Punishment and Value in our War-based Society

November 12, 2007 at 6:40 pm 2 comments

This weekend I was reading more of Starhawk’s Truth or Dare. Part of what she discusses is how war has changed society, because everything is defined in terms of Punishment for Wrongdoing. For the next few days I’ll be posting excerpts on this subject because it is both compelling and important.

Today’s exerpt: Foucault‘s 5 Ways that Systems of Punishment Function

“In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes five distinct ways in which systems of punishment function:

  1. ‘The art of punishment…refers individual actions to a whole that is at once a field of comparison, a space of differentiation and the principle of a rule to be followed.’ Judgment itself is part of the operation of punishment. When we are valued for how closely we approximate and imposed standard, we are not valued for who we are. So, for example, the operation of an ideal feminine beauty sets up a field upon which all women can be rated and compared. A student told me she once polled her male friends on what a woman should weigh. They all answered ‘110 pounds.’ She then asked them what a man should weigh. ‘That depends,’ they all said, ‘on his height, his body type, his musculature…’ Our value becomes dependent on how closely we conform to the rule; our unique beauty is rendered invisible, worthless. A woman’s own body becomes her enemy, her betrayer, by its insistence on shaping itself according to its own organic imperatives.
  2. Punishment ‘differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected or as an optimum towards which one must move.’ When our organic individuality has been devalued, we are given back a false indignation. We can tell who we are not because we hear the song of our bodies or love the largeness or smoothness or hairiness of our flesh, but because we know our measurements and how they compare to the standardized charts.
  3. Punishment ‘measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the “nature” of individuals.’ It is not jus that we pass or fail; we are given ‘grades,’ A’s or B’s, a 96 on the final or a 75. So we strive for graduations of improvement: we work to achieve a B+ even when we know we cannot aspire to an A. The hierarchy gives us many shades and subdivisions of value, finer grades of comparison, the illusion of more individuation that becomes a more refined means of control.
  4. Punishment ‘introduces, through this “value-giving” measure, the constraint of a conformity that must be achieved.’ We attempt to live in the illusory world where all women weigh 110, where all children learn at the same rate, and where differences are seen as deviations.
  5. Lastly, punishment ‘traces the limit that will define difference in relation to all other differences, the external frontier of the abnormal.’ Every hierarchy has a cutoff point, a mark beyond which one is no longer part of the whole, where you are no longer acceptable in the school system, on the job, where your failure to conform to the rule may relegate you to the worst place: the mental hospital, the back ward, skid row. That fear, of finally being forced out from the circle of value, makes us all work harder to keep a safe cushion between ourselves and the pit of worthlessness.

“Going to jail is a succinct way to learn about punishment. In jail, there are no clouds of daily details and none of the substances we use to soothe ourselves. The bare strategies of power-over are revealed, clean as gnawed bones. So are the patterns in which we respond to systems of punishment. For human beings are creatures of context. Although we imagine that our choices are free, our responses are greatly determined by the situations in which we find ourselves.”


Entry filed under: punishment, reality, society. Tags: , , , , , .

Affirmations ‘Awareness is the beginning of all resistance’

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