Discipline and Punish: 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 It focuses on historical documents from France, but the issues it examines are relevant to every modern western society.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.
Foucault challenges the commonly accepted idea that the prison became the consistent form of punishment due to humanitarian concerns of reformists, although he does not deny those. He does so by meticulously tracing out the shifts in culture that led to the prison's dominance, focusing on the body and questions of power. Prison is a form used by the "disciplines", a new technological power, which can also be found, according to Foucault, in schools, hospitals, military barracks, etc. The main ideas of Discipline and Punish 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 Robert-François Damiens
who was convicted of regicide
in late 18th century, and the highly regimented daily schedule for inmates from an early 19th century prison. These examples provide a picture of just how profound the change in western penal systems were after less than a 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:
- Reflecting the violence of the original crime onto the convict's body for all to see.
- Enacting the revenge upon the convict's body which the sovereign seeks for having been injured by the crime. Foucault argues that the law was considered an extension of the sovereign's body, and so the revenge must take the form of harming the convict's body.
Some unintended consequences were:
- Providing a forum for the convict's body to become a locus of sympathy and admiration.
- Creating a site of conflict between the masses and the sovereign at the convict's body. Foucault notes that public executions often led to riots in support of the prisoner.
Thus, he argues, the public execution was ultimately an ineffective use of the body, qualified as non-economical. As well, it was applied non-uniformly and haphazardly. Hence, its political cost was too high. 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 chain 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 would have been created wherein the convicts' bodies would have been put on display in a more ubiquitous, controlled, and effective spectacle. Prisoners would have been forced to do work which reflected their crime, thus repaying society for their infractions. This would have allowed the public to see the convicts' bodies enacting their punishment, and thus to reflect on the crime. But these experiments lasted less than twenty years.
Foucault argues that this theory 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:
- cellular - determining the spatial distribution of the bodies
- organic - ensuring that the activities required of the bodies are "natural" for them
- genetic - controlling the evolution over time of the activities of the bodies
- combinatory - allowing for the combination of the force of many bodies into a single massive force
Foucault suggests that this individuality can be implemented in systems that are officially egalitarian, but which utilize discipline to construct non-egalitarian power relations:
- Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became in the course of the eighteenth century the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organization of a parliamentary, representative regime. But the development and generalization of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes. The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines. (p.222)
Foucault's argument is that discipline creates "docile bodies", ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age - bodies which function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classrooms. But, to construct docile bodies 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 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 realization of a modern disciplinary institution. It allowed for constant observation characterized by an "unequal gaze"; the constant possibility of observation. Perhaps the most important feature of the panopticon was that it was specifically designed so that the prisoner could never be sure whether s/he was being observed or not. The unequal gaze caused the internalization of disciplinary individuality, and the docile body required of its inmates. This means one is less likely to break rules or laws if they believe they are being watched, even if they are not. 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 use, and question the assumed results of its use.
In examining the construction of the 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
, and criminology
. As well, it operates according to principles which ensure that it “…cannot fail to produce delinquents.” (Discipline and Punish, p. 266) Delinquency, indeed, is produced when social petty crime (such as taking wood in the lord's lands) is no longer tolerated, creating a class of specialized "delinquents" which acts as the police's proxy in surveillance of society.
The structures which Foucault chooses to use as his starting positions help to highlight his conclusions. In particular, his choice of the penal institution at Mettray, near Tours, is perfect as a prison which helps to personify the carceral system. Within it is included the Prison, the School, the Church, and the work-house (industry), all of which feature heavily in his argument. The prisons at Neufchatel, Mettray, and Mettray Netherlands were perfect examples for Foucault, because they even in their original state began to show the traits which Foucault was searching for. They showed the body of knowledge being developed about the prisoners, the creation of the 'delinquent' class, and the disciplinary careers emerging.
- Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House.
- Foucault, Michel (1975). Surveiller et punir : Naissance de la prison, Paris : Gallimard.
- Online excerpts