Michel Foucault’s Two Registers of the Modern Machine-Body: Critical Analysis

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In this essay, I will argue that Foucault’s two registers of the modern machine-body – the anatomico-metaphysical and the technical-political, although distinct in construction share a common purpose to achieve their respective goals. The approach they have in common is to dehumanize the body and use the docile body for manipulation. To illustrate this, I will draw on Descartes and in particular Leder and discuss the functions Foucault’s two registers serve in the context of administering punishment and the role of medicine. According to Foucault, the anatomical-metaphysical body focuses on ‘functioning and explanation’ while the technico-political examines the ‘use and submission’ of the body (Foucault, 136). Yet, the body as an entity has always been held under ‘strict powers’ that constrict its motion and weigh it down with ‘constraints and obligations’ (Foucault, 136).

Initially, mentioned in Man-the-Machine, Descartes wrote the ‘first-few pages’ regarding the anatomical-metaphysical register (Foucault, 136). Focusing on the distinction between mind and soul, Descartes developed this further in Meditations, in which he described the mind and soul as interacting entities that ultimately represent different ideas. According to Descartes, ‘the mind or soul of a man is entirely different from the body’ and it is the ‘mind alone, and not mind and body in conjunction, that is requisite to a knowledge of the truth’ (Descartes, 115 & 119). Indeed, the body ‘is merely an extended thing,’ of much less significance to the extent that Descartes ‘is certain that (he) is distinct from my body and can exist without it’ (Meditation 4). By installing the soul within the mind and by separating it from the body, Descartes effectively dehumanizes the body and creates space for the docile body.

Drew Leder in his text, A Tale of Two Bodies, develops this point by noting that framing the body as a machine that needs attention in the form of maintenance and repair rather than healing and care, diminishes an individual’s experiences and removes their human qualities, thereby reducing them and making them less relevant. The idea of the body as a machine stems from Descartes who reconceives the human body as ‘a kind of animated corpse, a functioning mechanism’ (Descartes, 119). Leder suggests that this model of the body as an automaton dominates medicine because the anatomy of the body has driven medical knowledge, which has been derived from the corpse – the dead body, and that ‘the epistemological primacy of the corpse has shaped not only medical technology but diverse aspects of training and practice’ (Leder, 121). The shift from symptoms experienced by living patients to organic pathology identified solely in the corpse has meant that disease ‘exists’ only in the material world. In other words, the truth about disease is best gleaned from dead matter and lived experience is epiphenomenal – further diminishing the importance of what the person (patient) expresses.

While the mind and soul distinction in the anatomico-metaphysical oddly displaces the body, the original distinction was seen as a benefit according to Foucault as it changed the way society viewed punishment. Before the 17th century, the punishment was ‘based on a relation of appropriation of bodies,’ this reductive view was articulated by Foucault in his vivid description of Damiens’ body as a target of sovereign power as it is relentlessly tortured to the point of being deconstructed completely (Foucault, 137). In this account, the soul (that resides in the mind) is the criminal, and yet it is the body that is being tormented. Foucault alludes to this form of punishment, that targets the body, being dehumanizing by arguing that we ‘too readily and too empathically’ construe the withdrawal of public torture as a ‘process of ‘humanization’’ (Foucault, 7). Instead, Foucault argues that punishment has morphed from torture to discipline so as to utilize the body to better serve institutions. Here Foucault insinuates that by valuing the body as a machine, instead of torturing it, the body could be trained to become docile and thus further instructed to become productive.

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Understanding the anatomico-metaphysical register as the distinction between the mind and body, the body becomes docile and therefore it can be manipulated. It is here that Foucault’s second register of the technico-political (machine-body) is brought into the frame. In this register, Foucault is interested in how the body is directly engaged by institutions. In other words, how through the ‘political technology of the body’ it becomes a ‘useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body’ (Foucault, 26). However, unlike the anatomy of the body which can be seen and described, the political technology of the body ‘is rarely formulated in continuous, systematic discourse; and instead is often made up of bits and pieces’ (Foucault, 26). Furthermore, the technico-political body is ‘constituted by regulations and by empirical and calculated methods relating to the army, the school and the hospital, for controlling or correcting the operations of the body’ (Foucault, 136). Foucault proposes that the body is governed by a ‘micro-physics of power’ in which ‘power exercised on the body is conceived not as property, but as a strategy’ and that it is ‘exercised rather than possessed’ (Foucault, 26). It is a logic that affords political control of the body, and in turn, of human beings, who are thought of as machines acting as soldiers or workers.

