Discipline and Punish:The Birth of Prison by Michel Foucault (Book Review)

  • Team ProBono India
  • August 2, 2020

Content :

Discipline and Punish is not a "difficult" text in the sense of being overly technical or accessible only to the specialist, but its style of presentation does create specific difficulties. For the most part, it adopts an allusive, suggestive, literary form, markedly different from the propositions, and arguments. Scholarship. To those with a taste for it, this stylized presentation can serve to enhance the pleasure of the text, but it also has the effect of submerging its theses below the surface, making them at times difficult to grasp.  Despite being subtitled as "the birth of prison" and is presented as a historical book, it is not much of a historical narrative but a structural analysis of power that Foucault describes as discipline

Divided into four parts: Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison, the book is a complete amalgamation of French and English sources delving into the history of the prison. Foucault attempts to show why the form of punishment transitioned over the years? From being inflicted on the body to being inflicted on the soul. It is about the transition from one form of punishment to the other. According to Foucault, each form of punishment is the reflection from a different episteme. Punishment on the body comes from a much much historical time and punishment on the soul coming from the current and modern episteme. Foucault supported these claims with examples from these eras. The opening of the book sets up the problem that the readers will unravel through the course of the book by contouring the difference between the two very different styles of punishment. He creates a difference between the execution of the regicide in Paris in 1757 with grand rituals and in front of a crowd of spectators. The second scenario he presents is of an institutional framework on a Paris reformatory some 80 years laterthe first incident. Here the punishment takes place in isolation without any aggrandize.

However, just like many historians, the reader might also think that the declining severity of punishments portrays some sort of development. Nevertheless, as Foucault has stated, the purpose of punishment has changed. The objective was no longer to break the criminal\'s body but to target the hearts, minds, thoughts, and will. i.e., the soul. Moreover, at the same time, the objective of punishment undergoes a change so that the concern is now less to avenge the crime than to transform the criminal who stands behind it.However, there are many questions that leave a mark on the readers\' minds. What is the relation between the soul and punishment? What is the meaning of punishing the soul?  It leaves us to think that if the punishment in the modern episteme is the punishment to the soul rather than the body, then how did this come about to be? These are a few essential and guiding questions of the book.

It is very clear from the book that Foucault\'s focus was mainly on the soul. This indicates that he was basically interested in the current/modern episteme. He paid more attention to the transition of punishment to the current episteme. Foucault himself mentions about the book that this book is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge. It is the genealogy of the legal complex from which the power to punish derives its basis. In simpler language, it can be said that the book has to poles. One is the punishment of the body, and the other is the punishment of the soul (the present legal complex). The former interests Foucault only because it marks the beginning of the transition process. His primary interest was the process of making the soul as a victim of discipline and punishment. His focus was to study the sudden end of the brutal practices in the 19th century and the birth of the modern prison system.

Looking very closely at the arguments laid down by Foucault allows us to understand what exactly was the purpose of this transition from one kind of punishment to another. Foucault argued in his book that contrary to the belief of historians and followers of the enlightenment narrative, the step and the process of transitioning the punishment from the body to soul was of any humanistic impulse or any sudden newfound realization for the mutilated, butchered body, but of juridical changes and the social relations that evolved with it. Furthermore, due to various legal and scientific development in the society and their gradual interdependency on each other and the contingent power structure, it was the soul that began to be disciplined and punished rather than the body.Thus, came the inception of the prison system that we see today. The currentprison system is the model for control of a whole society. What occurs behind, turns out to be so far off for the ones outside it, that they have no compassion for the man who endures in isolation or rests on cold jail floors. His sufferings become none of our anxiety. There is a \'dehumanizing\' impact that the cutting edge jail has on the crook, an impact that removes any opportunity of compassion or pity for the detainee. He blurs rather rapidly in the public\'s memory. Such was not the situation, Foucault says, back when men were tormented in roads and executed severely.

