CACS Case studies: Discipline

 Background for this post is here, rest of the series is here.




Michel Foucault‘s concept to describe a broad scale movement he detected in European history away from spectacular and grotesque forms of punishment towards more subtle modes of coercion that take the individual body as their target. Commencing in the mid to late 18th century, at the start of the era that Foucault would later characterize as the age of biopower, techniques were developed in a number of quarters—particularly the armed services—to harness more fully the potentiality of the human body. These new training techniques were distinguished by the fact that they no longer looked upon the body as an indissociable whole, but instead treated it as an interconnected series of parts that could be thought of as so many components of a machine. By means of a meticulous training of the body, its productive capacity could be enhanced and at the same time its will to resist reduced, the attraction of this outcome to the holders of power is obvious. What Foucault shows is that this new logic of discipline, which first took shape in the preparation of soldiers, found application in virtually every aspect of modern life.

(Buchanan 2010, 134)

Supporting concepts:


18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham coined the term to describe a model of prison architecture (which he conceived) enabling what he thought of as a therapeutic form of total surveillance (the literal meaning of the word). Consisting of a central observation tower situated inside a circular building where the cells are located in such a way as to be fully and constantly visible to the guards who because of their location and the relative play of light are all but invisible to the prisoners. The design effectively turns the prisoner’s space into a backlit stage where he or she is continuously on show. Bentham reasoned that this complete lack of privacy would have a remedial effect on prisoners who would be forced by this means to adopt socially approved standards of behaviour because they would be unable to escape the punitive eye of the guards. Owing to this ingenious structure, prisoners would internalize better standards of behaviour and thereby rehabilitate themselves for re-entry into society, or so Bentham thought. Its chief virtue, in Bentham’s view, was that it reduced the need for violent forms of coercion. But for Michel Foucault, who happened upon this work in the course of writing Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison (1975), translated as Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), it was this psychological dimension that was both its most fascinating and disturbing feature. For Foucault, Bentham’s blueprints, which gave rise to just a handful of actual buildings (the most famous example being Stateville penitentiary in the US), are emblematic of an epistemic shift not only in the treatment of prisoners but more generally in the organizational rationality—what Foucault would himself later call governmentality—of society as a whole. He used the term panopticism to characterize the mechanism behind this change which he charted in the transformation of the spatial disposition of factories, schools, hospitals, army barracks, and so forth throughout the 18th and 19th centuries so as to bring about what he describes as the automatic functioning of power. The panopticon is in Foucault’s view the most perfect and sublime realization of the principle of discipline, the subordination of bodies to machines and their reconfiguration as machines.

(Buchanan 2010, 358-9)


In political theory and sociology it refers to the legitimacy (or not) of the use of power. If a particular power is perceived as legitimate and it has authority, then we accede to its demands without the need of coercion or threat. The analysis of authority was developed by the German sociologist Max Weber, who was principally interested in the issue of how authority is obtained. Weber identified three kinds of authority:

(i) rational-legal—government depends for its authority on the fact that laws have the appearance of necessity (e.g., it is rational to ban murder and so on); (ii) traditional authority—authority derives from long established customs, laws and practices, the sense that things have always been thus and should remain thus; (iii) charismatic authority—the authority an individual claims or derives from a higher power, such as destiny or God.

Michel de Certeau, in his analysis of May ’68, argued that what the street protests indicated was that the government of the day had lost its authority, even though it had retained power. More recently Slavoj Žižek has argued, with regard to the events in Iran in 2009 and earlier in the so-called ‘Spring Awakening’ in the Czech Republic, that the loss of authority was a precursor to the loss of power.

(Buchanan 2010, 33-4)

Key thinkers:


Case study:

William Kentridge 1996, History of the Main Complaint, film, 25mm, shown as video, projection, black and white, and sound (mono), Duration: 5min, 50sec, Guggenheim.

