Van Kreiken, R (1990) ‘The organisation of the soul: Elias and Foucault on discipline and the self’, European Journal of Sociology XXXI, 2: 353-71

A focus on discipline is central to modernity, with the emergence of the self rather than the soul.  Objectification and disciplining of subjectivity needs to both individualism and soullessness.  This is the theme in Marx on commodification, Simmel on urbanism and punctuality, calculation and so on, Weber on the role of the ascetic, Critical Theory on the disciplined psyche, and the internalisation of the requirements of corporations.

There’s been a recent interest in Foucault and Elias too.  Foucault discusses the emergence of decentralised disciplinary personal power, and Elias the emergence of civilisation.  How is similar are these?  They both converge on the notion of the disciplined bureaucratic self.  Weber assumed a simple mechanism of transmission from social changes to individual selves rather than changes in personalities and psyches as well.  Elias was more interested in the structure of the personality, and the opposition between society and human nature.  Foucault noted the emergence of docile bodies, and also recognised the positive aspects of repression, as a transformation of psychic energy.  This energy is still there, rather than being ruled by a dominant superego, channelled, for example into consumerism.

For Elias, medieval life was inefficient in terms of regulation and constraint.  Full internalised regulation required the development of a more extensive web of interdependence.  The denser webs produced more regulation which led to the ability to calculate the effects of conduct, a major difference emerging with modernity.  This was asserted though, rather than argued from evidence, and can be criticised.  For example, the medieval period also seem to require a great deal of internalisation, and featured many more constraints.  Elias does hint at the positive advantages of self restraint in modernity, though, especially in leading to greater power in figurations.

Foucault argues for the development of a whole inner life including individual subjectivity, as central to regulation, as in the practice of confession—inner selves are exposed in order to regulate them.  Elias is sound on the regulation of the physical aspects of behaviour, including violence, but this is too simple to explain the emergence of ‘love, caring, honesty, steadfastness for which the…  confessional culture, culminating in the 20th century in the therapeutic culture, was much more [important, involving] their exposure and revelation to public view’ (359).

Weber saw disciplinary activity existing in small islands, such as monasteries.  Foucault saw the importance of mobilising a whole range of techniques in different institutions, the role of development of human sciences, and their material bases such as the development of work.  There are links between Weber and Foucault, however, for example both focus on monasteries and the church as important.

However, Elias argues for changes in figurations themselves, requiring different personality structures.  It is not so much a matter of particular events and developments, rather analysis at the level of social structure.  Rationalisation does affect the personality, but it is successful only after changes at the level of human relations and the whole social fabric.

He agrees with Foucault that it is a general and decentralised process, but social structures play moreover role in determining this process.  [There are links to the notion of emergence as well, since it is only after agrarian labourers get more systematic can calculative, and thus produce surpluses, that the division of labour progress is even more].  Changing relationships account for the role of ideas for the particular ‘actions of power for groups’ (361).  There is an underlying notion of inevitable and necessary progress towards self restraint, however.  Others see the role of institutions like schools as insisting, coercing and institutionalising.  Elias is closed to sociologism, though.

Elias sees power as the result of competition and interdependency, but for Weber and Foucault it is necessary to translate these pressures into the workings of actual institutions.  There are specific historical developments rather than a general civilisation process.  The spread of these restraints among the working class is imposed.  This is closer to actual history, rather than Elias’s general view: there was a ‘civilising offensive’ (362), for example active attempt to Christianise, which included catholic as well as protestant churches.  These organizations developed chains of interdependencies, including launching an assault on popular culture.  Church intervention increases in civil and community affairs through developments in the legal system.  These were the actions of an autonomous group rather than the result of general social change.  Thus ‘civilising tendencies’ did not just emerge but were planned (363).  [Bentham is also cited as an active reformer here].

Civilisation is therefore a project rather than a process, a ‘crusade waged by men of knowledge and aimed at extirpating the vestiges of wild cultures’ [actually a quote from Bauman] (363).  The break with tradition followed a conscious direction, and featured increasing interventions into traditional life.  The state in particular was actively in breaking traditional communities.

The persecution of witches is a good example, neglected by Weber, Foucault and Elias [but not Adorno].  The continued aggression and violence was the result of social disorder from social change.  The example also shows the missing element of gender in Elias—women were still seen as a threat to civilisation, an embodiment of emotion.  The female integration of the emotions meant something quite different.

Disciplinary techniques might not be causes, however.  There are no simple adjustments either—for example sumptuary laws were constantly changed and adjusted.  Christian offensives often failed at the individual level, popular culture survived and even reinvigorated elite cultural systems.  A different picture emerges if we view the perspective of rationality from every day life, which implies a pragmatic adjustment, where people both resist and try to transform their lives [note that lots of historical analyses are cited throughout this argument].

Responses are important, and we cannot just assume the effects.  There are also a decisive ‘switching points in history’ (366), sometimes the result of deliberate decisions which are then naturalised.  Overall, we need to tease out the interactions between the civilising process and civilising offensives, and generally to use more actual history to test Weber, Foucault and Elias.

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