This is the first post that’s coming out of my attempt to read ‘Discipline and Punish‘ by Michel Foucault. I want to start with the broadest idea of the book: an analysis of how our attitudes to and methods of punishment have changed in the emergence of modern society.
Foucault’s story is like this: in the previous ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as something outside of and opposed to the social body – that social body being identified with the body of the king. The function of punishment was to reaffirm the superiority of the sovereign body over the criminal’s body by destroying it; the more complete the destruction, the more effective. Hence criminals taken out in public, tortured, dismembered, and finally executed.
In the currently ascendant ideology of punishment, the criminal appeared as always still a part of the social body, but a malfunctioning and diseased part (partly because the social body was now the nation and the people, not the sovereign). So now the function of punishment is to restore it to health – to strengthen and clean society.
Some key consequences of this new approach to punishment: that rather than seeking excess (after all, to rip off someone’s flesh with pincers, and kill them, and then string out their guts, is pretty excessive) it had to seek balance between two opposed imperatives. On the one hand, to attack and harm (after all, that’s what punishment is), but on the other, to respect and preserve the criminal (for they must eventually be returned to society in ‘mended’ form).
Secondly, knowledge of the criminal now becomes vital – detailed understanding so that they can be changed both inside and outside. This again tells against ‘excess’ and ‘violence’, because they might disrupt the collection of systematic data. The prison thus appears as the paradigm of punishment it preserves a symbolic ‘something’ about the prisoner that is not violated (they can keep their bodily integrity as long as they follow the regulations) and because its regimented, drawn-out nature allows for the collection of detailed information, the detailed composition of schedules and regulations, and the endeavour of trying to ‘fix’ the defective human being.
That’s how Foucault presents matters – and in many respects this account is not too different from the conventional liberal story. As society became more ‘civilised’, its efforts at punishment shifted away from being motivated by base motives of vengeance and cruelty, and came to embrace ‘humanitarian’ punishment that respected the ‘rights’ and ‘dignity’ of the criminal, along with seeking to ‘understand’ them so as to ‘rehabilitate’ them.