The Enlightenment was a period in which there was an explosion of scientific, philosophical, and political thought. Reason emerged as the dominant foundation for thought , which contrasted with past periods in which divine revelation, for instance, was a primary epistemological conduit. In this mode, scientific inquiry, classification and codification became trump. The Enlightenment indeed cast a light on all things, opening them up to the human mind, and gave the world a sense of structure, progression, optimism. The modern conception of the human was here born and elevated to the status of overseer; the human was essentially a rational self whose purpose was to think, observe and figure out. At the same time, the concept of freedom, which had not previously been fully entertained as an a priori truth, came to the fore. The rational agent was considered to be autonomous, with the capacity for free thought and action1 . Accordingly, the social world, the world of justice, also changed. As the divinely appointed sovereign faded away, the social body and its accompanying contract to which all people were bound began to appear. Methods of criminal justice lost the appearance of violent excess, and began to take on what was outwardly a much more strategic way of distributing social retribution and punishment2 . Thinkers like Jeremy Bentham emerged at the apex of this project, proposing what approached mathematically rigorous forms of punishment for criminal offenders:

On the one hand, the lot of punishment is a lot of pain; on the other hand, the profit of an offence is a lot of pleasure, or what is equivalent to it. But the profit of the offence is commonly more certain than the punishment, or, what comes to the same thing, appears so at least to the offender. It is at any rate commonly more immediate. It follows, therefore, that in order to maintain its superiority over the profit of the offence, the punishment must have its value made up in some other way, in proportion to that whereby it falls short in the two points of certainty and proximity. Now there is no other way in which it can receive any addition to its value, but by receiving an addition in point of magnitude. Wherever then the value of the punishment falls short, either in point of certainty , or of proximity, of that of the profit of the offence, it must receive a proportionable addition in point of magnitude (Bentham, 183)
This is strikingly different from the violent, sweeping punishments that were handed down to criminal offenders in a penance of pain and death. Bentham talks of a certainty, but it is a different sort of certainty then we see in the torture and execution of Damiens the regicide at the beginning of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The certainty of punishment in 1757 and before is a certainty of pain and death at the hands of the sovereign, through his operatives. It is the certainty of annihilation. This is the control which the sovereign exerts over his subjects: the power to take away life. As a person living in this schema, an individual is constituted as a certain kind of subject: a subject of God’s law, and consequently a subject of the sovereign’s law. In the Enlightenment schema, however, a person is viewed as having a transcendental, rational self, and this becomes the focus of punishment.

Michel Foucault picks up his argument here. Forms of social control and the conception are, he says, inextricably intertwined. I intend to argue that Foucault finds the “underbelly” of the Enlightenment in a) its supposed conception of the self, and b) the opening up of knowledge production that it developed. Through means of classification and normalization, the Enlightenment period actually gave birth to the very human subject which was to be controlled by its methods. Three important shifts in technique took place; these shifts hold within them the whole activity underlying the ostensible progression of the Enlightenment. In terms of punishment itself, two things happened. First, all punishment was removed from the public eye taking place frequently behind the walls of prisons. Also, punishment moved away from being “corporal” to being “physical”. By this I mean that the body itself was no longer the target of punishment. Instead, it became a forum in which control over the self, or the soul, was fought for. Instead of torture, there was confinement and regulation. One’s spatial and temporal possibilities were controlled - and the inner self was the target. Finally, discourse became prevalent: medical, juridical, psychological, sociological. Where before there was only criminal action, with the rise of discourse and the knowledges associated with them, there were now criminal archetypes3 , tendencies, and causes behind all of them. In this way, the human subject was at once produced and controlled, all within the Enlightenment framework. Here I will examine the three shifts that I have pointed out and argue that the Enlightenment, in fact, marks the birth of social control as we know it today.

Moving disciplinary methods and punishments out of the public eye is, for Foucault, a key move. It removes the violent spectacle of punishment and thus makes invisible the imbalance of power between the state and its constituent subjects. This does two things: it closes the space available to the public in which they can exercise power by lashing back at the sovereign’s actions at public executions4 , and it also opens up the avenue for moving toward the disciplinary mode of care, which Foucault refers to as “the gentle way in punishment”. With an emphasis on “rehabilitation” and “cure”, and with the condemned now being classified as having a problem or being ill, the opposition between the state and the populace collapses a little, and the state now appears in the form of the protector and benefactor.

