Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison is a provocative work for anyone leaning into Stoicism to help redress some of the changes to the way we think about ourselves brought on by the social distribution of the techniques of psychological technologies.
Foucault is an interesting philosopher for those leaning into Stoicism. In his lecture on technologies of the self he begins with a discussion of three stoic techniques, one of which is examination which is explored in this essay. His works on cultivating the self and the care of the self draw from the Stoics too. Which given the individual focus of Stoic ethics is a surprise after Foucault’s famous works on the Birth of the Clinic, Madness and Discipline and Punish with their more sociological bent. That sociological context of philosophy in Discipline and Punish is a good reason to read it if you are interested in Stoicism. As Jacques Derrida wrote nothing occurs out of a context and going back in history with Foucault is a useful exercise for taking the much further step back in time to the Roman Stoics.
Seneca and other Hellenistic philosophers make use of examination as a key technique for self-transformation. When we think of examination many of us will think in terms of a prelude to correction. Maybe even disciplinary action. What reading Discipline and Punish does is help recognise the many facets of examination that apply to those of us living in the twenty-first century. It will give us a perspective that facilitates questions about whether Seneca and Aurelius had the same sense of examination in the early current era that we do today.
The first few pages of Surveil are not for the squeamish. It details some of the punishments used in the 18th century. Being hung drawn and quartered, and the like are torturous and horrific punishments meted out in the past. Foucault use the term atrocity. They put us in mind of the brutality of the times the Stoics lived in. But not just the ancient past. The last two people guillotined in France were executed in 1977.
Some of the techniques Stoics like Seneca used for self-transformation, are described in Michel Foucault’s article Technologies of the Self. For those leaning into Stoicism that article is a useful read. However, Foucault’s book Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison is a provocative work for anyone interested in Stoicism as a guide to practical reason. That book will help further you understanding of yourself as an individual in a way that forces us to remember how Ancient Roman society was conformist in many ways and to become known as an individual a person needed to accomplish meretricious deeds and accumulate power.
Foucault used his genealogy method of historical inquiry, and takes as its major premise that “detention became the essential form of punishment”1 in a short time-frame during the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. This change away from punishing the body indicated major changes within the culture of modernity and the nature of modern societies.2 Those cultural changes reflected a transition from a culture of ascendant individualisation — were people become more individualised by their meretricious deeds and the power they accrued—to a descendent culture of individualisation that distinguishes people to the extent they are acted upon by anonymous power.3
Such a transition can been seen as the levelling of individuality by anonymous power, and the resulting culture; which was disparaged by Soren Kierkegaard in The Present Age. One of the many important questions raised by Foucault’s book not dealt with in the following post, is the extent to which the modern societies we inhabit are governed by purely descendant procedures of individualisation. The answer to how we have been acted upon by the power of our parents, communities, the institutions of education we attended, and other power loci is a question we are better able to ponder after reading and reflecting on Discipline and Punish.
In this article discussion is restricted to Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, usually translated as Discipline and Punish rather than Foucault’s oeuvre. However, I agree with the argument made by Stuart Elden that Survey and Punish would be a more appropriate translation, especially with the intensity of influence surveillance capitalism has on our lives in 2021 My aim is only to sketch his understanding of the process of individuation through examination, and raise a concern about the narcissistic nature of the resultant individual soul. This is important for people who are serious about Stoicism because Seneca and Aurelius both lean heavily on examination as a transformative technique in their philosophical method.
In Survey and Punish Foucault takes the position that the human soul is a contingent, non-corporeal reality, determined by a political anatomy.4 The contingency thesis has its basis in an understanding of the forces that constitute the soul. Foucault sees the soul as something constituted by power, and known by the knowledge that exists in a developmental and dialectic relationship with that power.
The techniques that develop this power/knowledge are the mechanisms he calls the political anatomy. They are anatomical because the soul is “produced permanently around, on, [and] within the body.”5 These techniques have developed over history and have undergone changes in form and content as culture has changed and assumed the characteristics of modernity.
