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Linking Foucault To Critical Disability Theory

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Published: Fri, 21 Apr 2017

” “Foucault’s work has provoked scholars to question what had previously been considered self-evident, timeless, unchanging and necessary. In various writings, lectures, and public statements, Foucault urged critical reflections on the current situation and on the historical conditions that led to these formations and how they might be differently perceived. To assist people in finding new ways to conceive their relationships to themselves and each other, and their imbrications in relations to power.” ( S.Tremain,2005)

In light of the above quote, evaluate the usefulness of Foucaudian theories to Critical Disability Theory by looking closely at his theories on ” governmentality” and in particular his conceptions of “Bio-Power” in establishing perceptions of “normalisation”

As Tremain’s above quote implies, many 21st century critics have in recent years begun to challenge the out-dated ” social model” of disability with the perspective that disability studies are beginning to suffer from a ” theoretical deficit”(Corker and Shakespeare 2002, Davis 2002, Shildrick 2002)These theorists, in trying to develop more resourceful ways of thinking, are of the opinion that Foucaudian ideas would enrich disability theory in the same way it has of queer theory and feminist studies, as Petra Kuipper asserts;

Like “woman”, ” gay” or “black”, the term “disabled” holds a history of both oppression and pride after a long historic period of predominant negativity”( Kuippers,2003)

Also of this outlook, Lennard J. Davis in his ” Enforcing Normalcy” argues that “these social processes of disability arrived with industrialisation as a new set of discourses and practices”(Davis,1995) and most notably Deborah Stone in ” The Disabled State” in which she examines how the concept of disability came to be associated with clinical medicine and clinical reasoning ( Stone,1984)

In this essay I will support the viewport of the above scholars, in arguing that Foucault’s powerful post-structural conceptual framework, especially in regard to his theories on governmentality and power, stimulates and enlightens debates surrounding disability studies and is useful in assisting the critical thinker with a fresh and innovative appreciation in our current socio-political landscape, of what is now means to be disabled in the modern world. Also, more importantly how through Foucault’s “genealogies of power”, the medicalisation of knowledge has lead to the historical “subjectification” of this particular minority group. This essay aims to compel the reader to answer a very judicious question; Why are we the “normal” population separated from the ” crippled”, ” impaired” and ” deficient”? And more importantly how the ” normalizing instruments” of Foucault’s Governmentality theories shape our thoughts towards the disabled community. Foucault wants us to question what we take to be inevitable, unavoidable truths and asks us why this appears to be so, as Paul Rabinow affirms;

” It seems to me, that the political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the working of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize them in such a manner that political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight them”( Rabinow, 1984)

I will construct my argument by looking firstly at Foucault’s theories on governmentality, specifically at his theories on “Bio-power” and the birth of ” Bio-medicine” in the 18th Century and applying these concepts to what critics describe as the ” normalisation” of disability to access its usefulness, for as Tremain states; ” politicized conceptions of disability and the increasing consolidation and visibility of the social movement,that spawn have predicated significant social change.” (Tremain ,2005)

It is probably worth mentioning at this point that Foucault did not see himself as a practioner of these human scientists, they were merely the object of his study for he was more of an historian, albeit a strange one. Foucault was more interested in the line if questioning raised before in one of his major influences, the work of Friedrich Nietzche in his ” Genealogy of Morals in that he rejects the assumption that rational knowledge is unambiguous benefit to the human societies(Tumer, 1982) as Peter Rabinow articulates;

“Foucault never took discourse from the inside…he never posed the question of truth or falsity of specific claims made in any particular discipline…rather it was effective operation of theses disciplines , how and around what concepts they formed, how they were used, where they developed- that Foucault’s prey” ( Rabinow, 1984)

Firstly, it is valuable to look at Foucault’s theories on Governmentality and power , before I address the issue of how it can be applied to disability theory.

Foucault’s concept of “Govermentality” or ” Government Rationality” which has been ordained by Colin Gordon; as ” fresh domain of research”( Gordon,1991) was originally projected in his annual lectures at the college de France in Paris of which he delivered thirteen between 1970 and 1984. During a time of dramatic social change when the communist alliance in France failed in the Parliamentary elections and the conservative leader Margaret Thatcher had just been elected as Prime Minister of Britain. This work was being undertaken during a time in France when the political left Marxist movement was beginning to collapse and rumblings of neo-liberal thought was beginning to spread throughout Europe which began to turn the cogs once again on the debate of governance and governmental philosophy.

