Matt's Reviews > Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
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Jun 01, 09

Read in June, 2009

Admittedly, my expectations were quite high for this book. I've heard and read some whole-hearted praise for Discipline and Punish which compelled me to read it. I had gone through some of it in college and thought I'd tackle it again.

And, at the risk of being labeled obtuse, I'm not sure I get it.

Part I focuses on an ideological history of torture. The conclusions regarding the purpose and effect of torture by the sovereign are interspersed with anecdotal tales heightening the horror of such punishment. Well written, but not terribly enlightening. Most of the impressions regarding torture seem well established with two exceptions:
Today a doctor must watch over those condemned to death, right up to the last moment- thus, juxtaposing himself as the agent of welfare, as the alleviator of pain, with the official whose task it is to end life pg. 11.

and
It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished...[:]...This is the historical reality of the soul, which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraintpg. 29.


Part II focuses on the shift of punishment from "vengeance of the sovereign to the defense of society" pg. 90. Foucault spends some time discussing how punishment plays into achieving societal objectives. The development of codification of laws and goals such as general deterrence by representation of the penalty, not the spectacle of corporal punishment. Judges transform their roles from punishing criminal acts to attempting to reform the criminal's soul.

Punishment evolves to achieving an articulable purpose. No longer should there be "spectacular, but useless penalities." pg. 109. The underlying theory behind punishment becomes:
gainst a bad passion, a good habit;...Must one not deduce all penalties from this principle, which is so simple, so appropriate and already well known, namely, to choose them in that which is most subduing for the passion that led to the crime committed? pg. 106 citing Lacretelle, 361.


There is a reaction to using imprisonment to serve all punishments. The blanket use of incarceration is the same as "see[ing:]a physician who has the same remedy for all ills" pg. 117 citing Chabroud, 618.

It is not until Part III where Foucault begins tapping into analysis of historical development that starts to become debatable. Foucault spends considerable time addressing the use of discipline to create "docile bodies." This opens up the real focus of Foucault's work which is the interplay of power relationships. His view of discipline as a means of control in the military, classroom and factory seems straightforward. However, Foucault then adds seemingly contrived elements into his history. He attempts to impose an evolutionary timeline to show how this control morphed into a method to maximize capital production. Citing no authority except Marx. Foucault suggests at a point "[d:]iscipline is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine."pg. 164. Such conclusions seem arbitrary. At no point can I think how discipline and efficiency were separate concepts.

Foucault then lays the introduction for what appears to be his most well known reference from Discipline and Punish: the Panopticon. There is considerable discussion regarding the "physics of power" in relation to techniques of surveillance to maximize discipline. Surveillance takes on many forms, such as through the proliferation of evaluations. No longer limited to select individuals, the "turning of real lives into writing is no longer a procedure of heroization; it functions as a procedure of objection and subjection." pg. 192. We have increased our own visibility and "are entering the age of the infinite examination and of compulsory objectification." pg. 189.

With the proliferation of blogs, facebook accounts and online book reviews, one cannot help think that we are so well trained that we irresistibly submit ourselves to increased surveillance. The acquiescence to the sovereign's gaze may very well be a form of internal discipline the Panopticon hoped to instill.

Since the Panopticon is well covered in most of the reviews regarding Discipline and Punish, I won't elaborate here.

The most inspired part of the book to me was Section 1 of Part IV Complete and austere institutions. Foucault's criticism of penal reform recognizes that the very purpose of prison is to fail. As he says near the end of the book:
it is not even whether we should have prison or something other than prison. At present, the problem lies rather in the steep rise of in the use of these mechanisms of normalization and the wide-ranging powers which, through the proliferation of new disciplines, they bring with thempg. 306

The restructuring of prison has to do with the objectives cited earlier. The focus must be on the transformation of the inmate rather than the "exchange value" of the offense. Pg. 244.

However, this leads to the creation of the "delinquent". The use of the 'biographical' characteristics of an inmate to determine a penalty create the idea of a "criminal as existing before the crime and even outside it." pg. 252. From here, Foucault deteriorates into the generic argument of the interested parties benefiting from the prison apparatus. I by no means disagree with this, but those responsible for perpetuation of the prison industry tend to be the social scientists, police and prisons themselves rather than judges, legislators and lawyers. Foucault does make recognize this to some degree when he states "[j:]udges are the scarcely resisting employees of this apparatus" pg. 282

Assuming anyone bothered to read this far, I'm inclined to rate Discipline and Punish more than three stars, but as I critically went through the book, I was hard pressed to find the originality and brilliance it was claimed to possess. I am by no means well-versed in Foucault, so I readily admit I may have simply missed his more subtle points. Yet most of what I read from reviewers speak in generic terms regarding his ground-breaking insights and part of me questions whether the consistent accolades have more to do with reputation than content. For those with specifics, I would like to hear from you.
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