Fat Taxes and Foucault

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. illllllllllllli says:

    A disciplinary society is one in which the individual is a subject of institutions. The student, the inmate, the worker. If a society isn’t working on a principle of institutionalization, then it isn’t disciplinary.

    A disciplinary society is a precise dispositif and to suggest its existence into circumstances where it is by definition not operative confuses the issue. The term you are looking for is, I believe, a Society of Control, though you would have to make a much more compelling argument that fat taxes are of this equally specific form. I do wish that you would use these terms correctly. It confuses and corrupts very useful concepts when they are deployed incorrectly.

  2. bmckernan says:


    Thank you for the reply. I constructed this post with the intentions of stimulating conversation, so I am glad you started things off.

    That being said, I myself have some concerns with your own objections, objections to objections so to speak.

    First off, I am in no way making an argument in this post. My intentions on this site have always been to point readers to other more “mainstream” sources that are making arguments that are in some ways similar to concepts used in the social sciences, point out the similarities, and then hopefully stimulate conversation.

    Secondly, if you read the articles linked in my post, the rhetoric used is very similar to Foucualt’s notion of discipline. The author quite explicitly targets the medial institution.

    I find your rejection of the medical field as an institution quite puzzling, since Foucault devotes considerable attention to precisely how the medical field has contributed to creating disciplined bodies today. Now we can debate the extent to which this has occurred, but as far as how the concept fits into the issue of “obesity” and more importantly social policies on “obesity,” I see very little disconnect.

    More importantly, your definition of a disciplinary society is potentially problematic, focusing on the more traditional forms of power (ones with clear physical authority like the prison or the work organization). Remember, Foucault was really interested in those forms of authority most often ignored by academia, such as psychologists, sexologists, and biologists.

    I’m not quite sure the specific definition of “society of control” you are endorsing, but the manner it is used in academic conversations these days often loses one of the key insights of Foucault’s notion of discipline, that it is not only the disciplining of the body, but of the entire self. In essence, we accept their notions of an “ideal” self, even if we are not currently the ones who fall under the label of deviant or sick.

    In lieu of this, I would suggest that you are confusing two different concepts that scholars have derived from Foucault, discipline and governance. They are certainly both very valuable, but there are some key differences.

    All this being said, a debate about the appropriate meaning of definitions largely misses the main question of the original post. Hopefully a rephrase of the question will help us move past this dispute in rhetoric:

    Can social health policies be constructed that do not pollute certain groups or behaviors? If so, how?

  3. illllllllllllli says:

    Field are precisely not institutions. This is the difference between Disciplinary Societies (which are not those in which disciplinary mechanisms are operative but those in which the subject is at each moment identified and produced by these mechanisms) which Foucault describes and an early 19th century to very early 20th century phenomenon and Societies of Control, which Deleuze describes as the contemporary or nearly contemporary is the field itself. When behavior modification leaves the rigid bounds of discipline and is allowed to circulate outside of the traditional institutions into our bodies, our foods, our tax code (especially when that code is a free-floating mechanism like sales or sin taxes).
    Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is the removal of the “individual to be corrected” concept from inside the physical spaces of discipline and freeing them into society while still insisting they be controlled. Instead of forced or indefinite hospitalization for those who interact with their own bodies in ways that certain practices find incorrect, a tax on soda places each of us under infinite suspicion. All soda-related behaviors are then under the sign of this new tax; either I didn’t buy soda and am therefore the behaviorally determined beneficiary of the practice or I did buy soda and the mechanism needs to be more accurately targeted to my individual practices.
    As to “my” definition of a disciplinary society, it happens to be “the” definition of a disciplinary society: it is essential to the operation that it occurs within disciplinary institutions, or in other words, it analyzes nothing but the operation of societies that use disciplinary institutions. The problematic use of “disciplinary society”, that is, to indicate all operations of power, have produced the phenomena where the term being disparaged might be said to inhibit the analysis of power in operation. In fact control societies condition selves are well, and retain power over subject-position mechanisms, but they condition and retain differently. To flatten the specific differences across centuries, to suggest that the conceptual machine of the 1830’s is operative today is to fundamentally contradict Foucault’s work and renounce the very concept of continually produced difference that (un)grounds it.
    As for an accurate definition of “society of control”, I defer to Deleuze. In fact, for the entirety of this discussion, his works “Postscript on the Societies of Control” and “A New Cartographer” are necessary. In fact, it appears that Deleuze overstates the types of dangers we face in dealing with these types of control (though he accurately points out that uses of control are not simply negatives; if a soda tax comes out of Control technology but allows us to liberate pieces of certain groups from the addictive, expensive and in many ways, class-reifying, poverty-inducing and “making-health-dependent-on-institutions-and-medicines-of-control” mechanisms, it serves as a powerful tool of the liberation of those pieces from other, prior or alternative mechanisms of control. “Polluting” groups or behaviors seems to implicitly, though I’m sure this isn’t your intention, return to a pre-Foucauldean view of power that is top down instead of interoperative. Groups can be “polluted”, but they can also be forcefully changed. It is the change, the difference effected, as well as the future-effects of the existence of certain logics and mechanisms which should determine our position with regard to certain practices, not a knee-jerk rejection of all control or all discipline.

