Customer Reviews: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
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on August 6, 2003
This book is no more about the history of prisons than the fable of the rabbit and hare is about animal competition. Foucault is writing about the power of normalization in western society.
Within five minutes of my residence there are two large Texas state prisons. The offenders incarcerated in these facilities exist in a network of interlocking disciplinary mechanisms, mechanisms that Foucault unveils in this book. The criminal justice system, the prison environment, the educational/training opportunities available during incarceration, parolee supervision, and the limited employment options on release all coordinate to encapsulate the offender's life. The offender's agency is significantly impaired for the balance of his life regardless of his domiciliary.
I live in a master planned, suburban community subject to a detailed and lengthy list of deed restrictions. These deed restrictions dictate the colors that I can paint my house, the height to which my grass can grow, the type of trees that I can plant in the front yard as well as the insistence that I plant three trees in my front yard. My wife and I have had to paint the front door twice in the last four years to comply with homeowner association threats, and we have been chastised for offenses as "severe" as leaving a hose uncoiled for too long in the front yard.
Now I admit that there is a modicum of agency in my decision to live in this specific community; however, just like the offenders incarcerated nearby, I live in a network of interlocking disciplinary mechanisms. I contend that my agency is also significantly impaired. The difference between my life and the offender's life is one of degree, not kind.
This is the message Foucault communicates with both style and substance in this book. He identifies three means by which power works on each of us to coerce compliance with the standards of normality: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and examination.
The sad and simple fact is that surveillance is coercive. We might all see the public good in maintaining records of the offenses of the violent, but think for a moment about all of the records kept on you - telephone calls, financial transactions, medical tests and treatment, insurance claims, library check outs, video rentals, credit reports, credit card transactions, property ownership, internet sites, and tax filings. Hierarchical observation is a fact of modern life, and it seems to be steadily increasing.
By normalizing judgment, Foucault is referring to the power inherent in all social expectations. Try applying for a job, a business loan, a home mortgage, or a graduate program, and you will quickly feel the power of normalizing judgments. Woe to the applicant who stands out as different! Rarely do those exercising judgment question their standards, and even more rarely do they make exceptions on an individual basis. The message is loud - conform or else.
The last and perhaps most subtle power of normalization lies in the use of examinations. Even low paying professions (public school teachers, social workers, home day care operators) must attain licensure through examination. In Texas, third graders cannot be promoted to the fourth grade without passing a statewide exam. We endure the dominance of testing because of its presumed objectivity, but we all know that testing is not objective. Bias in design and in test conditions influence outcomes, and the testing continues despite an absence of evidence that it reliably predicts future performance.
I think this book is brilliant and disturbing. It is not always easy to read, but then, what book worth reading is? Foucault is given to dramatic images, and he does little to mitigate the impact of these images on the reader. Perhaps he is really trying to increase this impact. Since he is attempting to counter the powers of normalization, he may need all of the momentum he can get.
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on April 27, 2002
This book has been described as Foucault's masterpiece, and for good reason. Through this "genealogy" of history, Foucault shows us how modern society has become penal and coercive in nature; and perhaps more importantly, that all us now live in the midst of an abstract, authoritative public "gaze."
Although the book traverses a lot of historical ground, Foucault's discussion culminates in an analysis of Jeremy Bentham's prison concept. Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism philosophy, believed that individual rights are subordinate to the state. In fact, he went so far as to call them "nonsense on stilts." As long as the government protected its people and treated them decently, he did not believe that the polity could be accused of oppressing its citizen - be they convicts or otherwise. Thus, Bentham was the first philosopher to give the modern penal system its rational underpinnings. Today, we take it as a matter of course that those who do not conform to laws are trucked off to prison. But with this book, Foucault attempts to completely undermine our intuitive sense of what is right, what is coercive, what is rational, and ultimately what is true. Perhaps better than any other author out there, Foucault shows us the subtle madness of Western institutional logic.
Foucault focused on Bentham's prison model, or the Penopticon as Bentham called it - which literally means, that which sees all. The Penopticon prison, which was popular in the early nineteenth century, was designed to allow guards to see their prisons, but not allow prisoners to see guards. The building was circular, with prisoner's cells lining the outer diameter, and in the center of the circle was a large, central observational tower. At any given time, guards could be looking down into each prisoner's cells - and thereby monitor potentially unmoral behavior - but carefully-placed blinds prevented prisoners from seeing the guards, thereby leaving them to wonder if they were being monitored at any given moment. It was Bentham's belief that the "gaze" of the Panopticon would force prisoners to behave morally. Like the all-seeing eye of God, they would feel shame at their wicked ways. In effect, the coercive nature of the Panopticon was built into its very structure.
