Disciplinary societies and Societies of control


A narrative environment could be said to form a kind of territory with its own characteristic laws, rules and regulations, a kind of ‘world’ or ‘universe’. In order to develop a sense of how such narrative environment enclosures might operate, how power is realised and distributed within them and how they, in turn, relate to their environments (i.e. of other narrative environments), it is worth considering the thoughts of Michel Foucault on disciplinary societies and Gilles Deleuze on societies of control.

The disciplinary societies, as defined by Foucault, are in the process of becoming societies of control, as defined by Deleuze, Chantal Mouffe (2012: 23) contends. This transition, which does not necessarily imply a complete replacement or displacement, is marked by the emergence of a new paradigm of power. In the disciplinary societies, command is exercised through the articulation of a network of apparatuses (dispositifs) that produce, and regulate customs, habits and practices of production, the major disciplinary institutions being the family, school, factories, asylums and hospitals. In societies of control, however, command is immanent to the social field, distributed to the minds and bodies of the citizens.

The means of social integration and exclusion are no longer realised primarily as enclosures (spatialised, territorialised, exteriorised) but through perception (interiorised, cognitive) that guides and is woven into embodied inter-action, as the environment is scoured for opportunities and affordances, for permissions and interdictions. This new paradigm of power is termed ‘biopolitical’. Looking at this transition from the perspective of spatial practices, however, it might be seen as a re-articulation of enclosure and perception, with people ‘enclosing’ themselves through their own perceptual and behavioural habits in a terrain that appears more ‘open’, ‘public’ or ‘common’ but nevertheless remains ‘enclosed’.

As outlined by Deleuze (1992: 3), Foucault defined disciplinary societies as those which arose during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and reached their peak at the outset of the 20th. Such societies inaugurate and develop the organization of vast spaces of enclosure, in which the individual passes sequentially from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws. The first (narrative) environment is that of the family. From there, the individual passes on to the school and after that, if a man at that time, to the barracks. The passage continues to the factory and, on occasion, the hospital, and possibly the prison, this last place being preeminent instance of the enclosed (narrative) environment. For Foucault, the prison serves as the central analogical model.

The ideal project of these environments of enclosure, as analysed by Foucault, is particularly visible within the factory. It seeks to concentrate in place; to distribute in space; to order in time; and to compose a productive force within the dimension of space-time whose effect will be greater than the sum of its component forces. Foucault also recognised the transience of this model, as itself a successor to the societies of sovereignty. The goal and functions of societies of sovereignty were to tax rather than to organise production and to rule on death rather than to administer life. This prior transition took place over time, with Napoleon seeming to effect the large-scale conversion from one kind of society to the other. However, in their turn, the disciplines underwent a crisis to the benefit of new forces that were gradually instituted and which accelerated after World War II: a disciplinary society had ceased to be dominant.

In Foucault’s (1980: 58) words,

“From the eighteenth to the early twentieth century I think it was believed that the investment of the body by power had to be heavy, ponderous, meticulous and constant. Hence those formidable disciplinary regimes in the schools, hospitals, barracks, factories, cities, lodgings, families. And then, starting in the 1960s, it began to be realised that such a cumbersome form of power was no longer as indispensable as had been thought and that industrial societies could content themselves with a much looser form of power over the body.”

Deleuze (1992: 4) summarises the difference between enclosures and controls in the following terms: “Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other … “


Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59 (1), 3–7. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828 [Accessed 21 March 2016].

Foucault, M. (1980). Body/Power. In: Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977, edited by C. Gordon. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 55-62.

Mouffe, C. (2012). Space, hegemony and radical critique. In: Featherstone, D., and Painter, J., eds. Spatial Politics: Essays for Doreen Massey. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 19–31.

edited 12 November, 2017 by Allan Parsons

Associated Terms

The notion of affordance is important for narrative environment design as it emphasises the active nature of perception; the importance of the moving body in perception; the co-constitution of the human and the environmental/ecological; and the interactive nature of perceptual, meaning-making and world-making actions and processes (i.e. the making of lifeworlds as domains of meaningfulness and sustainable life-forms).

To ecological psychologist James Gibson (1979), affordances are opportunities for action that an object provides or affords a perceiver/agent. For example, a chair may ‘afford’, i.e. enable, sitting; or it may permit standing upon it, to reach something else (a double ‘affordance’, so to speak: standing and reaching); or, alternatively, it may (because of its age or delapidation) provide a resource for chopping up to use as firewood.