The reduction in penal severity in the last 200 years is a phenomenon with which legal historians are well acquainted. But, for a long time, it has been regarded in an overall way as a quantitative phenomenon: less cruelty, less pain, more kindness, more respect, more ‘humanity’. In fact, these changes are accompanied by a displacement in the very object of the punitive operation. Is there a diminution of intensity? Perhaps. There is certainly a change of objective (Foucault, 16)
In its new role, the state offers to rebuild the criminal, to make him a part of society once more. Here we can see a comparative point between the premodern and modern disciplinary schemas which Foucault outlines. Whereas in the former, the sovereign reasserts his power by obliterating the transgressor in an act of incontrovertible domination, and in the latter, the state “rehabilitates” the offender back into an accepted margin of normalcy, in both cases, reabsorption back into the order of things is unquestionable. What makes the Enlightenment order more insidious is that it is continuous and holds sway over life in its duration rather than controlling the continuation and cessation of life.

This continuous control, which contrasted with what Foucault describes as a “dysfunction of power (which) was related to a central excess: what might be called the monarchical ‘super-power’, which identified its right to punish with the personal power of the sovereign” (Foucault, 80). The new form of disciplinary control is more dispersed, without being emblematized in one symbolic personage. In other words, it is better distributed, so that it appears on all levels, at all places, rather than from one source above. It is always at work, not in the “innumerable, discontinuous, sometimes contradictory privileges of sovereignty, but (in) the continuously distributed effects of public power” (Foucault, 81). Bound up in this is the shift from corporal punishment to physical discipline. This new form of control takes place in the form of regulation and normalization. The prison schedule for inmates that Foucault includes at the beginning of Discipline and Punish stands as an archetypal model. In the routine we see a precise division of prisoners’ time, accompanied by enforced work detail and religious practice. A quick example: “’Art. 17. The prisoners’ day will begin at six in the morning in winter and at five in the summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day will end at nine o’clock in winter and at eight in summer’” (Foucault, 6). What is the difference here? It is that a change is being effected in the prisoners themselves. This is the nature of modern power: it is productive rather than repressive, and it dominates in its capacity to bring about results such that order is kept in discursive practices of normalization. Out of this we see these strategies5 at work not only in penal institutions, but also in educational, medical and military ones. They appear as discursive practices, in which information is gathered, knowledge is produced, and new norms are born to which conformity is required.

In “Docile Bodies”, Foucault shows the expansion of these discourses beyond the prison system and points to eighteenth century conceptions of the soldier.

By the late eighteenth century the soldier has become something that can be made; out of a formless clay, an inapt body, the machine required can be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning slightly into the automatism of habit; in short, one has ‘got rid of the peasant’ and given him ‘the air of the soldier’ (ordinance of 20 March 1764) (Foucault, 135)
He again draws a contrast, pointing out how only a century earlier, the soldier (as an prototype) was designated by a whole semiotics of the body, including actual physical attributes such as “a taut stomach, broad shoulders, long arms, strong fingers, a small belly, thick thighs, slender legs, and dry feet” (Foucault, 135). The new model works around the body; it shapes the body and creates the soldier from the ground up. The body has become the theatre for discourses of power, and the productive effects of power are seen in the birth of a new type of human. These discourses are at work without cessation: when Foucault arrives at the panoptic model in Part III of Discipline and Punish, we can see that this holds true even today. Our world is one of discourse, observation and normalization. In schools, for instance, poor behaviour is not merely punished; an enterprise of profiling takes place in which the character of a student is classified in terms of his or her family life, activities outside of school, and possible medical disorders6 (Foucault, 211).

