Foucault and Truffaut: Power and Social Control in French Society
Both Michel Foucault and Truffaut's depiction of a disciplinary society are nearly identical. But Truffaut's interpretation sees more room for freedom within the disciplinary society. The difference stems from Foucault's belief that the social control in disciplinary pervades all elements of life and there is no escape from this type of control. Foucault's work deals mostly with "power" and his conception of it. Like Nietzsche, Foucault sees power not as a fixed quantity of physical force, but instead as a stream of energy flowing through all aspects of society, its power harnesses itself in regulating the behavior of individuals, the systems of knowledge, a societies institutions, and every interaction between people.
Foucault in Discipline and Punish, applies this notion of power in tracing the rise of the prison system in France and the rise of other coercive institutions such as monasteries, the army, mental asylums, and other technologies. In his work Foucault exposes how seemingly benign or even reformist institutions such as the modern prison system (versus the stocks, and scaffolds) are technologies that are typical of the modern, painless, friendly, and impersonal coercive tools of the modern world. In fact the success of these technologies stems from their ability to appear unobtrusive and humane. These prisons Foucault goes on to explain like many institutions in post 1700th century society isolate those that society deems abnormal. This isolation seeks to attack the souls of people in order to dominate them similar to how the torture and brutality of pre 1700th century society sought to dominate the physical bodies of prisoners. In Foucault's interpretation freedom from the pervasive influence of "power" is impossible. Because his conception of "power" exists not just in individual institutions of society like prisons but instead exists in the structure of society and more importantly in peoples thought systems, escape from social control is impossible. Foucault in the last chapter talks about how even the reforms in the system have been co-opted to further the goals of the state. Instead of a lessening of social control Foucault sees that the technologies change from the wheels and gallows of the 17th century to the disciplinary society of the 19th century to the emerging carceral city of the future. In this carceral city the dispersion of power will be complete. The technologies of control will emanate from all parts of society, "walls, space, institution, rules, and discourse."
Truffaut's interpretation of society and its future is much more upbeat. Although like Foucault he sees the technologies of the disciplinary society as insidious social control mechanisms. Truffault depicts the schooling, prison, and family systems as technologies that seeks to inculcate children, criminals, and subversives in the proper behavior of society. Trauffaut's film exposes how these mechanisms work. The school seeks to isolate punish and ostracize children into forming a pliant populace. The family seeks to enforce the discipline of societies larger moral codes on children. Notice how in the movie the mother in a seemingly kindly attempt to bond with her child is in fact teaching him the moral codes of society: running away from home is wrong, school is good, respect your elders, follow rules, and don't lie. The prison system in the movie seeks to isolate the deviant members of society classifying them as perverts, neurotic, madmen and in need of reprogramming and evaluation. These technologies in Truffaut's film are the seat of power in a society.
Unlike Foucault Truffaut sees power as emanating from these fixed points; Foucault sees "power" and "control" and flowing through all the vessels of the body of society. In Truffaut's disciplinary society their is escape from such a world on the streets of Paris, in interacts with friends, and by running away to the sea or the movie theater. Truffaut sees escape from power as possible in anarchist like state free of adults and laws. Truffaut's ideas are similar in this aspect to Sartre who sees the society can be freed from the grip of cruel power in a socialist utopia. This is in stark contrast to Foucault who sees escape as impossible. And more importantly Foucault sees escape as growing more and more difficult as society moves from a disciplinary society to a society of control.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville