Intersecting Docile Bodies

Michel Foucault (Google Images)

Docile. Complacent. Obedient. Managable…Not exactly very positive characteristics. But no matter who we are, how we’re raised or where we live, every person is docile to something… And we choose to be.

If we CHOOSE that institution or cause to be docile to, is the situation really so bad? Are we still docile if we made that decision?

This question comes out of my recent reading of Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”, specifically the section within titled “Docile Bodies”. In this section, Foucault presents the notion of the docile body first through the example of a soldier- pretty unexpected, for me honestly. But, the more Foucault describes “docile” the more the example makes sense: on page 136 of “Discipline and Punish” he writes that docile bodies are ones “that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved.” A soldier is subjected to training, used for the protection of the nation, etc…Other synonyms for docile include: pliable, meek, governable. So in that case…

soldiers are NOT the only docile bodies that exist…

Foucault goes on to mention the ways that students, factory workers etc are all docile to the organization in charge of x y or z. One of my issues with Foucault though, is that no one is only “one thing”. Each of us is docile, able to be manipulated and analyzed (Foucault 136) but we are under those conditions in more than one aspect of life.

I am a student- so I am trained to think and act in the discipline (pun intended) of study I have chosen. I am a citizen of the US- so I have been subjected by the media and history books to believe a specific narrative about this country. I am a Roman Catholic Christian- so I am taught about my faith and to believe the truth behind a specific set of morals and values. I am a feminist- so I have been taught and influenced to believe and stand up for the beliefs of that group. Every person will have more than one allegiance to an organization of power; our docility to those organizations must be negotiated in the intersection of those powers that govern us.

The idea of intersectionality was first introduced by Kimberlé W. Crenshaw in “Mapping the Margins” and this essay dealt with identity politics, race and ethnicity, class and sexism. The argument that Crenshaw developed has shaped the way modern feminism works- no longer is the discussion of social struggle defined in a hierarchical way but in an intersectional way. An example: race struggles don’t rate as more important than class struggle or sexism- but struggle is individual. It’s the struggle of the person who faces any or all of these discriminations and situations. In the vein of this theory of Crenshaw’s I would present the idea that docility is intersectional. People don’t align themselves to one cause- they aren’t governed by one ideology alone.

Because I choose to be docile to ideologies that can be seen as conflicting with one another, my docility is constantly being re-examined in those tiny cracks between my allegiances. I re-assert myself as docile to the groups I named- occupation, religion, nation, political alliance- every time I defend the organization or repeat their beliefs. Docility is a state that I put myself in regularly, based on this assessment. The mechanics of power “defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies” (Foucault 138) but if we decide which groups to be docile towards, we have a hold over our own bodies, right? And if that’s true, don’t we hold the power?

Normally, reading Foucault is a depressing situation where the audience has to acknowledge the fact that they’re under constant watch,

they are obedient to a set of ideals that fall in line with various institutions etc… In my mind though, if we have the power- if we choose the organizations we are subjected to support (even facebook)- where’s the problem? Why does Foucault have to be a recognition of lack of agency? Why can’t it be a moment to reclaim power?

When we actively recognize that multiple ideologies require obedience from us, and we continue to be obedient, we have taken back the power and docile is no longer a word synonymous to lack of agency. We might be obedient, but we own our agency through the choice of being docile bodies.