control in times of plague

“Every day the inspectors had to visit every house, stopping outside and summoning the occupants. Each individual was assigned a window in which he had to appear, and when his name was called he had to present himself at the window, it being understood that if he failed to appear it had to be because he was in bed, and if  he was in bed he was ill, and if he was ill he was dangerous and so intervention was called for.”

Les anormaux was the title Michel Foucault gave to his 1974-1975 course at the Collège de France. An English translation by Graham Burchell was published in 2003 by Verso: Abnormal. During the lecture of 15 January, 1975 Foucault describes how at a certain moment the medieval approach of leprosy and the model of exclusion it carried, came to be replaced at the end of the 17th – beginning of the 18th century, by approaches of quarantine and inclusion during plague epidemics (la peste).

I reproduce an extensive quotation of Burchell’s translation and although obviously it could never have been Foucault’s intention to suggest anything whatsoever concerning the actual corona pandemic, the centuries old plague policy model he describes might not differ too much from contemporary covid-19 ones.

The plague town – and here I refer to a series of regulations, all absolutely identical, moreover, that were published from the end of the Middle Ages until the beginning of the eighteenth century – was divided up into districts, the districts were divided into quarters, and then the streets within these quarters were isolated. In each street there were overseers, in each quarter inspectors, in each district someone in charge of the district, and in the town itself either someone was nominated as governor or the deputy mayor was given supplementary powers when plague broke out. There is, then, an analysis of the territory into its smallest elements and across this territory the organization of a power that is continuous in two senses. First of all, [-] there is a kind of pyramid of uninterrupted power. It was a power that was continuous not only in this pyramidal, hierarchical structure, but also in its exercise, since surveillance had to be exercised uninterruptedly. The sentries had to be constantly on watch at the end of the streets, and twice a day the inspectors of the quarters and districts had to make their inspection in such a way that nothing that happened in the town could escape their gaze. And everything thus observed had to be permanently recorded by means of this kind of visual examination and by entering all information in big registers. At the start of the quarantine, in fact, all citizens present in the town had to give their name. The names were entered in a series of registers. The local inspectors held some of these registers, and others were kept by the town’s central administration. Every day the inspectors had to visit every house, stopping outside and summoning the occupants. Each individual was assigned a window in which he had to appear, and when his name was called he had to present himself at the window, it being understood that if he failed to appear it had to be because he was in bed, and if  he was in bed he was ill, and if he was ill he was dangerous and so intervention was called for. It was at this point that individuals were sorted into those who were ill and those who were not. All the information gathered through the twice-daily visits, through this kind of review or parade of the living and the dead by the inspector, all the information recorded in the register, was then collated with the central register held by the deputy mayors in the town’s central administration.

You can see that this kind of organization is in fact absolutely antithetical to, or at any rate different from, all the practices concerning lepers. 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 is pure and the other impure, one that has leprosy and the other that does not. Rather, there is a series of fine and constantly observed differences between individuals who are ill and those who are not. It is a question of individualization; the division and subdivision of power extending to the fine grain of individuality. Consequently, we are far from the global division into two masses characteristic of the exclusion of lepers. You can see also that there is none of that distancing, severing of contact, or marginalization. Rather, there is a close and meticulous observation. While leprosy calls for distance, the plague implies an always finer approximation of power to individuals, an ever more constant and insistent observation. With the plague there is no longer a sort of grand ritual of purification, as with leprosy, but rather an attempt to maximize the health, life, longevity, and strength of individuals. Essentially, it is a question of producing a healthy population rather than of purifying those living m the community, as in the case of leprosy. Finally, you can see that there is no irrevocable labeling of one part of the population but rather 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.

You know that there is an extremely interesting body of literature in which the plague appears as the moment of panic and confusion in which individuals, threatened by visitations of death, abandon their identities, throw off their masks, forget their status, and abandon themselves to the great debauchery of those who know they are going to die. There is a literature of plague that is a literature of the decomposition of individuality; a kind of orgiastic dream m which plague is the moment when individuals come apart and when the law is forgotten. As soon as plague breaks out, the town’s forms of lawfulness disappear. Plague overcomes the law just as it overcomes the body. Such, at least, is the literary dream of the plague. But you can see that there was another dream of the plague: a political dream in which the plague is rather the marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full. Plague is the moment when the spatial partitioning and subdivision (quadrillage) of a population is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear. The moment of the plague is one of an exhaustive sectioning (quadrillage) of the population by political power, the capillary ramifications of which constantly reach the grain of individuals themselves, their time, habitat, localization, and bodies. Perhaps plague brings with it the literary or theatrical dream of the great orgiastic moment. But plague also brings the political dream of an exhaustive, unobstructed power that is completely transparent to its object and exercised to the full. You can see that there is a connection between the dream of a military society and the dream of a plague-stricken society, between both of these dreams born in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries I do not think it was the old model of leprosy that was important politically, the final residue or one of the last major manifestations of which was no doubt the great « confinement » and the exclusion of beggars and the mad and so forth. Another, very different model replaced the model of leprosy in the seventeenth century. Plague replaces leprosy as a model of political control, and this is one of the great inventions of the eighteenth century, or in any case of the Classical Age and administrative monarchy.

Broadly I would say that the replacement of the model of leprosy by the model of plague essentially corresponds to a very important historical process that I will call, in a word, the invention of positive technologies of power. The reaction to leprosy is a negative reaction; it is a reaction of rejection, exclusion, and so on. The reaction to plague is a positive reaction; it is a reaction of inclusion, observation, the formation of knowledge, the multiplication of effects of power on the basis of the accumulation of observations and knowledge. We pass from a technology of power that drives out, excludes, banishes, marginalizes, and represses, to a fundamentally positive power that fashions, observes, knows, and multiplies itself on the basis of its own effects.

 “But you can see that there was another dream of the plague: a political dream in which the plague is rather the marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full.” I myself, when I read this, I’m quite ambiguous about actual corona politics. I can understand criticisms who point to the unclear and uncontrolled expansion of obscure powers of control. On the other hand, those people who refuse the simplest forms of self-restraint express their aversion to control by basically anti-social behaviour, especially in the case of sporty cyclists or joggers who come heading your way, panting, puffing, snorting and blowing. Refusing nowadays to wear a mouth-and-nose mask reminds me of those drivers who in the 1990’s refused to wear their seat-belt, because that was supposed to be an infringement upon their bodily integrity – or those who refuse to refrain from smoking in closed public spaces, since ‘the government doesn’t have to determine what I can do with my body’.

1 réflexion au sujet de “control in times of plague”

  1. Thank you for sharing this highly relevant piece of text. In the 19th Century outbreaks of Cholora in the urbanisation-stricken cities of Europe, like London (the broad street cholera outbreak) in the 1850-ies, we probably see the outset of a third model of coping with contagion: that of a combined effort between increased medical insights (a better understanding of causes, e.g. John Snow’s mapping of cholera outbreaks), and urban engineering and planning (clean tap water, proper sewage systems, etc.), engendered by the keen insight of public administrators like Edwin Chadwick. With wonder and some anxiety I look toward the hopefully near future to find out which model will tame Corona and how this will impact us.
    For further reading:
    – Hempel, Sandra. The Medical Detective. John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera. Granta Books, London, 2006, pp. 306.


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