One of the most glaring features of Michel Foucault’s philosophical attitude is how he views the political role of intellectuals—which he conveys throughout his work. In an interview, titled Clarifications on the Question of Power, Foucault explains how he refuses to consider himself a prophet and does want to be considered one (262). He is firmly against telling people what they must do and what is good or bad. Instead, he wants to serve as a resource for truth and knowledge. The actual work that is to be done, in his opinion, must be led by those directly affected. As an intellectual, he refuses to speak for others. He says his job is to simply gather information and present it. It is up to the people to choose whether they can and have the will to use it to act. This position has always stirred conversation—to many, there is a balance that intellectuals have to find while addressing certain topics of society and life. Some intellectuals explicitly state their intentions, while others are subtler in and relatively removed from what they write about.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault offers a vigorous discussion and analysis of several themes including torture, discipline, punishment, control, and power. Neither solely a work of history nor philosophy, , the text is filled with a maze of paradoxes, sometimes contradictions in an appropriate Foucauldian manner. It attempts to show the complexities of the origin of the modern prison as a structural and institutional system of power and how it manifests through what Foucault calls discipline and social order. He labels what he does as a genealogy of the modern soul. What he emphasizes early on and is present throughout his writing are four key rules. These rules make up the framework that Foucault seems to think and work within. He says to consider both the repressive nature and positive effects of punishment, which is “a complex social function…[and] a political tactic.” He then constructs the penal system and the knowledge of man as connected by “the technology of power” (23). Finally, he points to the ways in which subjection and objectification are used in the name of scientific research (24).
In this paper, I will explore, synthesize, and interpret key sections of Discipline and Punish. The paper will assess Foucault’s ideas about the evolution of systems of punishment, the shift from the body to the soul, and the concept of power and discipline. Finally, I will turn to Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow and the current U.S. prison (mass incarceration) system as a case study in an attempt to determine how relevant Foucault is in today’s penal system about forty years later.
Foucault’s Discipline and Punish
Historical and Modern Systems of Punishment
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. In the first case, it illustrates an obvious and explicit expression of power. It inflicts punishment on the body directly. 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, violence, and even retribution—without any desire or effort to have a fair trial, the criminal is automatically guilty. The second case shows a glimpse of the decline and gradual disappearance of torture as a spectacle (7). Punishment becomes about discipline, distribution, and social control. This change can be characterized as a shift towards a more humane process. Foucault, however, takes a more critical approach with this notion. Although still negative, he questions the power relations in the new system. It is a different kind of power relation—still problematic. He suggests that the shift is more insidious than it appears. On one hand, Foucault wants to shock the reader with gruesome torture and put it up against the seemingly harmless time-based regimen. He ultimately questions the validity in thinking that things become better in the new system of punishment.
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 from which one wished to divert them…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 because the criminal becomes somewhat of a public hero—loosening the grip of public opinion and control. The more the public sees the criminal as a hero, the less effective the punishment is in deterring crime. This is partly why 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, far reaching, and masked by secretive bureaucracy. Doing so prevents any critical debate about how any notion of justice is attained through the punishment and criminalization of the body and soul.
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 something that “acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (16). Essentially, 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 not only judged according to their act anymore. Instead, they are stereotyped and profiled as people who have certain kinds of minds—the pervert, the murderer, the aggressor. They are compartmentalized and labeled for the sake of convenience and knowledge and to better understand how to intervene in future instances of deviant behavior.
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 volumes to how punishment functions in modern society. It gives rise to a whole field of interest that simultaneously individualizes and generalizes. The offense is not separate from the individual. 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 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. 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. Here, that is exactly what occurs.
However, Foucault’s argument that punishment shifts from the body to the soul is slightly misleading and, in some ways, unclear. While he makes a strong case about the soul as the primary focus, he also offers crucial points about the significance of the body. The body, Foucault notes, is involved in a ‘political economy,’ and this refers to 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 focus on the body is still very present in the modern penal system. It seems naïve to believe that the shift toward the soul exempts the body from punishment—maybe not through brute physical torture but in other ways. The soul also 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 economic system, and the punished individual. Foucault’s philosophy of power and knowledge seems rooted in an abstract, structural framework. For Foucault, does agency and free will exist in an individual? What are ways in which this coercion is resisted? Are bodies and souls inherently susceptible to discipline, power, and control?
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 fluid. He says everyone has power, and it is situated in a network of power relations. Furthermore, he says, “power is exercised rather than possessed, it is not … of the dominant class” (26). Power is not hierarchical. It is not a matter of class struggle for him. It is also not an issue of having or not having power. Foucault presents a more dynamic view of the notion of power. These relations are microscopic yet not localized. They are also not owned by the state yet not individualized (27). In other words, there is no power except in relation to one another. Therefore, to be powerful one must possess certain qualities. Foucault refers to these qualities as knowledge. Without power, there is no knowledge. One depends on the other. The relationship of power-knowledge is at the basis of analysis for Foucault.
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 the body is made docile (i.e., subjected, used, transformed, and improved) (136). Again, the focus on the body is as important as the soul but this time 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 dominating 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 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.” In order for it to work efficiently, the body must be isolated and separated. By placing bodies into specific arrangements, discipline “create complex spaces that are at once architectural, functional and hierarchical. Discipline transforms the confused, useless, or dangerous multitudes into ordered multiplicities” (148). The second aspect involves how activities are controlled via time. The time-table is a prime example of this means of organization. Foucault notes, it aims to “establish rhythm, impose particular occupations, and regulate the cycles of repetition” (149).
Foucault in relation to Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow
In the introduction of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander is clear in who she is writing for and what she wants to see come from it. She claims to write for “people who care about social justice but do not see the seriousness of the mass incarceration crisis faced by people of color…, people struggling to persuade others that something is familiar about the current criminal justice system…, [and] all the people trapped in America’s racial caste system” (preface). While Foucault may offer a foundation to what Alexander addresses, they are obviously different in how they view themselves as intellectuals. Foucault is hesitant to tell what the people what to do. Alexander, because of the stakes, is straight to the point and direct about what needs to be done.
Early in the chapter, Alexander explains how it is hard for many to believe that a “racial caste system” still exists in the United States. This is likely credited to how private and invisible the prison system has become. To the public, the issue is not urgent because they are either oblivious to it or are led to believe it is not a problem. She uses her own intellectual and professional trajectory with the topic to discuss the significance of the new racial caste system as a form of social control. This results in the extremely high rates of incarceration and devastating effects it has had and continues to have on black and poor communities of color.
Alexander remarks, “the more things change, the more they remain the same” (1). She also notes, “we have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it” (2). This echoes Foucault’s thoughts about the change from torture to imprisonment as not a sign of better and progressive conditions. Alexander also pushes against the belief that as time passes, society seems to change for the better. As progressive things may seem, there are mechanisms that still exist in society that perpetuate a racial caste system. It claims to be colorblind and is invisible, out of the public’s view, and even nonexistent.
The U.S. prison system has arguably thrived for reasons unrelated to crime trends. The rate and intensity in which the current penal system punishes and controls people of color, especially African American men, is “unparalleled in world history” (8). Mass incarceration is a system that “locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls (representations, house arrest, & felony employment)—walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship” (12). In other words, once you are labeled a criminal, you are burdened and subjected to deal with a web of obstacles preventing you from re-integrating into society.