How to Read Foucault's Discipline and Punish
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How to Read Foucault's Discipline and Punish

Anne Schwan, Stephen Shapiro

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How to Read Foucault's Discipline and Punish

Anne Schwan, Stephen Shapiro

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About This Book

Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish is one of the best-selling works of critical theory and a key text on many undergraduate courses. However, it is a long, difficult text which makes Anne Schwan and Stephen Shapiro's excellent step-by-step reading guide a welcome addition to the How to Read Theory series. Undergraduates across a wide range of disciplines are expected to have a solid understanding of Foucault's key terms, which have become commonplace in critical thinking today. While there are many texts that survey Foucault's thought, these are often more general overviews or biographical précis that give little in the way of robust explanation and discussion. In contrast, Schwan and Shapiro take a plain-speaking, yet detailed, approach, specifically designed to give students a thorough understanding of one of the most influential texts in contemporary cultural theory.

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Pluto Press

Part One: Torture

The first section of the first part of Discipline and Punish acts as an overview of the book’s argument. Here Foucault outlines his main themes and makes some, perhaps overly, brief comments on the assumptions driving his method of interpreting historical evidence. On first reading, this is one of the book’s most dense and at times elusive sections. Consequently, it is helpful to re-read it after having read through to the end of Discipline and Punish so that you can begin to notice the moves that Foucault makes and positions he takes very early on in the book.
As we will see, Foucault divides his history of prisons into three historical phases, some of which overlap with one another, causing him sometimes to repeat points in different sections. In general, though, each of the book’s first three parts is devoted to a particular period, with Part Four as his critical overview and summary. In the second section of Part One, Foucault details the first of these three phases, what we might call the Age of Terror.
1. The body of the condemned
Discipline and Punish begins by contrasting two visions of criminal punishment: the 1757 public execution of Robert-François Damiens (1715–1757) for an attempted assassination of the French King Louis XV and the 1838 daily schedule for prisoners’ activities proposed by the journalist, and later centre-right French minister for the Interior, LĂ©on Faucher (1803–1854).
Foucault starts with contemporaneous newspaper accounts of Damiens’ gruesome death. After Damiens was publicly branded with red-hot irons, flesh torn away and body drawn and quartered, as horses ripped the limbs away from his torso, he was finally burnt alive. Against this horrifying, excessive carnival of an individual’s suffering, Faucher’s calmly regulated plan for the prisoners’ day appears to handle criminals in a more dignified and reasonable way, one that carefully avoids chaotic scenes and screams of human pain.
Foucault chooses to contrast the ‘public execution and a time-table’ (7) as the two overarching markers in his study about changes within the history of punishment. He acknowledges that these two moments are not exactly comparable as items of representative evidence, since they deal with different kinds of crime, the attempted murder of a king, on one hand, and most likely small thefts or disorderly conduct, on the other. Yet the examples of a king’s would-be murderer and plans for anonymous men imprisoned for minor crimes neatly captures three larger themes that Foucault highlights throughout Discipline and Punish, involving the links among subjectivity, knowledge and power. Foucault argues that during the eighty years separating these scenes ‘the entire economy of punishment was redistributed’ (7). In the interval between these two events, a wave of prison reform swept across the West as these societies lost their tolerance for circus-like open-air spectacles where the ‘tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder’ was ‘exposed alive or dead to public view’ (8). Although Foucault’s illustrations are almost entirely French ones, he argues that they are representative of a ‘Western’ general trend throughout Europe (including Russia) and North America.
While most histories of penal justice celebrate the removal of apparently senseless, grotesque punishment of criminals in favour of rational codes of law, involving juries and time-delimited imprisonment, as an humanitarian advance, Foucault suggests that before we rush to congratulate ourselves on this removal of public torture, we need to pay attention to what social interests motivated the disappearance of the body as ‘the major target of penal repression’ within a ‘gloomy festival of punishment’ (8) at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There are two significant features to this historical shift.
Firstly, there ‘was the disappearance of punishment as spectacle’ (8), such as when prisoners were either brought on top of a platform for public retribution or forced to labour in easily visible chain-gangs cleaning the streets or repairing roads. Enlightenment-era reformers were increasingly worried that public executions might encourage a shocked public to commit violence against authorities, given the open cruelty of the older forms of punishment that made justice seem itself criminal-minded and uncivilized. Consequently, reformers used a ‘humanitarian’ language to argue for a less aggressive and risky way of treating criminals.
