Discipline and Punish

by Michel Foucault

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

French sociologist Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) is an examination of the structure and purpose of the penal system. Foucault addresses these questions through the discussion of the structures of prisons and (more importantly) prison-like structures is various other contexts (such as schools), and he examines the differences in these systems from the pre-modern to the modern era. Foucault's central thesis is that the penal system exists to maintain the power of the ruling class. A corollary to this is that, in fact, all crimes contribute to the defense of the ruling class.

Foucault acknowledges that those charged with enacting justice are often truly interested in preventing wrongdoing, punishing criminals, and enacting justice for its own sake; however, the practical result served by the modern penal system is to shore up the power of the dominant class.

According to Foucault, the penal system is not intended to reduce or prevent crime but to distinguish the offenses and use them for the sake of highlighting the power of the ruling class (currently, the government; formerly, a monarch). That is, crimes and criminals are assimilated by the justice system and used to establish the power of the justice system itself. Thus, crimes become a means of subjection.

Foucault less-than-subtly suggests that modern society (schools, hospitals, and offices included) is, itself, a prison to the extent that it employs constant surveillance. Knowing that one is being watched (as in the case of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon—a collection of cells with a central watchtower into which prisoners cannot see—which Foucault uses as a case study) produces normalizing behavior. For Foucault, knowledge (via sight) is power. Thus, surveillance is a means of exercising state control. The more the prison system and agents can learn about their prisoners, the better.

Disciplinary careers, the overall penal system, and the structure of specific prisons (such as the island network of prison cells called a "carceral archipelago") are evidence of the system's actual interest in producing a delinquent class. Simply put, crimes are useful for the occasion they furnish for the government (via the justice system) to demonstrate its power.

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