Foucault and the Factory

Back in the Fall of 2016, my roommate had asked me if I had any interest in joining him on a trip to a local rock gym. I had been rock climbing before, but not since I was in middle school and the activity was almost foreign to me now. What compelled me to accept his invitation could be a topic for a whole other essay: to bond with my roommate, to make myself seem more interesting (“I like to go rock climbing in my spare time”), to better my physical image. In actuality, it was most likely an amalgamation of these above reasons. It’s believed by some that our individual personalities are constructed by fragments of the personalities of those with whom we interact with on a daily basis. Our individuality is formed by our awareness of this social connection we have with our fellow humans and how we internalize and perceive this knowledge. So, as I accepted this invitation I was initially hesitant because I knew what it entailed. I was entering into a new institution, a new discourse, with new rules that I would have to learn. My hesitation here helped me to realize my hesitation with doing most “new” things. To understand the rules of any new institution, I have to initially become a “docile body,” and I think this makes me uncomfortable in cases such as this, furthering me not to pursue the new activity at all.

I didn’t know what a “docile body” was at the time, but the feeling inside me felt familiar: I was anxious. I had many questions but I didn’t want to seem like a “noob”; I had to act like I’d been there before. I’ve been to your standard “LA Fitness”-type gym to work out before, but I’ve never been to a “rock gym.” Do I still wear athletic shorts? What about sweats? Tank top or T-shirt? I was undoubtedly up for this activity but my anxieties were holding me back. I realized that this anxious feeling was tied to the way I feel about being a “docile body”. Most of us have spent our whole lives adhering to the rules of a certain institution, whether that institution is your elementary school or the US Government, and those rules unconsciously construct the way in which we perceive the world around us. Growing up and going through our education system, we become conditioned to be “respectful” and “mindful” of others and other institutions of power. In the process of learning about the world as a child, we become “docile bodies.” It’s not until we have spent our time as a “cog in the machine,” then we can begin to go against the grain. One must first gain knowledge of the rules of the institution before one can subvert it and carve out their own perspective.

In her essay “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity,” Susan Bordo  credits Foucault for coining “docile body” and describes the way in which we become “docile” is by being “regulated by the norms of cultural life,” (165). She contextualizes her argument by applying it to the concepts of masculinity and femininity:

“Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity—a pursuit without a terminus, requiring that women constantly attends to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion—female bodies become docile bodies—bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, ‘improvement.’” (166)

The “docile” female is one who can be controlled by perpetuating a conviction of insufficiency. Women are constantly conditioned to feel like they’re not good enough. All of us in a way are encouraged by society to chase some ever-changing “ideal” form, but with women it’s more explicit. So when I first entered The Factory bouldering gym in the Fall I was unconsciously feeling out for how I was about to be “regulated” and “subjected” within this institution. I had to rent shoes since it was my first time, and I remember looking at everyone else’s feet that day trying to see if they had rentals or not; I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted to be a “docile body” initially in order to find out what that “ideal” form was for this institution, so that I could then apply my personal way of adhering to my “subjection.”

Looking back on it now, it reminds me of Burke’s concept of “the nature of language” and how there are two distinctions: scientistic and dramatistic. The scientistic approach views language as definition while the dramatistic approach sees language as act (Burke). Before I could assign any dramatic rhetoric to the descriptions of my activities within the gym, I had to first learn the basic terms. My roommate was already a regular at this place and while I was getting situated with my rental shoes and stretching my arms he was conversing with other climbers. I overheard him say “Yea, that’s a hard problem.” I was confused at first because I thought we were in a rock gym not math class. I soon found out that that was the designated term for a certain climb and there are different levels ranging from V0-V10, which essentially means beginner to expert. For example, right now I’m in the V4-V5 range. The non-rock climber probably doesn’t know what that means; I certainly didn’t when I was at the gym that first day. Today, I can use dramatistic language in the description of my climbing, such as “I’ve officially conquered the V3’s,” because I’ve learned the scientistic language already; the V# symbols designate a certain skill level. Now when I refer to a “problem” in the gym to someone else, they know what I mean. Furthermore, by using this language I am adhering to the rules of the institution; I am becoming a “docile body” within the gym. However, no one specifically regulated me into using that language, I instilled it upon myself. This practice of me checking myself feeds into Foucault’s theory on the Panopticon.

Foucault describes the Panopticon as a circular jail with the cells on the outside and a guard stand in the center. The idea is that any given prisoner could be observed at any given time, whether he/she knows it or not. Foucault argues that this theory allows for the creation of “discipline”. Discipline is placed in our society by way of making people think that they’re always being watched. (i.e. surveillance cameras, photo IDs, the police). Foucault conveys his theory of discipline as being a product of panopticism: “[O]ne can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine,’ to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism.’” (207) Generally, this makes people follow the rules without anyone necessarily making them do it directly. It becomes instilled in us that that is what were supposed to do. With regard to my example, my roommate never told me to use the term “problem” or insert “V4” and “V5” into my diction when I’m at the gym; I made those adjustments myself in order to “fit in” better. I disciplined myself in order to become a part of the discourse.

In the beginning, I was just trying to be like everyone else at the gym. I wanted to slide in unnoticed and figure out the rules as quickly as I could so as to fit in with everyone else. Now that I have a more established presence—I got my own shoes too—I’m trying to separate myself within that “ideal” form of a typical attendee of The Factory bouldering gym. I think this can relate to a general concept of how people hold themselves and act on a daily basis. Everyone wants to be their own person, and generally people don’t like being told what they can and cannot do. Most people know that there’s more to a person than meets the eye. I take on the role of “docile body” in my initial interactions with one person or institution so that I can feel them out and see how they “play the game”; once I figure it out I apply my own perspective. Foucault’s concept of the “docile body” and the Panopticon can be applied to many different disciplines. He references some examples himself: “The formation of the disciplinary society is connected with a number of broad historical processes—economic, juridico-political, and lastly, scientific—of which it forms part.” (207) It’s connected to many facets of the society we know today. It’s a helpful way to understand how people interact with each other and institutions of power in our society. It’s also interesting to study the growth of someone’s relationship with a certain set of “rules” over time. I’m still a beginner in the realm of rock climbing, but I’ll be sure to take note of my behavior as I continue my tenure at this gym.


Works Cited

  • Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. 1993. Berkely, CA: UC Press, 2003.
  • Burke, Kenneth. “Terministic Screens.” Language as Symbolic Action. Berkely: UC Press, 1966. 44-62.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Trans. Alan Sheridan. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 206-213.

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