Discipline and Punish is still relevant for today, even though the Panopticon has vanished. For starters, the United States government now possesses the technology to view see and hear anybody on the face of the planet. In fact, just recently the FBI announced that they have the right (invested in them by the state) to monitor any phone conversations they deem a threat to national security. Furthermore, for the same reason, the CIA or the DIA may use high-tech satellite technology to monitor actions anywhere on the face of the planet. Currently, these satellites have the ability to spot and read the date off a dime in the street. These new technological developments have completely altered the meaning "gaze" in the modern context. In a very real way, we are all living in the Panopticon now.
Moreover, Foucault would have never guessed the future of American prison systems. Today, Americans put more people behind bars than in any other country in the world, while public education, job training, and other resources that might potentially help people stay off drugs or out of crime in the first place are under funded. Furthermore, the vast majority of convicts who are released - many having been brutalized in prison - often end up behind bars again in no time, usually for small offenses involving drugs or petty larceny (that is, non-violent crimes involving property). Thirty years ago, when Foucault died, prisons were still run by the state. However, today prisons are increasingly being privatized and run as businesses, with the further benefit of huge government subsidies. The United States now prioritizes prison funding over education and rehabilitation - spending roughly 40 billion a year on operation and construction of new prisons. The prison industry is booming.
Anyway, this book is a must-read classic. It will abhor you, enthrall you, and provide immeasurable food for thought. It drove me to ask questions about the nature of knowledge, history, and the evolution of a persecuting society. Controversial to the teeth, this work will definately activate all your higher faculties and blast you off on all sort of theoretical tangents. Once I started I couldn't put it down. As Foucault said himself, he writes "experience book," and I couldn't agree more. I highly recommend having this experience, if only for the sake of where it will land you.
A final note for those who are interested... Oddly enough, Jeremy Bentham was not buried or incinerated like most people after he died. He willed his body to be preserved and displayed. It was dissected in a medical amphitheater at the Web Street School of anatomy in London, three days after his death. (By the way, this was illegal at the time. Only executed murderers could be dissected according to the law). His organs were then removed, and the original head replaced with a wax one. After being stolen by students as a joke, the real head is now kept in a safe in the College. The body, dressed in Bentham's own clothes, remains stuffed with hay, straw, wool, cotton and lavender to keep moths away. Since he was a founder of University College, Bentham is ensconced inside a glass fronted mahogany case (on casters), set unceremoniously in a busy hallway. He is regularly visited by scholars from all over the world, once went to a beer festival in Germany, and is brought to the table once a year for the annual Bentham Dinner. Amazingly, he was also trundled to the annual Board of Directors meeting for years, who still leave his old chair empty out of respect.
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on December 21, 1999
Foucault traces the history of the prison system and the fundamental change in punishment that took place in the seventeenth century from retributive punishment of criminals, 'supplice,' to the rehabilitation of delinquents. Foucault is concerned with this change as it demonstrates something pervasive and not just exclusive to the prison system--normalization, or socialization. All the silly little things done in schools, for instance, you will see in quite a different light after reading this book. It's one of those books that--well, at the risk of sounding supremely cornball, will open your mind. All mind-opening books are painful, though, and this is definitely a painful read, mainly thanks to Foucault's _terrible_ writing style. Apparently he wrote it in two days straight with the aid of way too much coffee. (This is partly the translator's fault--other translator's version are a [slight] improvement, and when Foucault wrote in English he did a better job than any of his translators. Slightly better, that is.) Be prepared for sentences within sentences within sentences within sentences within sentences, none of which are marked off by parentheses or dashes. Foucault uses commas very, very lavishly, as some sort of all-purpose punctuation mark, and shies away from periods as if they were the Plague. Eventually, you get used to it, though, and the content is actually worth it.
