Discipline and Punish

by Michel Foucault

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Robert-François Damiens
Damiens was the last person in France to suffer execution by drawing and quartering, a very public method of torture-execution reserved for "regicides," those who endeavor to kill a country’s monarch. For Foucault, Damiens fate is the ultimate punishment reserved for those who, in a sovereign society, commit what is that society’s ultimate crime: attacking the source and instrument of its power.

The People
For Foucault, "The People" and popular societies were, in the early nineteenth century, coming to assume power once held by the monarch in "sovereign societies." Foucault predicted that this would result in a state of universal suspicion, with everyone suspecting everyone else of spying on them, a prediction that was vindicated by the excesses of the French Revolution.

The Sovereign
The sovereign constitutes for Foucault the figure of a monarch, a centralized power source who had traditionally exercised full control over their country. Discipline and Punish is about the decline of this figure during the early nineteenth century and the rise of popular forms of government in its place.

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was a British writer and philosopher, best remembered for being the first modern philosopher to articulate utilitarian theory, the maxim that seeks to guarantee the greatest "good" for the greatest number within society. His importance to Foucault’s text is his theorizing of the "Panopticon," a building that could function as a prison, hospital, and educational facility, designed to manage prisoners in the most efficient way. For Foucault, the Panopticon, pan (all) Opticon (observation), functioned by establishing an "unequal gaze," in which prisoners were never sure if they were being observed or not and so internalized moral laws as a result of fear. Such conditions of constant suspicion and fear are those that Foucault sees as inevitable in a popular society.

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