on 13 May 2000
In this insightful study, Foucault provides a meticulous account on the normalising practices employed by modern society. Using the example of the emergence of the prison Foucault shows how modern society is obsessed by a need to systematise, generalise, examine, and more generally subjectifying the individual by means of disciplinary techniques.
I can highly recommend this book, probably one of the best I have ever read.
Commenting on the review by the reader from the US (13 March 2000), Foucault is not actually writing a history of the prison, but is rather taking a genealogical approach. This suggests that we need to rethink the traditional notion of events being ordered along a continuum of chronological time.
on 13 March 2000
Using academic works and legal documents dating back to the early 1700s, Foucault constructs a history of punishment in France, beginning with the spectacle of corporal punishment and public execution and ending with the institution of the modern prison. He argues that over the course of approximately eighty years (between the torture and execution of Damiens the regicide in 1757 and the opening of Mettray in 1840) that corporal punishment and public execution dissolved and incarceration became the punishment par excellence for transgressions against society.
This transition is rooted in two Enlightenment ideals: humanity and equality. On one hand, penal reformers argued that public execution is cruel and inhumane, and on the other, that the criminal laws and their corresponding punishments were too haphazard and unevenly distributed. In light of these criticisms, a series of political, economic, moral, and legal transformations occurred that found its ultimate expression in the establishment of the prison. Having argued this, Foucault concludes his discussion by explaining why the prison has been such a permanent institution in society, despite the criticisms that it fails to reform criminals and to reduce crime.
Everything considered, the title Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison is misleading. The title suggests a simple (or rather, complex) explanation of the emergence of the prison out of the classical period. Foucault does indeed construct a history of the prison, but his project involves far more than simply articulating the process by which the prison is born.
More generally, and more importantly, Discipline and Punish is a study in the relationship of power and knowledge, a theme that runs through the majority of Foucault's scholarship. This power/knowledge complex is the model by which Foucault constructs the birth of the prison in France. It is also the model used in his earlier works (e.g., Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic), though it is not as explicitly articulated as in Discipline and Punish. The power/knowledge complex is based on the premise that power and knowledge are intimately bound, that each relies on the other, and, in a sense, presupposes the other. With respect to the prison, Foucault states that power is not inherent in the institution per se, but in the techniques of discipline that were developed and on which the prison rests. Discipline "is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, application, [and] targets . . . And it may be taken over . . . by 'specialized' institutions," such as the prison (215).
When power is "taken over" by institutions, it has a tendency to generate bodies of knowledge. In the case of the prison, the body of knowledge that is created is the delinquent, including his behavior, his desires and fears, in short, his whole being. This knowledge reinforces any preexisting power and allows for the creation of other bodies of knowledge, such as criminology, sociology, and psychology.
Foucault's study draws on the work of Nietzsche and Marx. Building on Nietzsche's focus on power, Foucault argues that the various discourses occurring in society are rooted in the power/knowledge complex and that this complex is realized on and through the bodies of individuals, in this case, delinquents. However, Foucault is not clear about who exactly uses power and creates knowledge. He insinuates that the dominant class is the one that benefits most from the power/knowledge complex, although he never makes a decisive accusation. The historiography has a refined Marxist quality to it, which is to say that it is more complex than Marx's economic reductionism, but still holds the notions of class conflict, exploitation, and oppression. This notion is problematic due to the conspiratorial image it evokes. It is as if there is a small group of insidious people devising strategies to dominate the world. The reality of this caricature is improbable, although it is probably safe to say that many social institutions cater to elites.
Another point to take note of is that Foucault's construction of history is too logical, too linear; this may be an accusation directed at historical constructions, in general. Rather than the Enlightenment notion that history proceeds in a logical manner, it is our constructions of history that are logical. In retrospect, one can see the watersheds and landmarks that outline the etiology of historical processes, thus making logical constructions of history possible. Though historical constructions are useful in helping one understand the forces that shape one's life, even the most complete analysis cannot account for the day-to-day events that make history. Trends happen much more gradually than they appear in historiographies; watershed moments stem from relatively insignificant events that culminate in significant historical change. This is not to say that historical constructions are useless. Rather, it is a statement that the shortcoming of the method that is important to keep in mind. After all, a construction is merely a construction.
This having been said, Foucault's historiography is particularly thorough and complex. His analysis is a powerful explanation of how economic, legal, moral, and political reforms contributed to the birth of the prison. Moreover, Foucault's power/knowledge complex has wide applications in the social sciences and humanities. It is a major contribution to social discourses. Discipline and Punish is just one instance of the utility this model has in aiding us in understanding and explaining social processes. Given what has been said, the question now becomes: Who uses power/knowledge and to what ends?
on 29 January 2004
As someone who is sick of hearing the nonsense that's usually talked about "crime", this book was a welcome relief. In fact, it's more than that; it's one of the few books I can actually say has changed my way of thinking about social issues.
It's a historical text, following the emergence of prisons over time and looking at conceptions of power and punishment over quite a long period, but it has often been received as a contemporary commentary. Foucault once said (in Remarks on Marx) that if he has so irritated contemporary authors with a historical text, then it must have contemporary relevance.
It's also remarkably readable for saying that it's a poststructuralist classic. It's also (horror of horrors!) properly referenced and argued, and actually sticks to the subject.
Somebody should insist on reading the whole thing to David Blunkett.
on 25 May 2006
So far as the social sciences are concerned, this is one of the most influential books to have been published in the last fifty years. Whereas radical social theorists used cite Marx most commonly, now they cite Foucault as often as not. And of all Foucault's work, this seems to be the most cited.
It begins with a description of a gruesome execution (not for the squeamish) and then moves on to describe a system of punishment a mere eighty years later that is utterly different: in place of the hanging, drawing and quartering there is a detailed timetable for a disciplinary regime in a prison. Why the drastic change? Foucault claims the target of punishment is no longer the body, but the 'soul': the soul is to be disciplined and prisoners reformed. It's all connected with the rise of capitalism and a move towards the ordered, disciplinary society. Famously, Foucault explains the principle of the panopticon in which a few guards in a central observation tower can observe a large number of prisoners in a circular prison. This vividly illustrates the way in which modern societies use surveillance techniques to control people. Knowledge combines with power to form an efficient means to conduct people's conduct. (Foucault picks up on the double meaning of 'conduct'.)
It's a great, original analysis of one aspect of modernity. Foucault is much more readable than certain other authors associated with postmodernism (not that Foucault himself accepted the label): if you're accustomed to reading academic material, it's not a difficult read, though the general public might struggle. And you don't have to buy into any general theory of power, postmodern relativism, etc. to get something from it. A brilliant intellect was at work in the writing of this book: it's well worth a read.