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on February 17, 2005
Reviewers are right about this book tracing the origins of the modern surveillance state back to the birth of the modern prison system but they are not mentioning the prime motive for this that Foucault points to: profit and capitalism. With the rise of industrial society it was more important to regiment and discipline the masses than 'off with their head' or hands. The panopticon prison idea was taken to the factory and service industry by industial giants like Carnegie and Rockefeller and the fruits of this profitable perversion can be seen all over society today: delivery drivers monitored throughout the day by GPS, social security cards, public schooling (founded by the same industrial giants) intellectual and psychological grading, job placement and conformity, credit ratings, licences needed to do everything but go to the bathroom, a growing snitch culture...Foucault's major thesis is that surveillance (discipline) aids profit and any deviation from profit leads to state-sanctioned punishment in the form of increased surveillance. As industry and profits increase so will the surveillance and discipline that make it run smoothly. Every facet of modern society works to this end. The irony is, as techno-pundits like McCluhan later pointed out, in the modern world the prisoner with a tv set has as much denatured freedom as the tycoon in his guarded estate and they enjoy a lot of the same things in a world where pleasure is increasingly programmed and vicarious; in a world that has turned from the moral order to the profit order, where bad credit today is the profit order version of the ancient moral order idea of excommunication. Everything that stands in the way of the profit order, whether it be an idea, person, religion, or country is attacked. Bottom line, we are all 'human resources' in the political economy, in the religion of capital: packaged and packed like a bunch of sardines with the capitalist state and its laws protecting the tabernacle of profit over all else. The inanity and inherent fraud of our system, not to mention the explosion of prison populations and an insane consumer society, makes a lot more sense after being traced by a renegade like Foucault. Of all his books this is also the easiest read. This is a beautiful book by a complicated man. by the way, he taught at the University of Buffalo for a short time.
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VINE VOICEon October 6, 2003
I've read this book three times: First time was in undergraduate, second time was in law school, third time was last week. I can honestly say that my understanding of this work has grown with each reading, but that growth in comprehension has come more from my reading of other books either discussing or related to Discipline and Punish.
Specifically, I would recommend Jurgen Habermas's critique of Foucault, although I now forget which book of his contains his critique. I would also recommend Goffman's "Asylums" and Sykes "The Society of the Prison" as works which can illuminate Foucault's oft dense prose.
Foucault's main thesis is that the transistion of society into modernity has resulted in institutions which are increasingly devoted to the control of the "inmate's" time. The instituions use this control of time to develop discipline. Discipline is then used to both reinforce the strength of the instituion and also to expand the reach of institution's into the community.
As other reviewers have noted, this book isn't really about Prisons. Rather, the development of the modern prison represents the pinnacle of the relationship between power and discipline. Foucault leads up to his discussion of the prison by examining developments in other instituions: the work shop, the school and the barracks.
I really would encourage admirers of this work to read Goffman's "Asylums". The two books overlap to a considerable degree, but they both complement one another.
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VINE VOICEon May 13, 2000
Michel Foucault is a rather difficult individual to pigeonhole as belonging to one or another scholarly discipline. Is he a philosopher? Well, yes, but there is much more to his work than philosophical inquiry. Is he a psychologist? I suppose that could be argued. Is he a historian? Sort of, but then again his works contain so much philosophy....and round & round we go. So, probably the best thing to do is not attempt to confine Foucault to any one genre of scholarship.
The present book showcases all of Foucault's interwoven, cross-disciplinary talents. F takes us on a tour of the history of punishment in France & Britain over the course of the past 250 years. Surprisingly enough, our modern day image of huge prisons simply did not exist before that period.
The book grapples with the struggle of society to remain humane in a facet of life that is inherently inhumane: the treatment of our criminals. In doing so, F adopts the methodology utilized by Nietzsche in his "On The Geneology Of Morals."
We begin with the most grotesque executions of a few hundred years ago & witness how the paradigm shift went from vengeance to reform re: our handling of criminals. F notes how the primary goal of the prison became one of making the prisoner paranoid that he was being watched, which would (hopefully) instill within him the understanding that he could not get away with violating rules (both inside the prison & also once he was released back into society).
This is an extraordinary book that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the judicial system, the history of the prison, or anyone who just has a curiousity about the social & political forces which decide the manner in which we mete out punishment to our malefactors. A great read.
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on December 3, 1996
Using academic works and legal documents dating back to the early 1700s, Foucault constructs a history of punishment in France, beginning with the spectacle of corporal punishment and public execution and ending with the institution of the modern prison. He argues that over the course of approximately eighty years (between the torture and execution of Damiens the regicide in 1757 and the opening of Mettray in 1840) that corporal punishment and public execution dissolved and incarceration became the punishment par excellence for transgressions against society.

This transition is rooted in two Enlightenment ideals: humanity and equality. On one hand, penal reformers argued that public execution is cruel and inhumane, and on the other, that the criminal laws and their corresponding punishments were too haphazard and unevenly distributed. In light of these criticisms, a series of political, economic, moral, and legal transformations occurred that found its ultimate expression in the establishment of the prison. Having argued this, Foucault concludes his discussion by explaining why the prison has been such a permanent institution in society, despite the criticisms that it fails to reform criminals and to reduce crime.