Foucault was interested in government as a form of practice, who can govern? What is means to govern? And what is the most just way to govern? Foucault was primarily interested in “the philosophical questions posed by the historical contingent and humanly invented existence of varied and multiple forms of such a rationality”( Gordon,1991).He was also concerned with the two-fold nature of the Governmental role which he expressed in the title of one of his lectures “Omnes et Singulatim” meaning ” all and each”, thus highlighting a process of thinking about the practices of Western Government which has the dual role of “totalising” the subject while also ” objectifying” at the same time( consequently being governed and self-governing simultaneously).As Thomas Lemke states;

“Foucault defines government as “the conduct of conduct” and thus a term which ranges from the governing of self to the governing of others” (Lemke,2009)

These lectures led to an extraordinary and brave new outlook on the nature and relationship of power between the state and the individual, a type of power that is used to observe, manipulate and control the behaviour of individuals within a population from a range of economic and political institutions e.g. prisons, factories, schools and as I will outline later in the essay the accommodation and normalisation of the ” disabled subject. Foucault quotes Guillame de la Perriere in his “Miroir de la Poltique”(1867) to describe that government is the ” disposition of things”; by things he does not mean solely territory but the population. To reinforce his point , Foucault successfully uses the metaphor of the government as a ship in which everyone onboard( the subjects) must strive together to achieve the greater good;

“What does it mean to govern a ship? It means taking charge of the sailors but also to reckon with the winds, rocks and storms and it consists in that activity establishing a relation between the sailors who are to take care of the ship and the cargo which needs to be brought safely to port”( Foucault,1978)

The area of political thought surrounding legitimacy and sovereignty has always fascinated the human race and has been a issue of great philosophical debate from Aristotle, to Machiavellian to Gramsci. The Post-Renaissance era which saw the formation of great territorial monarchies that arose in Europe from the remnants of the Feudal system gave rise to a new type of political relationship between the state and the individual. A number of texts then began to emerge concerning the “art of government” and its nature. These texts went beyond the parameters of what had previously been ascertained in the area of sovereignty not just focusing exclusively on how the prince or monarch could protect his power but broadening notions of power to include smaller fragments of society as Foucault states;

“concerning his (the prince) power conduct, the exercise of power, the means of securing the acceptance and respect of his subjects, the love of God and the obedience to him, the application of divine law to the cities of men” (Foucault,1978)

These texts extended the idea of sovereignty and spoke about the governance of households, children and religion from the small inner-workings of the human soul to the regimes of the prince’s army. This literature seems to steer more towards the government of one self, that is to say, “How to govern oneself, how to be governed, how to govern others, by whom the people will accept being governed, how to become the best governor”(Foucault,1978)

Thus it is clear to be seen that that there was an historical shift from basic ideas on sovereignty in relation to prince and power to a revolutionary introduction of tactics in regards to economy and social order. Society for Foucault was becoming a more and more politicised target which led to the pre-eminence of Governmentality over all other forms of power. I will now examine Foucault’s more radical ideas in relation to the concept of power, as a technology of governmentality, for I believe this is crucial in the normalisation of the disabled community.

Foucault’s ideas on power come to the fore in the final chapter of his first volume of ” The History of Sexuality”, in which he coined the phrase “bio-power” or rather “bio-politics”( Foucault,1976-1984) .The best place to start when endeavouring to tackle Foucault’s proposals on power is to look at what he says power is not and this can be established by looking at the at the presupposed, judicial norms of sovereignty that is per se the surrender of rights through law and judicial contracts to an all-encompassing power. Foucault on the contrary purports some rather innovative ideas about power and its disposition in one of his lectures on the 7th of January in 1976, ” Governmentalities” or rather ” Government Rationalities”.