Souls are not thought to be static or given across time or culture. So we can study Foucault’s work as part of an investigation of the effect Stoic practical philosophy. How could it effect the way we think about ourselves and other individuals? One way of exploring that issue is by looking at examinations, one of the mechanisms of power Foucault discusses in Survey and Punish. But before doing so, I will briefly comment on Foucault’s notion of the disciplinary society.
Foucault thinks of modern society as a disciplinary society. This contrasts modern society with the feudal style of nations throughout history. In feudal societies power operated from above in the manner of sovereign power. Today’s disciplinary society is structured by instruments of power that are available at nearly all levels of society. So the majority of individuals in a modern society have the ability to contribute to the individuation of others. Rather than being restricted to sovereigns and individuals positioned at or near the top of the power structure of a society, nearly everyone can contribute to the production of souls by supervising, training and correcting others.6
What we find in the Stoics techniques is a way to transform the soul. That is, these techniques are a way to produce a new Stoic soul. The methods the Stoics use to achieve that transformation are exactly the same as those Foucault investigates – supervising, training and examination. In Seneca, nearly all of these processes are done by a person on their self, or in the case of the Letters to Lucilius, with the help of a mentor or friend. In Survey and Punish Foucault details several instruments of disciplinary power, including panopticonism, hierarchical supervision, normalisation of judgement and examinations. Only examinations are explored in this article because one of Seneca’s most important techniques is the nightly examination of his actions throughout the day to identify how he could have done better.
Foucault writes “…the examination is at the centre of the procedures that constitute the individual as effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge.”7 In the case of producing souls, the knowledge generated through examination by the various psychological sciences at work in our education system plays a strong role. An examination makes use of norms that are created by the techniques of anonymous power to evaluate that which is being inspected, and is commonly conducted by a supervisor who has gained some experience with a particular technique for producing power/knowledge.
A powerful example is the many different types of ‘examination’ that occurs as we wend our way from pre-school to existing university. In an educational context we are constantly watched – surveyed. Educators are expected by their profession, the institutions that employ them, and society to make judgements along normative lines about the condition of a student, in more and more dimensions with every passing decade. Using the individual knowledge extracted from the examination of students, educators individuate people in their classrooms from one another, as well as from other members of their family and communities. On Foucault’s account, the knowledge created by an educators examination of a students contributes to the production of that student’s soul.
The basis of Foucault’s view is his account of the function power performs in disciplinary societies. In the feudal style society the more power a person has the clearer their individuation.8 In the disciplinary society, Foucault maintains it is the deviants from the norms developed by the representations of the human sciences that are more clearly individuated — the criminal, the insane, the child and the patient.9 The basis of this claim is that the soul is individuated by knowledge, developed from examinations that test against the norms developed by human sciences: the normal, the healthy, the adult, and the sane, all have fewer marks of individuation against those norms. It is deviance from the norms that provide knowledge and hence the function of power is to individuate by gaining knowledge. While the technologies for creating knowledge can be wielded by individuals, the techniques themselves are anonymous. So the more a person is acted upon by the mechanisms of power, which is to say the more knowledge an examination creates about and from them, the more individuated they become.10
Seneca’s nightly examination is an individual wielding the techniques and norms of Stoicism on their self. With the aim of transforming that self. In Seneca’s Letters a crucial component of the transformation is using philosophy as therapy to address suffering caused by emotions and desires. Using examination the way Seneca does is a way of creating power/ knowledge over the self.
On Foucault’s account power/knowledge is the genesis of reality.11 The use of techniques that create power/knowledge are available to nearly every one, the instruments of disciplinary power are in Foucault’s words, “infinitesimally distributed.”12 This is to say these instruments of disciplinary power are de-institutionalised in modern societies,13 and they anonymously create power for the society and its members. Hence Foucault’s proclamation that we must stop describing power in negative terms, and by implication, to accept its positive, productive role in society.14 In the case of psychologically produced power/knowledge, such a thesis might rally the call to accept the potential to reduce suffering and place little value on the effect the technology has on the way we think about ourselves. Perhaps asking us to close our eyes about the way Tech companies are using psychological techniques and just to hope it all turns into Brave New World does not seem an unattractive option for the Foucault of Survey and Punish, because his position on the anonymity of power seems resolutely anti-humanist. By urging us not to discuss power in negative terms, Foucault’s anonymous power becomes alien and unmanageable for humans, perhaps even unassailable to human opposition.
