Foucault’s Discipline and Punish


(Alternative title: Tightly hug your teddy bear while you cry yourself to sleep)

Studying English literature is like riding a roller coaster: it has its ups and downs, you need lots of sugary fizzy drinks, sometimes you vomit, towards the end you scream and then you vomit even more. When you decide to study literature, you kind of know that you’re going to spend your days wondering why on earth no one stopped you from following something so theoretical. Nothing, and I cannot stress this enough, nothing warns you for what is known as Michel Foucault.

Foucault is the creepy uncle you desperately try to avoid at family dinners, but always sneaks up on you and whispers “the government is watching you” and “you perv, you want to have sex with that chair, don’t you?”. Why do we study him? Because, creepiness aside, the dude knows what he’s saying. I mentally divide people into two groups: normal, happy people and people who have studied Foucault. People from the second group can be recognized by nervous twitching and the feeling that they are always being watched (a feeling they also share with Orwellians).

First of all, this is not a thorough academic analysis of Foucault, it’s a simplistic approach to Discipline and Punish. Discipline and Punish is perhaps Foucault’s easiest to read book and in it Foucault describes the nature of punishment in Western culture. What Foucault wants to achieve in Discipline and Punish is to essentially write down a history of the modern penal system. Foucault points out that punishment functions in a social context and is always a political action. If you’re an academic, chances are you have read it. If you have read it, you never forget the opening scene. To fully appreciate the beauty of the opening pages, I suggest you read them with a full stomach. The description will most definitely not make you vomit your insides out. You will absolutely not feel all the life drained out of you. The opening scene is the description of a public execution of a regicide, in 1757. Back then, executions were brutal, so Foucault describes in detail all the stages of torture and mutilation. The description is so graphic I dare not repeat it, it does, however, show how punishment in Western criminal justice has changed and transformed into discipline, meaning the prison.

Before the eighteenth century, public execution was a huge crowd pleaser, since the internet wasn’t invented yet and people had way too much free time. It made sense for them to say “do you want to go for a cup of ale after the execution?” and “I’m so horrified by what we just saw, I will never commit any crime!”, so publicly torturing the offender to death served two purposes: penal justice was secure and the execution turned into a spectacle aiming to inspire both fear and disgust for the crime. The body of the condemned, therefore, was the main target for punishment and pain. In the nineteenth century, however, torture as a means of punishment died out, along with the habit of making a spectacle out of it. Why that change? Because a public execution wasn’t humane and the general consensus was that violence only inspires more violence rather than pacify the masses. And yet, the elimination of immediate physical pain and torture doesn’t translate to lack of control. The body of the prisoner might no longer be the target of punishment, but his soul definitely is.

The ‘soul’ of the criminal is a modern invention. By focusing on the soul of the prisoner, the crime is analysed, its motives are found, psychiatrists intervene, and the possibilities of punishment are not as limited as they were when the main target was the body (because let’s face it, after a while imagination runs dry…). So, say that the offender is diagnosed as insane, does his diagnosis make the crime disappear? Foucault calls the extra info ‘attenuating circumstances’ and suggests that now that the focus is on the soul, the offender is judged as a whole, rather than just a solitary criminal act. There is a shift in the vocabulary used: the offender isn’t condemned to be executed, but judged to be punished. Prison enters the conversation. The face of punishment might have changed, but the goal is the same: it’s all about power. Foucault is obsessed with power and how the systems essentially controls everyone in it.

The All-seeing Panopticon

Undeniably, the most famous chapter of Discipline and Punish is the one in which Foucault describes the Panopticon. Deriving from the Greek pan- + optos, it means to be to see everything. Foucault mentions Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: Bentham’s prison has a tower right at the centre of it, from where it is possible to see every single cell of the prison and what happens in it. A supervisor is placed in the tower and keeps an eye on the prisoners. At this point, Foucault states that “visibility is a trap” (200), and he couldn’t be more right. The magic (and I’m being ironic here…) of the Panopticon is that the prisoner is both aware and unaware; he knows that he is constantly being watched, but he can’t be sure that he is being watched. Not knowing is both a blessing and a curse.

The Panopticon is the essence of the book and it is what Foucault wants to say about power, both in and out of the criminal justice system. In a prison where constant surveillance is a fact, the prisoner loses his will of revolting. In a society, if the citizen knows that the system has ways of watching him all the time (without that meaning that he is actually being watched), would he try to break order? If you can’t contextualize the stream of thought, Orwell’s 1984 is the perfect example. It doesn’t matter if the Big Brother is actually watching you. As long as you know that someone might be watching you, the punishment and discipline come from within. Suddenly the system doesn’t even need to lift a finger, the process of censorship is coming from within each individual. Power is controlled by the system, but in an invisible, yet satisfactory, way. Discipline isn’t violent or coercive, but undetectably willing. Foucault doesn’t suggest that each society has a physical Panopticon in every street, it would be too obvious. No, control and elimination of power can be achieved in subtler ways. The metaphorical Panopticon keeps prisoners, schoolchildren, patients, workers, beggars in line and it “must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of everyday life of men” (205). The success of the Panopticon is the idea of exclusive visibility. The prisoner/citizen is visible, and yet he is excluded from participating in the process of visibility. He is the object, not the eye.

Deep breath, we’re almost done. What does Foucault want to say? Well, Foucault writes about a lot of things, but his main point is always power. Prison could not be separate from power. Prison is part of a network of power relations that exists in every part of our society.  Punishment is power, discipline is power, sexuality is power, everything is power and power can be controlled. There you go, this is Foucault’s philosophy in two lines, you’re welcome.

I’m not going to lie to you, when I first read Discipline and Punish I was traumatized. I decided never to read it again and forget of its existence. Almost two months later, I read Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and I couldn’t get Foucault out of my mind, Dickens reminded me of him too much. You need to approach Foucault with an open mind, because what he says isn’t pleasant. He won’t make much sense when you first read him, he won’t make much sense when you give him a second chance, but I promise you, he will eventually make sense. Don’t be threatened by Foucault. Once you start reading him, everything you thought you knew for Western society and thought is bound to change.

Does it have a happy ending? Sure, we are powerless against the system, yay!

Is it worth your time?  It’s the perfect book for a relaxing weekend, just staying inside with a cup of tea, curled up on the sofa with your favourite blanket and HAVE YOU READ NOTHING? STAY AWAY FROM THIS BOOK unless of course you’re and academic so, by all means, read it, it will really help with your research. Seriously though, give Foucault a chance, he will change your perspective.

Can we get proper fan fiction out of it? I sincerely hope not…

Dinosaurs, vampires or zombies? I think the book really suffers from the lack of cute and cuddly puppies. On second thought, nope, Foucault would mutilate the puppies and then he would burn them alive just to make a point…

Who would play Foucault in a movie? Geoffrey Rush. Or a really creepy potato with glasses.

Works Cited:

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. 1975. Trans. Alan Sheridan. England: Penguin Books, 1991. Print.


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