Discipline And Punish Summary

Michel Foucault

Discipline And Punish

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Discipline And Punish Summary

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Curious about the psychological impact of prisoners, seminal French philosopher Michel Foucault published Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison in 1975. Foucault wished to document the notable changes in the western penal system that led to the current system, particularly in France. The work is hugely influential in a range of academic studies, and it greatly contributed to Foucault’s thoughts on power, discourse, and agency.

Foucault groups his survey of penal history into four major parts: Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison.

In Torture, Foucault notes that between 1750 and 1825, France moved from punishing criminals with horrific spectacles of torture (Robert-François Damiens is an example) to more humane, rehabilitative methods, such as children’s prisons (e.g. Mettray Penal Colony).

While inviting the reader to answer why this progress occurred, Foucault posits that it was a history of subjection from a ruling class that led to the more humane treatment, not necessarily the work of reformers. To illustrate his assertion, Foucault references the twinned progression of scientific knowledge and advances in technology. Historically, knowledge is the same thing as power. Knowledge cannot exist without a more powerful force to explain its implications. Foucault unpacks how these larger forces “explain” individuals to themselves.

Some powers are strategic, rather than acquired; these are the “micro-physics” of power. Foucault writes that the “soul” can be manipulated by powers such as the state, the military, etc.

Regarding public spectacles or ceremonies of torture, Foucault asserts that this was intended by the state to make the punishment, even if unjust, seem just; to give the state, which had a grievance, a body to take its anger out on; to reflect the violence of the original crime and warn other citizens to avoid it. Torture was also used to retrieve a confession that justified the court’s investigation. Either way, the state recovered its power through torture.

With public torture allowed, however, there were several unintended consequences for the state. The forum gave the convict an opportunity to garner sympathy; the executioner could receive more blame than the criminal; the execution could provide a reason for the public to riot.

Foucault argues that this system of relying on public torture was ineffective in securing the property of the ruling class, that is, the bourgeoisie. Too many revolutions would occur, such as the French Revolution in 1789. The ruling class required a system that was more ordered and generalized, more modern.

In the second part, Punishment, Foucault discusses the “gentle punishments” that preceded prisons. The state’s power to punish was unpredictable. Reformists, Foucault writes, really wanted the state to have the ability to judge and punish anyone. With this impulse, “mini-theatres” of punishments arose, such as chain gains. These forms of punishment forced the public to consider the criminal’s crime for a longer period of time than public torturing did, and to believe that how one repays the state for a crime is to perform labor for the good of society. These experiments lasted twenty or so years until the mid-eighteenth century, when the Western world could project onto the body the discipline of technology, when capitalists could more easily think of people as machines.

In Discipline, the most famous chapter of the book, Foucault traces how notions of discipline gave rise to current models of incarceration. With the rise of technology and scientific knowledge, people were increasingly thought of in small, separable parts. Modern institutions could more easily train, observe, and control people when they dealt with them as parts.

Through modern institutions, people are turned into “docile bodies.” This arrangement is ideal for the industrial age, where people started working in factories and sat in more classrooms. These constructions can only happen when people are constantly observed and when they internalize ruling class principles in regards to their body, what activities are “natural,” what is expected of them in the future, and what they can do as a group. (Respectively, Foucault calls these “individualities”: cellular, organic, genetic, and combinatory).

Foucault cites Panopticon, a prison model devised by mid-eighteenth century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, as the fundamental insight into modern disciplinary institutions. Because of its “unequal gaze,” the prison optimized surveillance of all prisoners. It was particularly useful because prisoners could never be sure if they were being watched, which encouraged them, even in their private moments, to perform the values of the dominant class; or in Foucauldian terms, the unequal gaze triggered the internalization of disciplinary individualities and, ultimately, a docile body. The public was less likely to break the law if it always thought it was being watched. Foucault says this is why “gentle punishments” like chain gains went away: this Panopticon model was far more efficient.

In the final part, Prison, Foucault demonstrates how prisons are part of a “carceral system” that also operates in factories, hospitals, schools, and the military–really every part of modern society. He also outlines how scientific authority in medicine, psychology, and criminology cannot help but create delinquents. And so, an omnipresent system of societal discipline and punishment continues.