Skip over navigation

Discipline and Punish

Michel Foucault

Important Quotations Explained

The Carceral

Key Facts

This book is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge.

This quotation represents Foucault's project in a nutshell. Discipline and Punish aims to chart the transformation from a situation where atrocious sentences were passed by a judge, and carried out in public, to one where the experts of the human sciences judge everyone in society according the norm established by their discipline. A new power to judge develops when psychiatrists, prison warders and other "technicians of discipline" begin to judge and analyze the criminal after the sentence has been passed. This new power is part of the development of a wider modern system of power and knowledge analyzed by Foucault.

The idea of a history of the soul is also an important one. One of the many models that Foucault uses is the shift of penality from a focus on the body to a focus on the soul. The modern system of discipline works on and attempts to reform the soul. Therefore an analysis of the development of modern discipline is also a history of the soul it created and attempts to control.

We have then a public execution and a timetable. They do not punish the same type of crimes or the same type of delinquent. But they each define a certain penal style.

Taken from the very beginning of the work, this quotation shows both Foucault's love of contrast, and the fundamental change that Discipline and Punish addresses. The two penal styles to which he refers are the pre-modern system, in which punishment is carried out on the body of the criminal in a public and violent manner, and the carceral system, in which the criminal's soul is the object of attention. The execution cuts and burns the criminal's body: the timetable regulates his soul, dividing his time into smaller, ordered parts. The execution represents a penality in which the public restoration of order is vital; the timetable represents one in which the aim is to classify and order behavior in an attempt to control the individual.

The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.

The Panopticon, the fantastic building designed by Bentham, has become a symbol of Foucault's argument. From the center of the panopticon, the controller can see each individual room or cell. Its effects are homogenous because, whether the building is used as a school or a prison, power operates in a certain way within it. Each individual held within it is isolated, permanently exposed to the gaze of the observer; by looking at them, the observer controls them. It is a building that makes examination easy: it is marvelous both because it allows one person to have power over many, and because it is such an unusual construction.

Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

One of the central points of Foucault's discussion of the carceral system is that the form of discipline associated with the modern prison is not contained within prison walls, but derives from the society beyond those walls. The mechanisms of control, examination and classification operate within all the institutions that Foucault discusses. Indeed, power in its various forms flows through all of them. Prisons resemble these other institutions not just because they have similar architecture, but because they all fulfill similar functions.

We are now far away from the country of tortures, dotted with wheels, gibbets, gallows, pillories; we are far, too, from that dream of the reformers, less than fifty years before.

This quotation reinforces the contrast drawn at the start of the book. The "country of tortures" is one in which punishment is publicly visible and horrific; indeed, part of its effectiveness lies in the fact that the devices of torture and execution are well-known to the public. The eighteenth century reformers' dream, never completely enacted in practice, is a dream of a theater of punishment in which the public watches and is influenced by a system of signs and representations that link different crimes to their punishments. Foucault's point is that the modern system of penality differs greatly from both models, but that there was no reason why it should have done. In considering both the lost country and the reformers' dream, Foucault explains why one model defeated the other two.

More Help

Previous Next
Imprisonment Critized

by brittfoerster, April 12, 2013

The ideal of a penal imprisonment is criticized by many reformers because
1. it is incapable of corresponding to the specificity of crimes
2. it has no effect on the public
3. It is useless, even harmful to society: it is costly. it maintains convicts in idleness, it multiplies their vices.
4. the execution of this penalty (imprisonment) is difficult to supervise
5. There is a risk of exposing prisoners to the uncontrolled power of the guards
6. The job (prison guard) is an exercise of tyranny (dictatorship)

Follow Us