Foucault, “Docile Bodies”

Foucault, Michel.“Docile Bodies.” Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. (35 pages)

Foucault continues to describe the role of disciplines as “a general formula of domination” and its role in controlling discourse. In this piece, he specifically focuses on the ways disciplines “[produce] subjected and practiced” bodies (138), making them the “object and target of power” (136). The docile body, then, refers to both the “analyzable body” and the “manipulable body”—in other words, the ways the body can be supervised effectively and manipulated to both be supervised and act within the boundaries of the discipline: “a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved” (136). He further notes that the “elegance of the discipline” lies in its ability to function invisibly and ubiquitously—it imposes a “costly and violent relation” through the guise of utility, productivity, and efficiency. It’s ubiquity, then, finds its power—and political structure—in minute detail. Foucault writes, “the mystique of the everyday is joined here with the discipline of the minute” (140). In other words, the mechanism—and machination—of the bodies through disciplines creates a complete encasing of control, even reached the control of everyday experiences, thus contributing to the power of disciplines.

Foucault then delineates how discplines endows bodies with four characteristics of control: 1. Cellular (spatial distribution); 2. Organic (coding of activities); 3. Genetic (accumulation and progress of time); and 4. Composite of forces. In each of these characteristics, he outlines further the ways each is designed.


Art of distributions—the distribution of individuals in space.

  1. Enclosure: “the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself” (141).
  2. Partitioning: “each individual has his own place; and each place its individual. Avoid distributions in groups: break up collective dispositions” (143). In this way, Foucault writes that it conjures a presence and absence: “to know where and how to locate individuals…to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of each individual, to assess it, to judge it, to calculate its qualities” (143). Partitioning is a key feature of the discipline to develop a space of analysis.
  3. Functional Sites: in creating useful and function spaces, confusion is eliminated. Disciplines create environments of function as a motive for supervision.
  4. Rank: “the place one occupies in a classification…Discipline is an art of rank, a technique for the transformation of arrangements. It individualizes bodies by a location that does not give them a fixed position, but distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations” (146). Rank also becomes a motive for individuals for supervision and merit.


The control of activity

  1. Time-table: creating order, rhythm, and regularities of activities, but also to make sure that time is used effectively and with quality. “Precision and application are, with regularity, the fundamental virtues of disciplinary time” (151).
  2. Temporal elaboration of the act: “a temporal obligatory rhythm, imposed form the outside; it is a ‘programmer’; it assures the elaboration of the act itself; it controls its development and its stages from the inside” (152).
  3. Correlation of the body and the gesture: “it imposes the best relation between a gesture and the ovrall position of the body, which is its condition of efficiency and speed. In the correct use of the body, which make possible a correct use of time, nothing must remain idle or useless” (152). In this way, the body is broken down and objectified into elements and corresponds to elements of the act.
  4. The body-object articulation: “relations that the body must have with the object that it manipulates” (153). The object—that which is being manipulated by the body—reciprocally codifies the body into the parts that manipulates the body. The structures of power create a symbiotic link between body and object.
  5. Exhaustive use: “non-idleness: it was forbidden to waste time…a moral offence and economic dishonesty” (154).


The organization of geneses—the organization principles of progression or capitalizing time. Key term is exercise: “technique by which one imposes on the body tasks that are both repetitive and different, but always graduated” (161).

  1. “Divide duration into successive or parallel segments, each of which must end at a specific time” (157). In other words, “break down time into separate and adjusted threads” (158).
  2. “Organize these threads according to an analytical plan”
  3. Examination, evaluation, and assessment: “which will have the triple function of showing whether the subject has reached the level required, of guaranteeing that each subject undergoes the same apprenticeship and of differentiating the abilities of each individual” (158).
  4. “Lay down for each individual…the exercise that are suited to him. …Thus each individual is caught up in a temporal series which specifically defines his level of his rank” (158-9).


The composition of forces—the productive power of combining forces, power of social labor, cooperation. The discipline demands the construction of a machine comprised of cooperative bodies and objects.

  1. Machinery: “the individual body becomes an element that can be placed, moved, articulated on others…The body is constituted as part of a multi-segmentary machine” (164).
  2. Timing: “The time of each [moment in the machinery] must be adjusted to the time of the others in such a way that the maximum quantity of forces may be extracted form each and combined with optimum results” (164-5).
  3. Internalization of signals and behaviors: “the order does not need to be explained or formulated; it must trigger off the required behavior and that is enough” (166).




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