William Lennon

In his “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Gilles Deleuze proposes a creative mis-interpretation of Michel Foucault’s genealogical writings on the “history of systems of thought.” According to Deleuze, Foucault’s project was to elaborate the notion of disciplinary societies, which he saw as a model that we were moving away from. Disciplinary societies, according to Deleuze, are marked by political subjects moving from one space of enclosure to the next, including the school and the family amongst others. Foucault spent much of his project, from Madness and Civilization to Discipline and Punish, discussing the historical emergence, construction, and contingency of these institutions. The systems of knowledge that ground these institutions are marked by certain discourses, actions, and uses of language that are self-contained within these particular institutions, and are maintained by arbitrary distinctions between binaries such as madness and reason and truth and falsity, so as to legitimize their power and keep them from being challenged. However, whereas Foucault does not attempt to “outline the direction of change in the present,” Deleuze creatively misinterprets Foucault in a way that suggests Foucault was trying to do so.[1] Deleuze pounces on Foucault’s idea of the contingency and malleability of our institutional forms of control in our “disciplinary” societies as an opportunity to elaborate on the kind of society we are becoming. Despite Deleuze’s approach differing with Foucault’s in a fundamental way, Deleuze uses Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary societies as a jumping off point for his own creative analysis of our present societal becoming.

While I do not have time in the present analysis to do justice to Foucault’s conception of different constructed “societal spheres,” the section of his “The Order of Discourse” on the relation of the “monster” Gregor Mendel to the traditional biological discipline of his time concisely points out the constructed-ness and self-contained-ness of the institutions and disciplines which Foucault writes about. According to Foucault, Mendel, the father of genetics, found an “absolutely new biological object,” one which was completely foreign to the traditional biological discipline and discourse of the 19th century. As such, he was viewed as a “true monster” by the biological discipline, since his findings would completely uproot the traditional “theoretical foundations” of biology.[2] Mendel was not “in the true,” which is absolutely fundamental to producing knowledge within a specific discipline. As Foucault says, invoking his master Georges Canguilhelm, “before [any knowledge] can be called true or false, it must be ‘in the true.’” (60). Foucault concludes his analysis of Mendel by saying:

“It is always possible that one might speak the truth in the space of a wild exteriority, but one is ‘in the true’ only by obeying the rules of a discursive ‘policing’ which one has to reactivate in each of one’s discourses.

The discipline is a principle of control over the production of discourse. The discipline fixes limits for discourse by the action of an identity which takes the form of a permanent re-actuation of the rules.” (61).

Of course, in time the discipline was transformed as a result of Mendel’s findings. But, the point is that there are various institutional spheres or disciplines within institutions that define what is true and false as a result of a logic immanent to those spheres. These spheres are self-contained and have contingent constraints on what goes on within them, and the case of Mendel shows that these constraints are indeed contingent and able to beentirely reworked and uprooted.

Deleuze, in his “Postscript,” elaborates on this notion of each sphere in a disciplinary society having its own rules, which goes hand in hand with the idea that disciplinary societies consist of various institutional worlds that are entirely separate and require following different rules depending on which one you are in. Deleuze begins his piece by saying,

“Foucault located the disciplinary societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they reach their height at the outset of the twentieth. They initiate the organization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school (you are no longer in your family”); then to the barracks (“you are no longer at school” then the factory)…”[3][4]


Deleuze describes disciplinary societies very matter of factly, without much concrete evidence. It is somewhat of a mystical text, outside of any critical tradition that, at least, I am aware of having worked within. Each institutional sphere is an interior, and one is either within one of these interiors or is travelling between them. At each institution, one “is supposed to start from zero, and “one was always starting again.” (pp. 4-5). When these interiors bleed into each other it provokes anxiety. As a somewhat informal example, one can imagine a businessman spending part of his vacation with family taking business calls and neglecting his fatherly duties, which causes stress for the mother and children who are supposed to be the main focus when the father is supposedly within the familial sphere.

Deleuze announces very early in the “Postscript” that these interiors which seem to “bleed into each other” are finished. He writes, “Everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It’s only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door.” For example, the school is being replaced by perpetual training. (p. 5). Deleuze goes on and on listing various components of such societies. But the most interesting observation that he has concerns the “spirit” of these societies.

There are two points Deleuze makes that interest me most. First, he says,,“in the societies of control, one is never finished with anything.” (p. 5). Since the separate spheres of life in disciplinary societies have broken down and are supposed to be finished, there is no more starting again, and therefore no more finishing. He also writes that “everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports.” (p. 6). While there may be times that are less intense than others, when we seem to be working harder than at other times, we are nonetheless never finished, despite there being changes in what tasks we are performing. This surfing analogy is related to the second point of Deleuze’s that interests me, namely that individuals give way to “dividuals.” Paul Patton explicates the concept of dividuals very clearly in his essay “Deleuze Foucault and History.” Patton writes,

“Unlike disciplinary societies, control societies do not form individuals to fit certain moulds in order to produce docile bodies, obedient subjects and so on. Rather, they extract dividuals that do not correspond to whole persons. A dividual is not a person but a certain number of functional aspects of an individual, each one responding to particular criteria or defined in relation to particular ends… a multiplicity of dividuals do not constitute a mass but rather a sample or a databank that can be analysed and exploited for commercial, governmental or other ends.” (p.78).

