The function of punishment: Foucault’s Discipline and Punish

Posted: July 15, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Right now, I’m trying to move through as many library books as I can, and that means that I’m finishing up reading through Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.  I never thought I’d say this, but it’s actually really good (I don’t know about the rest of his ouvre)–probably because it’s an historically contextualized argument, and I rather like those…I wonder why.   His chapter on discipline (Part 3, Chapter 1 “Docile Bodies”), using  18th-century developments in the training of soldiers as a case study (drawing on Guibert and Saxe, among others), and then integrating other material on education and factory work, is masterly.  I would have to do some further research on recruiting practices over this period to see if his basic point is actually borne out under the microscope of archival evidence–that military recruiters stopped looking for a pre-existing “military” body type and instead began to take the view that different body types can be molded by discipline and training into good physical military specimens.

Anyway, these passages in Part 2, Chapter 2, pages 108-9 of the edition I’ve been browsing (I don’t have time to read it cover to cover, as I’d like), seem to sum up the social and cultural thinking behind judicial punishment as well as anything I’ve ever read…

For the convict, the penalty is a mechanics of signs, interests and duration.  but the guilty person is only one of the targets of punishment.  For punishment is directed above all at others, at all the potentially guilty.  So these obstacle-signs that are gradually engraved in the representation of the condemned man must therefore circulate rapidly and widely; they must be accepted and redistributed by all; they must shape the discourse that each individual has with others and by which crime is forbidden to all by all–the true coin that is substituted in people’s minds for the false profits of crime.


In the old system, the body of the condemned man became the king’s property, on which the sovereign left his mark and brought down the effects of his power.  Now he will be rather the property of society, the object of a collective and useful appropriation.  This explains why the reformers almost always proposed public works as one of the best possible penalties; in this, they were supported by the Cahiers de doléances: ‘Let those condemned to penalties short of death be put to the public works of the country for a time proportionate to their crime.’  Public works meant two things: the collective interest in the punishment of the condemned man and the visible, verifiable character of the punishment.  Thus the convict pays twice; by the labour he provides and by the signs that he produces.  At the heart of society, on the public squares or highways, the convict is a focus of profit and signification.  Visibly, he is serving everyone; but, at the same time, he lets slip into  the minds of all the crime-punishment sign: a secondary, purely moral, but much more real utility.

  1. tanya.roth says:

    I’m not really a theory person, but I love Foucault. I’d highly recommend his Vol. 1 in the History of Sexuality stuff he writes. Hm, wonder why? 😉

  2. Haha, hmmm…let’s ponder for a moment. 🙂 I’m sure I’ll be checking out more of his work over time. I have always been (and still am) skeptical of how useful a lot of this theory is to pre-modern societies–hence my pleasant surprise that his argument in Discipline and Punish is limited and contextualized, taking “modernity” as such as his starting point. He explicitly says that these conditions don’t apply to earlier European societies. I have the same problem with how a lot of people use Norbert Elias’ work–it’s simply inapplicable, imho, to much of the Middle Ages. But, we keep reading…

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