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Stir Crazy

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

by Michel Foucault, translated by Alan Sheridan
Pantheon, 333 pp., $10.95


Michel Foucault erupted onto the intellectual scene at the beginning of the Sixties with his Folie et déraison, an unconventional but still reasonably recognizable history of the Western experience of madness. He has become, in the years since, a kind of impossible object: a nonhistorical historian, an anti-humanistic human scientist, and a counter-structuralist structuralist. If we add to this his tense, impacted prose style, which manages to seem imperious and doubt-ridden at the same time, and a method which supports sweeping summary with eccentric detail, the resemblance of his work to an Escher drawing—stairs rising to platforms lower than themselves, doors leading outside that bring you back inside—is complete.

Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same,” he writes in the introduction to his one purely methodological work, L’Archéologie du savoir, itself mostly a collection of denials of positions he does not hold but considers himself likely to be accused of by the “mimes and tumblers” of intellectual life. “Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order,” he states. “At least spare us their morality when we write.” Whoever he is, or whatever, he is what any French savant seems to need to be these days: elusive.

But (and in this he differs from a good deal that has been going on in Paris since structuralism arrived) the difficulty of his work arises not from self-regard and the desire to found an intellectual cult only the instructed can join, but from a powerful and genuine originality of thought. As he intends nothing less than a Great Instauration for the human sciences, it is not surprising that he is more than occasionally obscure, or that when he does manage to be clear he is no less disconcerting.

Foucault’s leading ideas are not in themselves all that complex; just unusually difficult to render plausible. The most prominent of them, and the one for which he has drawn the most attention, is that history is not a continuity, one thing growing organically out of the last and into the next, like the chapters in some nineteenth-century romance. It is a series of radical discontinuities, ruptures, breaks, each of which involves a wholly novel mutation in the possibilities for human observation, thought, and action. Foucault first referred to the “precarious splinters of eternity” these mutations produce as épistémès (i.e., “epistemological fields”), later on as historical a prioris, and most recently as discursive formations. Under whatever label, they are to be dealt with “archaeologically.” That is, they are first to be characterized according to the rules determining what kinds of perception and experience can exist within their limits, what can be seen, said, performed, and thought in the conceptual domain they define. That done, they are then to be put into a pure series, a genealogical sequence in which what is shown is not how one has given causal rise to another but how one has formed itself in the space left vacant by another, ultimately covering it over with new realities. The past is not prologue; like the discrete strata of Schliemann’s site, it is a mere succession of buried presents.

In such terms, Foucault sees European history cross-cut by three great fault lines separating what lies on the far side of them from what lies on the near by “pure distances” that are traversed by mere chronology—the blank, external seriality of events. The first of these fissures lies somewhere around the middle of the seventeenth century, and it divides a magical age from a classifying age. In the first period, that of Paracelsus and Campanella, things are related to one another by intrinsic sympathies and antipathies—wine and walnuts, death and roses—that God has stamped onto their faces for all to read. In the second, that of Linnaeus and Condillac, things are related to one another through the use of types and taxonomies—species and genera, speech parts and grammars—directly given in the presented arrangement of nature.

The second fissure occurs toward the beginning of the nineteenth century. It separates the tabular, classifying, Linnaean conception of how reality is composed—with everything in its row and column—from the wholly different one of Marx and Comte in which things are related to one another narratively—seen as foreshadowings and outcomes, causes and consequences. “History,” rather than “Similitude” or “Order,” becomes the master category of experience, understanding, and representation. And the third fissure, which Nietzsche, Freud, and Mallarmé presage, and which we are right now trying to find some way to live through, marks the beginning of the end of this temporalized consciousness and its replacement by some new, strange form of existence not yet completely in view. Foucault alludes to it, often obliquely, in such phrases as “the scattering of the profound stream of time,” “the absolute dispersion of man,” “the return of the masks.”

To this conception of change by radical jumps from one frame to another, Foucault then adds another unusual notion, which, though it can be traced from the beginning of his work, has grown more and more prominent as he has proceeded. This is that all these épistémès, “discourse fields,” or whatever, are not just shapes of thought but structures of power.

Whether they be images of madness, theories of pedagogy, definitions of sexuality, medical routines, military disciplines, literary styles, research methods, views of language, or procedures for the organization of work, the conceptual systems within which an age is immured define its pattern of dominations. The objects of oppression are not generalized entities like “the proletariat,” but madmen, criminals, conscripts, children, machine tenders, women, hospital patients, and the ignorant. And it is not a faceless “ruling class,” but psychiatrists, lawyers, officers, parents, managers, men, physicians, and cultivés—those the historical a priori empowers to set the limits of other people’s lives—who are their oppressors. “Confinement,” in all its particular, discontinuous forms, has emerged as the master obsession of Foucault’s work. For all his radicalism (which is vehement and absolute), his history is neither of class struggle nor of modes of production, but of constraint: intellectual, medical, moral, political, aesthetic, and epistemological constraint; and now he writes at length on judicial restraint. In Surveiller et punir, translated here as Discipline (it should have been Observe) and Punish, he has found his appointed subject and has written his most forceful book.


Foucault begins his effort to unearth the genealogy of the prison, to expose the strata hidden beneath its present expression, at perhaps the most dramatic of his fault lines. This was the shift, between about 1760 and 1840, from the âge de ressemblance, in which torture and execution of criminals were popular spectacles, to the âge classique, in which the lives of criminals were regulated according to timetables in methodized institutions.1 As his image for the first he takes Robert Damiens, a religious crank, who, in 1757, slightly wounded Louis XV with a knife. For his pains, his flesh was torn from him with hot pincers, his wounds salved with molten lead and burning sulphur, his body quartered by horses and some helpful butchers to detach the joints. What was then left of him (some who were there thought him still alive) was reduced to ashes and thrown to the winds, all in the public square before the Church of Paris.

As his image for the âge classique Foucault takes a set of rules drawn up for a “house for young prisoners” in Paris in 1838, rules in their own way hardly more humane than the punishments imposed in Damiens’s time. The Code of 1838 organized the inmates’ day into a minute by minute sequence of work, prayer, meals, education, recreation, and sleep, marked by drum rolls, ordered in squads, and enveloped in silence:

Less than a century separates [the execution and the 1838 code]. It was a time when…the entire economy of punishment was redistributed. It was a time of great “scandals” for traditional justice, a time of innumerable projects for reform. It saw a new theory of law and crime, a new moral or political justification of the right to punish; old laws were abolished, old customs died out. “Modern” codes were planned or drawn up: Russia, 1769; Prussia, 1780; Pennsylvania and Tuscany, 1786; Austria, 1788; France, 1791, Year IV, 1808, 1810. It was a new age for penal justice.

Foucault then traces the many aspects of this great transformation. First, there is the disappearance of punishment as a public spectacle. In essence, this represents the decline of the body as the text upon which punishment was inscribed—on which the sentence was, as with poor Damiens, quite literally written. Public torture—supplice in French, which means something like liturgical torment, ceremonial pain—“made the guilty man the herald of his own condemnation.” The power of the sovereign, and thus his rights, was made legible with racks and sulphur. As all crimes partook of some degree of lèse majesté, were a regicide in miniature, this “theater of hell” was one of the constitutive features of monarchic despotism; and when both the monarchs and public torture left the historical stage they left it together. Instead of the vengeance of princes came the protection of society; instead of the excitements of the scaffold, the quiet of the prison; for writing on the body, molding it to rule.

Most of Foucault’s book is devoted to analyzing the systematization, generalization, and spiritualization of punishment, and its incarnation in the gray mass of the penitentiary—“the intelligence of discipline in stone.” The social forces driving the changes—the heightened concern, in a Europe become urban, bourgeois, and parliamentary, with property crimes as against political ones; the labor discipline problems of nascent industrialism—get only passing attention. Foucault is not much interested in determinants and causes. He concentrates on the organization of what he calls a new economy of punitive power, an economy that had for its aim “not to punish less, but to punish better.”

For all their apparent humanitarianism—to Foucault so much incidental music—the great penal reformers of the latter half of the eighteenth century, Beccaria, Marat, Bentham, etc., were basically concerned, he writes, to “insert the power to punish more deeply into the social body.” After the Revolution, “Society” replaced “Sovereignty” as the legitimacy that criminality challenged (and parricide replaced regicide as the ultimate crime of which all other crimes were little versions). The social body more than acquiesced in this shift, in which the main agency of penetration became the formal code. The power to punish was divided into articles and printed up in sectioned texts, and thus made less arbitrary, better defined, and more coherent.

Punishment was also made more pervasive (“no crime must escape the gaze of those whose task it is to dispense justice”); more empirical (“the verification of the crime must obey the general criteria for all truth”); more practical (“for punishment to produce the effect [this from Beccaria] it is enough that the harm that it cause exceed the good that the criminal has derived from the crime”); and more specific (“all offenses [and penalties] must be defined,…classified, and collected into species from which none of them escape,…a Linnaeus of crimes and punishments”). And, most portentous of all, punishment was made didactic:

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    This is about a hundred years too late by his more general schema as set forth in his central work, Les mots et les choses (translated in the United States as The Order of Things). But Foucault denies that historical periods are integrated by any sort of over-all Zeitgeist; and he rejects any pervasive “synchrony of breaks.” He concentrates instead on actually discovered archaeological connections and disconnections, which can be quite different from subject to subject. This failure of different sequences to correlate is not a contradiction to his approach but rather a problem arising within it that—aside from some vague references to “the dispersion of epistemic domains”—he has yet to face up to. In fact, the “strata” of the various “sites” he has so far “excavated”—insanity, medical perception, linguistics, biology, economics, punishment, and, just recently, sex—are, like those of “real” archaeology (where this issue emerges as the question of establishing “horizons” as opposed to “phases”), only approximately coordinated with one another in time.

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