Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1986)

PART FIVE

Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (1975)

The opening pages of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault were one of the best representations of his long term project of making history or the past “strange.” Barely a two decades before the Declaration of Independence was issued in the American colonies in 1757, “Damiens the Regicide” was tortured to death in Paris in a manner so gruesome that the 21st century reader recoils in shock and horror. In fact, the distance was not just the two centuries and twenty years between the execution of Damiens and the publication of Discipline and Punish but also the difference between an absolute monarchy in France and the budding democracy in the Colonies. However, the content of Discipline and Punish is not a tale of progress from absolutism to self-rule but an archaeology of discourses and an analysis of how these discourses mold and shape societies and lives and personas. Discipline and Punish is the middle step between the Archaeology of Knowledge and the three volume The History of Sexuality, published just a year later, which can be read as the journey of Foucault from the way in which discourses were formed to the impact of those discourses. The reentry into is a re-visiting of the question of the formation of the “subject” and Foucault’s “historical a priori” shifted from mechanics to application.

Just as The Archaeology of Knowledge encouraged a number of scholars to initiate their own discourses on various forms of knowledge, so too did Discipline and Punish suggest new ways to talk about a subject that began to weigh upon Foucault from the early seventies on. Perhaps his concerns with power came from his experience with the “days of May” in 1968 or due to the obvious implications of the impact of discourses, or savoir, Foucault began to link “voir” or “to see” with “pouvoir” or power. He works out an unholy trinity of voir, savior, pouvoir, in other words, to see is to know is to have power. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault tranced to rise of the discipline of the body, rather than punishing it as a public spectacle which was, not a spectacle of pain but of the centralized power of the king. As long as power radiated outward from the ruler, it was negative or prohibitive, but during the Enlightenment a new kind of power emerged: not the negative power–the “shalt-nots”–but a positive power that dispersed, multiplied, spread out, and became non-localized. As opposed to the bloodthirsty and regressive regime of torture that acted as a public deterrent to crime and as a form of entertainment, the new positive power introduced a regime of the regard or the steadfast gaze of power.

Foucault did not seem to be interested in power until he mentioned it in public until 1970 when he began to shift from archaeology to genealogy which allows him to examine these discourses as they are received: as regimes of “truth.” However, his interest in state power came from his involvement in a campaign to reform French prisons. This practical experience, which included visits to French and American prisons, was followed by a theoretical book on power. Foucault came to understand, via the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on genealogy, that knowledge is entangled in power. With Nietzsche morality is neither metaphysical or sacred but is implicated in changing conceptions of “good and evil” that are tools for domination. Indeed, for Foucault, knowledge is part of a larger “will to power” which is “malicious” and unjust. Foucault became preoccupied with power because it seemed clear that although society was enmeshed in a web of laws, there was no clear idea of power. We understand a government by laws, but we had no conception of modern power until Foucault, beginning with his early writings on the clinic and madness, slowly came to the realization that a combination of the “gaze” of the authority and discourse (knowledge in the service of the dominant) had the power to construct where to put what kind of bodies and why. As Foucault wrote,

The classical age discovered the body as the object and target of power. It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body–to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces.

As early as Madness and Civilization (1966), Foucault talked about the “medical gaze” bearing down upon an individual, discursively named as “patient.” He made the link between voir (to see) and savior (to know) and pouvoir (to be in power). The body became objectified in order that it be controlled, disciplined, and placed under surveillance in the panopticon society. Although madness, for example, has always existed, the language to discuss language has not, nor have the conditions always existed to “construct” the idea of the mad person. The “mad” or “madness” come into being only through the force of discourse. Under certain conditions, discourses begin to form as distinct objects, but these social “conditions” are not what intrigued Foucault. Like language itself, discourses cannot exist outside of groups of relations. These complex relations are what enables the objects to appear and these relations are what is interesting to Foucault.