William Kentridge ‘History of the Main Complaint’, 1996
© William Kentridge


This animation is hand drawn charcoal and pastel images which are altered through erasing and redrawing to create a film. Harking back to the idea of a PALIMPSEST from week 3, elements of the former images remain as the film progresses. Kentridge’s film is responding to the vestiges of South African apartheid, one of the more interesting examples of the machinery of discipline in action.  It shows a man, lying in a hospital bed as he thinks back to his crimes. According to the Guggenheim, this work explores the ‘relationship between individual and collective guilt’ (

Hear William Kentridge discuss how artists draw on tragedy in this film, laid over some footage from the work:


Alternative case studies:

Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller 2007, The Killing Machine, installation, Mixed media, sound, pneumatics, robots, not currently on display.

This work by Cardiff and Miller responds directly to the next alternative case study “In the Penal Colony” by Kafka. It is a machine designed for torture of the human body, though as the Guardian bemoans, there is a lack of body and audience participation is limited to pushing the red button that sets the machine into action ( Centred around an archaic medical/dental chair padded in pink fur and leather straps and spikes, the machine has two robotic arms that move around the invisible victim, swooping in and out to attack the target of the discipline. The artists describe this work as ‘an ironic approach to killing and torture machines’ (

Franz Kafka 1996 [1919],  “In the Penal Colony” (“In der Strafkolonie”), The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, Barnes and Noble, USA, pp. 125-57.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony and Other Stories


“In the Penal Colony”, a short story by Franz Kafka, is a key creative text in discussions of discipline. In the story the Explorer visits an unnamed penal colony and is shown, with great pride, a dilapidated torture machine that inscribes the condemned man’s crimes into his flesh using needles. The story is deliberately pared back, with the characters being named according to their roles in the story, the setting mostly hinted at and the majority of the description focused on the machine. After enthusiastically demonstrating the machine on a Condemned Man, the Officer sets the machine to write a short sentence on his own flesh, but it malfunctions and stabs him to death.

Make a cup of tea and sit down to read the story here:

PVI Collective 2003-2007, panopticon, tactical media event, performed: Taipei (2003), Perth (2004), Sydney (2004), Brisbane (2007)


panopticon is described by the PVI Collective as ‘a site specific privacy service to individuals who frequent heavily surveilled & monitored public spaces’ ( which draws attention to the ubiquitous nature of surveillance. Harking back to Foucault’s ideas about Discipline, Control and the Panopticon as an analogy for understanding the modern obsession with CCTV, this work emphasises the impossibility of staying hidden from the all-seeing public and private surveillance.

Read some notes on the project, including its development and shifts in the project across time here:

Cory Doctorow 2007, Little Brother,  Tor Teen, USA, available free online under Creative Commons at:


In this Young Adult novel Doctorow unashamedly packages the subversive themes of paranoia, civil liberties, digital activism and surveillance, for teenage and young adult readers.  Little Brother , set in the near future, is about 17-year-old Marcus, who lives online as w1n5t0n (read 1984 to get this reference). Marcus and his friends find themselves apprehended by the US Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Doctorow shows the reality of living in a post-panoptic surveillance society, among the mechanisms of a discipline-centred society.  Neil Gaiman says that ‘Cory is one of the Explainers. The people who see what’s going on, or what they perceive to be going on, and then turn around and tell everyone else, and once you’ve heard it their way you can’t ever see it the old way again’ (

Even if you are not going to use this text for CACS101, download it from here and read it over the holidays.

Ai Wei Wei 2013, “Dumbass”, The Divine Comedy, heavy metal music video,

In 2011, 55-year-old Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei was detained as part of a crackdown on ‘dissidents’. Wei Wei has stated that this music video ‘is a precise and detailed simulation of the prison he was in’  (, except that in some parts of the video the reality of what occurred merges into what he saw as the soldiers’ fantasies.   Seeing the process of making this music as a form of therapy, Wei Wei has been quoted as saying ‘Fuck forgiveness, tolerance be damned, to hell with manners, the low-life’s invincible’ ( The music may not be Metallica, but as a way of arguing back at the repressive regime “Dumbass” and its film clip is a subversive masterstroke.


Levin, T, Frohne, U & Weibel, P (eds.) 2002, CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother,  MIT Press and ZKM, Massachusetts and Karlsruhe.

Bentham, J. [1787] 1995, The Panopticon Writings, Edited by M. Bozovic. London: Verso Books.

Foucault, M. [1975] 1977, “Panopticism”, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Translated by A. Sheridan, Penguin Books, London, pp.195-230.

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