Among the books I read this summer was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Overall, I found this book to be both intellectually dense and spiritually sobering. Below I attempt to highlight just a few of the book’s many insights.
In broad terms, Foucault uses the birth of the prison in particular, and the history of punishment more generally as a way of understanding society. In some sense, the book is Foucault’s attempt to solve a puzzle, how in “less than a century… the entire economy of punishment was redistributed” (p. 7). How the “penal style” of spectacle and torture came to be replaced by one centering on surveillance and the prison. Thus, the book centers on tracing the relatively abrupt emergence of “a new theory of law and crime, a new moral or political justification of the right to punish” (p. 7). But more provocatively, Foucault concludes that these changes in the “right to punish” have implications which extend far beyond the penal system. In short, the birth of the prison marks the birth of the “disciplinary society” (p. 216).
Again and again Foucault’s analysis links discipline and individualization. “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals” (p. 170). “The disciplines function increasingly as techniques for making useful individuals” (p. 211). By discipline, Foucault is referring to an anatomy of power, a technology of power (p. 215), a unitary technique which maximizes the body’s useful force while reducing its “political” force at the least cost (p. 221).
Not only is the disciplinary society about individualizing, it is also about textualizing. At the center of the disciplinary society is an “uninterrupted work of writing,” “an immense police text,” “a complex documentary organization” (p. 197, 214). “This turning of real lives into writing is… a procedure of objectification and subjection” (p. 192). Thus, to understand the disciplinary, we must understand the individual, and the textual, and vice versa. If I am reading him correctly, Foucault is suggesting that the disciplinary, the individual and the textual are all linked.
Speaking specifically of prisons, Foucault concludes that 1) prisons do not diminish crime rates, 2) detention causes recidivism, 3) the prison cannot fail to produce delinquents, 4) the prison encourages the organization of delinquents, 5) the conditions to which free inmates are subjected necessarily condemn them to recidivism, and finally, 6) the prison indirectly produces delinquents by throwing the inmate’s family into destitution (pp. 265-268). In short, punishment is not intended to eliminate offenses, but rather to distinguish them, distribute them, and use them (p. 272). Penality provides illegalities with a general economy (p. 272). If we were to continue this line of inquiry, perhaps we might go in the direction of seeing discipline and punishment in terms of moral boundaries (cf. Lamont, Anteby).
Perhaps more tellingly, Foucault asks: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (p. 228). Later he concludes: “The power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating” (p. 303). “It functions as a normative power… The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge… [E]ach individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements” (p. 304). The discipline society is a normalizing society.
Foucault concludes that the prison is not subordinate to or the instrument of the law, the court, the codes or the judicial apparatus (p. 307). “It is the court that is external and subordinate to the prison” (p. 308). However, the prison is not alone in the center. It is linked to a whole series of “carceral mechanisms” — “intended to alleviate pain, to cure, to comfort — but which all tend, like the prison, to exercise a power of normalization” (p. 308). In closing Foucault gives us an imperative, a warning, a question: “We must hear the distant roar of battle… of the power of normalization and the formation of knowledge in modern society” (p. 308).