Such affordances could be understood as ‘objective’, i.e. ‘reflective’ or ‘expressive’ of ‘properties’ that the chair ‘has’ or ‘possesses’, but this would be to adopt a reductive, essentialist approach. Affordances, more properly, are relations between perceivers/actors and objects. Any person may perceive/enact more than one affordance of the same ‘object’, depending on need or circumstance, thereby changing its ‘objecti-ive’ status. Persons from different cultural backgrounds may share perceptions of the same affordances; or they may see different ones.

Furthermore, such environmental or ecological perception is part of an engagement with the ongoing situation(s) in which the perceiver/actor is actively partaking. It is through such situations that the environments or ecologies are partly constituted as environments and ecologies. That is, perception itself is an active scanning of situations and environments, not simply a passive reception of stimuli from environments. Perception, in other words, is multiply motivated and involves, as Merleau-Ponty affirms, the whole body in movement in domains constituted through intercorporeal interaction.


Edgeworth, M. (2016). Grounded objects. Archaeology and speculative realism. Archaeological Dialogues, 23 (01), 93–113. Available from http://www.journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S138020381600012X [Accessed 21 June 2016].

Gibson, J.J., 1979: The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum 1986.

edited 22 June, 2016 by Allan Parsons

Aside from narratology (e.g. the approaches of Greimas and Genette) and environmental theories of various kinds (e.g. those of Peter Sloterdijk or Henri Lefebvre) the human body, particularly as understood through phenomenology, and inflected by a feminist stance, is a key area of research when designing and analysing narrative environments. In the mutual contextualisation of the actantiality of narrative progression and environmental immersion, the human body can be grasped as an integrative actantiality and potentiality, its being and becoming, mediates and intervenes, draws together and pulls apart.

Human subjectivity is embedded in the world, the world being understood within a narrative environment frame as an enfolded set of narrative worlds (or fictional and factual story worlds) and world stories (i.e. lived narratives, ideologies or belief systems), with the body acting as mediator among these different ontologically-distinct worlds. By multifarious assimilations, sensorimotor interactions and their further processing, the body becomes transparent to the world we are living in and allows us to act in it.

Embodied consciousness may be characterised as mediated immediacy (Plessner, 1981). The tacit knowledge or knowing-how of the body implies all the taken for granted that has become part of our body repertoires, habits, and dispositions. We use the operative intentionality of our body as an instrument for understanding the other’s intentions. The body works as a tacitly felt mirror of the other. It elicits a non-inferential process of empathic perception that Merleau-Ponty called transfer of the corporeal schema and which he attributed to a primordial sphere of “intercorporeality”.

As Merleau-Ponty expresses it, the communication or comprehension of gestures comes about through the reciprocity of my intentions and the gestures of others, of my gestures and the intentions discernible in the conduct of other people. It is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his (Merleau-Ponty, 2002). In intercorporeity, the “as-if” structure of the body becomes the very medium of understanding.


Fuchs, T. (2005). Corporealized and disembodied minds: a phenomenological view of the body in melancholia and schizophrenia. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 12 (2), 95–107. Available from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/philosophy_psychiatry_and_psychology/v012/12.2fuchs01.html [Accessed 25 October 2010].

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of perception, translated by C. Smith. London: Routledge Classics.

Plessner, H. 1981. Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Gesammelte Schriften IV. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.


edited 19 July, 2016 by Allan Parsons

A narrative environment could be conceived as a ‘dispositif’ or a concrete social apparatus, understood as a ‘practical system’; or as being inscribed or situated within an apparatus. Other terms with similar or overlapping meanings which are used in this context are ‘agencement‘ and ‘assemblage‘ and possibly ‘arrangement’ and ‘distribution’.

Jerome Fletcher notes that the term ‘apparatus’ is often used as a translation of the French term dispositif, a term employed initially by Foucault and elaborated by Agamben and Deleuze. In this usage, apparatus does not simply refer to a mechanism, device or physical object, such as, for example, computer hardware, but is more like an arrangement, for example, of hardware, software, code, writing, performance, usage, texts, ideology, writers, readers, coders, decoders, executions (of programs) and so on, together.

In response to the question of what the meaning or methodological function of the term apparatus or dispositif is for him, Michel Foucault (1980: 194) replies,

“What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements. Secondly, what I am trying to identify in this apparatus is precisely the nature of the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements … Thirdly, I understand by the term ‘apparatus’ a sort of – shall we say – formation which has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need. The apparatus thus has a dominant strategic function.”