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Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish (1975)

In the spirt of investigating discursive structures and their impact, Foucault began Discipline and Punish. This is the most accessible of Foucault’s books: it starts with a riveting scene of horror and then he established a sequence of social practices that established what he called “the carceral society,” which is where the book concluded. In the chapter, “The Gentle Way in Punishment,” Focault described the changed from from public spectacles to different forms of penalties. As Foucault wrote, “..everyone must see punishment, not only as natural, but in his own interest; everyone must be no more spectacular, but useless penalties. There must be no secret penalties either, the punishment must be regarded as a retribution that the guilt man makes to each of his fellow citizens, for the crime that has wronged them all..”

The role of government is to maintain good order, and by the 18th century the role of discipline before the fact, rather than punishment after the fact began to play an important role in social control. Foucault selected several institutions which were large and influential in creating the “docile bodies:” the military, the factory, hospitals, and schools, all being located in enclosed spaces. According to Foucault, these “projects of docility” are based upon “the scale of control” that were used to put the body under “meticulous control.” During the classical age, society was subjected to what Foucault described as “A meticulous observation of detail, and at the same time a political awareness of these small things, for the control and use of men, emerge through the classical age bearing with them a whole set of techniques, a whole corpus of methods and knowledge, descriptions, plans and date. And from these trifles, no doubt, the man of modern humanism was born.”

This is a striking passage and it is buried in the middle of the book but sums up its entire contents. Foucault made the point that discipline needed what he called “an analytical space.” The analytical space separated individuals into specific areas “..to locate individuals, to set up useful communications, to interrupt others, to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of each individual, to assess it, to judge it, to calculated its qualities or merits. It was a procedure, therefore, aimed at knowing, mastering, and using. Discipline organizes an analytical space. Perhaps the most powerful and frightening chapter is the one on “docile bodies” where Foucault explained the meticulous training of the large bodies of the soldiers and the small bodies of elementary school students, all of whom are trained to respond to tiny signals and small gestures, creating what he called“the correlation of the body and the gesture.”

In a passage that is both inhumane and alarming, Foucault demonstrated the level of detail and control, described as dressage, that was brought to bear upon young children in the 18th century:

A distance of two fingers must be left between the body and the table; for not only to the health than to acquire the habit of pressing one’s stomach against the table, the part of the left arm from the elbow to the hand must be placed on the table. The right arm must be at a distance from the body of about three fingers and be about five fingers from the table, on which it must rest lightly.

The most famous chapter in the book concerned the “panopticon society,” a term that was derived from an experimental prison created by the architect Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who was responding to the new necessity to incarcerate and discipline, prisoners. Bentham was an economist who devoted himself to bringing about social reforms under his ideas of utilitarianism. Although he was trained as a lawyer, Bentham never practiced law and spent his career devising plans for numerous institutions devoted to incarcerating people for a number of reasons. As Bentham explained, Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated, instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

According to Foucault, surveillance began with the plague which meant that an entire town had to be closed off and all of its inhabitants kept under close watch. He compared the condition of the townspeople with that of the exclusion of the leper who is free but separated. The Panopticon, designed by Bentham, was as he described it, “A building circular…The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or…without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.” The result of the regime of watching is that the prisoners internalize the gaze and end up watching themselves, a condition called by Foucault, “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”Foucault continued,“..one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without being seen..He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both sides; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

One of the crucial conclusions made by Foucault is that power is not negative–does not reside in prohibitions, but is productive and positive. One power was no longer located within or upon the body of the ruler, then, in the modern era, power was dispersed throughout the population all of whom, whether “inspectors” or prisoners, were under the anonymous control of a myriad of regulations.“The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function.” The result of the panoptic schema was the evolution of a carceral society, called by Foucault, “the carceral” or a social condition in which“The judges of normality are present everywhere..The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power. The carceral texture of society assures both the real capture of the body and its perpectual observation; it is, by its very nature, the apparatus of punishment that conforms most completely to the new economy of power and the instrument for the formation of knowledge that this economy needs.”