  4. illllllllllllli says:

    There is a copy of Postscript on Societies of Control online @ http://www.nadir.org/nadir/archiv/netzkritik/societyofcontrol.html . A particularly relevant portion:

    “[What the transition to societies of control means] For the hospital system: the new medicine ‘without doctor or patient’ that singles out potential sick people and subjects at risk, which in no way attests to individuation–as they say–but substitutes for the individual or numerical body the code of a ‘dividual’ material to be controlled.”

    This, with slight modifications, is a very accurate description of the isolation as target of “Obesity” within subjects, moving being the subjectivised category “Obese Persons” and the further production of non-institutional mechanisms like behavioral-economics-inspired taxation.

  5. wjsc says:


    Although I am not familiar with Deleuze, I beg to differ with you in that Foucault mainly “describes an early 19th century to very early 20th century phenomenon.” Discipline does not have to be formally institutionalized, which is the gist of “power/knowledge,” a selection of Foucault’s interviews and other writings from 1972 to 1977. I am pretty certain that in those works, he explicitly looks at contemporary society and contemporary forms of discipline. The power of knowledge comes precisely not from formal institutions, but the claim to knowledge. The NY State government (or rather, the governor) operates under the logic that Soda leads to obesity, which leads to higher health care costs, so that by taxing Soda, it can bring down health care costs. I do not see liberation at work here as you assumed. If anything, it intends to regulate people’s lifestyle based on the claim to knowledge. Should we start to put a higher tax on fast-food chains as well, because knowledge tells that fast food can lead to obesity too? Is it liberating if that happens?

  6. bmckernan says:

    @wjsc: Thank you for jumping into this conversation. As you suggest, no matter the vocabulary we are using (perhaps correctly or incorrectly), we are really talking about something quintessentially Foucault, the relationship between knowledge and power. In any discussion on social health issues, it would perhaps be most beneficial to start first by charting out the various “knowledges” at play.

    @illllllllllllli: Again, thank you for the reply. I continue to have some reservations with your application of Foucault, but why don’t we leave that for another day (or another venue if one is made) and focus on the questions being raised on this post.

    You made an interesting statement at the end of your comment that I think should be precisely the topic of discussion on public health care. I’ll quote it in full: “Groups can be “polluted”, but they can also be forcefully changed. It is the change, the difference effected, as well as the future-effects of the existence of certain logics and mechanisms which should determine our position with regard to certain practices”

    From this statement (and certainly correct me if I’m wrong) it seems that in the case of health care, similar to other social concerns, we need to be pragmatic in our social policies, identifying the costs and benefits of the approach and select the path that will have the least adverse affects without inhibiting the original goal.

    What do others think? How does such an approach specifically translate to America’s obesity and public health care debate right now? What are some possible policy initiatives that we find to be acceptable given this approach?

  7. illllllllllllli says:

    @bmckernen – Perhaps pragmatic, but not in the utilitarian sense. Maybe pragmatic in the Jamesean “radical empiricist” sense, where we stand open to the plausibly liberating technologies to be found in supposedly controlling or disciplinary societies. Describing the march toward a decline in obesity might very well be a state-capitalist method of regulating bodies (again, however, the actual route that regulation takes, whether simply acknowledging path dependence issues or conceiving of the project as the virtual effects of the produced structure, is not insignificant but altogether determining) but so is the commercial production and sale of soft drinks.

    @wsjc, this is what you appear to miss and one of the reasons why I quibbled about “Disciplinary” versus “control”. A disciplinary society really is one where the state is the primary effect of power differentials, whereas controls societies can be run by a dominant regime that has internecine squabbles, indeed the internecine struggles and the modulation entailed therein are the point entirely.

    In Deleuze’s view, and I highly recommend at least the article I linked to, it’s very short and clear on the main points of contention, this sort of conversation, where we become modulated by our awareness of the attempts by power to regulate our behaviors, is one of a control society. By becoming aware of the operation of power, we desire either to transcend it and enact the operation on ourselves blind to the historical source (I am reminded that soda is bad for me in this conversation so I independently will not drink soda even though no tax has been enacted) or we wait and in every purchase have the knowledge that five cents are being taken from us in order to subtle manipulate our behavior, thus subtly manipulating our behavior.

    It is more important to me that we concern ourselves with methods of stepping out of this circle than in perpetuating our already incorporated “revolts” by siding with major corporations, the state, damage to our organs or dominations of our bodies. This might work in disciplinary societies, but in control societies, “siding” is itself the problem.

  8. kiyallsmith says:

    What a fabulous conversation you started about social theory! Thanks so much for a stimulating post.

    I particularly like the power aspect, which you allude to in your discussion of poverty and access to healthy options (aside from soda). In addition to cost, geography can also limit access to healthy choices. If the choice to consume healthy food or unhealthy food is a genuine choice, rather than a product of markets and manipulation of resources, perhaps a tax might be relevant. Otherwise it seems to be another way for the wealthy to benefit from the lower classes.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *