You missed a spot there!

I realized that I’ve been discussing institutions here and there, namely to exemplify things, but I haven’t covered discipline really at all, despite contrasting disciplinary societies with societies of control. So, I’ll get on with it. For those of you familiar with Michel Foucault, it shouldn’t surprise you that this is going to revolve around his ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’. To make this more interesting, I’ll do my best to use my own examples rather than reiterating what Foucault has to say about discipline. I don’t have experiences of prison beyond, I think, one trip to the prison museum of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, Ireland, as a part of an urban geography field trip. School would be familiar to most people, but it’s been quite a while so I can’t really remember much of it. Instead, I’ll reflect on Foucault through my experiences in the army. While this is hardly uncommon among Finns who could tell you essentially the same stories, it may be of interest (and amusement) to those who grew up in countries where service is not mandatory or typical. Plus, I find the experiences quite hilarious in retrospect, so I don’t mind sharing them. I was hardly scarred for life.

Foucault dedicates part three of ‘Discipline and Punish’ to discipline. In the chapter on ‘docile bodies’ he (135) states:

“By the late eighteenth century, the soldier has become something that can be made; out of formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required can be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit[.]”

In my experience, this is very much spot on. My body sure was inapt for military service, yet gradually it was molded like clay through repetitive drills until activities previously unfamiliar or alien to me turned into habits. Anyway, I’ll let Foucault (135-136) continue, this time in reference to the ‘ordinance of 20 march 1764’:

“Recruits become accustomed to ‘holding their heads high and erect; to standing upright, without bending the back, to sticking out the belly, throwing out the chest and throwing back the shoulders; and, to help them acquire the habit, they are given this position while standing against a wall in such a way that the heels,the thighs, the waist and the shoulders touch it, as also do the backs of the hands, as one turns the arms outwards, without moving them away from the body[.]”

Now the first part is quite familiar. The posture was more or less that, standing straight, no arching of the back with a slight emphasis of the shoulders and the neck. I can’t remember experiencing that ever as a drill of that nature, but it was a standard posture when standing in attention or marching in formation. Marching of course involved swinging arms, but always in a determined and restrained manner. Back to Foucault (136) on the same ordinance:

“Likewise, they will be taught never to fix their eyes on the ground, but to look straight at those they pass … to remain motionless until the order is given, without moving the head, the hands or the feet … lastly to march with a bold step, with knee and ham taut, on the points of the feet, which should face outwards[.]'”

Eyes, eyes, eyes, the window to your soul. Well, no, not in the army (or is it?). Bang on, once again with the eyes. I remember there being two standard postures issued on command: attention and at ease. Attention led to the rigid posture mentioned earlier whereas at ease gave a bit more leg room, feet no longer touching one another. The difference was quite marginal as in neither movement of the body nor the head was allowed. At ease was still a bit more relaxed, less tiring for the body. Returning to the eyes, you always looked straight forward when standing in attention or marching in formation, on command the head tilting and eyes following the person saluted until the person passed your line of sight and then returning to default position. When at ease you were allowed to glance around with no movement of the head. I’m sure people ‘abused’ this and rolled their eyes and what not as you quickly learn to play the game.

I think people probably misunderstand how the military works. Yes, there’s plenty of arsenal around, but in my experience the time spent with an assault rifle slung in front you is marginal compared to the time spent doing mundane tasks. I rarely have recurring dreams, but one theme pops up every now and then. Yes, obviously, somehow in the dreams I keep returning to the uniform. Now, this might sound all violent, but no, what I can remember is that those dreams consist of me wondering how am I here, again, why am I doing these tasks and why am I missing my rank on my uniform. I think that’s all hardly surprising, considering how much time was spent per day making sure the floors and all other surfaces were clean, ready for inspection at any time if need be, the bedcover neatly aligned during the day time, your locker in order, your boots spotless and polished, your beret having no wrinkles when worn etc. You’d think that cleaning is, of course, not that much of a deal, same with the bedcover. Well, there are standards and then there are army standards. While clean surfaces required just clean surfaces, it could also mean a superior checking some behind something spot for dust just to make a point, show who’s who. Same with the bedcovers. Don’t be silly, the bedcover is more than just what it is, it is itself an institution within an institution, easily enough to cause nightmares. It’s no ordinary bedcover. It has a simplistic, yet rather stress and temper inducing blue and white plaid pattern, which of course, a well disciplined soldier must align perfectly. The pattern is there to make sure you learn to fold something with four corners. Frustrating at first, but you’ll learn to make sure that pattern aligns perfectly on the bed, in record time mind you. It also covers the pillow and that must also be taken into consideration, but after a while that’s hardly an issue. The body learns through repetition. On top of that, if you thought that’s a bit unnecessary, when not in use during the time allocated for rest, as regimented as such between 10 PM and 6 AM, it must be folded on to a stool next to your bed. Same rules apply there, perfect alignment, corner to corner, including the folded part below the part lined up on top. If you or someone else hosted in the same room failed at this bedcover business, that is was deemed so by a superior inspecting it, led to everyone doing it again. If you or someone failed at covering the bed perfectly, then everyone had to first fold it on the chair perfectly, then if that passed, then the bed. Same applied the other way around. Someone unable to keep a straight face or the like upon inspection led to the same thing, regardless of how well everyone actually did with the bedcover. Now, of course this was all rigged and the time given to do these tasks was both arbitrary and limited, but that’s the point, to make you docile. I’ve been told that the part where it’s folded for the night no longer applies in service. It makes you wonder. What do they do now then? Then again, not really. I’m sure there are always some heavy olive green colored big boxes with unnecessarily small handles that need to be moved around for some reason. Also, even if you take out the boxes, there’s bound to be a hurry somewhere, if for nothing else but to wait. Anyway, the list of things to be done or to be taken care of per day seemed endless, yet you managed it fine. In the end all that stuff didn’t take that much time or effort once it became a habit. I could list other examples, ranging from nitpicky there is a speck of oil in this rifle receiver during inspection before storage to how regimented and scheduled each day was, but you should be able to get the gist already.

Now, it’s rather obvious from my own experiences how discipline works, not that reading Foucault isn’t illuminating in this regard. It’s all in the little things, the minuscule details, all of it. That said, maybe it’s the more contemporary setting, but what is, or at least was, positive about military service is that everyone is treated equally, or at least equally badly. You simply don’t get a pass on things just because you think you are entitled to such. Now rank plays a big part, fair enough, so it’s never going to be equal. Only those of the same rank are equal, if even that. It’s always a pyramid and the purpose of training is to shape you into an efficient member of the military, knowing what to do before someone has to tell you to do it. That’s it. Then again, people of all backgrounds had to get along and at least in the service model your superior could be from a lower class than you or from some minority. So, what I’m saying here is that you had to take people as they were as background had no impact during the service. You’ll gladly swap a portion of your meal that you don’t like to another portion that you like with someone to whom it’s the other way around regardless of their background, or just give your portion away if you don’t like something and you’ve had enough to eat anyway. If nothing else, being at the bottom of a barrel does give you perspective.


  • Foucault, M. ([1975] 1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.