In a recent post I asked, with sincere puzzlement, what the principled basis was for the modern western opposition to corporal punishment of adults, when prisons often seem to be objectively more severe. The birth of the prison? Doesn’t that sound like a book I’d heard of?
Indeed it does! Or rather, it is the English translation of that book’s French subtitle, and so sounds nothing like it. Anyway, this is not really a post. This is thinking out loud.
The question I asked interests me, as does the broader question of punishment and how to distinguish what is socially necessary from what is power-for-the-sake-of-power, or functions in service of maintaining oppression. So the natural place for me to look is Foucault‘s book ‘Discipline and Punish‘, which seeks precisely to understand the power-relations involved in the emergence of modern forms of discipline and control, exemplified in the rise of the prison as a replacement for more ‘barbaric’ forms of punishment (this knowledge of the book comes from reading the wikipedia page).
Unfortunately, I’m quite busy at the moment, and I often find Foucault’s writing quite dense (I’ve previously read only ‘Madness and Civilisation’ and part of ‘The History of Sexuality’) so I don’t really have the time to go through the whole text.
So I think what I’ll mainly do is read parts or skim parts, and hopefully in the next week or so post some thoughts on them. I’m sure that this won’t be a full or scholarly treatment, and will probably leave out a lot of nuance. But personally I’m ok with that – partial understanding is better than no understanding, and hopefully any glaring mistakes will become exposed.
Moreover, I think I want to try to read Foucault with a particular practical question in mind, namely that with which I really started my last post – what forms of punishment are best and fairest, and by what principles do we make such a decision. In particular (and here things are analogous to many other cases), the challenge seems to be to do justice both to radical critique of how things are done now, and also to the sorts of things that make it seem an improvement on the past – none of us want to go back to hanging, drawing, and quartering.
But insofar as changes in the penal system are part of broader changes in ‘micropolitics’, e.g. the introduction of the modern school, or the factory, this question assumes the broader form of ‘how could we seek to change our micropolitics, to avoid the three risks of embracing modern evils, returning to past evils, or throwing out the socially necessary with the evil, and giving ourselves an unworkable utopia?’
(this makes it all sound grander than it will be)
AFAIK Foucault wouldn’t have much truck with this sort of question – but then, I am mainly on Chomsky’s side in this youtube debate.