Monday, October 15, 2007

Work In Progress

"The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgement. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them. That is why, in all the mechanisms of discipline, the examination is highly ritualized. In it are combined the ceremony of power and the form of the experiment, the deployment of force and the establishment of truth. At the heart of the procedures of discipline, it manifests the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected. The superimposition of the power relations and knowledge relations assumes in the examination all its visible brilliance"(185).


The examination, a central feature of Foucault's Discipline and Punish, is the mechanism through which we become individualized, categorized and judged. It is the technique that places us, as individuals within a community. In the examination the gaze becomes joined with a particular kind of knowledge. Knowledge finds itself embedded in this procedure as the eye of the knower observes, makes notes, and then places. The examination gives the observer be it doctor, prison warden, teacher, priest, pastor, knowledge. This knowledge, in turn, allows a person to be known, and once known to be subjected. The examination is a fundamental technique in creating docile bodies.

    When one comes under examination there is no hiding. The whole individual becomes exposed be in the measure of their intelligence or their health. The examination is a through rendering of the body. In every area of our lives, through every stage, the examination is there to tell us (and our observers) where we need to place our bodies. At birth, the APAR tests performed by both doctor and delivery nurse rates our body against a normalized standard. The infant body is scored, recorded and judged as either normal or abnormal. If abnormal, a battery of tests pinpoints that abnormality (even within abnormality there are standards). For a child to enter school, there are more tests. Is the child ready? Can they read? Will they socially function within a classroom? These tests are often extensive involving a teacher observing and questioning the young child. The results will determine which kind of classroom a child belongs. If abnormal, again tests will follow to determine what techniques will be needed to fix the child's abnormality. And so on as we grow older from the SAT to the GRE, to observations from employers. Our lives become encoded through examination. We know our places by how we perform.

    All these examinations involved formalized settings, ritualistic procedures that begin and end. Pick your pencil up, hold your pencil over the paper, began, end. In order to take the tests one must be documented with proof of their identity. Rules must be laid out to begin. In order to judge fairly all must be made equal in order to individualized. We must all start in the waiting room of the GRE with our proof of our existence. We must all began with the same equipment, the same room, the same chair, the same computers.

    The examination crosses institutions. As seen above, both the medical and education field employ this technique in a highly formalized manner. They test and record, leaving a permanent record of our normalcy or the abnormal traits that must be furthered examined. Religion, like these other institutions, also makes use of the examination. In fact, this examination one might argue (as Foucault later does) that the examination originates in the confessional where the priest must vigorously examine the penitent. In the FDLS church, this examination comes from all quarters. Not only does the file leader of the group observe, question, and seek out the dark places of the soul but the whole community engages in this observing, filing away the actions, words, and thoughts of each other. The dark cellars were one couple goes to make love is exposed by another wife with the pulling of a cord. She makes in that moment of discovery, a judgment based on the observation, the examination in her mind of what is acceptable. Through constant scrutiny, these individuals become their own examiners. All thoughts, actions, and desires become subjected to the normalizing standard set forth by the group.

This is what is so insidious about the examination. It begins with the observing of the knower. There is someone, something, someones, somethings, that have to know. This knowledge/power relation enables them to place other individuals. They subject bodies into categories they create and refine. Knowledge brings about a proliferation of new categories, new ways of placing human bodies. It holds them to certain places. But what happens is that these bodies start to know their places. They become their own examiners. They learn to govern their bodies according to the norms created by this power/knowledge. The examination becomes an individual touch stone which one goes to examine themselves. The ritual of examination becomes one in which the figure of power becomes embodied within the individual.




John B-R said...

This isn't to contradict anything you said, and said so eloquently, but, to go back behind Foucault's confessional-as-origin, into the more distant past, isn't the exam an innate bodily relation to the world? Safe/unsafe (i.e. fight or flight?); edible/inedible? Etc.??? And aren't those either/ors power-generating mechanisms? Even a one-celled organism has "others" which it covets/fears, i.e. give power to ...

Ginger said...

Yes but Foucault is envisioning an examination that originates within the framework of institutional disciplinary practices. He will go on in that chapter to more clearly define the examinations.

John B-R said...

I get what Foucault's doing, Ginger; I'm just quibbling w/the word "originates". We have been "encircled" (a Derrida word) by exams ... forever.

Ginger said...

Perhaps... but I think not in the sense that Foucault gets at, and that's important to see that distinction don't you think?

The GRE is part of a diciplinary society that seeks to place people where they belong in a highly strateified society. This is not quite the same as deciding which berry to eat.

In fact, one could argue the fact that edible/inedible can be even seen as an exam results from this construction Foucault discusses. The notion of exam is a modern concep that we can place on the past but that does not mean that is the word or idea used by those in the past.

John B-R said...

"The GRE is part of a diciplinary society that seeks to place people where they belong in a highly strateified society. This is not quite the same as deciding which berry to eat."

Well, it is, if one assumes that the alpha of a primate group determines who has access to the berry bush first, and who gets access last. Primate groups are highly stratified societies.

I think my point is that Foucault is absolutely right that exams are about determining power relations. But our modern highly stratified society is just one is a long series of highly stratified societies, a series that extends back into the pre-human days, and that if we don't see this we may end up falsely believing that we can do something relatively easy to end stratification. The history of the 20thc teaches me that if there's a fix, and that's a big if, it's not gonna be an easy one.

(I think one reason that everyone from "Marx 48" through "France 68" failed is that they took the social out of its biological context ...)

I won't argue at all with your "In fact, one could argue the fact that edible/inedible can be even seen as an exam results from this construction Foucault discusses." The fact that "France 68" failed does not mean that Foucault etc were not geniuses.

Ginger said...

Well....I'm not sure if we fucntion quite the same as primates. Yes there are similiarties but there are also great differences as well. I just don't buy the whole "we're only animals" argument for a variety of reasons. Much to many of my friends despair I am a staunch social constructivist. Society is not the same now as it was in '49 or '68 or even hundred of thousands years ago. As culture changes just looking back to biology is not fully going to pull us out of the class system which has undergone numerous transformations. The class system we see now is now what we saw say in Industrial England. Similarites? Of coruse but similarities does not necessairly lead to one answer or one cause. I am not pushing biology out of hte picture but I'm not going to rely on it 100% either. We have to look historically and culturally as well.

John B-R said...

"As culture changes just looking back to biology is not fully going to pull us out of the class system which has undergone numerous transformations."

Agreed, 100%. In fact, I think we pretty much agree on everything. I'm not a 'we're only animals" person. I'm a "we're also animals" person. I think my version of your sentence I jquote above would go something like this:

We have to keep our biology and "deep history" in mind when working on culture or it's going to be much harder to pull us out of the class system, etc.

I guess what this all amounts to is that just as these days so much talk is about the embodied nature of consciousness, our social and economic change talk had better include our embodied status as well.