Historical and Modern Systems of Punishment – Discipline

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The opening section of Discipline and Punish gives a detailed account of two distinct styles of punishment. One is a public execution that takes place in a public square in 1757. The other is a timetable with rules for prisoners in the 1830s situated in an enclosed institution. Foucault aims to juxtapose these styles to mark the transition of the means of punishment throughout Europe— from the torture to the carceral age. The former is explicit, brutal, cruel, and immediately felt. The latter is contrastingly implicit, subtle, dragged out, and indirect. This change has been documented for both its positive and negative implications. Foucault uses these instances to establish a gateway into the rest of his discussion. He claims to write about the topic to write “a history of the past in terms of the present…[in other words], writing the history of the present” (31).

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In the case of the public execution, it illustrates an obvious and explicit expression of power. It inflicts punishment on the body directly. Death was the ideal outcome and it was visible, yet instantaneous. “Contact between the law, or those who carry it out, and the body of the criminal, is reduced to a split second” (13). The paradox here is the personal and impersonal component of the punishment. It is intimate because it involves the unique individual. It is also generic because it is punishment for the sake of power. The individual endures physical pain while the public watches as they would at a theatre or performance. Crimes were punished based on a system of torture and violence—without any desire or effort to have a fair trial, the criminal is automatically guilty. The guilty individual was held accountable for the crime and the public spectacle set an example, teach a lesson, and discourage anyone from committing similar crimes in the future.

The second case shows a glimpse of the decline and gradual disappearance of torture as a spectacle (7). Punishment becomes about discipline, organization, distribution, and control. This change is often characterized as a shift towards a more humane and moral process. Foucault takes a critical approach with this notion. He questions the power relations in the new system. It is a different kind of power relation—still a problematic one. He suggests that the shift is more insidious than it appears. It might better to view the change as a public relations move that appears to benefit the public but there are other, less apparent things at work. Foucault says, to the public “it was as if the punishment was thought to equal, if not exceed, in savagery the crime itself, to accustom the spectators to a ferocity…to make the executioner resemble a criminal, judges murderers, to reverse roles…, to make the tortured an object of pity or admiration” (9). This means that the individual is a potential target of sympathy. The sovereign’s power is threatened by the loosening grip on public opinion as it turns against the punishment system. This is partly the reason torture and public execution, according to Foucault, disappeared. It was strategic to privatize punishment and remove it from the public eye. Power and discipline are exercised more subtly, efficiently, and behind bureaucratic walls (both physical and figurative). Doing so prevents any debate about the notions of punishment and justice and how they are achieved in society.

Shift from the Body to the Soul

Towards the beginning of the text, Foucault talks about how the birth of the modern prison system signified a transformed way of punishing the individual—focusing less on the body (10). He notes that punishment is “no longer [on] the body, it must be the soul,” and it is something that “acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (16). The individual is punished at a deeper level than just the body. The aim is to have a more meaningful impact— to control and shape all aspects of an individual’s desires and behavior. This points to the insidiousness that Foucault alludes to throughout the chapters. Foucault says, whether it is imprisonment in recent history or timetables in the 1830s, the focus remains on the body, but differently. Additionally, this shift means that “judgment is passed on the passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or hereditary” (17). What this suggests is that criminals are no longer only judged by their acts. Instead, they are stereotyped and profiled as people who have certain kinds of minds and fit certain descriptions. They are pathologized for the sake of convenience and knowledge to intervene in future instances of deviant behavior.

Furthermore, with the new penal system “the hold is not only on offenses, but on individuals; not only on what they do, but also on what they are, will be, may be” (18). This speaks to how punishment functions in modern society. It gives rise to fields of interest that individualizes and generalizes. The offense and individual are both targets of punishment. The individual is also considered in a broad sense—where the identities, likelihood of certain behavior, and their place in society are predicted. Yet, the emphasis of inquiries goes beyond the crime and the criminal. Foucault asserts that judges have begun to judge not just crimes but also the ‘soul’ of the criminal. Therefore, new questions arise, including:

“‘How can we assign the causal process that produced it? Instinct, unconscious, environment, heredity?’ It is no longer simply: ‘What law punishes this offense?’ But: ‘What would be the most appropriate measures to take? How do we see the future development of the offender? What would be the best way of rehabilitating him?’” (19).

