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

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
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's review
Jul 28, 2011

it was amazing

Foucault's greatest work, in my opinion, and certainly one of the more accessible.

The book begins with an extraordinary account of a regicide's slow and painful torturing to death. This is a visitation upon the body of the wrongdoer, says Foucault, of the sovereign's power, and typical of its time. But we have very gradually moved from this very overt and vengeful and direct form of the exercise of power to a far more subtle "disciplinary power".

In modern societies, he says, we mount surveillance upon our own selves, police our own instincts, act as our own gaolers. He characterises this as "the carceral", and refers to Jeremy Bentham's panopticon: the prison in which a single gaoler can see every inmate. Every inmate must assume he is being watched all the time - he probably isn't, but he could be - and will therefore tend to conform to the penal code in order to avoid punishment and earn rewards.

The rise of institutions such as the prison are paralleled brilliantly with other social institutions. The notion that rehabilitation might be possible is linked, Foucault says, to notions of the educability of children, the training of squadrons of soldiers, the harnessing of large workforces for example. In essence the prison, the school, the drill hall, the factory are really much the same thing: machines for producing docile and disciplined bodies. Thus we no longer - by and large - have a use for the spectacle of the traitor being hung, drawn, and quartered.

In a world where CCTV is pervasive and gigantic databases record our every fart, this book is probably even more topical and relevant as it ever was.
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