What takes place within the apparatus, in this sense, is a series of events. Such an approach may be useful in developing one’s thinking about the design of a narrative environment.

Agamben (2009) proposes that the word dispositif, or “apparatus” in English, is a decisive technical term in the development of Foucault’s thought, as he moves away from using such formulations as episteme, knowledge and discursive formations, preferring instead such terms as apparatuses and disciplines.  Foucault uses apparatus/dispositif increasingly frequently from the mid-1970s onwards, when he begins to discuss ‘governmentality’ and the government of people. Later, Foucault goes on to talk of ‘technologies of the self’ (McHoul, 2009: 201)

Foucault never offers a complete definition of dispositif/apparatus. The closest he comes to doing so is in the interview cited above entitled “The Confession of the Flesh”, Agamben suggests. In this interview, Foucault indicates that that an apparatus/dispositif is a heterogeneous set, ensemble or assembly that incorporates virtually anything, such as, as mentioned by Foucault, “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions”, which are both linguistic, extra-linguistic and non-linguistic, and forms them into a distinctive domain or field. The apparatus/dipositif itself, according to Foucault, is the network or system of relations that can be established among these diverse phenomena.

Furthermore, among these elements, Foucault specifies, there is a kind of interplay of shifts of position and modifications of function which can also vary very widely.

An apparatus is a kind of a formation, then, that, at a given historical moment or particular conjuncture, has, as its major function, the response to a particular urgent need. It has, therefore, a strategic purpose. As such, it emerges at the intersection of power relations and relations of knowledge, as Agamben says, or, in Foucault’s (1980: 196) terms, an apparatus consists in a set of strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge.

Foucault’s discussion of ‘dispositif’ has resonances with his discussion of what he elsewhere calls ‘practical systems’ (Foucault, 1984: 48-49). Such systems stem from three broad areas, he suggests: relations of control over things, relations of action upon others and relations with oneself. These three areas are not mutually exclusive but are wound through each other. Thus, Foucault (1984: 48) argues that “control over things is mediated by relations with others; and relations with others in turn always entail relations with oneself, and vice versa”. Nevertheless, this scheme suggests three axes “whose specificity and whose interconnections have to be analysed: the axis of knowledge, the axis of power, [and] the axis of ethics.” (Foucault, 1984: 48). [1]

The historical ontology of ourselves has to answer an open series of questions which can be systematised as follows:

  • how are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge?;
  • how are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations?; and
  • how are we constituted as moral subjects of our own action?

A dispositif/apparatus, then, forms a material-discursive practice, crucial for our understanding of the entwinement of ontology and epistemology. Radomska (2010: 106) notes that Karen Barad mostly draws upon Michel Foucault’s notion of discursive practices and Niels Bohr’s concept of the apparatus, arriving at her own, posthumanist and agential realist formulation of material-discursive practices or apparatuses. She understands discourse in a Foucauldian sense, as that which “constrains or enables what can be said” and what finally is treated, and exists, as a meaningful statement or action.

Other theorists and notions that resonate with, and the traces of which one may find in Barad’s project, according to Radomska (2010: 106n), apart from Foucault’s dispositif/apparatus, are Ranciere’s ‘distribution of the sensible’, Haraway’s apparatuses of bodily production, Latour’s inscription and translation and Butler’s performative. Another key example is Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) notion of assemblage. They assert that “every assemblage … is simultaneously and inseparably a machinic assemblage and an assemblage of enunciation. In each case, it is necessary to ascertain both what is said and what is done.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 504)


[1] These three axes may be fruitfully articulated with those of Greimas in his actantial model, in order to relate narrative theory to a Foucauldian political theory.


Agamben, G. (2009). What is an apparatus, In What is an apparatus? and other essays, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992). What is a dispositif? In: Michel Foucault, Philosopher: essays translated from the French and German by Timothy J. Armstrong. New York, NY: Routledge, 159–168.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, M. (1980) “The Confession of the Flesh” [Interview, 1977], In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, edited by Colin Gordon. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, pp. 194-228.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? In: The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 32–50.

McHoul, A. (2009) Discourse, Foucauldian approach, In Concise encyclopedia of pragmatics, 2nd ed., edited by Jacob L. Mey. London: Elsevier.

Radomska, M. (2010). Towards a posthuman collective: ontology, epistemology and ethics. Praktyka Teoretyczna, (1), pp.93–115. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/513218/Towards_a_Posthuman_Collective_Ontology_Epistemology_and_Ethics

edited 4 March, 2018 by Allan Parsons