During this lecture Foucault outlines that power is not a commodity, but that it exists and is exercised only through action;

“Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localised here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power”(Foucault,1976)

Another more controversial and ground-breaking theory he created was that contrary to popular philosophical belief at the time, power was not fundamentally repressive, as he professes; “we must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms; it excludes, it represses, it censors, it abstracts, it masks, it conceals”(Foucault, 1979)This position breaks away the out-dated sociological model of power which places importance on social coherence. I am wholly in agreement with this theory as I believe a juridical view of power is too narrow and does not help us in understanding the complexity of its nature and as Foucault states; “if power were anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it”(Foucault,1976)

Foucault was concerned with the application of this power in society and asks us to examine by what means this power is being exercised and thus I turn my attention to ” Bio-Power” to explain the birth of bio-medicine that has lead to the normalisation of disability. Essentially “”bio-power” is an instrument of Governmentality, and this implemented through the gathering of ” statistics” what Foucault refers to as ” the science of government” (Foucault,1978) He states that this type of power began to emerge in the late 18th Century, when the collating of governmental statistics gathered on the rate of reproduction and fertility and death rates etc. These political procedures alongside a stream of eco-political obstructions gave rise to what Foucault called “Bio-Polemics”, the first selection of knowledge and the subjects it seeks to control by this knowledge as Nikolas Rose denotes;

“”It has become possible to actualize the notion of the actively responsible individual because of the development of new apparatuses that integrate subjects into a moral nexus of the identifications and allegiance in the very process in which they appear to act out their most personal choices”(Rose,1999)

It is important to realise that in regard to Critical Disability Theory, the effect of gathering such statistics is crucial because a result a new body of medicine emerged and thus ” normalised” this” knowledge” within certain institutions and completely altered and cemented what it meant to be a member of the disabled community. The birth of Bio-power ultimately shaped the realities of millions of disabled people the world over and merged them into silent discourse. For Foucault the emergence of “bio-power” medically and scientifically “objectivified” disabled people until themselves began to perpetuate this myth and see themselves in these limited terms. We only have to look at the everyday world around us seek examples of this at work .In areas such as Income Support, rehabilitation schemes, the changing of urban landscapes and of the workplace to make it more accessible. These everyday procedures go mostly unnoticed by the majority of the population but they set the ” normal” population from others into a specific grouping, those who we label as ” retarded”, “insane” or “handi-capped”.

Ultimately for Foucault, this implementation of bio-power lay as the foundations of capitalism, the birth of ” economy” and thus the ” able-bodied” and ” disabled” were segregated in such a way to maximum the economical potential of the population, In relation to bio-ethics I believe it is very clear to be seen that as the disabled community have no productivity value and are costly to the welfare state they are effectively “pushed to one side” and sent to be ” corrected” and” normalised” in various institutions such as asylums and rehab clinics.

The theory of the Panopticon can also help us in understanding the relationship between governmentality and power. The Panopticon ( an ” all-seeing” proposed prison model made in a circular structure with glass cells and an all-seeing warden in the watch tower in the middle) was a theory taken from the work of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham that Foucault used to describe how governmentality and power works, proposing the unique relationship between the state and the individual, the whole premise that we are ” being watched” thus makes us regulate our behaviours. Thus major effect the Panopticon is to ” induce the inmate into a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it discontinuous in action”( Foucault 1979)

This idea of surveillance is of course still prevalent in the technologies of power used in disability. In the Victorian era viewing galleries for the mentally insane where a frequent dalliance for the bourgeoisie, this of course still exists, but is not solely for the entertainment purposes as P.McIntosh relays but about “observation and intervention” as he establishes;

“Foucault’s analyses describe that a primary effect of institutions is the social exclusion of certain individuals in asylums, prisons and categories of deviance, and that the primary end of these institutions is to bind them to the apparatus of normalisation. Emancipated from institutions, people with disabilities now undergo assessment of their strengths capabilities and weaknesses. Every deficiency is logged and plans are drawn up to correct this. The process is monitored and evaluated, the person a subject of social demand and professional obligation” (McIntosh,2008)

As the result of this, the lives of disabled people are thus played out in the public venue. This surveillance creates a “medicalising gaze” which establishes qualification classification and a visibility though which “they” (disabled people) “can de differenced and judged” ( McIntosh,2008)

Indeed this whole concept of examination in this field of surveillance,eg the compiling of doctors notes,social work observations, care assessments, letters and inter-hospital communications, for McIntosh secure disabled individuals in a specific category. I believe this is an important point as Foucaudian notions contend that collating results and recording behaviours is another tool of governmentality. That “objectifies” human identities and thus it can be to how the government classifies disability. I maintain that this is an indispensable factor to look in relation to the “normalisation” of the disabled body and the key role it plays in the creartion, categoration and control of ” abnormalities” or rather ” anomalies”. The government seeks firstly to isolate and then seeks to normalize these “abnormalities”.