Everything considered, the title Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison is misleading. The title suggests a simple (or rather, complex) explanation of the emergence of the prison out of the classical period. Foucault does indeed construct a history of the prison, but his project involves far more than simply articulating the process by which the prison is born.

More generally, and more importantly, Discipline and Punish is a study in the relationship of power and knowledge, a theme that runs through the majority of Foucault's scholarship. This power/knowledge complex is the model by which Foucault constructs the birth of the prison in France. It is also the model used in his earlier works (e.g., Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic), though it is not as explicitly articulated as in Discipline and Punish. The power/knowledge complex is based on the premise that power and knowledge are intimately bound, that each relies on the other, and, in a sense, presupposes the other. With respect to the prison, Foucault states that power is not inherent in the institution per se, but in the techniques of discipline that were developed and on which the prison rests. Discipline "is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, application, [and] targets . . . And it may be taken over . . . by 'specialized' institutions," such as the prison (215).

When power is "taken over" by institutions, it has a tendency to generate bodies of knowledge. In the case of the prison, the body of knowledge that is created is the delinquent, including his behavior, his desires and fears, in short, his whole being. This knowledge reinforces any preexisting power and allows for the creation of other bodies of knowledge, such as criminology, sociology, and psychology.

Foucault's study draws on the work of Nietzsche and Marx. Building on Nietzsche's focus on power, Foucault argues that the various discourses occurring in society are rooted in the power/knowledge complex and that this complex is realized on and through the bodies of individuals, in this case, delinquents. However, Foucault is not clear about who exactly uses power and creates knowledge. He insinuates that the dominant class is the one that benefits most from the power/knowledge complex, although he never makes a decisive accusation. The historiography has a refined Marxist quality to it, which is to say that it is more complex than Marx's economic reductionism, but still holds the notions of class conflict, exploitation, and oppression. This notion is problematic due to the conspiratorial image it evokes. It is as if there is a small group of insidious people devising strategies to dominate the world. The reality of this caricature is improbable, although it is probably safe to say that many social institutions cater to elites.

Another point to take note of is that Foucault's construction of history is too logical, too linear; this may be an accusation directed at historical constructions, in general. Rather than the Enlightenment notion that history proceeds in a logical manner, it is our constructions of history that are logical. In retrospect, one can see the watersheds and landmarks that outline the etiology of historical processes, thus making logical constructions of history possible. Though historical constructions are useful in helping one understand the forces that shape one's life, even the most complete analysis cannot account for the day-to-day events that make history. Trends happen much more gradually than they appear in historiographies; watershed moments stem from relatively insignificant events that culminate in significant historical change. This is not to say that historical constructions are useless. Rather, it is a statement that the shortcoming of the method that is important to keep in mind. After all, a construction is merely a construction.

This having been said, Foucault's historiography is particularly thorough and complex. His analysis is a powerful explanation of how economic, legal, moral, and political reforms contributed to the birth of the prison. Moreover, Foucault's power/knowledge complex has wide applications in the social sciences and humanities. It is a major contribution to social discourses. Discipline and Punish is just one instance of the utility this model has in aiding us in understanding and explaining social processes. Given what has been said, the question now becomes: Who uses power/knowledge and to what ends?
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on September 30, 2001
According to James Miller's "The Passion of Michel Foucault" (which, by the way, is the best Foucault bio), Foucault described "Discipline and Punish" as his "first real book" and noted on more than one occasion its superiority to "The Order of Things," a prior book touted by some as his best. It's not difficult to see why he was so fond of this particular text. In "Discipline," readers will discover all of the things that have endeared so many academics and students to his work. For one, there are the radical, counter-intuitive arguments themselves. According to Foucault, western societies have moved away from a punitive mechanism focused on public torture to one based on prisons not because we have become more humane but because tortures no longer effectively served their purpose, to legitimize sovereign power (here, one can detect the virulent anti-Enlightenment strain that characterizes all of his books). But Foucault doesn't stop there. He argues that prisons are merely the visible embodiment of a broader, all-encompassing "power," the principles of which one can find crystallized in Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon." Basically, the panopticon is a model prison with an opaque tower in the center, which can house a warden or a guard, surrounded by the cages of the prisoners themselves. The panopticon creates an insurmountable power relation in which the prisoner, who can't look inside the tower to see if someone is there, internalizes the possible gaze of the authorities or the idea of being monitored perpetually, and behaves accordingly. Foucault goes on to argue that panoptic principles were not limited just to prisons, but eventually and on its own came to permeate schools, barracks, factories, and other social institutions. Hence, you have Foucault's basic thesis: that society itself is one grand prison. Did philosophy ever sound so sexy?
