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

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
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Apr 03, 07

bookshelves: philosophy, pomo, masterpieces

In many ways a response to the French government's penal codes of the 60s and 70s but also a continuation of Foucault's work in Madness and Civilization, the influence of D&P can be seen everywhere from Spielberg's Minority Report to Enemy of the State to Ted Conover's Newjack and most if not all critiques of surveillant governments. It's also a horrifying read, starting out as it does with an account of the ritualistic execution of a regicide, which Foucault compares favorably to the prisons of the Enlightenment. The general thrust is that under the guise of humanism, Europeans decided on punishing the soul rather than the body. This they accomplished first by quite theatrically monitoring prisoners and delinquents, and eventually by having prisoners monitor themselves, saving the government all the work.

I personally don't think Discipline and Punish is the strongest of Foucault's works, though. Partly, I think he misunderstands the nature of physical violence. His strategy here and in M&C is to lay out a pretty sinister historical transition in the way states used their power, passing over counterexamples that might disprove his point (Australia, anyone?), and then allow the reader to assume that the trend he has identified continues... to this... very... moment! You're supposed to wonder, is the videocamera in my bank (*gasp*) part of the Panopticon? Have I been deprived of my free will and become a tool of the State? Harold Bloom rightly complains of Foucault that he tended to forget that the historical ironies he uncovered were just metaphors, and aren't as all-encompassing as his many followers in academe suppose. Mikey's History of Sexuality books are much more closely reasoned, or at least Introduction is and what I've read of Uses of Pleasure.

The problem is that you can carp all day about D&P but you will continue to see it everywhere, long after you've set it down. That makes it an amazing book.
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message 1: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W You have probably already read this biography, but I found The Passion of Michel Foucault to be fascinating. Regretfully, I have yet to read any of Foucault's works, but the explanation of his philosophy in Miller's work provides a solid background for understanding the influence of books like Discipline & Punish The Birth of the Prison


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