Foucault – Discipline and Punish

Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

This week’s reading is Discipline and Punish, by noted ray of sunshine Michel Foucault. The book begins with a memorably graphic torture scene that pretty well sets the tone for what follows.

Michel Foucault

This video gave me some helpful biographical context.

Foucault doesn’t specifically mention that the US calls its penal body “The Department of Corrections.” But the point of his book is to explore the rich significance of the term “corrections” as a polite euphemism for punishment. Are the two concepts that different for us? Foucault says no. The techniques that we use to teach people how to be good and productive members of society are just milder versions of the ones we use to inflict pain in retribution for a crime.

The book begins with the contrast between European punishment styles before and after the Enlightenment. The usual method for dealing with criminals pre-Enlightenment was public hanging, drawing and quartering, and various forms of torture. It was a public spectacle, directed at the criminal’s body, meant to graphically demonstrate the king’s awesome power. The problem was that public executions were “a hearth in which violence bursts again into flame” (9) as spectators sometimes rioted in support of the condemned.

The prison hides punishment behind locked doors.

This has several consequences: it leaves the domain of more or less everyday perception and enters that of abstract consciousness; its effectiveness is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity; it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime; the exemplary mechanics of punishment changes its mechanisms (9).

Judges don’t desire to punish. Their sentences are meant to correct and even cure the criminal. How nice of them!

From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights. If it is still necessary for the law to reach and manipulate the body of the convict, it will be at a distance, in the proper way, according to strict rules, and with a much ‘higher’ aim. As a result of this new restraint, a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists; by their very presence near the prisoner, they sing the praises that the law needs: they reassure it that the body and pain are not the ultimate objects of its punitive action. Today a doctor must watch over those condemned to death, right up to the last moment – thus juxtaposing himself as the agent of welfare, as the alleviator of pain, with the official whose task it is to end life (11).

We invented the modern soul as the entity we are punishing/correcting.

It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished – and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives. This is the historical reality of this soul, which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint. This real, non-corporal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power (29).

We take away criminals’ liberty to hurt them emotionally rather than physically.

This means that the ‘pain’ at the heart of punishment is not the actual sensation of pain, but the idea of pain, displeasure, inconvenience – the ‘pain’ of the idea of ‘pain’ (94).

Disciplinary punishment extends not just to actual criminals, but to potential ones.

[T]he need to measure, from within, the effects of the punitive power prescribes tactics of intervention over all criminals, actual or potential: the organization of a field of prevention, the calculation of interests, the circulation of representations and signs, the constitution of a horizon of certainty and proof, the adjustment of penalties to ever more subtle variables; all this also leads to an objectification of criminals and crimes. In either case, one sees that the power relation that underlies the exercise of punishment begins to be duplicated by an object relation in which are caught up not only the crime as a fact to be established according to common norms, but the criminal as an individual to be known according to specific criteria (101-102).

In order to work, disciplinary punishment can’t have a public audience.

The training of behaviour by a full time-table, the acquisition of habits, the constraints of the body imply a very special relation between the individual who is punished and the individual who punishes him. It is a relation that not only renders the dimension of the spectacle useless: it excludes it. The agent of punishment must exercise a total power, which no third party can disturb; the individual to be corrected must be entirely enveloped in the power that is being exercised over him (129).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, disciplinary methods spilled out of monasteries, armies and workshops and into schools, hospitals, and of course, prisons.

[The disciplines] were different from slavery because they were not based on a relation of appropriation of bodies; indeed, the elegance of the discipline lay in the fact that it could dispense with this costly and violent relation by obtaining effects of utility at least as great. They were different, too, from ‘service’, which was a constant, total, massive, non-analytical, unlimited relation of domination, established in the form of the individual will of the master, his ‘caprice’. They were different from vassalage, which was a highly coded, but distant relation of submission, which bore less on the operations of the body than on the products of labour and the ritual marks of allegiance. Again, they were different from asceticism and from ‘disciplines’ of a monastic type, whose function was to obtain renunciations rather than increases of utility and which, although they involved obedience to others, had as their principal aim an increase of the mastery of each individual over his own body (137).