Equally enticing as the book's ultimate conclusion is the underlying historical method, which Foucault called "genealogy." One of the most interesting aspects of genealogy is its focus on the history of bodies, in particular the different ways in which power over time has manipulated the human body for tactical, social purposes (Foucault called this type of inquiry "the political technology of the body"; such intriguing, quasi-scientific terms, e.g. "the microphysics of power," is another fascinating aspect of the book). To be sure, the most controversial element of Foucault's historical method that can be found in the book is his unabashed description of it as "fiction." Readers may be put off by the notion that what they are reading is not really the truth; but for Foucault, truth per se was itself nothing more than the product or effect of power. So, "fiction" here doesn't mean "false" (since the latter implies the existence of an actual "truth"), but should be understood as a kind of "counter-fiction" to the hegemonic effects of truth.
The unanswered question in the book, however, is what we should do to combat this insidious "power." If power is so cunning and pervasive as to constitute who we are, how can we fight it except to entertain the bizzare notion that we should fight ourselves? "Discipline and Punish" pretends to present a concrete political work, but the political alternative is not really political at all, but more ethical in a Nietzschean, radically individualist way. In the meanwhile, countless children starve, women are prostituted by the thousands, and xenophobia runs rampant in this era of late capitalist globalization. Foucault cannot help us deal with these problems because the problematic of "Discipline and Punish" is normalization, not the problems of real suffering and evil in this world. So for those who want to read a fascinating and extremely erudite book that does nothing to change the world, I recommend "Discipline and Punish." For those more interested in making a real difference and want to deal with practical politics, I recommend anything by Chomsky instead.
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on October 17, 2001
Foucault learns from history by looking backwards in time until a salient rupture appears, then goes forward detailing all of histories accounts. In Discipline and Punish, he takes us through the early 1800's to a time when the methods of upholding law and order were much more severe. He describes to us certain rituals of torture that were implemented not to uphold justice, but to extract truth. He contends that punishment was directed at the body and the spectacle of torture was the keeper of order. He then has us move past the Middle Ages to a rupture in history where the prison is born. Foucault now contends that punishment is no longer directed at the body; that it is aimed towards the soul. He posits that in our society we no longer have the spectacle of torture to keep us in line--no, a more economical restraint is applied: guilt & responsibility. It is the responsibility of being a model citizen that wills us to abide by the law. It is the fear of guilt that craves us to be `good'. It is the fear of being defined as `bad'; for fear of being suspect is as heavy as the physical chains worn by the malefactor-the ubiquitous invisible-chains; the inculcating chants of the anthems; the responsibility of the citizens to uphold the law and the guilt of not doing so. Foucault also inquires about other institutions-other architectural structures of power networks. One can wonder why the carceral system can be seen in schools, factories, hospitals, and so forth; these environments that we enter, spend a part of our lives in, and then leave to enter another. How many different institutions do you enter and leave in a day? How many hierarchical environments do you exist in the typical 24 hours? How many hierarchical roles do you play? How many different disciplines and regulations do you adhere to? One begins to feel fragmented, even schizophrenic, to the countless performances that we act out. Who are you really? Better yet, when are you? At work? When you are sitting home alone in your room? At any rate, it's a great book, but I wouldn't recommend it for the casual reader.
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on April 29, 2007
I'd spent years thinking that, of the two key French postmodernist thinkers, Derrida was the serious (if largely wrong) thinker and Foucault was the charlatan. That was based on my angry reaction to "Madness and Civilisation" and "Birth of the Clinic", both of which I found to be riddled with bad history. Looking at the works Derrida produced in the last years of his life-- and looking again at "Discipline and Punish" --I've revised that opinion. Derrida was-- or became --a charlatan. Foucault often needed better attention to historical accuracy-- he does periodize badly, and he's hopeless at anything outside France --but his study of the changes in the philosophy of punishment and social control here in "Discipline and Punish" is excellent. This is a key book for understanding modern theories of social control and examining modern responses to the ideas of "re-education" and surveillance. Foucault, for all his flaws, was a serious thinker, and this is a serious and valuable book.
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