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Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) - Michel Foucault

Related: French philosophy - Michel Foucault - discipline - punishment - 1975

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) - Michel Foucault
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Discipline and Punish (subtitled The Birth of the Prison) is a book written by the philosopher Michel Foucault. Originally published in 1975 in France under the title Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison, it was translated into English in 1977. It is an examination of the social and theoretical mechanisms behind the massive changes that occurred in western penal systems during the modern age. It focuses on historical documents from France, but the issues it examines are relevant to every modern western society. It is considered a seminal work, and has influenced many theorists and artists.

The book challenges the commonly accepted idea that the prison became the consistent form of punishment due to humanitarian concerns of reformists. It does so by meticulously tracing out the shifts in culture that lead to the prison's dominance, focussing on the body and questions of power. It contains many complex ideas that cannot be fully described in a single article, however, the larger ideas of the book can be grouped according to its four parts: torture, punishment, discipline and prison.

Foucault begins the book by contrasting two forms of penalty: the violent and chaotic public torture of a man convicted of regicide in the 18th century, and the highly regimented daily schedule for inmates from a 19th century prison. These examples provide a picture of just how profound the change in western penal systems were after just one century. Foucault wants the reader to consider what led to these changes. How did western culture shift so radically?

To answer this question he begins by examining public torture itself. He argues that the public spectacle of torture was a theatrical forum which served several intended and unintended purposes for society. The intended purposes were:

The unintended purposes were:

Thus, he argues, the public execution was ultimately an ineffective use of the body. As well, it was applied non-uniformly and haphazardly. It was the antithesis of the more modern concerns of the state: order and generalization.

The switch to prison was not immediate. There was a more graded change, though it ran its course rapidly. Prison was preceded by a different form of public spectacle. The theatre of public torture gave way to public work gangs. Punishment became "gentle", though not for humanitarian reasons, Foucault suggests. He argues that reformists were unhappy with the unpredictable, unevenly distributed nature of the violence which the sovereign would focus on the body of the convict. The sovereign's right to punish was so disproportionate that it was ineffective and uncontrolled. Reformists felt that the power to punish and judge should become more evenly distributed, the state's power must be a form of public power. This, according to Foucault, was of more concern to reformists than humanitarian arguments.

Out of this movement towards generalized punishment, a thousand "mini-theatres" of punishment were created wherein the convicts' bodies were put on display in a more ubiquitous, controlled, and effective spectacle. Prisoners were forced to do work which reflected their crime, thus repaying society for their infractions. This allowed the public to see the convicts' bodies enacting their punishment, and thus to reflect on the crime.

Foucault argues that this use of "gentle" punishment represented the first step away from the excessive force of the sovereign, and towards more generalized and controlled means of punishment. But, he suggests that the shift towards prison which followed was the result of a new "technology" and ontology for the body being developed in the 18th century, the "technology" of discipline, and the ontology of "man as machine".

The emergence of prison as 'the' form of punishment for every crime grew out of the development of discipline in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Foucault. He looks at the development of highly refined forms of discipline, of discipline concerned with the smallest and most precise aspects of a person's body. Discipline, he suggests, developed a new economy and politics for bodies. Modern institutions required that bodies must be individuated according to their tasks, as well as for training, observation, and control. Therefore, he argues, discipline created a whole new form of individuality for bodies, which enabled them to perform their duty within the new forms of economic, political, and military organizations emerging in the modern age and continuing to today.

The individuality discipline constructs for the bodies it controls has four characteristics, namely it makes individuality which is:

Foucault suggests that discipline creates "docile bodies", ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern age. Bodies which function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classroms. But, to construct this individuality the disciplinary institutions must be able to a) constantly observe and record the bodies they control, b) ensure the internalization of the disciplinary individuality within the bodies being controlled. That is, discipline must come about without excessive force, but rather through careful observation, and molding of the bodies into the correct form through this observation. This requires a particular form of institution, which Foucault argues, was exemplified by [Jeremy Bentham's] [Panopticon].

The Panopticon was the ultimate realiztion of a modern disciplinary institution. It allowed for constant observation, or at least, the constant possibility of observation. Through this, it caused the internalization of disciplinary individuality, and the docile body required of its inmates. Thus, prison, and specifically those which follow the model of the Panopticon, provide the ideal form of modern punishment. Foucault argues that this is why the generalized, "gentle" punishment of public work gangs gave way to the prison. It was the ideal modernization of punishment, so its eventual dominance was natural.

Having laid out the emergence of the prison as the dominant form of punishment, Foucault devotes the rest of the book to examining its precise form and function in our society, to lay bare the reasons for its continued usage, and question the assumed results of its usage.

In examining the construction of prison as the central means of criminal punishment, Foucault builds a case for the idea that prison became part of a larger “carceral system” which has become an all-encompassing sovereign institution in modern society. Prison is one part of a vast network, including schools, military institutions, hospitals, and factories, which build a panoptic society for its members. This system creates “…disciplinary careers…” (Discipline and Punish, p. 300) for those locked within its corridors. It is operated under the scientific authority of medicine, psychology, and criminology. As well, it operates according to principles which ensure that it “…cannot fail to produce delinquents.” (Discipline and Punish, p. 266) --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discipline_and_Punish [Apr 2005]

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