Social Mechanisms in Foucault and Borges


As part of the English 101 course I’m teaching this semester, we are tackling the broad topic of power an authority through some select readings and movies, spanning from literature and philosophy to conspiracy theory movies and blogs. This past week, we read selections from Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism” from Discipline and Punish alongside a short story entitled “The Lottery in Babylon” by Jorge Luis Borges. While we still have more to talk about and more connections to make, here are some general ideas I have had since reading both of these pieces side by side.

Foucault, obviously, discusses his interest in the mechanisms of power that automate the exercise of that power:

A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation. So it is not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations. (Foucault 199)

A question raised by students during our reading of Foucault, particularly the first few pages, involved the implementation of bureaucratic power in the plagued village. Essentially, a student remarked that the people in the village, after a time, may not even know (or care to ask) whether or not a plague still exists. The structure of authority built during the time of the plague could simply exist as the remnant of crisis, or as Foucault says:


 He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (Foucault 200)

We in turn see this illustrated in Borges’ “The Lottery in Babylon.” The narrator’s opening, in that he has, like all others, been “proconsul and slave” (Borges 30) points towards what appears to be initially a nod towards an unpredictable chaos. But, as illustrated earlier, the chaos is not infinite. It does not extend to all entities at all times:

If the Lottery is an intensification of chance . . . would it not be right for chance to intervene in all stages of the drawing and not in one alone? Is it not ridiculous for chance to dictate someone’s death and have the circumstances of that death . . . not subject to chance? (Borges 34)

In this sense we see that there is a mechanism of power present (if the use of a faceless entity known as “The Corporation” wasn’t enough to tip us off).

The nature of that mechanism is highlighted by referring back to the plagued village in “Panopticism” and my student’s question. For if the lottery, like the

via Colorado College (

village, is the result of a power mechanism, there does come a time when the mechanism no longer needs the heavy hand of a leader, or even a concrete entity controlling it. The Lottery itself is a tool of control without the need for control: the society itself might reside in a flux of “random” effect, uncontrolled by the Corporation. But, since all choices in the world of the Lottery do not fall to chance as part of the Lottery (as admitted by the narrator) then there is a place in which the rules of the lottery do not hold sway. And this is to the benefit of the power structures in practice, those that serve as actors in the enabling of the Lottery. The Lottery is at the same time both guided by a powerful entity (the Corporation) and at the same time partially beyond the grasp of the Corporation. The people involved internalize the Lottery.

Which points to another student’s essay. Part of their assignment was to write  narrative about an encounter with an authority figure, with the hopes that they reflect and analyze the incident. One student wrote about her experience in school with a particularly harsh teacher. This teacher’s behavior (according to the essay) became so extreme that students began to write petitions against the teacher, and parents were notified and complained to the school. What is interesting about this is that in the teacher, as in the form of, say, a tyrant, a group or society can externalize a source of discontent. This seems to facilitate acts of rebellion and a general removal from the source of authority. However, as in the Panopticon, as in the Village, as in the Lottery, the implementation becomes that which is faceless, nameless, “always-been” and “always-will-be.” Hopefully our discussions will start to analyze how we address such situations: how we identify them, acknowledge them, and resist them.

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