In relation to psychological technologies my concern with Survey and Punish is the narcissistic nature of Foucault’s position. I do accept though, that Foucault would not think such a view of his position especially surprising or critical. Narcissism is a rich term with many elements. The element that seems most pertinent in a discussion of Survey and Punish is the idea that narcissism entails an “inordinate dependence on others for the maintenance of self-esteem,”15 (insta any one?). The individuation of the self by anonymous techniques of power (in this case algorithms) could easily encourage the development of a pathologically shallow sense of self, vulnerable to the narcissistic delusions of immortality (Gary Vee and legacy), omnipotence (Elon Musk) and perfection (the Donald),16that already seem present in the use of advanced psychological technology.
With Foucault’s positive view of disciplinary power, psychological technologies could easily become instruments of delusionary power. The delusion of perfection and omnipotence is likely to be a concern to followers of Stoicism if they are given to approaching everything with a hack mentality, making choices that would alter the way they understand their makeup. Even in the straightforward technologies of eating and sleeping, those delusions could be encouraged. The extent to which a person will accept this or that technique to optimise their self as a suitable human being, while seemingly paying attention to Charles Taylor’s idea that we need to express our own understanding of what it is to be human,17 would more likely be expressing a Foucauldian range of individuating norms that have been generated by the uncritical mass distribution of the human sciences. Thinking along these lines indicates some troubling implications with Foucault’s thesis in Survey and Punish, especially when thinking from Taylor’s point of view –that in a modern society it is incumbent upon us to be true to ourselves, to look within and live our life in our own way.18
Of course, there is good reason to accept the narcissistic nature of Foucault’s thesis. Urban people, at least, are highly dependent on others in a modern society (or at least more keenly aware of their potential helplessness) as modern lifestyles increasingly depend on the products of modern technology. We are dependent on others to a great extent and narcissism maybe an accurate reflection of that state. And narcissism is not an intrinsically evil condition, many theorists identify positive and negative forms of narcissism. That psychological technologies like Stoicism are likely to increase our power over suffering, license expectations of longevity and aspirations for our children to be better adapted to the human condition seems to reflect narcissistic delusions without sounding over-wrought or pathological. Yet, there seems something sinister in the idea that not only our lifestyle but the very nature of our material composition could be dependent on technology and the choices of others.
In conclusion, Foucault’s Survey and Punish is a provocative text for research into the effect Stoicism as a technology for the self could have on the way we think about ourselves. The question it most strongly highlights are, to what extent will Stoic grounded views of individuals encourage a pathology that takes the form of the narcissistic delusions of immortality, omnipotence and perfection?
Foucault M. Discipline and Punish A. Sheridan trans. London, Penguin, 1991
Jurist E. Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche: Philosophy, Culture and Agency Cambridge Mass. MIT Press, 2000
Shengold L. Delusions of Everyday Life New Haven, Yale University Press 1995
Taylor C. The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge Mass. Harvard University Press, 1992
von Schriltz K. ‘Foucault on the Prison: Torturing History to Punish Capitalism’ Critical Review 13, (nos3-4) p391-412
1 Foucault M. Discipline and Punish A. Sheridan trans. London, Penguin, 1991p115
2 von Schriltz K. ‘Foucault on the Prison: Torturing History to Punish Capitalism’Critical Review 13, (nos3-4) p398
3 Foucault M. Discipline and Punish A. Sheridan trans. London, Penguin, 1991p192
4 Ibid. p29-30
5 Ibid. p29
6 Ibid. p29
7 Ibid. p192
9 Ibid. p193
10 Ibid. p192
11 Ibid. p194
12 Ibid. p216
13 Ibid. p211
14 Ibid. p194
15 Jurist E. Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche: Philosophy, Culture and Agency Cambridge Mass. MIT Press, 2000 p106
16 Leonard Shengold discusses in some detail these narcissistic delusions in Shengold L. Delusions of Everyday Life New Have, Yale University Press 1995 pp30-41
17 Taylor C. The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge Mass.,Harvard University Press. 1992 P28-29
18 Ibid. P28-29.