Commentary Magazine


Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault

Jail and Society

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
by Michel Foucault.
Translated by Alan Sheridan. Pantheon. 333 pp. $10.95.

Michel Foucault is one of the most influential contemporary thinkers of France. In two decades of writing on the ways the state invades and controls the lives of individuals, he has had a powerful impact on Left opinion, especially among the young, and must be given much of the credit for the painful reassessment of the relations between liberty and the Communist revolution which is currently being expressed by the “new philosophers.” Although Foucault is a man of the Left, he has never been associated with the sort of leftism which consists of the systematic application of Marxist or crypto-Marxist cant to historical and social problems. He is a rigorous and shrewd historian who has always been controversial, rarely simplistic. His explanations for the way society deals with its deviants are perhaps too neat, but one of his great merits has been, nevertheless, to teach a generation of French intellectuals that truth should not be spelled with a capital “T”; he is, in short, no reductionist and no globalist.

Foucault’s latest book to appear in English is Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. As the subtitle indicates, he is continuing to engage here in the enterprise which he began in Madness and Civilization (subtitled “The Birth of the Ayslum”) and The Birth of the Clinic (subtitled “An Archeology of Medical Perception”). As he describes his enterprise in the latter work: “We are doomed historically to history, to the patient reconstruction of discourses about discourses, and to the task of hearing what has already been said.” He wants to understand why, in what conditions, thought has progressed along the road that it has. Inasmuch as he believes that the origins of much of the modern consciousness are to be found in the Classical Age, his books explore developments in thought and social policy in the 17th and 18th centuries, with remarks on their logical culmination in the 19th century, which is still with us for the purposes he is interested in. Thus, Foucault asks: why was insanity defined (or redefined) as it was in the Classical Age, and why do we find in the 18th century the birth of the asylum? Why is it that between the mid-18th century and the early 19th century there occurred a revolution in medicine which completely transformed the meaning of disease, of the person carrying it, and of the specialist treating him?

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In his latest book, Foucault asks similar questions of modern penology. He compares the history of the development of prisons with judicial innovations and the writings of early criminologists and penologists. He does not contest the facts of criminality, nor does he cast cutthroats and robbers in the role of heroic rebels against an unjust social order (any more than in his earlier works he doubts the fact of mental disease). But just as he probably would affirm that society has the madmen that it chooses, so it has the criminals that it needs. For the central thesis of this book is that control—not reform—of the criminal element in society is what modern changes in the criminal-justice system have been intended to achieve.

The French title of the work is Surveiller et Punir: the excellent translator, Alan Sheridan, explains in a note that it was impossible to render this exactly and that Foucault himself suggested “discipline.” Surveiller means to observe in order to control. This may result in discipline, but it does not require the subject of observation to discipline himself. Control remains the key to the system. “We must first rid ourselves of the illusion that penalty is above all (if not exclusively) a means of reducing crime. . . .” Penalty, rather, is a technique of control, that is, of power. This is why Foucault speaks of a “political economy” of punishment. This is a sweeping thesis—one which will surely provoke disagreement—but it is based on two facts which themselves are rather sweeping: neither penology nor the critique of penology has changed much since the early 19th century.

Before the mid-19th century, a critique of the prison (itself a recent innovation) had emerged that was surprisingly like the one we hear today: prisons do not diminish the crime rate; detention bears a causal relation to recidivism; prisons are schools of crime and breeding grounds for gangs, the permanent subculture of the underworld; the conditions of prisons destroy any incentive a prisoner may privately harbor to mend his ways; imprisonment throws the family of the prisoner into destitution, and encourages it to turn to crime. Similarly, “progressive” rules of prison administration have been in effect for a hundred and fifty years—everything from the basic idea that a prison should be designed to transform the prisoner’s behavior for the better to the notion that a specialized staff can accomplish this aim—with so little success that critics keep calling for more of the same.

Foucault argues that reformers have been perceiving a “prison problem” for a century and a half because there really never was supposed to be a “prison solution.” The state had too much to gain from a permanent class of delinquents. In the first place, such a class was, and remains, of great use to the police, for intelligence-gathering purposes as well as for establishing and underlining a sharp distinction between the criminal element and the working classes. And in the second place, prisons and their inhabitants are laboratories for the control by the state of its own citizens. For at bottom Foucault believes that criminal justice in the 18th and 19th centuries was becoming a tool in a vast program by the state to impose order on society and make its members useful, not necessarily good, citizens. In this sense, “. . . the power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating.”

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It is a measure of Foucault’s talent and erudition that one can question or even reject these views, which are so unsympathetic to the accomplishments of the bourgeoisie, and still find that he has written an extremely useful book. And it is true that there has been, alongside the liberation of the individual which the rise of the middle classes brought with it, a contrary tendency toward conformity and control. The latter is epitomized, Foucault suggests, in Jeremy Bentham’s outrageous idea for a prison where each inmate would be under observation twenty-four hours a day, during which time there would be not one unplanned minute. Is the idea really so unthinkable in our age of electronic surveillance?

The ideal point of penalty today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgment that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet an infinity.

There are armies of specialists today in the techniques of observation and normalization—to begin with, all the boondogglers in the Department of Heath, Education, and Welfare—and what Foucault finds their predecessors doing in the early prisons is not really all that different from what so many of our own regulators seem bent on doing.

But here, as the French say, is the hic. Why should this tendency toward control be linked necessarily—and so facilely—with a class whose rise to preeminence in the modern world was everywhere else accompanied by the assertion of freedom and individual rights? Is it not at least conceivable that the control systems—prisons, hospitals—which so fascinate Foucault represent rather a reaction against the bourgeois spirit, with its insistence on autonomy and its opposition or indifference to “organic” conceptions of society?

Simply to raise these questions takes us beyond the specific argumentation of Foucault, beyond its deft formulations and descriptive brilliance, into a quite different realm. We are reminded that the history of ideas is written by historians who themselves are part of history, and that Foucault, in the process of exerting his very considerable influence on the generation of the 60′s, has inevitably accepted the terms of reference of his cultural milieu. Pas d’ennemis à gauche— no enemies on the Left: in French political life the slogan may occasionally be more honored in the breach than in the observance, but in today’s French academic and intellectual world it continues fairly to characterize the preconceptions, indeed the very atmosphere, which condition and limit the work of thinkers like Foucault, however original and full of insight they may be. When this situation changes, and there are signs that it may be changing, one can expect that Foucault, with his extraordinary subtlety, his ironic trendiness, will not be the last to catch the wind.

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.




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