Discipline and Punish

by Michel Foucault


So my philosopher-wife tells me this is one of Foucault’s most accessible books.  Yeah, about that. . .

I can vaguely understand the analysis, though the 2nd and 3rd sections, “The Spectacle of the Scaffold” and “Generalized Punishment,” floated mostly above my head.  I undoubtedly appreciate the intelligence and determination necessary to make such analyses in the first place.  But at some point when reading such treatises I inevitably ask myself, “What is the goddamn point?”

The point here seems to be to document the art of Punishment from the medieval to the modern age, and along with it to analyze the inception of Discipline, something which although birthed by Punishment quickly outgrew and supplanted it as the preeminent Power model for society.  It is an interesting examination that makes many fascinating points along the way.  Among them:

-The famous chapter on Bentham’s Panopticon, the ideal surveillance architecture that involves an authority in a central tower looking through darkened windows at a ring of cells — the prisoners know they can be seen at all times, but they never know the precise moment in which they are.

-The similarity across environments of the panoptic model of discipline, whether the prison, hospital, or school.

-The transfer of punishment from a public spectacle to a private and secretive affair.

-The ideal “Punitive City” in which morality becomes a part of popular discourse such that people cannot even imagine transgressing the law, v. the “Coercive Institution,” essentially prison as we know it.

-The fact that prisons were never conceived as a universal punishment, and that ideas about punishment in the 18th century were actually quite progressive, with each punishment being a logical consequence of the particular offense (thus prison being a punishment only for someone abusing their liberty in a violent or anti-social manner).

-The fact that prisons were invented with the very principles that modern reformists call for constantly, and that these same principles have been cited as if revolutionary since the popularization of prisons 200 years ago.

-The question begged due to the continuing lack of prison reform: might the powers actually prefer the prisons as they are now?

-The examination of the “delinquent class” created by prisons and utilized by the state for various ends, especially as informants.

Foucault seems to be adopting the role of documentarian and the work is inexhaustibly researched, as evidenced by the impressive amount of citations.  When taking a stance he is overly subtle, and you get the impression only in the last couple of sections that Foucault is worried about the omnipresence of our “Discipline State” in which the “ensemble whose three terms (police-prison-delinquency) support one another and form a circuit that is never interrupted. 282”  He doesn’t come out and say it, but he certainly begs the question: Is this what we want?

On the 3rd-to-last page, Foucault directly addresses the “overall political issue around the prison,” which as he sees it is the concentration of power and its increasing use of surveillance and discipline to “normalize” society.  I agree that this is an important issue, but I am disappointed that Foucault considered it his chief goal to frame the issue, not to offer any suggestions on how to deal with it.

In any case, the book allowed my wife and I to revive our periodic debate on the utility of philosophical inquiry.  To my thought of “Impressive brainwork, yes, but what’s the point?” she responded, “It is important to set up the framework for a discussion before having the discussion itself.  When subjects were upset due to lack of freedom and justice, they only knew the specific reasons once thinkers had analyzed it.  It was only then that were they able to channel their discontent.”

To be fair, she’s also quick to point out how in order to read and think as much as Foucault, say, or Habermas or Albert Camus, you must largely forsake living itself.  So in her own way she grants that there is perhaps a pointlessness to the proceedings.  But her argument is more convincing now than on previous occasions.  Nevertheless, in the future I can probably leave the laying of the groundwork for those more intellectually capable than me.

I’ll leave you with a quote from p.227 that sums up much of what the book is about, and much of what should trouble us with present-day discipline and punishment (in addition to giving you an idea of the writing style you’ll have to fend with should you read it):

The public execution was the logical culmination of a procedure governed by the Inquisition.  The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures.  Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality?  Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

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