Russon & Foucault: Embodiment in the Everyday

(DISCLAIMER: This is a copy of a midterm essay I submitted in my senior seminar class. Feedback is welcome, but plagiarism is stupid.)

Embodiment is one of the most obfuscated facets of everyday life. We refer to ourselves as “having a body” instead of “being embodied,” which is an important distinction. For both Foucault and Russon, the body is the primary form of contact with the world around us. The body is always in relation to others, always public, always both “part of us,” and “apart from us.” To be embodied is to perform or function in an environment, whether this is a self-taught behavior or a discipline enforced upon oneself. There are some disjunctions between Russon’s (phenomenological) and Foucault’s (post-structuralist) analyses of everyday life, but one key element seems to link the two methodologies: The body.

The body is, as Russon describes, “the point of intersubjective contact” (22). In other words, the body is always a part of a much larger system—a “machine”—of others. Being embodied means being vulnerable, being “seen,” but, also, always “seeing.” Russon describes a constant tension in embodiment, a kind of polar tug between the antipodes of everyday existence: “In contact there is a dynamic tension of two opposed poles—the subject and object—that define themselves against each other while simultaneously implicating each other in themselves.” (26). By “implicating each other in themselves,” Russon means to elucidate that the conceptual “object” is only meaningful in relation to, and based upon, the “subject” (and vice versa). There is a criterion for our noticing things as objects, namely, that we can perform tasks with them. Russon explains how, in terms of interacting with the world, “We are what we can do, and the identities of those things which we contact are measured in terms of these abilities.” (31). These abilities, though perhaps effortful at the first, become ingrained in our subconscious and are “habituated” in a way so that “our directed focused attention is freed up” in performing the task repeatedly (29). In this account, our bodies become less cumbersome through habituation; embodiment becomes inconspicuous. Habituation is key for Russon, and it comes in a similar form for Foucault, only under a different guise: Discipline.

Discipline, though stemming from a different origin than habituation, is similarly important to an agent navigating the world in everyday life. The ability to type, for instance, is something which is so habituated that we almost forget we had to undergo a learning process to develop that skill. This process “disciplines” us to become skillful. Discipline works at the level of the individual human body and affects our relationship with a task (usually of production, according to Foucault). Foucault’s account regards discipline as a form of “bio-power,” which is an “insertion of bodies into the machinery of production” (263). Discipline, as bio-power, methodically increases the efficacy for an individual in performing a task. Like habituation, discipline renders learned behaviors invisible through repetitively performing them. Without discipline, or habituation, simple tasks like typing this sentence would become clumsy and arduous. There is a certain obfuscation which accompanies getting accustomed to a behavior, and “with familiarity comes inconspicuousness” (29). We are taught how to do something, which may be uncomfortable at first, since our body is not familiar with the task—our body presents itself as a limitation. Yet, through discipline and habituation, we eventually forget (or become unaware of) the spatial relations of keys on the keyboard, the position of our fingers in relation to the words we want to produce, etc. until we make a mistake and become aware of our behavior. But interpretation of objects in our everyday life—like the keyboard—is also affected by habituation and discipline. Russon writes that “to interpret is to see something as something,” or, in other words, experience is fluid, already undergoing interpretation. The keys on a keyboard originally appear as a set of tools, whereas through habituation and discipline, they merge into an individual tool. Typing on the keyboard becomes a process of producing words, of consistent dialogue between intention and action. The body is as salient as the mind in this convergent process.

Foucault is concerned with discipline, but, also, power relations. Power, for Foucault, is relational (between structures and individuals). As we’ve seen, bio-power—as opposed to other kinds of traditional power—is productive, a kind of bottom-up system which maintains the power “to foster life or disallow it.” (261). Traditionally, power is only effective when seen but, as Foucault’s account elucidates, power has become “inverted,” and power has become “invisible.” In this way, power is all the more effective and pervasive. Again, power for Foucault is not oppressive. Power is only effective as long as an agent is able to recognize that power; Foucault describes death itself as “power’s limit” (261). At which point, power becomes obsolete, and, obviously, ineffective.