One of the most striking aspects of these questions is their scientific, psychoanalytic nature. Penal judgement, as Foucault mentions, evaluates using diagnostic, prognostic, and normative judgments. The individual, the crime, and the actual punishment exist as objects of experiment, examination, and even fetishization. This is related to Foucault’s rule to think about punishment as a part of scientific development.

Foucault’s argument that punishment shifts from the body to the soul requires some analysis. While he makes a strong case about the soul as the new primary focus, he also offers crucial points about the significance of the body. The body, Foucault notes, is involved in a “political economy,” is always at issue and this is evident in the actual confinement and correction of it. He then says that power relations “invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, [and] to emit signs” (25). As described, the body as a target of punishment is still very present in the modern penal system. It is important to note that the shift toward the soul does not exempt the body from punishment and the soul cannot be reached without the body. The body has “economic use” and it is required as a means of productivity and subjugation. From this comes a “knowledge” and Foucault calls this mastery of knowledge “the political technology of the body” (26). This assertion complicates the relationship between power, the economy of punishment, and the individual. Foucault’s philosophy of power and knowledge seems rooted in an abstract, decentralized framework.

Power and Knowledge

Foucault proceeds to make a case for his conception and analysis of power and its relation to knowledge. He insists that power relations are everywhere, and everyone has power—'[power] cannot be localized in a particular type of institution or state apparatus…it is situated at a different level, operate a micro-physics of power” (26). In other words, power is nonhierarchical, decentralized, and fractioned across society. It exists in the abstract and through networks of society. As a relationship between people, power influences actions. Different from force or violence since it is abstract. Furthermore, “power is exercised rather than possessed,” and not owned solely by the dominant class (26-27). Foucault pushes against power as dichotomous (good vs bad, repressive vs empowering); he views it outside of class struggle and argues it is not simply an issue for “those who do not have it” (27). This suggests that power is not held by a few individuals over the many. Instead, power is viewed as dynamic, constantly changing, and something everyone is subjected to at any given moment. An example of this in modern systems of punishment and control is how citizens are taught certain behavior is unacceptable while the judge is trained to oversee the consequences of the deviant behavior. For the citizen, they are powerful in choosing not to commit a crime yet powerless in how that crime is defined. For the judge, they are powerful in judging the crime yet powerless because they must follow certain guidelines and regulations. Finally, Foucault says power relations “are not univocal; they de?ne innumerable points of confrontation, focuses of instability, each of which has its own risks of con?ict, of struggles, and of an at least temporary inversion of the power relations” (27). This means that they are not one directional and static. Instead, power varies across levels, contexts, and time. This aspect also seems to imply that power relations can be isolated and insular. Foucault suggests that power should be considered on a case-by-case basis since each instance contains its own set of characteristics, processes, and implications.

For Foucault, “knowledge produces power” as it is a catalyst and mechanism of power. While power and knowledge exist and function independent of one another, they are also closely linked together. They are practically inseparable in the sense that we dominate and control to create, classify, and know and vice versa. Foucault explains, “power and knowledge directly imply one another; there’s no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose or constitute at the same time power relation” (27).

An interesting thing about Foucault’s argument about power and knowledge is the idea that they “invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge” (p. 28). This goes back to the idea of a docile body. Here, the body is coerced, dominated, and subjugated for the purpose of knowledge. It is important to place emphasis on how the body is objectified—the soul, the essence of life becomes irrelevant since the ultimate goal is to understand and control the masses by using power and knowledge.

