Reading some selections from Society Must Be Defended clarified a number of things for me, theoretically. First it helped me understand why I’ve never been comfortable describing the processes my research examines as “disciplining” fans, despite my adviser encouraging me to do so.
It also helped me understand why I’ve always liked History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 so much more than Discipline and Punish—which I previously just had to take on faith wasn’t due to my having completed substantially fewer readings of the latter or the former being shorter.
The reason for both of these (dis)inclinations, as it turns out, is biopolitics.
“Biopolitics deals with the population,” Foucault specifies (245); its “purpose is not to modify any given phenomenon as such, or to modify a given individual insofar as he is an individual, but, essentially, to intervene at the level at which these general phenomena are determined, to intervene at the level of their generality” (246), and it is this kind of generality without an investment in the individual that is what I’m noticing as having happened with respect to fans in the age of the Internet.
This, then, is why “discipline” hasn’t ever seemed to fit; the processes of the production of fandom that I look at in my research don’t involve “individual bodies that can be kept under surveillance, trained, used, and, if need be, punished” (242).
“Unlike disciplines,” the production of socially-sanctioned fandom doesn’t “train individuals by working at the level of the body itself. There is absolutely no question relating to an individual body” (246), and neither does any “question relating to an individual body” enter into either my research interests in general or my research on fandom in particular.
Discipline, that is, is intimate. Biopolitics is anonymous, and so are the kinds of operations of power I’m interested in: contemporary media companies implement policies to encourage some outcomes and discourage others (243); the production of a valorized conception of fandom functions to teach the population of media consumers the way to manage and/or optimize itself (244).
Indeed, even techniques that Foucault describes as being deployed by states to manage national populations that would seem to be entirely irrelevant are actually useful tools for thinking about how the status of fandom has changed in the last decade or so; Foucault discusses the shift from epidemic to endemic problems as how public health is managed (243-4), and there is definitely a sense in which fandom has moved from being an outside phenomenon that happens to media companies to being a persistent condition that is internal to the media system to the extent that companies plan for and around it.
Similarly, the discussion of state racism parsing out “what must live and what must die” (254) is clearly the same dynamic (though on a very different scale) as the delineation of “good,” to-be-encouraged vs. “bad,” to-be-stopped fan practices.
Furthermore, there is a sense in which fans or media consumers are divided into populations—perhaps, as Foucault described it in History of Sexuality, produced as species—on the basis of these practices, and these populations are not only gendered but in some sense racialized.
Foucault argues that, though discipline is the older technology and biopolitics came along later, the latter didn’t supersede and replace the former, but rather they are now both in circulation in society for different purposes.
He notes that “the element that circulates between the two is the norm. The norm is something that can be applied to both a body one wishes to discipline and a population one wishes to regularize” (252-3). This, then, explains why, in my discomfort with the term discipline, normalization seemed to better fit the work culture was doing with respect to fandom.
So, to sum up, it turns out that biopolitics does it better.