Foucault’s Plague

by Misha Lepetic

“Look, I am not a philosopher, I am a strategist.”
~Guy Debord

What happens when a vision is so compelling that it becomes a nightmare? Is there ever a way out, let alone on the terms that the nightmare itself has set? These are oftentimes the questions that accompany any lengthier reading of Michel Foucault. But, as the saying goes, could reading his charismatic writing nevertheless be “necessary but not sufficient?” So, in all fairness, let’s begin with an icon.

Presidio-modelo2Foucault’s notion of the Panopticon has attained the cultural status of a meme (heaven knows I fell for it a long time ago), but popular understanding has actually eroded the point of Foucault’s characterization of Bentham’s (in)famous prison design. It’s true that the Panopticon is a devilishly clever surveillance machine, but Foucault uses it as part of a much broader programme, that of re-conceptualizing the very nature of power. But as enticing as it is, let us set aside the Panopticon for the moment; there is another example that gives us equally fascinating insights into how Foucauldian power can be spatially conceptualized.

Early on in Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, Foucault describes the conventional, reductive view of power: it restricts, penalizes, excludes, or exiles us when we transgress. There is only so much power to go around, and what of it there is, is jealously guarded. But Foucault wants us to think of power in completely the opposite way: as a force, or perhaps even more appropriately, as an interest, that seeks to include, observe, and continuously generate knowledge. This knowledge, in turn, creates more power. It is a generative model of power, and to illustrate it, he draws upon the difference between how society has historically dealt with two kinds of threats to public health, namely lepers and plagues.

In the former case, power was exercised in the conventional sense: lepers were excluded from the rest of society, forced to wear bells around their necks to warn of their approach, and driven into quarantined colonies. In order to emphasize the finality of this act, those about to be cast out were “regularly accompanied by a kind of funeral ceremony during which individuals who had been declared leprous were declared dead [and which they themselves had to attend]” (p43-4, 53). This practice, which saw the leper exiled, dispossessed, and literally declared dead, persisted until the early eighteenth century.

Great-plague-of-london-1665-the-dead-everettIn contrast and – crucially for Foucault – historically subsequent to this, we come to the case of the plague town. When plague arrived, it was inconvenient and undesirable, if not impossible and ill-advised, to empty out an entire town. However, towns already provided an existing technology for the control of plague. The solution was quarantine, and the technology was the urban form itself. Known as quadrillage, the affected town was divided into smaller and smaller sections, with administrators for each section appointing delegates for each subdivision, and so forth. Streets were guarded and movement thoroughly restricted. A twice-daily roll call required each resident to appear at a prescribed window; anyone who did not do so was assumed to have taken ill with the plague, and a team would be sent into the house to remove the newest victim, before they could infect others. The results would be compiled into registers, which would be recompiled into larger and more comprehensive registers, ultimately reaching the main accounting apparatus in the city hall. This was much more than a brutal, unsentimental game of waiting it out. It was, in Foucault’s words,

…the organization of a power that is continuous in two senses. It is continuous due to this pyramid of [administrative] control…but also in its exercise, since surveillance had to be exercised continuously.

It is not exclusion but quarantine. It is not a question of driving out individuals but rather of establishing and fixing them, of giving them their own place, of assigning places and of defining presences and subdivided presences. Not rejection but inclusion. You can see that there is no longer a kind of global division between two types or groups of population…one that has leprosy and one that does not…There is a close and meticulous observation…[a] constant examination of a field of regularity within which each individual is constantly assessed in order to determine whether he conforms to the rule, to the defined norm of health. (pp45-7)

To Foucault, this is real power: the plague moment is one in which the political apparatus achieves its fullest expression. It does so through ever-expanding knowledge, and the purpose of that knowledge – which is itself not held in secret, since plague deaths are announced on a daily basis – is the further elaboration of the means of control. There is no orgy of violence or social breakdown: the plague town model also introduces the essential concept that this is all performed on the populace for its own good. All of Foucault’s subsequent models of power rely on this kind of efficiency. As technologies of surveillance and discipline become more pervasive and efficient – as norms of behavior become more established – the population does most of the work itself. Power finds itself ever more easily creating the conditions of its own further reinvestment. Hence these technologies become ever more subtle.

This is quite different from the Panopticon, which is not just a technology but also an architecture specifically designed for surveillance. Those who find themselves in the Panopticon or another such facility also already know themselves to be prisoners. Put another way, they are brought specifically to the Panopticon because they are prisoners who require exactly that kind of surveillance. What is fascinating about the plague town is the way the urban form is recruited into this discourse in an exceptionally ‘soft’ way. The means of surveillance and control are brought to the population and installed in a thorough and complete way. In terms of urban form, nothing has been changed. To use a contemporary metaphor, the town has been rebooted with a new operating system.