Discipline doesn’t just restrain you from misbehaving. It makes you more productive. It also isolates you. The disciplinary space is “cellular,” putting people into metaphorical spreadsheets.

The drawing up of ‘tables’ was one of the great problems of the scientific, political and economic technology of the eighteenth century: how one was to arrange botanical and zoological gardens, and construct at the same time rational classifications of living beings; how one was to observe, supervise, regularize the circulation of commodities and money and thus build up an economic table that might serve as the principle of the increase of wealth; how one was to inspect men, observe their presence and absence and constitute a general and permanent register of the armed forces; how one was to distribute patients, separate them from one another, divide up the hospital space and make a systematic classification of diseases: these were all twin operations in which the two elements – distribution and analysis, supervision and intelligibility —are inextricably bound up. In the eighteenth century, the table was both a technique of power and a procedure of knowledge. It was a question of organizing the multiple, of providing oneself with an instrument to cover it and to master it; it was a question of imposing upon it an ‘order’ (148).

Discipline isn’t like the omnipotence of a king expressed in showy excesses of violence. It’s “a modest, suspicious power, which functions as a calculated, but permanent economy” (170).

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection (187).

Power doesn’t just exclude, repress, censor, or conceal. It also produces reality, produces “domains of objects and rituals of truth” (194).

The architectural version of the disciplinary prison is Jeremy Bentham’s proposed Panopticon: a ring-shaped building divided into cells whose large windows face the interior, with a guard tower at the center. Guards can see the occupants of the cells, but they can’t see the guards, or each other.

They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible… Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers (201).


Not many prisons were built on Bentham’s circular model, but with the advent of video cameras, every public place has effectively become a panopticon. This has been great for capitalism.

How is power to be strengthened in such a way that, far from impeding progress, far from weighing upon it with its rules and regulations, it actually facilitates such progress? What intensificator of power will be able at the same time to be a multiplicator of production? How will power, by increasing its forces, be able to increase those of society instead of confiscating them or impeding them? The Panopticon’s solution to this problem is that the productive increase of power can be assured only if, on the one hand, it can be exercised continuously in the very foundations of society, in the subtlest possible way, and if, on the other hand, it functions outside these sudden, violent, discontinuous forms that are bound up with the exercise of sovereignty (208).

Discipline is no longer part of any particular institution. It’s a style of power, “comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology.” It can be exercised by prisons, police departments, schools, hospitals, businesses, government bureaucracies, or even (gulp) families.

The ideal point of penality today would be an indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end, an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation, a judgement that would at the same time be the constitution of a file that was never closed, the calculated leniency of a penalty that would be interlaced with the ruthless curiosity of an examination, a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity… Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons (227-228)?

Incarceration as a punishment has a couple of advantages: because it takes away liberty, which in theory belongs to everyone, it’s “egalitarian.” And because the length of sentences can be calibrated precisely according to all kinds of factors, prison is “fair.” We can be sure that offenders “pay their debt to society” down to the penny.

But the self-evidence of the prison is also based on its role, supposed or demanded, as an apparatus for transforming individuals. How could the prison not be immediately accepted when, by locking up, retraining and rendering docile, it merely reproduces, with a little more emphasis, all the mechanisms that are to be found in the social body? The prison is like a rather disciplined barracks, a strict school, a dark workshop, but not qualitatively different (233).

And because there’s so much continuity between the prison and the rest of our institutions, “it succeeds in making the power to punish natural and legitimate, in lowering at least the threshold of tolerance to penality.” It seems natural and inevitable, and so we are more likely to buy into state authority voluntarily, without needing to be threatened explicitly.

Borne along by the omnipresence of the mechanisms of discipline, basing itself on all the carceral apparatuses, [judging] has become one of the major functions of our society. 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; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achieve­ments (304).

So, lots of happy thoughts there. Can’t wait to find out Foucault’s thoughts on sexuality next week!