Power is manifest in relationships, and only in relationships. With relationships of power often come disciplines. Through disciplines–mirroring Russon’s description of the “inconspicuousness” of activities through habituation–activities become second-nature, and bodily resistance decreases. In his essay Docile Bodies, Foucault describes the malleability of the body in an example of a soldier: “the soldier has become something that can be made…can be constructed” (179). The body, as seen in the soldier, is something which can be molded, disciplined, and reshaped like clay to represent something else entirely. A recruited soldier can have no battle experience but eventually–through time and training–bodily resistance decreases; behaviors which once seemed daunting become natural, and attention is “freed up” from such tasks. Standing with correct posture, marching in uniform, and similar activities become “normal.” This commodification of the individual human body has not always been the case, according to Foucault, who writes, “in every [past] society, the body was in the grip of very strict powers, which imposed on it constraints, prohibitions, or obligations.” (180). In other words, until the last few hundred years of population growth and urban density, power has taken the sovereign form. Power, until recently, has been deductive. There has not traditionally been the expectation to become “disciplined” in a way that is considered “normal” or even “ideal.” Our situation of everyday life in these post-industrialized societies has resulted in a “constant subjection of its forces and imposed on them a relation of docility-utility, [which] might be called ‘disciplines.’” (180). But, additionally, bio-power is manifest in terms of regulatory controls. This form of power takes charge at the population level, as opposed to discipline affecting merely the individual. Regulatory control helps facilitate “norms” and further commodifies the body in a way that is “ordinary” or “probabili[stic]” (264). Through discipline, the body is at once “subject” and “object” simultaneously. The subject begins to discipline itself, and the body is its object. Through regulatory control, the body becomes intersubjective, or a part of a collective object. As we have established, to be a self is to be embodied, and to be disciplined/regulated is to be an “object” in the intersubjective sense.

Being embodied in an intersubjective world, according to Russon, certainly contributes to the sense of self as a “discrete” chooser (9). One is constantly visible, open, and vulnerable, all while maintaining the power of subjective selfhood. This developed subject sees itself as an “independent, free agent, ontologically equal with all others” (83). In being “ontologically equal” with others, one develops a shared status and value of normalcy. Normality arises as a symptom of intersubjective life, and as a symptom of power relations between oneself and the world. For Russon, “To hold the normal self as an ideal is to hold this notion of independent choice as the primary value in human existence,” or, in other words, the very feeling of independently exercising choice is definitive to the experience of everyday life. Russon writes—perhaps with consternation—how “our inescapable nature is to be outwardly directed, whereas the ideal of normalcy portrays us as inherently inward.” (90). Again, the “tension” Russon describes arises into plain sight. There is a constant tug between the self as outward and the self as inward. This is a neurosis. This neurosis can be harmful, as Russon explains, “a society premised on the narrative of normalcy produces a ‘civil’ society of people alienated from themselves and from each other” (90). This sounds a lot like Foucault’s account of regulatory bio-power, which is manifest at the population level. Yet, Russon describes the neurotic tension between individual selves and others as both alienating and liberating (to varying degrees). However, for Foucault, normality takes a different route into being: “normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age. For the marks that once indicated status, privilege, and affiliation were increasingly replaced…by a whole range of degrees of normality” (196). In other words, “the power of normalization imposes homogeneity” (196). By “homogeneity,” Foucault seems to be pointing at a kind of universal quality which emerges in normalcy—the discipline and regulatory control of docile bodies. The human being, once thought of as innate and fixed, becomes open to possibility: A tabula rasa. The disciplined body is normalized and contextualized in accordance with its relations of power. It is not as “discreet” as we’d like to think it is. Both Russon and Foucault would appear to reject this notion of the free, independent self, absolved of externalities.

Foucault’s post-structuralist view of everyday life differs from Russon’s phenomenological account, but there clearly seems to be some overlap between the two. Russon argues that “we are what we can do” (31). This is a limiting and empowering claim, as embodiment necessitates our relationship with the intersubjective world around us. This relationship would be described in terms of power on Foucault’s account. Our body is a part of bio-power, which has two dimensions: Discipline and Regulatory control. These two aspects of Foucault’s bio-power, combined with Russon’s concept of habituation, serve to normalize us—to decrease bodily resistance and streamline our everyday lives. Foucault’s “docile body” in accordance with Russon’s “embodiment” and “habituation” sets the stage for the medium through which “an agency can emerge” (27). It’s clear that the self is contingent upon the body. Perhaps, instead of weighing our actions on a scale of independent “discrete” decision-making, we should weigh our actions in a systematic way—considering the relationship of power between us and the world. If we want to empower ourselves, we should recognize the nature of normalcy and our embodiment: Both limiting and empowering. Only then can we be the origin of our choices and make informed, effective decisions in our everyday lives.


Works Cited

Foucault, Michel, and Paul Rabinow. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.

Russon, John Edward. Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. Albany: State U of New York, 2003. Print.



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