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.