In this light, the second main change in punishment is the removal of pain. The modern ‘punishment-body relation’ (11) seeks to cause less bodily hurt and looks more to deprive someone of ‘a liberty that is regarded as a right and as property’ involving limits to free movement and use of the individual’s time. The ‘outside’ of the criminal’s body is handled less and less as it becomes manipulated more intangibly and peacefully through confinement. Even when people are executed in the modern-day West, ‘the disappearance of the spectacle and the elimination of pain’ (11) remains a concern, as death sentences are usually carried out before small, invitation-only audiences and the prisoner is often either sedated before being killed or every effort is made for the death to be swift and ‘gentle’.
The change in punishment’s form from spectacular, public punishment in the mid eighteenth century to more discreet forms of imprisonment in the early and mid nineteenth century has several social and tactical consequences, according to Foucault. With imprisonment, punishment becomes more ‘private’, isolated and hidden from the public’s gaze. While the performance of deliberative justice, the judging of guilt, becomes more visible, as trials are usually open to all and performed in the public record (whereas before they were secret), the execution of that trial’s punishment becomes more invisible, especially since few of us step inside a penitentiary, which, in any case, cannot easily be visited without some degree of permission by state officials or guards.
The effect of this privatization of punishment is that the act of punishment becomes more abstract to us. The move from the ‘visible intensity’ of publicly displayed acts, like Damiens’ death, open to ‘more or less everyday perception’ (9), to punishment’s enactment in spaces hidden from our view, means that we must increasingly imagine, rather than watch, punishment happening and so begin to internalize its activity within our mental consciousness. Once punishment is no longer a commonly witnessed experience of a momentary, physical event in a public space, but stands as a time-based process that we must intuitively imagine, it begins to implant its effect within all of our imaginations. Rather than simply being limited to the poor figure being torn to pieces or broken on the public scaffold, the location of punishment is transferred so that it now unfolds within our collective minds, rather than on a single anatomy.
The less visible and ‘corporal’ punishment becomes, the easier it is for justice authorities to shift the responsibility for punishment away from themselves. When someone like Damiens is executed, justice ‘takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice’ (9), as a central executioner does the actual damage of justice on the criminal while everyone watches. The ‘horror’ of the scaffold binds executioner and criminal together in a repetition of the punished crime, this time reversed, since the violence is done to, rather than by, the criminal. If the crowd feels that the punishment is unfair, then they easily know who to blame and attack. Within the modern reform of punishment, authorities become more reluctant to be seen as the source that duplicates criminal violence; they become ‘ashamed’ to kill or cause harm (9). Authorities now say that they have no ‘desire to punish’ and destroy the criminal; instead they claim that punishment is used to ‘correct, reclaim, “cure”’ and improve the accused (10). They claim to seek the prisoner’s reform, not enact revenge.
As punishment becomes ‘gentle’, the responsibility for recuperating or curing the criminal becomes dispersed among several bureaucratic agencies. Judges are no longer held as the sole author of the sentence. Instead, they are protectively surrounded by ‘minor civil servants of moral orthopaedics’ (10), like psychologists and social workers, who cluster around the judge’s bench to advise on the severity of punishment. This swarming reduces the burden or culpability any single individual must carry for punishing someone:
As a result of this new restraint, a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists; by their very presence near the prisoner, they sing the praises that the law needs: they reassure it that the body and pain are not the ultimate objects of its punitive action. (11)
The effect of this decentralization of justice is the creation of a bureaucratic network where the figures that have power over individuals can sanitize or deny their responsibility for enacting punishment. In this way, the guillotine acts as a marker of transition, since it was initially seen as a good replacement for hanging because the machine removed the need for any specific human to be seen touching, and thus taking blame, for the criminal’s death (13). Both the impact on the convict’s body and on the executioner’s responsibility are here ‘reduced to a split second’ (13). The interiorization and making-innocent of punishment through decentralization, and changes in technologies of punishment, is both a hallmark of the move to modernity away from pre- or early modern society and the first of Foucault’s main themes in the book.
