Archives du mot-clé obedience

Discipline (English version)

Return to the French text

For an

The notion of discipline seems at first sight foreign to concepts used by PaaLabRes. In our collective, the emphasis is on the concepts of nomad and transversal. In what way is discipline pertinent to our approach?

In the founding text of PaalabRes, the term “discipline” is employed in the two most commonly used definitions, the first one as domain or field of knowledge and practice, separated from other domains, the second one as personal mastery or obedience:

  1. “Our society is characterized in all domains by the instability, the precarity and the erasure of the limits between disciplines.” “Technologies are at the centers of transverse approaches linking disciplines that were until now far apart.” “This does not exclude, in fact, the presence of external observers and the collaboration with non artistic disciplines (notably social sciences and humanities).”
  2. “This book is ‘a questioning on the operations of users, supposedly destined to passivity and discipline’ ”. [quote from Michel de Certeau L’invention du quotidien, I. Arts de faire, Paris, Union Générale d’Éditions, Coll. 10/18, 1980]

These two uses of “discipline” are most often distinct from one another in common language (an “artistic discipline” versus an “iron discipline”), even when this double use appears in the same domain: a teacher should impose discipline in her/his class – rules of conduct and of obedience – in order to teach his/her discipline – ensemble of knowledge of a specific subject matter. If the use of the one thus does not call spontaneously for the use of the other, we can nevertheless think that the two meanings in this last case are perhaps not very far apart.

The origin of the word discipline can be found in effect in discipulus, which means “pupil” in Latin, thus relating discipline to the idea of learning. The history of the word reveals also a kinship between the two definitions and the proximity of a link to the body:

“The ancient meaning of “massacre, carnage, havoc, calamity”, proper to old French, is to be understood as an extension of the idea of “punishment”, an accepted sense during the 12th Century (ca. 1170), especially applied to a cleric’s corporal mortification (1174) and giving way, by metonymy, to the concrete meaning of “instrument used for flogging” (before 1549) in religious circles. However, as soon as mid-12th century, the word is also employed with the modern definitions of “rule of life, of conduct” (ca. 1120) and “education, teaching”. By metonymy, a discipline refers to a subject matter being taught, a branch of knowledge.” [“Discipline” Le RobertDictionnaire historique de la langue française, Alain Rey (dir.) p. 1095]

Discipline as working on the body, was described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. He showed the development during the 18th century of discipline in different institutions through an ensemble of meticulous techniques, methods and practices, which aims, through the corporal inscription, at the fabrication of docile bodies combining usefulness and obedience. Discipline as working on the body through specific practices, evidently constitutes the explicit techniques and goals of an institution like the army, but the “body techniques”, as Marcel Mauss calls them, are equally operational in any teaching practice, including those which are the most “theoretical”. A discipline, by its teaching, constitutes an ensemble of regulated knowledge, techniques and practices, which are inscribed indiscriminately in body and mind. One could say then that discipline is, in the same movement, matter and manner. There is no “matter” (knowledge, understanding, etc.) without “manner” (rules, procedures, etc.).

A discipline, considered as “branch of knowledge”, is only, as indicated by the wording, part of a tree which would represent world knowledge. Following this definition, it is an element of a global knowledge, with a possible doubt as to its effective existence in itself, and which would certainly be only situated historically, culturally, etc., a discipline is thus necessarily partial and excluding. It delimits a perimeter of validity of a culture, that is some ways of thinking and of acting, outside which what it defines no longer applies and is no longer valid. A discipline is obliged to turn inward on itself in order to exist in relation with other disciplines and carries in this way an exclusive logic. However it is because a discipline elaborates its own instruments of contemplating and measuring the world, fragmented but specific instruments, that it can often produce unique knowledge capable of enlightening the world in new ways. Nevertheless, knowledge cannot be unlinked from power, there is a great temptation to preserve in the teaching of a discipline only an ensemble of techniques with no relationships to the knowledge intended to be conveyed, and therefore to the power that this knowledge secures. Michel Foucault showed that the functional role to which a body is subjected, was inversely proportional to the political role it was able to play.

Finally, defined in this way, discipline is thus what at the same time allows and impedes a practice.

For us, reflection on the notion of discipline does not aim to suppress discipline or to multiply the inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinary rationales, nor to harden it in repositioning it on exclusive “fundamentals”. What is at stake is rather to try not to dissociate, within one discipline, the entwined rationales often presented in the form of disjointed elements, as for example “theoretical” and “practical” levels. This supposes that one should imagine a “whole” dimension of discipline, which contains its epistemological, historical, cultural, social (etc.) conditions of construction. However, this position goes against the economic model of division of labor elaborated in the 19th century, that Western art music represents through the hyper-specialization of diverging points of view on music: that of the composer, musicologist, audience, performer, teacher, etc., not to mention the instrumental “enforced discipline” [disciplinarisation] of these last two.

Between a call for a mandatory mixing of disciplines, softening their specific concepts in which everything would be in everything, and the extreme fragmentation of one discipline causing it to explode in as many tightly closed specialties as there are practitioners/researchers, we advocate the importation of foreign elements that shake up and introduce other considerations, allowing a provisional reconfiguration of space and of disciplinary practices.

Samuel Chagnard — 2016

Translation Samuel Chagnard, Jean-Charles and Nancy François

For further studies:

Astolfi, J.-P. (2010). La saveur des savoirs disciplines et plaisir d’apprendre. Issy-les-Moulineaux : ESF.

Chervel, A. (1998). « L’histoire des disciplines scolaires », in La culture scolaire une approche historique. Paris : Belin.

Forquin, J. C., (2005) « Disciplines scolaires », in Dictionnaire encyclopédique de l’éducation et de la formation (sous la direction de Philippe Champy et Christiane Étévé), 3e édition, Paris, Retz, p. 275-279.

Foucault, M. (1993). Surveiller et punir : naissance de la prison. Paris : Gallimard.

Lahire, B. (2012) « Des effets délétères de la division scientifique du travail sur l’évolution de la sociologie », SociologieS [On line], Débats, La situation actuelle de la sociologie, on line, January 27, 2012, consultation on February 10, 2016.


Mauss, M. (1934) Les techniques du corps,, consultation on February 11, 2016.


 For an itinerary-song towards…