Yet, Foucault argues, “we must cease to describe the e?ects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes,’ it ‘represses,’ it ‘censors,’ it ‘abstracts,’ it ‘masks,’ it ‘conceals.’ In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production” (194). This is somewhat problematic because power and knowledge is used to oppress, disenfranchise, and marginalize certain sectors of society. While Foucault’s work has had significant benefits for the area of history, philosophy, and prison studies (institutional studies, in general), at times, his ideas are counterproductive. Power and knowledge, when not handled carefully, can have detrimental consequences. To say that everyone has power is understandable because it suggests relativity and the idea that we all have the capacity and free will to use whatever quantity of power we hold in society. This is true under the assumption that everyone can reach their potential and realize their power. However, the reality is that not everyone does. In the case of penal systems, the prisoner and the criminal are essentially powerless because they are made docile, objects of production, and disciplined so that they are compliant to the norms of their predicament.

Discipline and Organization

Foucault then moves into the topic of disciplinary power. He returns to the idea of the body that is “manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces.” He adds a striking point that “a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved” (136). Again, the focus on the body is as important as the soul but there seems to be something simultaneous that occurs. Discipline works on multiple dimensions. The individual is not only controlled in a negative way. Foucault proposes it is also affected in positive ways, too.

To illustrate how the docile, yet useful body is achieved in the new carceral system, Foucault outlines the methods through which discipline is exercised. The first one, the scale of the control: the body is imposed on individually rather than collectively. The second, the object of control: affecting the body through forces and not through signs. The third, the modality: coercion is constant, uninterrupted and is exercised through codes that partition time, space, and movement (137). These methods exist to guarantee docility and utility. They function as domination mechanisms. To be successful, discipline must work in quality not just quantity, be clearly imposed with as little ambiguity as possible, and be organized so coercion is most effective. Foucault emphasizes again, discipline aims to produce docile bodies (i.e., strict subjection). At the same time, it extracts power from the body and converts it into usefulness (i.e., increased aptitude, capacity) (138). Disciplinary power focuses on the specifics, what Foucault calls a “micro-physics of power” (139). The goal is to break up and break down the individuals based on the smallest possible factors. By doing so, the task of controlling, distributing, and surveilling becomes a lot more manageable.

To end this section of his discussion, Foucault touches on the four aspects of discipline; the art of distributions, the control of activity, the organization of genesis, and the composition of forces. The first two are of particular interest. The first aspect involves how space is organized. Space is used as a mechanism to enclose, partition, and exploit usefulness (141). This is important for discipline to function because it establishes an effective way of “dividing and conquering” and distributing people. In this system, “each individual has his own place; and each place its individual” (143). In order for it to work efficiently, the body must be isolated and separated. With enclosure, “its aim was to establish presences and absences, to know where and how to locate individuals, to set up useful communications, to interrupt others, to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of each individual, to assess it, to judge it, to calculate its qualities or merits. It was a procedure aimed at knowing, mastering, and using” (143).

The second aspect involves the use of time. The time-table is a prime example of this way of organizing. Foucault notes, the time-table aims to “establish rhythm, impose particular occupations, and regulate the cycles of repetition” (149). Within this mechanism, there is “the correlation of the body and the gesture” where “disciplinary control does not consist simply […] of particular gestures; it imposes the best relation between a gesture and the […] body… In the correct use of the body, which makes possible a correct use of time, nothing must remain idle or useless” (152). This speaks to the notion of productivity and self-determination when it comes to achieving the American dream and succeeding in life. To be a contributing citizen of society is fantasized as getting an education, joining the work force, and being a good consumer. Finally, there is the principle of “exhaustive use,” and “the principle of non-idleness; forbidden to waste time. Discipline arranges a positive economy; it poses the principle of a theoretically ever-growing use of time” (154). This is reminiscent of how we use time-centric phrases to motivate people to get proactive. For example, the Latin phrase “ Carpe diem” which translates to “Seize the Day” which is used to encourage someone to take advantage of the present time, without hesitation. Another example is “the early bird catches the worm” which encourages timeliness and punctuality.

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Historical and Modern Systems of Punishment - Discipline. (2021, Dec 30). Retrieved October 3, 2022 , from

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