Friday, 27 November 2009

The Process of Power/Knowledge in the Institution

In Discipline and Punish (1975) Michel Foucault discusses how mechanisms and processes within institutions become normalised as part of an exercise of power. Foucault explains that the classical age brought with it a different approach to education. The body was required to become “docile” through its management by “disciplinary power” (1991: 156). The operations required to be carried out by the student were controlled down to the finest detail and Foucault provides information on how this training was carried out: students were given strict instruction on how to sit and write (1991: 152). Foucault makes it clear that this form of direction was not about teaching or instructing the student in a specific gesture; it actually imposed “the best relation between a gesture and the overall position of the body, which is the condition of efficiency and speed.” (ibid.). Not only was it required that the individual (the body) was controlled to the minutest degree, but also that, with the required training, eventually these gestures would become 'natural' (1991: 156). It is essentially for the perpetuation of any ideology that the subject assumes their position (both within the apparatus and in his/her body): the student in the school makes the appropriate gesture which has not only become organic for them but also concretises them in the material process of the institution. They act as they are instructed: they carry out actions (Althusser) in the form of these gestures (Foucault) which are materially inculcated in the body-politic.

For Foucault this body-politic is: “a set of material elements and techniques that serve as weapons, relays, communications routes and supports for the power and knowledge relations that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge.” (1991: 28). While it may initially seem that describing the contemporary student (or member of staff) as subjugated is a gross exaggeration of a state that the modern body could possibly be forced into in a democratic world; on closer examination it becomes apparent that power is applied in a much more subtle way in postmodernity. The seeds of the application of the power/knowledge process, that still operates in the institution today, are apparent in Foucault's exploration of education in Discipline and Punish. Before discussing how I believe Foucault's model of power dovetails with excellence in the posthistoric university, I shall briefly explain how, for Foucault, power works in relation to knowledge.

Foucault explains that thinking of power and knowledge as separate from each other, that they exist in detached domains, is a mistake; in fact “power produces knowledge” (1991: 27). Foucault says “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does no presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (ibid.). Knowledge of something – for example, a field of theory or, indeed, knowledge of individuals – produces power; but also being in a position of power enables knowledge to be gleaned. Foucault explains that this reciprocal power/knowledge process involves the knowing subject, the known object and also the modes used in the procurement of that knowledge (1991: 27-28). In relation to micro-politics, this works in regards to knowledge of the individual, in particular the body, as is apparent in instructing students on how to sit and write. It is this that Foucault describes as “political anatomy” (1991: 28). However, he makes it clear that this is a procedure that does not decontextualise the subject, or the body; it is the analysis of a process, the body-politic, which means the individual cannot be removed from this activity and examined on their own in relation to power (ibid.).

Previously I discussed how the term 'excellence' fits in with the actions of the subject who is part of the university: excellence requires processes of qualification that materially situate the subject who is partaking in that process in the institution, and therefore in the ISA. Foucault explains how an obsession with procedures and rules becomes an economic process:
The meticulousness of the regulations, the fussiness of the inspections, the supervision of the smallest fragment of life and the body will soon provide, in the context of the school [...] an economic or technical rationality for this mystical calculus of the infinitesimal and the infinite. (1991: 140).

In the University of Excellence these are the qualifying gestures that measure the system's efficiency. However, describing them as simply 'gestures' implies that they are innocuous. By employing Althusser's ideological model we have seen how the individuals in the university become subjected through their actions. However, by applying Foucault's power/knowledge theory we can see how this process operates on the body itself. So, in a sense, this could be described as doubly material. If we hold that Althusser's subjection of the individual is material (actions take place within concrete apparatuses); and that, for Foucault, knowledge of the individual brings with it a process that propels them into a relationship of power through the control of the body (the material body as it functions within that particular domain of power), then excellence does not only invest the subject in the ideology of the specific ideological apparatus, it also physically represses them at the same time. While repression seems like an extremely strong term to use to describe what occurs within the university, when examining Foucault further it becomes apparent that this repression (subjugation) is actually quite subtle.

Interestingly, Foucault also uses religion to examine power in relation to what is required of the disciplined individual, as does Althusser when he talks about how by carrying out the actions required by God you are showing that you believe (for example, kneeling to pray). Foucault says that details are essential to theology, God expresses his wishes through these details: “For the disciplined man, as for the true believer, no detail is unimportant, but not so much for the meaning that it conceals within itself as for the hold it provides for the power that wishes to seize it.” (ibid.). The detailed procedures that are part of the practice of religion - instilled in the actions carried out by the individual - provide access to power which becomes utilised elsewhere. In the university this works in a number of ways. One example to consider would be the feedback students are constantly required to 'volunteer' on the various service sectors in the university, for example: teaching, accommodation, catering or the library. It may not initially seem that power is being relinquished in these moments: a tick box form may not appear to have any other function than that of an attempt to improves services. Could a feedback process that asks for your individual experience of your BA be considered differently: a qualitative form, taking part in a meeting or an interview. All the information collected is saved and used within, and outside, the institution. This is knowledge about the student, detailed information that, in fact, most members of the university are constantly providing, without question. This information becomes the data on which the university operates: plans are formed form it, ranking takes place based on it.

For Foucault ranking is part of the theme of classification which he situates in an epoch centred around the 18th and 19th centuries (the classical age). However, this ranking does not fix individuals, in the more obvious sense, in physical space; rather it propels them into this power/knowledge process (1991: 143). Foucault explains how disciplines of power work in relation to ranking: “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.” (1991: 146). The student at the university is constantly being assessed, and therefore ranked, through examinations, essays or feedback from lecturers or tutors: “The examination that places individuals in a field of surveillance also situates them in a network of writing; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them.” (1991: 189).

The data produced from these assessments is considered in the light of excellence; ultimately appearing in ranking tables which enable the university to sell themselves in the national and international marketplace. But, simultaneously, the effect on the individual – this process of evaluation does not just apply to students, but also staff – is one that puts them into circulation in relation to power: “[...] the table has the function of treating multiplicity itself, distributing it and deriving from it as many effects as possible.” (Foucault 1991: 149). In a sense, the data produced and circulated becomes a form of currency: the university exchanges its ranking tables for new students (fees). In a Marxian sense the students and staff sell themselves (their bodies) to the university in the form of their labour – the student may appear to be the customer but they also bring in fees from elsewhere, by attending the university (and completing their course) they bring in funding. In becoming “the target for new mechanisms of power” (Foucault 1991: 155) the knowledge produced by the interrogation of the student/staff creates another level of product, one that is utilised when it is put back into play. When the data collected from individuals appears in the ranking tables, it provides an financial return.

Foucault, Michel. 1991. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin Books).

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