09/19/2014 09:14 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

The Biopolitics of Beheading

Boston Globe via Getty Images

In his book Discipline and Punish, the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault described the way the French penal system underwent the transition from chaotic public execution and torture to a carefully managed prison regimen from which the public was largely veiled. In Foucault's telling, the transition took place relatively quickly, in about 100 years from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. What does that experience tell us about the carefully choreographed and quite cold-blooded executions perpetrated and publicly disseminated in YouTube videos by ISIS?

Foucault helped popularize the term biopolitics, by which he meant the way that authorities exercise power over individuals and groups. In the hands of those who claim to be agents of a state, violence or the threat of violence (which comes to pretty much the same thing) establishes their sovereign power over others. The victim's "confession," however scripted, serves to reinforce that authority and reminds the faithful of the perceived injuries perpetrated by the infidels against Islam.

The raw exercise of lethal violence in the name of a state and in the most visible way possible is intended as both a warning to potential transgressors within its reach and, in an era of globalized instant communication, as a threat against actual and potential adversaries. Just as state authorities made the prison and its associated physical and social structures a technology of power, so ISIS uses social media as a new technology of power. And an internally unchallenged power at that: The violently decisive display also signifies the total unity of the state system in support of the act of "punishment." No dissent among ISIS's seemingly well- organized ruling elites has been recorded.

There are also instructive contrasts with the evolution of the French penal system in Foucault's narrative. The guillotine was created to reduce the "personal" nature of the act itself, to make it more mechanical and in some way more precise and sanitary. The defiantly simple knife used by the infamous ISIS executioner with the British accent (intentional or not that's another bit of theatre that reminds us how vulnerable we are in the West), combined with his domineering posture while touching the victim, remind moderns how fragile is the retreat from barbaric cruelty.

That a more mechanical, less intimate and probably less painful procedure could have been chosen but was not is intended to produce a primitive form of shock and awe, perhaps awakening raw cultural memories of the high price we have paid to escape the more routine violence of life only a few hundred years ago. This, we are being told, is how easily we can defeat your precious civilization. We don't need your bulky airplanes limited by time and space; we can use your pervasive electronic communications as the vehicle of our demonstration.

Yet Foucault also gives us reason to believe that this disgusting but clever tactic is poor strategy. The masses in Paris came to have a measure of sympathy with the doomed paraded before them, sometimes rioting in support of the condemned, even if the crimes were truly condemnable. Within the state, the ease with which the sovereign applied violence gradually invited discomfort and finally resistance. True, the executioner's mask evokes mystery and invites us to project our worst fears of subjugation by an anonymous, implacable force, but today anyone with access to the Web, and not only those in the West who have many other reasons to hate and fear ISIS, can see the faces of the victims and acquire the uncanny sense of familiarity with them that film and video provide.

Claiming a belief system that extolls martyrdom, who are the martyrs that ISIS is creating? Whose face is impressed upon us beyond the mask? And who will be remembered?