The second main theme of Discipline and Punish involves the relationship between Enlightenment humanism, social sciences and political control: the link between knowledge and power. Foucault chooses to begin Discipline and Punish with these two scenes, one in 1757 and the other in the mid nineteenth century, because they typify the historical changes that he considers occurring roughly between the ‘great transformation of the years 1760–1840’ (15). Although Foucault does not explicitly give a citation for this phrase and periodization, he is silently referring to The Great Transformation (1944), a study of the capitalist market’s rise by Hungarian economic historian and sociologist Karl Polanyi (1886–1964). In this work, Polanyi criticizes the beliefs of classical political economy, represented by the writing of Adam Smith, who believes that a ‘free’ market economy can best develop alone and without any state regulation or governmental oversight. Polanyi, instead, argues that a capitalist market economy could only have arisen through protection and nurturing by the modern nation-state. Throughout his career, Polanyi also rejected the notion that the economy is determined by rational individuals’ response to supply and demand; instead, he argued that economics is always shaped by social considerations and organized by collective institutional forces.
By using Polanyi’s phrase, which Foucault assumes is well known and easily recognized by his readers, he silently indicates that the examples of Damiens and Faucher are not as randomly chosen as they might initially seem. Firstly, these events represent the markers between different historical periods of social organization, for Damiens belongs to the period of the absolutist state when the hereditary monarch monopolized power. The journalist and minister under Louis-Napoleon, Faucher, belongs to the high point of France’s development as a leading capitalist nation ruled by a constitutional monarch alongside a bureaucratic civil service and political party parliament.
As Foucault begins with these two anecdotes, one from the Ancien RĂ©gime kingdom in the years just before the French Revolution and the other from within a nation-state dominated by middle-class interests in the years after the Revolution and Napoleon, Foucault implies that he will be using his history of punishment as a way of commenting on the transformation of French (and Western) society from the post-feudal, early modern period towards modern formations. Foucault might not mention Polanyi by name, but by so clearly invoking the title of Polanyi’s famous book, Foucault suggests that he, too, is interested in examining the institutional support and complement to capitalist economics in ways that reject both a political science of the free market and a kind of (Stalinist/PCF) marxist outlook that is too focused on a narrow interpretation of economics.
The choice of a study about the removal of corporal punishment and rise of the penitentiary gives a preliminary indication of Foucault’s Polanyi-like intervention. The removal of public executions and scenes of pain stands as one of the most celebrated examples of the rise of enlightened democracy that replaced aristocratic and monarchical despotism and rule through arbitrary force by reason through legal codes and contracts. Foucault suggests that the shift from corporal to gentle punishment within the context of the rise of middle-class society is accompanied by the rise of the social sciences and humanities, forms of knowledge that are often considered to be separate or free from the market place. If Polanyi argues that the marketplace cannot be considered in isolation from governmental politics, Foucault similarly analyses the necessary relationship between new ‘humane’ practices and the fashioning of new modes of political subjectivity.
Here we should also note Foucault’s careful acknowledgement of potential replies to his larger historical argument about the disappearance of ‘the great spectacle of physical punishment’ where ‘the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment’ (14). He does not suggest that at some imaginary date the West instantly woke up and for evermore stopped hanging people or inflicting physical pain. He acknowledges that the transformation between different historical periods is both an uneven process and one that has overlapping practices. For instance, some of the older rituals of public punishment were grafted onto newer practices. And older forms of criminal punishment occasionally returned in different places and times and were context-dependent. England ‘did not wish to diminish the rigour of her penal laws during the great social disturbances of the years 1780–1820’ and the number of executions rose just as other places were making punishment more lenient (14). Similarly, ‘at the time of the counter-revolutions in Europe and the great social fear of the years 1820–1848’, prison reform began to retreat. These dates suggest that at times of popular unrest, authorities did not hesitate to return to more coercive and physically abrasive forms of punishment. Just as Foucault admits that the pathway towards modernity is often irregular, he also acknowledges that even today there is a physical aspect of pain, a ‘trace of “torture”’ within modern imprisonment, since it would be hard to imagine a purely ‘non-corporal punishment’ (16). Violence is never entirely absent even in the ‘humanitarian’ environment.
