Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison
Here’s another favourite from my university days. I would go as far as to say that this is one of the most important books of the twentieth century. Reading Discipline and Punish changed how I viewed the world, and whether or not you agree with Foucault’s theories of power, his ideas are undeniably influential.
Discipline and Punish opens with one of the most gruesome descriptions of torture that I’ve ever read. Foucault goes for the shock factor and it works; the reader is immediately immersed in a society in which punishment is public spectacle of the most horrific kind, with the human body providing the locus of the punitive act. Perhaps the eighteenth century public execution seems like a distant relic of barbarism to the twenty-first century reader? Particularly to someone who lives in a country where there is no corporal or capital punishment. It serves as a reminder of how civilised we have become, since the penal system has been reformed and ultimately privatised, and wrong-doers are now excluded from society, rather than being disembowelled in public.
However, this is not entirely the case. The prison is not separate from society, Foucault would argue, but integrated into it. Society is a theatre of punishment and the penal mechanisms extend throughout the whole. The prison system relies on the idea of deprivation of liberty – we are free and the prisoner is not. The prisoner is constantly surveilled and monitored, while we are not…
Oh, but wait. We are now. This is the wonder of Foucault’s work – he foresaw the great Panopticon that is modern society. He predicted surveillance society and provided a explanation of how its power structures operate.
Yes, like inmates, we are constantly monitored – watched on CCTV, our actions scrutinised on social media, our data collected and sifted for ‘thought crime’. We may even correct our peers when they stray into dubious and unorthodox thinking and we internalise this mechanism, so that we no longer feel free to speak our minds.
What interests me the most about this book, is that we undoubtedly live in a society which is become less free, while those who are incarcerated are becoming less disciplined. The lines are blurring. Those in prison are deprived of freedom of movement, they are separated from wider society, but they enjoy many of the same mod-cons as the rest of us. Are their lives so very different?
Meanwhile, the discursive framework for describing the criminal reaches into the lower strata of society, through the idea of the ASBO, the scrounger, and the cheat. The media and television, through headlines using the word ‘scrounger’ or ‘benefits cheat’ is functioning in a punitive way, whereby all people on benefits are demonised – ignoring the fact that many of those on benefits, may actually be in work. There is little discussion of how economic policies may have created a situation whereby certain areas of the country provide few opportunities for employment. At the same time, those in government, who enjoy subsidised canteens and bars and can claim hundreds of pounds in expenses, despite having personal fortunes and earning a decent income, are not seen as ‘scroungers’.
Thus, through this discourse, a whole social class is tainted. A whole section of society is in a sense “guilty” of being “workshy” and what do we do with the guilty? We punish them.
Obviously, Foucault never uttered a word on ‘Austerity’ but his ideas inform the way I think about the current government and its punitive regime. Austerity was a response to a recession – a recession not created by the poor. However, it is the poor who have been chosen to bear the brunt of its cuts and tax hikes. The word austerity comes from the Latin ‘austerus’ meaning severe. Its synonyms include spartan, asceticism, self-discipline and sternness. The ruling class have come down hard on us poor folk, while using the language of punishment. It is authoritarianism in the guise of common sense belt-tightening.
Foucault’s philosophy enables me to dissect the political rhetoric of those in power, it enables me to see society as a network of power structures, in which language and ‘the gaze’ are not neutral. I may not agree with everything he said, and he might not have agreed with the way I use his ideas, but his writing has enriched my life and informed my thinking.
There is so much more to say about Discipline and Punish and I barely have time to read at the moment. I may attempt to discuss his ideas on ‘Panopticism’ at a later date.