Banksy_cctv_looking_atIt is not difficult to extend this thinking and imagine how, nearly 40 years later, these systems of control are further being multiplied, ever more effortlessly and irrevocably. There are two threads here, one of which was anticipated by Foucault, and the other perhaps not so much. The anticipated one involves territory that has been well-covered elsewhere, and generally falls under the rubric of the surveillance society, and includes such reliable tropes as the CCTV paradise that is London.

A common example brought up in support of this ongoing trend is social media, whose normalizing effects are far-reaching: consider how much time is spent on social media sites, and yet how carefully (most) people police themselves, in terms of their recognition that whatever content they post will not only be permanent but at some point discoverable by employers, the government, future (or current) partners. Just as with the Panopticon, the enforcement mechanism is not the knowledge that one is being observed, but rather the uncertainty of said observation. It is perhaps the most disembodied and effective form of social control yet.

The other thread, which, while largely undiscussed by Foucault, would nevertheless probably not have been surprising to him, is the increasing pace of urbanization. This is a trend that has been well documented elsewhere but it is worth stating here in Foucauldian terms: power most profoundly benefits from the generation of vast amounts of knowledge complied from continuous surveillance, and, as the plague town example shows, the city is already the most efficient means by which to accumulate that knowledge and therefore that power. How convenient that the majority of the world’s population has already gravitated towards the most conducive technology of power and control, which turns out to be our built environment. The countryside, which is unevenly distributed and difficult to regulate, is emptying out. As we seek economic opportunity, we migrate gladly towards the mega-cities, which, in order to be at all administrable and functional, are feverishly adopting the “smart city” discourse. Despite some lonely voices to the contrary, what awaits us are our very own plague towns, except these don’t have any walls, but the quadrillage is perhaps even more profound.


But as I push this hypothesis to its final reductio, this is where I begin to wonder about the universality of Foucault’s hypothesis. For much of Foucault’s critique seems to revolve around, or rather culminate in, ideal types. The Panopticon is certainly an ideal type; Foucault himself admitted as much in subsequent interviews. In a certain sense the plague town is another ideal type. Simply by basing his historical research on medieval and immediately subsequent periods, that is, walled towns, Foucault guarantees the physical nature of the quarantine. It is, in an ironic sense, perfectly suited for Foucault’s purposes of providing us with an ideal type of social control, articulated in an urban setting.

For example, is it really possible to put an entire city under quarantine today? We can think of two urban types in recent history: poor cities that suffer from infectious diseases brought on by poverty; and developed cities that suffer from altogether new forms of infection. Considering the first case of Cité Soleil, the star-crossed Port-au-Prince slum besieged by cholera: now in its third year, the only recent news concerning the epidemic is that the UN, whose Nepalese peacekeepers brought the strain in the first place, has now decisively refused to apologize for its gift. If there is Foucauldian control happening here, it is anything but subtle, and does not seem to trade in power, or knowledge, or anything but ignorance and neglect.

On the other hand, more developed cities, like Beijing during the SARS crisis in 2003 and Mexico City during the 2009 swine flu epidemic, reacted swiftly but did nothing nearly as drastic as closing off their borders. In fact, much of the “quarantine” in Mexico City was voluntary, and the quarantines created by Chinese authorities outside the capital more often than not caused their village hosts to riot when they were discovered. If you can’t count on the Chinese to get it right, then what hope is there?

CamusGoing back to Foucault, what strikes me as even more important is his fundamental attitude towards people. It is difficult to read Abnormal and not be struck by the passion with which he treats the most marginal cases – the hermaphrodites burned at the stake simply for their hermaphroditism; the leper forced to witness his own funeral. Foucault seems like a patron saint to the misfits and the marginalized. He reserves his highest scorn for the king and the aristrocracy – these he accuses of incest, which is the most decadent pleasure – at the same that he accuses the lowest classes of cannibalism – which is the basest act that can be performed out of sheer need, that is, starvation (p97-104). All of these extreme characters are, in fact, ideal types. This is shown partly by the fact that he has no consideration for the middle – ie, the residents of the plague town itself. They are only recognized in the moment that the technology to control them emerges.

Perhaps it is better, then, to consider another depiction of plague. Writing almost 30 years before Foucault, his countryman Albert Camus wove a portrait of a town buckling under not just the plague, but also administrative actions eerily similar to the ones Foucault describes. What distinguishes Camus’ admittedly novelistic account is the presence of order, but also of strife, of humor, and doubt, and passion. Despite his passion for the maltreated, it is difficult to conceive of Foucault accepting the possibility of redemption in quite this way:

From the dark harbor soared the first rocket of the firework display organized by the municipality, and the town acclaimed it with a long-drawn sigh of delight. Cottard, Tarrou, the men and the woman Rieux had loved and lost, all alike, dead or guilty, were forgotten. Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people were “just the same as ever.” But this was at once their strength and their innocence, and it was on this level, beyond all grief, that Rieux could feel himself at one with them. And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

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