Yet Foucault insists that despite such residues or occasional returns to older forms and mechanisms, the overall trajectory was towards a less spectacular and pain-driven punishment. If there are periods like the English one mentioned above, Foucault will implicitly explain them with regards to the rise of political resistance and rebellion by the labouring classes against the emerging forms of the modern nation-state and market economy. This connection between capitalist class warfare and social transformation is Foucault’s third, and concluding, main theme in Discipline and Punish.
After having outlined the main themes of the study, Foucault then suggests that his purpose in Discipline and Punish is to relate ‘a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge’ (23). In other words, rather than assuming that we have always had a sense of our interior self, our soul, he will argue that this sense of personal identity has been socially conditioned and historically constructed. Furthermore, this feeling of individual personhood will be shown to arise through new forms of evaluating behaviour. Hence, while we might consider our self as purely ‘natural’, ‘authentic’ and untouched by society, Foucault claims that it is a product of modern examination. Foucault uses this book to investigate the source of these influences.
The important shift in the last two hundred years, then, is not the superficial reduction of penal severity and increased desire to respect the human rights of prisoners, but that the punishment’s objective, its object or target of operation, has changed. Punishment no longer wants to handle the outside body, but instead wants to get inside the prisoner to consider and impact the prisoner’s heart, mind, will and inclinations: in short, the criminal’s soul. In this turn, we have shifted from a tragic ‘spectacle of punishment, the body and the blood’ (16), ending with the criminal’s mortal destruction, to a desire to improve a ‘bodiless reality’ through a new ‘apparatus of punitive justice’ (17). In this transition, certain crimes began to decrease in seriousness, like the ones of blasphemy or smuggling, but these changes have not removed the barrier between ‘the permitted and the forbidden’. What the law now criminalizes has simply shifted to foreground the source and different kinds of crime, namely a new realm of more psychological violations, the ‘extenuating circumstances of the ‘passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or heredity
 drives and desires’ (17). Instead of asking the accused ‘what did you do’, the law now asks, ‘what are you?’
The effect of this change is that punishment increasingly wants to receive and create knowledge about the prisoner. The change in the target of punishment results, therefore, in a new object of information gathering. As mentioned, the relation between knowledge and power is one of Discipline and Punish’s main themes as Foucault considers the larger historical transformation from a later phase of the early modern period (up to roughly the mid eighteenth century) to a more modern one (emerging in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth century). In the earlier period, the act of crime was the object of punishment. Previously, justices did not question why someone may have committed a crime; they were mainly concerned with determining the existence of a guilty deed and how to punish that act. In the modern period, a person’s ‘will’, his or her intentions, motivations and influences for committing crime are the main concerns. This turn from punishment as vengeful compensation for a crime to a means of preventing or neutralizing ‘criminal tendencies’, the move of focus from act to personality and desire involves a fusion between medicine and jurisprudence that will create a new domain, or field, of ‘scientific knowledge’, like criminal anthropology, the sociology of deviancy and psychology of perversion.
In this process, judges now do ‘something other than pass judgment’ (19). In the earlier system, justices sought to establish if an offence occurred, who committed the crime, and what was the appropriate punishment for that crime. In the modern one, justices examine the ‘causal process’ or background to the crime (was the criminal mad? from a deprived background? etc.) as a means of rehabilitating the criminal, of changing their future development. The move from determining the act to evaluating the criminal’s mentality means that a new set of questions and operations enters into legal discussions. The modern criminal system now needs to have a means of determining the absence of criminal predispositions. The modern system has to create a ‘set of assessing, diagnostic, prognostic, normative judgments’ that can help determine what are the normal ways of life against which crime can be differentiated. The justice system additionally seeks to produce ostensibly neutral, objective...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title page
  3. Copyright page
  4. Contents
  5. Rationale
  6. Overview
  7. Note on Text
  12. Suggestions for Further Reading
  13. Index
Citation styles for How to Read Foucault's Discipline and Punish

APA 6 Citation

Schwan, A., & Shapiro, S. (2011). How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1st ed.). Pluto Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)

Chicago Citation

Schwan, Anne, and Stephen Shapiro. (2011) 2011. How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. 1st ed. Pluto Press.

Harvard Citation

Schwan, A. and Shapiro, S. (2011) How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. 1st edn. Pluto Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Schwan, Anne, and Stephen Shapiro. How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. 1st ed. Pluto Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.