There is no ultimate origin for power but a production of a discursive object through the discourse itself. Foucault investigated the discursive relationship between power and knowledge and the body in Discipline and Punish in 1975 and continued the connection in The History of Sexuality, begun in 1977 and not completed when he died. Human sciences are played out in social institutions and practices. The organization of society is carried out through bio-techico power and Foucault gave a unique, but ultimately influential, emphasis on the body in explaining the operations of power. Although The History of Sexuality suffered due to his illness–the final volumes were not as well-developed as the first–this series established a new and significant concept: that social bodies were determined through discourse. In other words, human beings are not natural and from birth they are, as Simone de Beauvoir noted, “made.”

However, influential the idea of the unnatural fabrication of even such intimate aspects of one’s private and personal life, gender and sexuality, are social constructs were, it must be noted that Foucault managed to write a “history of sexuality” which almost entirely leaves out women–half the human race. In addition, the institutions highlighted in Discipline and Punish existed mainly to control the male. Women would be found in workhouses and factories but not in schools or the military, the two largest institutions in charge of creating the “docile body.” Although Foucault does not deal with gender in this book, the fact that, once again, half the human race is left out does not seem to disturb the thrust of the thesis. In addition, the fact that women would never be in positions of authority, not as teachers, or “inspectors,” or military commanders, or as supervisors in a hospital, and so on, meant that the social condition of women and their bodies were never taken into account in creating a society of subjugation. In addition, in concentrating on the prison, it is possible for Foucault to leave out more “primitive” forms of maintaing power, such as those exercised in the American South to control slaves and those exercised in the family to oppress women.

While it is never fair to criticize a writer in terms of what s/he choses to not address, it seems clear that Foucault’s position, although always a critique, would preclude a Marxist or a Feminist reading or a post-Colonial interpretation, which might “reveal” white male dominance and oppression relative to the position of the Other. Foucault’s stance was decidedly conservative and regressive in its effects. One of the major criticisms of women and people of color make against Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism is that, just as their voices are beginning to be heard, critique for political purposes was been “ruled out” in favor is the study of discourse, silencing the Other once again. Intellectually, Foucault and his contemporaries got around the objection to the way in which theory distanced itself from the effects of real life. Post-Structuralism is located outside of Structuralism, that is, away from the task of interpretation, stems from phenomenology of Edumnd Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Post-Structuralism does not interpret but finds and describes. The divide between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism is the divide between Modernism and Post-Modernism and Discipline and Punish was an important move towards a Post-Modern critique of society. There are, however, problems with this position.

Structuralism is a method, an assumption of being and takes the object of examination out of context and subjects it to the clear light of an “objective gaze.” For the Post-Structuralist, the very idea of the “objective” is as fictitious as the “subjective.” In addition, through decontextualizing the object, Structuralism neglects history and cannot account for the force of the text. Foucault’s refusals, his “nots,” were always in opposition to Structuralism, which created a formal order of development for the sake of knowledge. Structuralism “creates” regularities that make representation possible and the world become knowable. In contrast, the Post-Structuralist refuses all the outcomes of humanism: “spirit,” “influence,” continuity, tradition, and psychoanalysis–all forms of the “self.” The self which can be actualized through affirmative action, as posited by Jean-Paul Sartre, was the major target of the post war generation.

Given that advocates for feminism and post-colonialism, both of which could be said to be part of the Modernist project of social justice still hoped for “progress” in human equality, their method of practical critique–“the personal is political”–would be excluded in favor of a more abstract critique of discourse. Although there are many elements in Post-Structuralism or Post-Modernism that were radical and even revolutionary towards authority, even Discipline and Punish, which laid out the mechanizations of power, was a conservative document. While it was of great interest to understand that gender was a social construction, the other side of such an analysis was not a proscription for change but a description of a web of power from which there was no escape.

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