Against this background of political change and criminal law reform, Discipline and Punish then turns to the particulars of the penal reforms that were proposed by Beccaria and the "Ideologues" in the late 18th century. These reformers advocated what Foucault calls "the gentle way in punishment"-a whole system of sanctions that was starkly opposed to the excesses of the Ancient Regime. They declared that punishment must not be arbitrary, the capricious expression of a sovereign\'s will, but instead should be a reflection of the crime itself. According to these reformers, punishment is now to be a lesson, a sign, a representation of public morality which is openly displayed to all: "In the penalty, rather than seeing the presence of the Sovereign, one will read the laws themselves.

The final sections of Discipline and Punish return to the historical narrative and trace, rather too hurriedly, the actual impact of the prison and its position within the contemporary network of social control. Foucault shows that the defects of the prison-its failure to reduce crime, its tendency to produce re-offenders, to organize a criminal environment, to render prisoners\' families penniless, etc.-have all been known and disparaged from as early as the 1820s up to the present day.

This historical pattern of constant failure and constant resistance to change leads Foucault to raise forcefully a question that is, in many ways, central to a contemporary penal politics, namely, why does the prison persist? The answer he outlines here is placed not on a penological level but in the wider political sphere and against the background of French politics in the 1840s and 1850s. What it amounts to is an argument that the creation of delinquency is useful in a strategy of political domination because it works to separate crime from politics, to divide the working classes against themselves, to enhance the fear of prison, and to guarantee the authority and powers of the police. He argues that in a system of domination which depends on respect for law and for property, it is essential to ensure that illegalities and law-breaking attitudes do not become widespread or popular and above all, that they do not become linked with political objectives. In this context, the unintended creation of a delinquent class may be turned to an advantage in a number of ways.

However, Foucault failed to identify who has the power to make these laws. Power in the present times might look kind but is not. In the past, it was not, and therefore it could boost open revolt. So, the Prison framework does not just remove the display of torment and murder from the avenues; it pulverizes contradiction and shackles the still, small voice of the general public. However, Foucault fails to identify the agents of this power. He rejects the idea that power is a thing that is "held" by someone, but even if we accept his structural or relational approach to power, we still need to know who are the people in positions of power and how they came to be there. Sometimes he uses the abstractions of Marxist terminology ("the dominant class," "the State," "the bourgeoisie"), occasionally he mentions "the judges" or "the administration," but more often, he simply avoids the issue altogether by using passive language. In this sense, Foucault\'s conception of power is strangely apolitical. It appears as a kind of empty structure, stripped of any agents, interests. It is thus no accident that so much attention is given to the design of Bentham\'s Panopticon, and so little to its actual use in the book. Foucault\'s idea of power may be a definite conception in the sense that power molds, trains, builds up, and creates subjects, but it also involves a thoroughly negative evaluation.

There is a sense in which discipline can create freedom as well as control. Equally, it can form the basis for a regulatory network through which the norms of health, security, and welfare can be systematically provided for whole populations-providing freedom from want, illness, and ignorance that would otherwise be impossible. The ultimate questions that need to be faced, whether in penal policy or in social policy, are not about power or no power but instead about the precise way in which power should be exercised and the precise objectives to be pursued. Foucault carefully avoids such questions, seeing them as a matter for policymakers and not for intellectuals

The ending section of the book is entitled, simply "The Carceral." It describes how the frontiers between judicial punishment and the other institutions of social life, became increasingly indistinct by the advancement of similar disciplinary techniques in all of them and the frequent transfers that take place from one institution to another. (Foucault cites the example of a reformatory for youth, which receives problem cases from families, schools, and prisons, and deals in the same disciplinary way with offenders and non-offenders alike).

Finally, Foucault once again returned to punishment, all of this has some particular consequences for the way we think about penal practice. Inside this general structure, the way toward punishment is not basically unique in relation to that of teaching or any other social activity, and it tends to be represented as merely an extension of these less coercive. 

There is considerably more to this book than I might clarify here. Instructed and suggested in colleges around the globe, this book is an immortal great. Since it is anything but a simple book to peruse, I\'d suggest that the new reader begins gradually and take it part by section. You can concur with his proposal, or you could deviate, yet it is indisputable that Foucault was a pure genius.