The underbelly of the Enlightenment, then, is the creation of a web from which no one can escape. This web consists of a penetrating, constant gaze which harvests information in order to create profiles and classifications; there is also constant reinforcement of norms in such a way that one cannot operate outside of them without some sort of sanction; finally, there is a social rather than sovereign power, which operates without a tangible leader and instead along myriad lines, through a multiplicity of relations. Moreover, the underbelly of the Enlightenment is the creation of the “human” subject by means of these very discourses. Through situating a person in the midst of medical, educational, disciplinary and general social discourses, he becomes visible on the social plane: he can be placed in a certain number of narratives, and his character can be discerned in that way. In Foucault’s words:

A meticulous observation of detail, and at the same time a political awareness of these small things, for the control and use of men, emerge through the classical age bearing with them a whole set of techniques, a whole corpus of methods and knowledge, descriptions, plans, and data. And from such trifles, no doubt, the man of modern humanism was born (Foucault, 141)

In this schema, control is complete and assured. Coercion, rather than repression is the theme, and it is life rather than death which is the object of domination. A shift from marking the body with the signs of the sovereign’s power to impinging on the body by limiting spatial and temporal possibilities has occurred. There is a sense here of being trapped, of being held in a sort of stasis that in fact helps create what it is trapping. Again, power and knowledge are bound up with one another here. The Enlightenment conception of the soul serves the foundation of this episteme: the belief in essential, a priori identity categories solidifies the picture of the immanent self and allows a multiplicity of classifications to be heaped upon it. Clearly, this discourse legitimates a certain type of power relation, which legitimates further discourses that surround us and dominate us. This is what we have been given by the Enlightenment: a soul which can be and is controlled from birth to death, a soul which is born of the very methods and discourses which dominate it.

  1. Immanuel Kant’s critiques, especially the Critique of Pure Reason, which outlines the nature of the soul, are key works which appear as the culmination of this project. He makes three claims: “1. The soul is substance; 2. As regards its quality it is simple; 3. As regards the different times in which it exists, it is numerically identical, that is, unity (not plurality)” (Kant, 330).
  2. I use the word “outwardly”, because Foucault notes that on closer inspection, the illusion of excess in pre-modern forms of punishment falls away, and one can see a specific economy as well as a semiotics at work . Condemned prisoners were subject to punishments that were symbolic of the offense; their torture and executions were worked out in minute detail, such that nothing was spared or left to chance: “to be torture, punishment must obey three principal criteria: first it must produce a certain degree of pain, which may be measured exactly, or at least calculated, compared, and hierarchized; death is a torture in so far as it is not simply a withdrawal of the right to live, but is the occasion and the culmination of a calculated gradation of pain .... death torture is the art of maintaining life in pain, by subdividing it into a ‘thousand deaths’, by achieving before life ceases ‘the most exquisite agonies’ (cf. Ollyffe). Torture rests on a whole quantitative art of pain. But there is more to it: this production of pain is regulated” (Foucault, 33-4).
  3. This is the difference between being a criminal offender and being a delinquent. “The delinquent is to be distinguished from the offender by the fact that it is not so much his act as his life that is relevant in characterizing him. The penitentiary operation, if it is to be a genuine re-education, must become the sum total existence of the delinquent, making of the prison a sort of artificial and coercive theatre in which his life will be examined from top to bottom” (Foucault, 252). Delinquency is a categorization whose development is bound up in the very discursive practices which attempt to outline its characteristics. Consequently, the delinquent himself is born in the classification of his status as such.
  4. As Foucault writes, “another form of punishment was needed: the physical confrontation between the sovereign and the condemned man must end; this hand-to-hand fight between the vengeance of the prince and the contained anger of the people, through the mediation of the victim and the executioner, must be concluded” (Foucault, 73). The disparity of power was so great that it had reached a sort of critical mass in which the flux itself was too violent; the opportunities for criminal revolt available to the dominated lower classes were too great and this problem could not be overcome within that structure.
  5. This is, of course, not to downplay the sense that power works in some way on its own, and is not merely possessed by the “powerful”. In Foucault’s formulation, power does move independently of what could be described as intentional “power moves”; those who exercise it are just as much conduits for it as they are wielders of it.
  6. An interesting problem here is the question of how these medical disorders may in fact be produced by the discourses of the school. Attention Deficit Disorder, for example, could be considered a fabrication of educational administrators so as to prevent critiques of the system’s possible inadequacy in keeping students' attention and providing them with an engaging environment in which to learn; furthermore, this preserves the dynamic of the power relations which exist in the educational sphere. Here, knowledge is formed through observation and discursive practices. This knowledge legitimates a dominant project. Conversely, this same dominant paradigm legitimates its own knowledge production: both power and knowledge keep one another in place and make up a firm foundation for one another.


  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (1977; Vintage Books: New York, 1995).
  • Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (1929; Toronto: Macmillan, 1965).
  • Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (New York: Promethus Books, 1988).