Return to Discipline and Punish (thing)

Michel Foucault wrote this book 3 years before I was born, in 1975 and I have to say that I only got around to reading it in the third year of university at the age of 21. It completely blew my mind, something that at the time was quite hard to do, (it was one of those years) and has changed my life ever since.

In brief it describe the methods, forms, and institutions of discipline and punishment as meted out by states throughout history, starting from the middle ages. The first chapter is heralded by a gripping account of the torture and execution of a man in an attempt to make him recant and repent. Here's a quote from the opening pages:

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned "to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris", where he was to be "taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds"; then, "in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds" (Pièces originales..., 372-4).
"Finally, he was quartered," recounts the Gazette d'Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. "This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch's thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints...
I think I'll spare your stomach and leave it there. You get the idea. The book then explains the symbolism of the brutal execution and the connections with society present, how it was in effect the will of the King that the punishment be carried out, it was His revenge on the criminal for action taken against the state. However as the power of the King receded, and society became much more orderly, and less charismatic, one found a corresponding shift in punishments away from personalised torture, to other more subtle forms:
Among so many changes, I shall consider one: the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle. Today we are rather inclined to ignore it; perhaps, in its time, it gave rise to too much inflated rhetoric; perhaps it has been attributed too readily and too emphatically to a process of "humanization", thus dispensing with the need for further analysis. And, in any case, how important is such a change, when compared with the great institutional transformations, the formulation of explicit, general codes and unified rules of procedure; with the almost universal adoption of the jury system, the definition of the essentially corrective character of the penalty and the tendency, which has become increasingly marked since the nineteenth century, to adapt punishment to the individual offender? Punishment of a less immediately physical kind, a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display, should not all this be treated as a special case, an incidental effect of deeper changes? And yet the fact remains that a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared.
And that was a central issue, the notion of the body dissapearing and the mind as the focus of punishment, often under the guise of reform, gradually displacing it becomes the theme for the rest of his book. Now all this is well and good, history being what it is this sort of thing would normally interest only a fraction of people at any one time, and certainly not a guy like me, who was then doing computer science. So what was it that blew my mind? Well it was in the later chapters:- he's describing the unified codes of justice, the removal of dungeons, and the use of 'optics' as he calls it, as a means of altering the nature of the subject. He talks about the new prison regime, where every minute of every waking hour is assigned and allocated, working, moving, studying, exercise, where movements are restricted,quite carefully controlled, and communal spaces are roamed by wardens and guards, where there is a finally graded system of rewards and punishment, and where the process of 'reform' as they call it takes years to complete. All well and good, it sounds wierd, and rather horrible, I mean, you begin to understand why prisoners value their freedom so much, but what does it mean? Well before we get to that, he also talks about architecture, how the spirit of prisoners is broken in the long term by a type of prison known as the 'panopticon' where there is a central hub, and wings extending out from it, where each cell can be seen by a central guard tower, and no one has complete privacy. Truly chilling, and all post victorian prisons are built on the same model.

At this point in the book, I was getting a little bit bored, and wanted to put it down, his sentences were too big, and the man was just telling me in effect that prisons were bad places, something I already knew. Then I turned the page, and then he started to point out the similarity of prison structures with ... wait for it.... schools.

A prison is a place where one takes in a rowdy uncontrollable little child, who's full of unorthodoxy and also completely unregulated, and who leaves the place as a willing and productive member of society. The psychological tools used to keep prisoners in line are EXACTLY the same as those used to keep children in line.

Their freedom is taken away from them at an age when they are far too young to protest, and traded back to them for political compliance. In effect society sends us to prison for the first 16 years of our lives. The corresponding rush of freedom we get when we leave, imprints us with a psychological block to avoid returning to any situation similar, and all the hints we get from society are that prison is such a system. So there's leverage to make us obey all the forms, otherwise we'll be put away by the police for challenging the system in any really serious way.

I seriously recommend anyone with a spare few evenings, and lots of hot strong coffee sit down and read this book. It will change your life. If nothing else, it will make you think about the tricks that authority uses to get compliance, and give you some clues on how to avoid them.

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