Monday, 17 September 2012

Discipline and Punish


Foucault, Michael (1977) Discipline and Punish, New York: Pantheon.


With so much already written about this seminal work, The Differential Association felt the time was come to tackle yet another classic in the criminological world. Discipline and Punish, a theoretical giant in the field, also comes inevitably with a legacy of polarity.

David Garland’s exposition and critique of the work (published in the 1986 American Bar Foundation Research Journal) presents the dichotomy evident in views on Foucault, do we ascribe to him celebrity or notoriety? Indeed, what is Foucault: historian, philosopher, cultural commentator? So mould-breaking was his methodology that his Chair at the Coll├Ęge de France was in Systems of Thought. The changes wrought by his writings originated the term Foucauldian to assign coherence to the subsequent academics who pursued their own scholarship utilising his approaches. This testament to his influence can be seen in the now ubiquitous use of his concepts, archaeology of knowledge and a ‘history of the present’.  Michael Roth, writing in History and Theory in 1981, explicates the process that “Writing a history of the present means writing a history in the present; self-consciously writing in a field of power relations and political struggle”. A seemingly paradoxical phrase, Foucault attempted to explain contemporaneous phenomena by tracing historical roots.

Involved in penal reform and prisoners’ rights, it seemed natural perhaps that Foucault’s interest should turn to the institution of the prison itself. Coming as part of a revisionist history movement in the 1970s, Foucault attempted to trace the origins of prisons, and locate it with a political understanding, using his key concepts of power and knowledge to trace its lineage.

Discipline and Punish is renowned as having one of the most memorable openings of any book within academia - infamously opening with a visceral and disturbing description of the 1757 torture and execution of the regicide Damiens, in Paris, Foucault’s prose is literary and evocative. Contrasting the physicality and spectacle of the torture, Foucault juxtaposes this passage with a timetable for the House of Young Prisoners in Paris, representing a precise chopping-up of prisoners’ days into segments of meaningful and productive activity. Why this radical shift, accomplished in 80 years, in how we punish?

Foucault asserts that punishment gradually shifted from the body to the mind, with the penitentiary emerging in the early decades of the 19th century as the primary method of punishing offenders, morphing from its previous incarnation as a transitory location prior to trial or punishment, or as a means of confining debtors.

Foucault asserts that prison itself learned the lessons demonstrated by the military, the convent and the school in employing the concept of discipline to achieve control, he traces the extension of the disciplinary gaze to criminals as a means of creating docile bodies, necessary for the emerging modernist economy. Stressing the importance of political economy, or the cost it takes to achieve political objectives, Foucault writes that scaffold riots in the late 18th century, and the precarious mood of the mob at executions, rendered them too costly a means of punishing individuals. The public spectacle of execution and torture no longer worked as a visible reactivation of sovereign power, rather it had become a liability which undermined this power.

The concentration on the mind, or the soul, came at a time when the disciplines were emerging and experts were lining up to pronounce, to categories and to treat, society. The 19th century also saw the emergence of the asylum system in many countries, led by the construction of a string of public asylums in England which revolutionised the care of insane persons and were themselves the result of changing perceptions of madness and the mind. Elaine Showalter writes in The Female Malady that “The substitution of surveillance for physical restraint may well have imposed a perhaps more absolute kind of restraint on the insane which implicated their whole being” (at page 49) – these were contemporaneous concerns, showing that Foucauldian critiques were common much earlier. It was dehumanising in a different but equally effective way to restraints.

Nicola Lacey too writes of changes that chime perfectly with Foucault’s thesis of shifting focus from the body to the mind. In her book From Moll Flanders to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Lacey writes that in criminal justice, responsibility-attribution in criminal trials went from a purely exterior consideration of ‘did the defendant commit this act’ to questions which focused on the interior, on the soul, asking questions about intention, capacity and motivations.

