Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a critical philosophical history of the modern prison and its attendant institutions. Foucault considered the work to be more than the reporting of history; he believed it to be an archaeology of history, the uncovering of social forces and relations that shaped history. The book comprises ten chapters divided into four main parts that examine torture, punishment, discipline, and the prison.

Chapter 1, “The Body of the Condemned,” opens with an account of a public execution in France in 1757. Foucault then cites a mundane prison timetable from 1837 to show how quickly the attitudes toward punishment changed. By beginning his work with a depiction of death, Foucault immediately subverts the title of the book, which contains the word “birth.” In addition, the unspeakably gruesome and horrifying narrative of the execution shocks the reader into opposing physical torture as a mode of criminal punishment. Foucault, however, is teasing the reader. Although he opposes torture, he quickly reveals that his purpose in Discipline and Punish is not to argue against torture in favor of prison as a better method of dealing with criminals; rather, his purpose is to critique the modern penal system and its underlying philosophy. This penal philosophy, he argues, pervades society outside the prison.

Foucault argues that the move from torture to incarceration has not made punishment more humane; it only transferred the locus of the punishment from the body to the soul. Punishment no longer addresses a criminal act; instead, it addresses criminal motives and abnormality, aspects of the soul that are judged by mental-health experts. Delinquents are now a class of individuals who are created by the penal system.

The first chapter also introduces Foucault’s methodology. His work is a “correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge” that proceeds according to four rules: Situate the study of punishment within the larger social system, view punishment as the exercise of political power, discover the underlying epistemological processes that inform both the penal system and the human sciences, and try to uncover a system of power relations that accounts for the changes in the penal system and the inclusion of scientific evaluation. According to Foucault, power is a characteristic of the entire social system, and it unconsciously affects everyone. Power is not an abstraction; it always exists in the context of power relations. Also, power is not under the control of the individual; power controls the individual within the complex society.

The “truth of the crime” is the focus of chapter 2, “The Spectacle of the Scaffold.” Foucault argues that the ancient practices of inquisition, torture, and execution functioned in society to establish in the body of the accused the truth of the crime. The execution reestablished order in the power structure. The public nature of the execution was an important part of the punishment because execution was a ritual and a ceremony, and ceremonies require observers who, in observing, become participants. The public, however, sometimes resisted this...

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Discipline and Punish Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Danaher, Geoff, Tony Schirato, and Jen Webb. Understanding Foucault. 2000. Reprint. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2007. A good general introduction to Foucault’s thought written in a clear and accessible style. Discipline and Punish is discussed throughout the work. Includes a useful glossary of terms.

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Translated and edited by Seán Hand. 1988. Reprint. New York: Continuum, 2006. Deleuze, a well-known critical philosopher in his own right, offers an advanced insightful study, interpretation, and critique of Foucault’s principle ideologies.

Downing, Lisa. The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Written with students in mind, this comprehensive introduction explains Foucault’s themes, examines his broad impact, and addresses the influence of his writings on later movements, such as feminism.

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Analyzes Foucault’s ideas and argues that Foucault essentially proposes a new method for interpreting reality. Also argues that Foucault attempts to integrate objective scientific method with subjective hermeneutics.

Eribon, Didier. Michel Foucault. Translated by Betsy Wing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. This readable biography emphasizes Foucault’s intellectual development, literary career, and professional context while providing a sketch of his personal life. Includes Foucault’s opinions of his contemporaries.

Macey, David. Michel Foucault. London: Reaktion Books, 2004. A comprehensive biography that addresses every aspect of Foucault’s influential and controversial life. Macey analyzes Foucault’s contributions to philosophy and history, recounts his political activism, and investigates his death from AIDS-related complications in 1984.

O’Leary, Timothy, and Christopher Falzon, eds. Foucault and Philosophy. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. This thorough collection on Foucault’s ideas includes a discussion of Discipline and Punish and of related concepts in his other works.