In Discipline and Punish [Foucault] is back asserting some by now familiar Foucaultisms. "Man" as an individualistic, psychological entity is an invention, and not a very good one, of the last two hundred years ("A meticulous observation of detail … a political awareness of these small things, for the control of men…. From such trifles, no doubt, the man of modern humanism is born"). Institutions, for all their rationalism, create what they pretend to perceive ("We must cease … to describe the effects of power in negative terms…. Power produces … domains of objects and rituals of truth"). And, most centrally, the modern, ritualized institutions of order are hazardous to your health ("At the heart of all disciplinary institutions functions a small penal mechanism"). But this time around the assertions sound, if anything, more ringingly convincing than before. Because this time he is writing about the most outside of outsiders, the most publicly reviled of exiles from the norm, the prisoner.
In fact, the birth of the prisoner, not the birth of the prison, is Foucault's real subject, and that is an important difference. Rather than deal primarily in the hard, statistical data of the rise and diffusion of penal institutions, Foucault here as usually relies on the ideas of institutions as articulated by the reformers, philosophes, and early liberals. Especially important for his argument is Jeremy Bentham's plan for a Panopticon, an unchained institution of perfect, and perfectly horrifying, surveillance…. Panopticism, for Foucault, is a cardinal moment. After an initial, economically motivated revulsion against public torture and execution …, the reformers first envision a "punitive city," an ideal(!) community where punishment will be constantly threatened, but reduced, meted out in a calculus of guilt to the measure of the crime that calls it forth. Bentham's plan, though, signals the abandonment of this utopia for a better repressive machine, the idea of the delinquent. The delinquent is not just an offender, but a psychic deformity from the social norm; he must be put away for private punishment, an example to us all, where society, become a massive police force, can claim with crocodile disingenuousness to be attempting his "reform." 1984, in other words, begins sometime around 1784.
At times, it looks as though Foucault is writing a dark counterpoint to the sociology of Max Weber. Instead of the "routinization of charisma," his chart for the history of modern institutions is the routinization of damnation…. [His] book is filled with metaphors describing incarceration and discipline as a "breaking" of the individuality of the delinquent, his subjection to an "apparatus" of thought control, etc. Torture in its most heinous aspect still survives, that is: but it survives subtilized, refined and concealed behind the humanist snowstorm of arguments for "leniency" and "pity." It is this technique of argument through allusion that allows him in his central chapter on "Discipline," to make his most powerful—and already most widely discussed—case: that the invention of the prison is the crucial, inclusive image for all those modes of brutalization, in industry, in education, in the very fabric of citizenship, which define the modern era of humanistic tyranny, the totalitarianism of the norm. Not even a history of the birth of the prisoner, Discipline and Punish at its most expansive and richest is about, quite simply, the birth of the blues.
It is a brilliant book, brilliantly written and plotted (Richard Poirier has recently observed that Foucault writes like a great novelist: to which the response—at least part of the time—is, alas, he does). But, one keeps wanting to ask, is this really news?...
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He takes account of the fact that official criticism of the prison system begins almost simultaneously with the system itself. And, rather predictably, he dismisses this tradition of critique as another disingenuousness of the establishment, protecting its massive machinery of repression by earnestly pretending to be getting the last bugs out—what we might term the factory recall syndrome. But whether this is quite fair to the reformers …, it ignores another tradition of critique, the one to which Foucault really belongs. This tradition, of visionary radicalism, stretches from many of the most important novelists and poets of our century back to two figures conspicuously absent from this book. At the end of the eighteenth century, they both perceived as clearly as anyone has since the witch's brew of liberal ideology, social repression, and the mechanisms of guilt. One of them, the Marquis de Sade, madly dramatized its worst implications for the survival of civilization. The other, William Blake, madly devised ways to break the mind-forged manacles. Foucault, in the passionate, apocalyptic coldness of his argument, is the heir of both men.
His celebrated war with "humanism," indeed, simply continues the romantics' warfare against official, bloodless and therefore dangerous rationalisms: it is, that is, profoundly humanistic. And the closer he gets to his conclusion, the closer he approaches his lyrical colleagues…. [At] the end he finally approaches the rhetoric of his closest analogue, in both genius and bitterness, among prison poets: Jean Genet.
But if it isn't news, is Discipline and Punish at least, to continue the judicial image, the truth, whole and nothing but? Nothing is, of course: and that bitter knowledge is the chief heritage of the two hundred years of modern humanism whose history so obsesses Foucault. (pp. 32-4)
Foucault, like the other visionary outsiders in his tradition from Blake to Genet, matters. He matters because his work is a kind of front-line dispatch, from closer to the void beyond culture than the rest of us can or care to go. But because he does go there, and often, he paradoxically enriches and complicates our life in the "norm" whose dangers and traps he explores. (p. 34)
Frank McConnell, in a review of "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison," in The New Republic, Vol. 178, No. 13, April 1, 1978, pp. 32-4.