Historians have reacted with ambivalence towards Foucault, distancing themselves from his method and claiming that his work is rife with cafeteria history, rifling from the sources to select only those which support his thesis. Garland elaborates on many of the key historians who cite the errors in Discipline and Punish, including Speirenburg, Langbein, Beattie, Rothman and Ignatieff who claim that his chronology is flawed, for example that torture began declining from the 1600s was already well on its way out by the mid- to late-18th century. His views that many reformers did not in fact want prison is undermined by the strenuous works of penal reformers who worked extensively within prisons, attempting to make them rehabilitative sites. The decline in violence too over the period, acknowledged by Foucault, is held as an equally persuasive explanation for the change in punishment, occasioned by societal shifts related to state formation.

Garland himself writes that practical realities are also just as likely to underlie the state of things, such as the end of transportation due to the emerging independence of the Australian and American states. The very architecture itself may have meant that once built, prison systems were hard to gainsay, representing an enormous expense it was unlikely they would be jettisoned, especially as other alternatives did not readily present themselves. Lucia Zedner provides an example of the immutability of architecture too in her work Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England, writing that despite growing concerns on the effect the separate system was having on prisoners, the physical space of prisons could not be easily altered, and so it persisted. Going on to criticise Foucault’s chronology, Zedner writes that when he speaks of the ‘the prison’ he refers only to those model penitentiaries such as Pentonville, as the majority of prisons in the 19th century were far removed from this idealised type, operating within economic restraints, and immediate situational concerns. 

The nebulous concept of power in Discipline and Punish, not conceived of as Marxist, but relational and dispersed throughout society, poses a problem for some. Foucault’s dismissal or refusal to engage with the agents or sources of power renders the political dimension hollow, apolitical and unrealistic. While this is one of the revolutionary works which linked punishment and state power, work from other researchers, such as Savelsberg and Barker, show us that within the political realm there are institutionalised power relations and political dynamics which complicate political processes. As such, to describe political power in monolithic terms can stunt more probing avenues of research. In the same problematic vein, political will is seamlessly translated into reality with no mention of political opposition or grassroot resistance to certain modes of power and control.

However, despite the seeming dystopian panorama painted by Foucault, he does not conceive of power and control as evil, rather he acknowledges them as essentially productive, hence the beneficial application of it to education, health, the economy and justice. 

Other motivations in punishment, beyond those of power and control, include the Durkheimian notion that societies have a desire to punish transgressions. Garland lists many other emotions underlying the process of punishing, such as justice, forgiveness, and vengeance. An analysis which excludes these necessarily omits many realistic and human drives and is perhaps, incomplete.

So we leave you with more questions, wondering how we can use Foucault’s framework to interpret power and social control today. To what extent can we identify Foucault’s disciplinary gaze in contemporary society? Does the advent of CCTV, Neighbourhood Watch schemes and so on represent the realisation of the Panopticon society, wherein the dispersal of disciplinary techniques renders us all self-regulating bodies?

Is Discipline and Punish relevant to Ireland? Does it ably describe the development of an Irish prison system? Ireland had a vast ‘carceral archipeligo’, with an unfathomable number of the population being held in a web of institutions after the establishment of the Irish Free State. Today there are over 4,000 people prison, however between 1926 and 1951 there was over 30,000 men women and children coercively confined in Ireland. Does this show that instead there has been a dramatic loosening of social control and that state power is less invasive? Many critics have claimed that Foucault’s analysis applies to a limited number of countries, most perfectly matching France in the 1830s and 1840s and perhaps falling down as a more general description.

As previously mentioned, Foucault’s writing illustrates an ability to bring to life horrors; he writes unflinchingly and devastatingly about the torture of Damiens, and this elevation of punishment practices from the academic to the alarmingly present is a necessary tool that can sometimes appear lacking in contemporary writings on prisons. That writing can conjure compelling images of punishment should be borne in mind. The work of former Mountjoy Governor John Lonergan illustrates the benefit of openness in prison policy, which can dispel myths and educate a public conditioned to dismiss human rights concerns with statements about holiday camps.


This blog was written by Lynsey Black and Louise Brangan.

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