Each disciplinary society sphere creates the environment within which each individual “becomes” who they are within that sphere. But when these spheres break down, there is no interior to enter into that inscribes a particular subject as a coherent individual. In control societies, each subject is just the thing that has “a certain number of functional aspects of an individual.” (p. 78).

However, Patton, in the previously mentioned essay, throws a bit of a wrench in Deleuze’s project to use Foucault as the main source of evidence and legitimation in his analysis of control societies. Rather, Deleuze and Foucault are doing entirely different things and have totally different methods. Patton writes,

“Deleuze presents his diagnosis as though it corresponded to or continued Foucault’s method of undertaking an analysis or an archaeology of the present. In fact, it corresponds far more to the manner in which Deleuze presents Foucault’s diagnostic method than it does to anything Foucault wrote.” (p. 77).

Foucault “describes the aim of his genealogies as pursuing this break with the past in a manner that might serve as a condition of further change” but “rarely takes the further step, attributed to him by Deleuze, of attempting to outline the direction of change in the present.” (p. 77). Rather than being true to Foucault’s method, Deleuze uses Foucault as a jumping off point for his analysis of “the philosophical concept rather than historical knowledge of the past” acting upon our experiences. (p. 81).

deleuze and foucault

The aspects of Foucault’s work that allow Deleuze to feel like he can use Foucault as a jumping off point for his own constructive theorization of the present are Foucault’s interviews (which allowed him to diagnose aspects of the present in less theoretical terms), Foucault’s idea that disciplinary societies came after societies of sovereignty, a transition that means it is for sure possible for another transition to be possible, and Foucault’s goal to demonstrate “the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do or think.”[5] These aspects of Foucault’s work encouraged Deleuze to write his “Postscript” with confidence.

While Deleuze is not faithful to what Foucault was actually doing with his historical project, his “Postscript” is alarmingly and frighteningly prophetic. Foucault’s destabilization of what seems like normalized societal truth led Deleuze to sense with remarkable clarity what that destabilization was leading towards. Deleuze and Foucault were not engaging in the same project, but the one created the conditions for the other to construct an active, positive approach to a critique of the present.

Despite Deleuze’s conception of control societies being frightening, he writes with a very level head. In answer to the “what is to be done” question, he writes, “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” (4). In this regard, Deleuze and Foucault are very much in agreement. Foucault, in discussing the limits that society imposes on subjects, is in the end at the service of creating more space for freedom. Deleuze sees the next goal as being able to navigate control societies so as to create room for freedom as well. Deleuze ends his “Postscript’” by writing,

“It’s up to [young people] to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficult, the telos of the disciplines. The coils of a serpent are even more complex than the burrows of a molehill.” (p. 7).

Deleuze’s text is not rigorously theoretical. Rather, it is a quasi-mystical, prophetic, loosely worked vision of what’s to come, and seems to have come. Whether or not he was fully in line with Foucault’s project is in the end inconsequential, and the pursuit of freedom becomes the imperative. Whether Foucault demonstrates his point through Gregor Mendel or by pointing out that systems of thought change over time, Foucault’s genealogical writings open up a space for Deleuze to, with confidence, construct a positive philosophy of the present, which creates new horizons for being able to study and critique the present. Deleuze’s “Postcript” should be a call for others to do more detailed, concrete work within the horizon opened up by his quasi-mystical and prophetic text.

Footnotes and Work Cited

[1] Patton, Paul. “Deleuze, Foucault and History.” Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. Ed. Bernd Herzogenrath. New York: Continuum, 2012. P. 77.

[2] Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse.” Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge, 1981. Pp. 60-61.

[3] Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October, vol. 59, 1992. Pp. 69-85 (p. 3). http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828.

[4] While the Mendel case does not deal with a sphere such as the family or the barracks, it does illustrate how each sphere, like biology as a discipline, has its own rules that must be followed, and that each sphere is contingent and able to be modified. They are not unchanging truths despite being reinforced as such.

[5] Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon, 1984. P. 114.


  1. Image from Playtime by Jacques Tati. Taken from BLARB.
  2. Image from Gender, Race and Biotech.
  3. Image of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Taken from Purdue.

Helpful Video Explaining Control Societies.

William Lennon is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio, and the editor-in-chief of CRB.

Posted by CRB

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