Therefore it is important to remember that the social sciences, medicine and psychiatry ideals made their into judicial law-making created a leaning towards an increasing popularity and global appeal of statistical analyse and judgement of what is “normal” and “average” and what is ” abnormal ” as Bill Hughes professes;

” From a Foucaudian perspective, disability and impairment neither refer to, nor represent essences of particular individuals or a certain population at large. On the contrary, these terms refer to the decentred subject position that is the product of the movement of power”(Hughes,2005)

The creation of this “medical gaze” so to speak is thus incontrovertibly constructive when applied to Critical Disability Theory as Foucault ascertains;

“” Medicine as a general technique of health even more than as a service to the sick or an art of cures, assumes an increasingly important place in the administrative and the machinery of power”(Foucault,1976)

Thus, I believe that for Foucault there was a “politico-medical” hold on the population through “the medical gaze” as Margrit Shildrick stipulates;

“”…disability is configured as a normative pathology, a disease degeneration, defect or deficit located in an individual that is defined as a disease… by reference to a norm elaborated through the statements’ of quantitative medicine”(Shildrick,2005)

Due to these process or rather “technologies of power”, the “doctor” in society thus becomes a prominent and important figure for disability discourse, he becomes the ” great advisor” who has been bestowed the powers to educate in the hospital sphere and given a number of administrative responsibilities and ultimately given the role of ” observing correcting and improving the social body”( Foucault,1976)

Another interesting point raised by Shildrick and Price is in regards to “bio-medicine” in regards to human contact.. If the disabled person has problems with mobility, this individual will be touched much more than is considered normal, especially between strangers. As well as this, the deaf or vision impaired may need to touch others or be touched in order to gain attention or for purposes of orientations, thus;

“The Clinical encounter itself is a paradigmatic site illustrating the power relation between physician and disabled people where possibly, even more than the medical gaze-it is the touch of the doctor that represents the exercise of power that disrupts the standard practices of intimacy” (Shildrick and Price, 2002)

I would lastly like to discuss Foucault’s work in relation to disability, through his theories in “Madness and Civilisation”(1967) and “The Birth of the Clinic”(1967), these texts are important to the Critical Disability reader because they question the ways in which physical and mental illness or abnormality are spoken about.

In “Madness and Civilisation” Foucault focused on the organisation of the normative system which was built upon a series of medical and judicial devices with the fundamental aim of institutionalising the insane as he expresses;

“”Everything was organised so that madman would recognise himself in a world of judgement that enveloped him an all side, he must know that he watched, judged, and condemned; from transgression to punishment”( Foucault,1967)

Essentially what Foucault is contending here is that the asylum is not a “free realm” but indeed a juridical space where the patient is demeaned, blamed and condemned. This is of course important for disability studies, as it underpins the nature of those placed in such accommodation, and the treatment they acquire through bio-medical techniques, as he endorses;

“These powers, by their nature, were of moral and social order, they took root in the madmen’s minority status, in the insanity of this person, not his mind. If the medical personage could isolate madness, it is not because he knew it, but because he mastered it, and what for the positivism would be an image of objectivity was only the other side of this domination”( Foucault,1967)

In conclusion, I support the initial statement made by Tremain and I agree that Foucaudian ideas of Governmentality and power provide an informative and valuable framework by which to conceptualise the idea of ” normalisation” in reference to the disabled community. Disability studies are poignant to us all for it will all touch our lives at some stage. Even now in the beginning of the 21st Century confinement and ultimately depednecy have become a reality for many of the contemporary disabled population.Seen as group of people who are unable to do anything for themselves, a burden on society and reliant upon others to survive, blighted by a society that places them under constant supervision and imprisons them by disciplinary power into ” specific spaces” and “procedures.

Foucaudian theory, I believe is essential to any analysis of disability as it asks significant and important questions, questions that science and the world of medicine form the early 18th century , assume they are the best equipped to answer. I hope I have encouraged the reader to ask themselves these questions; What makes us human?, How do we express the experiences of the human body and most importantly, what is considered normal and abnormal within a particular culture? Ultimately the question now is how to right these wrongs and I will leave that up to Foucault to express;

“Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are…the conclusion or would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problems of our day is not to try and liberate the individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions, but to liberate us birth from the state and type of individualization which is linked to the state”( Foucault,1980)

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