Technologies over the Body: A Brief History of Discipline and Control in the US-Mexico Borderlands

During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the U.S. southwest, the new Anglo elite that arrived in the region, used an array of technologies to try and remake local populations. Transportation infrastructure, like the railroad, alongside medicine and sanitary regimes imposed a hierarchy of mobility that restricted peoples’ movement, fostered dislocation, and choreographed behavior. Michel Foucault’s work is instructive to consider how technology, broadly defined to include industrialization, medicalization, and governmentality, have affected and recast interpersonal relationships and how we think about the body.

The clinic and the school, in Foucault’s view, are ideal spaces to monitor and discipline the body. Social norms and the limits of acceptable behavior are clearly delineated in these institutional settings. They order the activities of the group and discipline persons who fall outside the bounds of approved conduct. A consideration of the border in Alexandra Stern’s work on El Paso reveals how a preoccupation with population and immigration flows caused a reinforcement of territorial boundaries. The medical technologies used to monitor new entries served as one of these “apparatuses of security” as described by Foucault. Likewise, Pablo Mitchell’s study of Indian children’s bodily comportment in New Mexican schools speaks to this notion of security. Administrators sought to “Americanize” these populations in order to reinforce the privileged position enjoyed by whites as well as to “secure” the idea of the United States as a modern, Eurocentric, and Anglo-Saxon society. Finally, these power structures are reinforced in the private sector as businesses consolidate and regiment the behavior of laborers; issues that Neil Foley has considered in the case of south Texas. Although Foucault does not explicitly discuss race, these scholars bring his work in to consider how power shapes racial hierarchies across the borderlands.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault explores how the state enhances surveillance of individuals to protect the “safety” of the general population. Power is an essential component of the author’s discussion and one that helps to influence subsequent scholarship on sexuality and gender. It is important to remember Foucault’s observation that “sexuality must not be thought of as a natural given” but rather engaged as a social construct formed by state institutions and society.[1] He shows how a new generation of medical professionals in the nineteenth century drew upon clinical technologies that sought to “correct” perceived notions of the abnormal. Foucault argues that the therapist served as a modern representation of the cleric; the ideas of confession and disclosure are central to the relationship both specialists maintain with their “flawed” subjects.

Moreover, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault examines the role of the body as a site where power is exercised through physical control and the punishment of an individual. The sovereign applies violence to regiment and organize the populace. The level of pain associated with a given punishment was a chief concern within the process of state retribution. Foucault notes that this framework shifted away from a focus on pain to one increasingly concerned with “an economy of suspended rights” which sought to regulate the body. No longer was the criminal seen as a direct enemy of the sovereign, but rather became a subject of the law to be controlled and reformed by “a whole army of technicians who took over from the executioner… [including] chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, [and] educationalists.”[2] Modern public institutions, such as schools, hospitals, barracks, and prisons operated as controlled spaces that “trained” individuals to accept social norms through regulation of bodily comportment.

Concerns about public health and safety have seen government officials eagerly implemented reforms that furthered the state project of control and domination. During the early 1900s, in El Paso, and other border crossing zones, the U.S. Public Health Service imposed a set of rituals that spoke the language of science. The government, in the name of protecting society, adjudicated the acceptability of foreigners entering the country. The project sought, as Stern has observed in her work, to “ensure the putative purity of the ‘American’ family-nation” against outsiders it saw as a threat.[3] Federal agents imposed a social and racial hierarchy at the border, couched in scientific vocabulary, reducing Mexican and Chinese bodies to carries of disease that reiterated deeply held notions of white superiority.

Education has also served as a powerful center of state power and social control in the borderlands. Mitchell writes about school administrators in New Mexico during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were deeply preoccupied with the bodily comportment of Native Americans and Hispanos, forcing them to conform to activities and ways of racialized behavior deemed acceptable by white elites as part of “normative” American society. In terms of social training, Foucault has observed that the school serves as a different site of surveillance and examination where the body and conduct are reviewed by “experts” to reinforce notions of “acceptable” behavior and dress. The relationship of knowledge between teacher and pupil reinforces notions of hierarchy, while the examination itself serves as a process that is “woven into… a constantly repeated ritual of power.”[4]

Alongside government priorities, corporations imposed other social hierarchies on borderlands communities. Scientific management presumed to control the bodies of laborers in the name of greater efficiency. In south Texas, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, corporations began consolidating the agricultural sector and deployed management techniques that transformed farmers into workers within large, industrialized operations. Foley shows managers controlled the types of seed each farm used and approved planting methods. They also segmented the work force along racial lines, dividing the Mexican, African American, and poor white laborers.[5] In doing so, companies transformed the farm into another site of modern surveillance, discipline, and control. Alluding to Foucault’s work, we can identify the institutionalization of “approved” activities that came with the centralization and consolidation of the farming sector in Texas. They created company towns and stratified labor relations along racial lines under a progressive system of management that produced a controllable, obedient workforce. Those who did not follow the rules could be simply expulsed and replaced.

These studies show how the process of “othering” operated through specialized language and rituals. Foucault and other scholars have demonstrated the role that institutional spaces served to draw distinctions between human beings, render certain physical and cultural attributes as undesirable, and promote a framework that “educated” target individuals through the disciplining of their bodies. Schools, clinics, and industrial farms served as spaces to regulate behavior and favor certain forms of activity over others. Government officials and corporate managers were acutely focused on controlling how individuals acted in society as a means to reinforce power relations that favored Anglo Americans. Throughout this historical process in the borderlands, U.S. officials “integrated” Hispanos, Native Americans, Mexicans, and African American into a national racial hierarchy that labeled them as inferior. This paradigm drew extensively from bodily comportment as a means to differentiate “American” cultural practices vis-à-vis “non-white” forms of expression.

[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1.

[2] Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

[3] Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America.

[4] Pablo Mitchell, Coyote Nation: Sexuality, Race, and Conquest in Modernizing New Mexico, 1880-1920.

[5] Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture.

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