity.

The evolution of the discourses on interdisciplinarity since the 1970s may appear as paradoxical.[18] In 85, OECD and CERI published a second book on interdisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity Revisited[19], in which Levin and Lind observe that there was little structural change during the past 15 years. But it was also during this period that interdisciplinarity became a broad and generally accepted discourse. This paradoxical trait seems to vanish, however, when we understand interdisciplinarity as a self-entitled antithesis of discipline, resulting in shabby dialectic dynamic that strengthens both poles without ever reaching sublation.

This movement appears even clearer if we look again to the discourse shift on the ‘70s. The seminal book organized by CERI and OECD presents, along with a strong defense of interdisciplinary approaches, pedagogical and institutional solutions for their implementation. When Pierre Duguet[20], referring to training and education of research workers, shows that “cooperation between disciplines (…) has its own methods, which must be worked out and taught, and [that] it implies that a model for classifying sciences and showing how they overlap will be worked out beforehand” we can now see a strong process of disciplinarization. It is not by chance that we can find in Duguet’s recommendations the main principle of disciplinary self-government, that “it is important for students to find themselves”; but moreover that, together with providing them “guidance”, “it is also necessary for students to learn how to learn”.[21] Indeed, no definition of interdisciplinarity would fit better their project than calling it the disciplinarization of the relations between disciplines.

Even more striking is how this discourse emerges during a period of student revolt. Across the book the urgency for interdisciplinarity is justified by a sense of a political reaction to an academic and institutional crisis. To respond to the sense of uncertainty Althusser had already identified, interdisciplinarity is put forward as a reform, one of the objectives of which is to “defuse the students against work piece and to give back the willingness to return to the current world”[22].

We can then see how a process that presents itself as a break with the old regime has, from the outset, the objective of maintaining the status quo, of avoiding a crisis of academic authority, to calm tempers , to erase any subversive

[1] The original speech is available in several sites in the internet, namely (accessed October 2014). The English translation by Rupert Swyer in The Archeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language,1972, Tavistock Publications Limited. I opted by translating the quoted passages myself due to aesthetical and to some content lost in translation.

[2] Contrarily to what Jan Golinski states, however, there is no reason to think that Foucault is giving primacy to discipline as an entity in history of though. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science, 1998/2005, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London.

[3] See fn. 22.

[4] Foucault, M., Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1995, Second Vintage Books Edition. Translation by Alan Sheridan

[5] Idem,  p.137

[6] Ibid.,  p.218

[7] Ibid., p.217

[8] Ibid., p.217

[9] Walzer, M., The politics of Michel Foucault, in Hoy, D. (ed.) Foucault: A Critical Reader,1986, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford, p. 64

[10] Ramos do Ó, J., A arte de governo em Michel Foucault, in Unipop (Org.), Pensamento Crítico Contemporâneo, Edições 70, Lisbon. p. 198

[11] Idem, p. 199.

[12] Foucault, Disicpline.. (see fn.24), pp.161,162

[13] Idem, p.184

[14] Hoskin makes this logic evident in the particular case of education by showing how the writing practice substituted the oral examination. Furthermore, he shows how the change of the grading system (from ranks to marks) strongly connects this new form of examination with the perfectioning proper of ‘exercises’. Hoskin, K., Education and the Genesis of Disciplinarity: The Unexpected Reversal, in Shumway et al. (eds), Knowledges: Historical and Critical Studies in Disciplinarity, 1993, University Press of Virginia.

[15] Petrie, H., Do you see what I see? The epistemology of interdisciplinary inquiry, in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 1976, pp. 29-43

[16] Foucault, M., La poussière et le nuage, in M. Perrot (Ed.), L’Impossible Prison : Recherches sur le Système Pénitentiare au XXIe Siècle, 1980, Paris : Seuil. I am using here Schaffer’s translation (see fn. 4)

[17] The idea of désassujettisement is especially well explained in Foucault, M., Qu’Est-Ce Que La Critique?, in Bulletin de la Société française de la philosophie, 84:2, 1990, pp. 35-63 and in Butler, J., What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue, in Ingram, D. (ed), The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy, 2002, London: Basil Blackwell.

[18] Weingart, P., in Interdisciplinarity… (see fn.1)

[19] Levin, L., and Lind, I., Interdisciplinarity Revisited, 1985, OECD/CERI, according to Weingart (fn.30)

[20] Duguet, in Interdisciplinarity… (see fn.13),  p.14

[21] Idem,  p.14

[22] Ibidem, p. 12



6 comments on “The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity III – Foucault: Discipline as Power

  1. Pingback: The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity II – The Creation of Inter/Disciplinarity | MODO DE VOLAR

  2. Pingback: The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity I – Unproblematic Disciplines | MODO DE VOLAR

  3. Pingback: Science Was Born Cyborg I – Foucault’s Path to Discipline | MODO DE VOLAR

  4. Pingback: Science Was Born Cyborg II -The Production of Scientists | MODO DE VOLAR

  5. Pingback: Science Was Born Cyborg III – Scientists as Instruments | MODO DE VOLAR

  6. Pingback: Science Was Born Cyborg IV -The Values of Cyborg Instruments | MODO DE VOLAR

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on 18/01/2016 by in Sem categoria.
%d bloggers like this: