Foucault, Michel. 1975. Surveiller et punir. Gallimard, Paris. = Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish (trans. Alan Sheridan). Pantheon, New York.In Discipline and Punish Foucault examines the origin of the modern prison.
Foucault divides the time he deals with into two periods as follows:
(1) the age of torture during the Ancien Regime which ended in the late 18th century;The Enlightenment gave birth to the ideas that brought about the transition from the age of torture to the carceral age where torture was to be abolished and punishments conducted not in revenge but in a hierarchy proportionate to the crimes committed (Merquior 1991: 89), and punishment shifted from the body of the criminal to the mind or aspects of social control.
(2) the “carceral” age from the late 18th century onwards in which torture and capital punishment were progressively abolished and the modern penal system (with prisons) was born and became dominant.
However, for Foucault, and despite the humanitarianism that underlay the reforms, there was a new degree of social control worse and more oppressive than in the pre-modern age (Merquior 1991: 90). Worse still, for Foucault, Enlightenment utopian thinking was essentially a type of totalitarianism (Merquior 1991: 90), and Jeremy Bentham’s institutional model of the Panopticon as applied to prisons becomes a metaphor for the modern carceral society (Merquior 1991: 91).
The “Panopticon” is thus the model and epitome of the emerging “bourgeois” surveillance and disciplinary society in schools, military barracks, armies, factories, hospitals and prisons (Merquior 1991: 92), so that there is a whole “carceral” system that characterises modern society where people are coerced, and the school and factory are the mirror of the prison. According to Foucault, the modern penitentiary system supposedly just creates recidivism and manufactures criminals.
One can see obvious intellectual sources for the theory presented in Discipline and Punish. Foucault’s obsession with identifying his “carceral” system with the rise of “bourgeois” society is a blatant hangover from his Marxist days; his theory is very much a Kulturkritic in the spirit of the Frankfurt school of Adorno and Marcuse; and his view of the Enlightenment is one-sided and unfair (Merquior 1991: 98–99), and harks back to counter-Enlightenment thought. Merquior (1991: 100–101), in an interesting assessment, sees Foucault’s critique as a hybrid of Western Marxism and neo-Nietzschean philosophy.
The troubles with Foucault’s analysis run fairly deep. Foucault’s own research applies mostly to France, not other Western countries (Merquior 1991: 96–97). Is the carceral society supposed to be a general theory of Western civilisation?
Historians have pointed out that elements of the Ancien Regime persisted well into the 19th century in numerous countries, and many of the alleged aspects of the bourgeois “carceral” society – supposedly symptomatic of bourgeois schools, military systems, etc. – seem better explained as the hangovers from the older system (Merquior 1991: 103). Curiously even Foucault admits this. To take a concrete example, intensely harsh systems of surveillance and discipline have been the core of military training in many ages, and were particularly so in the Ancien Regime. Even important aspects of what Foucault would call the “bourgeois” regimentation and disciplining of society and of the body seem to come right out of traditional Christianity (Merquior 1991: 103), not the Enlightenment.
If anything, there was in education a liberating and humanitarian spirit to the educational ideas of the Enlightenment compared to the harsh, disciplinarian style of the Ancien Regime, so that even if one were to accept Foucault’s view of the “bourgeois” school as the mirror of the prison this seems grossly unfair to the Enlightenment (Merquior 1991: 103–104). In fact, in the aftermath of the defeat of Napoleon, there was a very powerful conservative backlash against liberalism and Enlightenment thinking in Europe, which persisted in some countries well into the 19th century and seems far more suited to the “discipline and punish” model of society that Foucault imagines.
Other unfortunate errors mar Foucault’s theory. Foucault’s claims about the timing of the changes in the Western penal system are wrong. The evidence shows that the number of crimes punished by the death penalty actually increased right down to the early 19th century (Windschuttle 1998: 22–23), not fell, and corporal punishment was regularly used for most of the 19th century. In Britain, there was an increased use of transportation to penal colonies in Australia as a regular punishment for crime and in the case of Britain this only ended in 1868 (Windschuttle 1994: 149).
Windschuttle (1998: 23) argues that it was only from the 1880s, not the 1780s as in Foucault, that execution and corporal punishment became rare events and prison became the standard punishment for virtually all offenses. Even then, the reforms came from the rise of more humane ideas within democratic, liberal political systems – not simply from Enlightenment thinking (Windschuttle 1998: 26–28).
Even the original Enlightenment penal reformers’ views sit uncomfortably with Foucault’s interpretation of them. Merquior (1991: 104–105) points out that one of the most influential penal reformers of the Enlightenment whose influence continued well into the 19th century was Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794), who was clearly an egalitarian and libertarian reformer, not an advocate of some universal surveillance society bent on regimenting all aspects of life and human bodies.
Finally, we have the omnipresent problem in Foucault’s work: if we take seriously his idea that there are no objective truths, then why would anyone take seriously as objectively true any explanation Foucault has to offer about the emergence of the modern penal system?
Gutting, Gary. 2003 (rev. 2013). “Michel Foucault,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Kelly, Mark. “Michel Foucault (1926–1984),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Michel Foucault,” Wikipedia
Brown, Robert. 1978. “The Idea of Imprisonment,” Times Literary Supplement no. 3976, 16 June 1978, p. 658.
Merquior, José Guilherme. 1991. Foucault (2nd edn.). Fontana, London.
Scull, Andrew. 2007. “Scholarship of Fools,” Times Literary Supplement no. 5425, 23 March 2007, pp. 3–4.
Windschuttle, K. 1998. “Foucault as Historian,” in Robert Nola (ed.). Foucault. F. Cass, London and Portland, Or. 5–35.
Windschuttle, Keith. 1994. The Killing of History: How a Discipline is being murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists. Macleay Press, Sydney.