Discipline and Punish

by Michel Foucault
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was written by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. It was published in 1975 and is an examination of the penal system in the West, in particular in France and England. The book is split into four parts: Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison.

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In the first two parts, Torture, and Punishment, Foucault examines the transition from torture and execution as a mean of punishment, to imprisonment. Up until the late 1700s, punishment was public torture or public execution. These were usually carried out by the monarch of the country, as a crime was seen as a direct attack against them. In the early 1800s, punishment started to shift towards imprisonment—taking the criminal away from the public rather than displaying them to the public. Reform rather than retribution.

In part three, Discipline, Foucault looks at methods of discipline, not only in the prison system but also in schools and in military units. There was a belief that if people think they are being observed, they will behave correctly. The prison system adopted the panopticon design—an architectural idea developed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon design comprised a central tall tower that looked over the prison cells which were laid out in a circle around it. A guard would be in the tower watching the prisoners at all times, but the prisoners would not be able to see them.

In part four, Prison, Foucault examines the emergence of the prison system as the main form of punishment. He also looks at "delinquency," criminals as objects, and prison as a way of controlling crime rather than reducing it. He notes that this control can also be seen across other social institutions. He claims that we now live in a carceral society that targets people who vary slightly from what is considered normal, and that the differences between prison and the outside world are very slim.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1310

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 top-down exercise of power by intervening in the process. The public itself often killed, or released, the criminal.

Part 2, “Punishment,” includes two chapters: “Generalized Punishment” and “The Gentle Art of Punishment.” Here, Foucault turns his attention to the reform movements that arose in the eighteenth century. Reformers objected to the excessive and inhumane punishments of criminals. Foucault, however, argues that the reformers were acting not out of concern for the criminal but out of economic interest. As the Industrial Revolution increased the production of goods, crime centered more on property than on persons. Crimes against property were crimes against society rather than crimes against the king. Punishment, then, no longer served to protect the interests of the king; instead, it served to protect the interests and rights of society. Punishment was no longer a ritual; it became a deterrent to subsequent crimes.

Foucault shows how society began to notice that to deter crime, punishment must match the crime, and that more serious crimes must be matched with harsher penalties. In France, however, the prison was not yet acceptable as a place for criminal punishment because the prison was a place for debtors and others who were confined at the whim of the king. The prison did not become an acceptable and primary vehicle for punishment until it offered a way for the rehabilitation of criminals; it began to subject the criminal to complete control. The prisoner was formed into an obedient citizen. This total control over the prisoner also required secrecy. The beginning of the prison, Foucault argues, marks the beginning of coercive institutions in modern society.

In part 3, “Discipline,” Foucault argues that although the body is no longer subjected to torture, it is still the object of control. The chapter “Docile Bodies” demonstrates how the soldier embodies the ideology of total control and coercion. Military discipline operates on the principle of rank, place, rules, and control of time. The body of the soldier becomes part of a larger machine that registers a new technology of power. Discipline aims at training.

The next chapter, “The Means of Correct Training,” presents training as a threefold process: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination. In a disciplinary environment (for example, schools, factories, and prisons) everyone is under observation. Discipline operates by rules of normalcy, and judgment functions to normalize behavior. It divides individuals into categories and ranks based upon their adherence to the rules; thus, normalcy becomes the desired state of being. The examination is the means by which the observing hierarchy can judge, quantify, classify, reward, and punish. The examining machine is manifested in the hospital and the school, where the individual becomes documented, fixed, and analyzed. For Foucault, the forcing of normalcy upon the individual is an oppressive evil of modern society that silences the voice of those outside the norm.

Observation reaches its pinnacle in “Panopticism,” the title of the next chapter, in which Foucault uses the quarantine of plague victims and the Panopticon as models for disciplinary observation. The Panopticon, designed by social philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century, is a circular prison with a central tower, from which an observer can see into every cell without being seen. Prisoners have no privacy and never know when they are being watched, or not. The Panopticon is the perfect operation of power, the most efficient method of control. It is an expression of unhindered and unending examination. For Foucault, the Panopticon is a paradigm for the functioning of power in modern society, and it symbolizes his thesis. Although modern society is based upon individual freedom, the state controls disciplinary institutions and operates panoptic systems that observe, examine, classify, and coerce everyone into conformity with the norm.

Three final chapters are grouped under the heading “Prison.” The prison is a necessary outgrowth of the processes that have been detailed up to this point in the book. Prisons are “complete and austere institutions” that exercise complete control over inmates. The prison isolates the individual, regulates activities, and observes behavior. The integration of prison, hospital, and workshop creates a penitentiary in which the soul of the prisoner is disciplined. The criminal sciences examine and judge the prisoners, classifying them as delinquents.

The two concluding chapters, “Illegalities and Delinquency” and “The Carceral,” argue that the prison has been subject to a cyclical process of failure and reform. However, this process cannot be eliminated because it fulfills a role in the overall matrix of power relations in society. The prison has failed to reduce offenses, but it has succeeded in separating forms of illegality into classifications that can be managed and observed.

Foucault does not seek to eliminate the prison, but he hopes to uncover the social forces that lie behind the origination, development, and continuance of the prison. He suggests that progress in the human sciences may provide hope for the future.

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