Political technology, via micro-physics, allows bodies to be trained for particular roles and manipulated for social purposes and gain. But such control over the body can only be enacted on the body if it is docile and malleable and has already been adopted by the anatomic-metaphysical register, wherein the mind is distinct. Similar to the anatomico-metaphysical register, the technico-political register also partitions the soul from the body – but here it is regarded ‘as the present correlative of a certain technology of power over the body’ that exists ‘within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished’ (Foucault, 29). Distinction of the mind as a ‘thinking-thing’ from the body lends itself to Foucault’s concept of the docile body, which connects the ‘intelligible’, ‘analysable’ body that features in the anatomico-metaphysical register and the ‘manipulable’ body that characterises the technico-political register (Descartes, 74 & Foucault, 136). Thus, the body, being highly pliable, serves as an ‘instrument or intermediary’ for the technico-political, and hence the latter is dependent on the anatomico-metaphysical (Foucault, 11).

In the context of punishment, if an institution or individual were to ‘imprison’ the body or to ‘make it work,’ Foucault suggests that the docile body now succumbs and works for those institutions to provide and be productive. This conception of the body as a productive tool completes the foundation for Foucault’s technico-political register and allows Foucault to explain the transformation of punishment – that is no longer bound by physical abuse and extortion. Punishment of a docile body aims to conform the mind by restricting the body. Therefore, the body no longer operates as a machine capable of promoting its autonomy and free-thinking. Instead, according to Foucault, this new form of punishment regards the body merely as a machine that can be constrained so as to limit the mind. This rejection of the body and mind as one, allows the latter to be captured by confining the body. Again this dehumanizes the body and centers the soul, thinking and feeling within the mind. Foucault indulges this idea as he acknowledges that institutions and society aim to correct the body through discipline and that there is a ‘modern’ form of execution – ‘the “non-corporal” penality’ (Foucault, 11 & 16). Disconnecting the body, the ‘justice reticence takes away life, but prevents the patient from feeling it and deprives the prisoner of all rights but does not inflict pain;’ execution is no longer about torturing the body instead it ‘affects life’ as ‘the soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body’ (Foucault, 11 & 30).

The theme of dehumanizing the body in both registers is further discussed by Leder who identifies the roots of this paradigm in medicine where it also leads to reductionist forms of treatment. To counter this Cartesian model of embodiment Leder invokes the term ‘lived body’, which ‘holds that the body of a living being has an essential structure of its own which cannot be captured by the language and concepts used to explain inanimate nature’ (Leder, 123). At the crux of this idea, the lived body is an ‘intending’ entity that interacts with the material world wherein interaction involves ‘intertwining’ (Leder, 123). It challenges medicine’s Cartesian duality that is drawn substantively from studying the corpse, and proposes instead that when the body falls sick, for instance, disease does not only create a broken ‘machine’ but also leads to loss of autonomy, sense of self and inter-relatedness and that these effects are integral to our experience of illness (Leder, 119). In doing so, Leder counters the machine-body model and suggests that it be substituted by the lived body in which illness is a complete experience of both the body and the mind together – meaning that the body is human and not simply material. Intertwining allows for both physiological and existential elements of illness to be regarded equally and of mutual importance both causally and experientially.

Thus, the two registers posited by Foucault, although quite different conceptually, with the anatomico-metaphysical register providing a functioning and explanatory model where the body is a machine and can be analyzed and understood as such and the technico-political register in which the body is a means of confining the mind to maintain its usefulness, both registers ultimately dehumanize the body and regard it as less important than the mind per se. Regarding punishment, the shift in registers still targets the mind albeit through confinement/control as opposed to the infliction of pain, whereas in medicine both registers fail to invest the body with lived experience and as such it is regarded as an object to be studied, treated and controlled.

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Michel Foucault’s Two Registers of the Modern Machine-Body: Critical Analysis. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/michel-foucaults-two-registers-of-the-modern-machine-body-critical-analysis/
“Michel Foucault’s Two Registers of the Modern Machine-Body: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/michel-foucaults-two-registers-of-the-modern-machine-body-critical-analysis/
Michel Foucault’s Two Registers of the Modern Machine-Body: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/michel-foucaults-two-registers-of-the-modern-machine-body-critical-analysis/> [Accessed 1 Jul. 2022].
Michel Foucault’s Two Registers of the Modern Machine-Body: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 18 [cited 2022 Jul 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/michel-foucaults-two-registers-of-the-modern-machine-body-critical-analysis/
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