Analytical Note 4 – Michel Foucault

Analytical note 4 in response to: Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.

Foucault is a French philosopher and author.   His writings focused on society and in the book that we read, power and social control. His early writings were considered to be written with a structuralist view. However his writings have also been tied to post-structuralism and postmodernism, both of these labels Foucault rejected. Discipline and Punish, is a history of the penal system and examines how the French penal system has evolved from public executions of the mid 1700’s to the carceral archipelago (p. 297) in the late 1800’s. He discusses the different systems that were created (schools, hospitals, factories) and how these systems controlled those inside them.

As this book opens, there is a vivid description of the torture and execution of a prisoner. This execution was public and was intended to be a display of what could happen to the body as a means of punishment. Society’s views on this type of spectacle changed, which moved the prisoner from the public eye, to a place where very few people could witness punishment. When the punishment moved inside, interpreting the person as a way to punish them started to develop. Now instead of just looking at a crime, there was an effort to understand the individual.   Prisons became very ordered buildings, with very specific rules that were to be followed at all times.

As the prison system in France is evolving, so is the power that is used over the masses. From the regulations that soldiers had to follow, to how citizens were treated during a plague, from hospitals to schools, precision and domination were being firmly rooted. These institutions grew from the need to be able to manage large groups of people by small groups of people. These very specific regulations gave armies the opportunity to move as a solid unit. The way in which the students were to take there seat and pick up their slates, created habits for learning. The hospitals organizing the sick into specific wards and implementing the charting process helped people heal. The process of controlling every minute detail though, creates a system where people do what they are told to do, becoming what Foucault calls a docile body.

These systems and institutions are obsessed with observing what is going on, and not just in the prison, but in the school, the hospital, the factory – everywhere. The army is built on rank, the higher your rank, the more power you have, the more people are under you. You could also have a situation where an officer in the army could be punished (demoted and having to re-earn) for not doing the correct thing. This same system also worked in the schools, where students had to pass their exams. As you passed your exams, you moved up the ranks in the school system. If you did not pass your exam, you were now on a track as someone that was not normal.

Panopticism also become something that grew out of the desire of those in charge to be able to see those being punished at all times. This system of always seeing strips away from the prisoner any last humanity. Instead of being hidden in a dungeon, lost to light and people, the prisoner was as visible as possible. Each cell had a window for light, and with the guard tower in the middle of the structure, the prisoner was always visible. Yet the prisoner could never see if he was being watched or not. The ability to see all was not limited to just the prisons, this idea spread all through society. Nurses in hospitals were watched by doctors, doctors watched by administrators all to make sure that the other was doing the correct thing.

This was a challenging text for me to read for several reasons, one of them being the close ties of the prison system to the education system. Reading this and seeing how these two systems resemble each other and how they are organized so similarly is frightening.   It is hard to say how things would change if these systems continue on their current track. If a French villager of the mid-1850’s were to visit a school or prison today, they would see some very familiar things.   Today’s educational system could be so much stronger from top to bottom, but it is still set up in the factory model that Foucault discusses in this book.

Some of the things that troubled me is how conveniently a system of control was established over society. It is important to organize a hospital in a way the can help people heal. Order is important when trying to heal someone who is sick. This order allows for the medical staff to record what works, what doesn’t and what needs to improve. Order here is good as long as there is conversation going up and down the power structure. Schools need to be areas that allow and encourage people to grow and learn and have the freedom to discover. In Foucault’s book, he describes in minute detail exactly what the body posture of each student should be. This gives me concern because there is not much of a difference in our school systems today. Students have every detail of their day governed, much like an inmate of a prison. I don’t have all of the answers here and I know that there needs to be some control mechanisms, but when teachers are teaching from a scripted curriculum, education is back to controlling through the minutiae.

Panopticism – The systemic ordering and controlling of large populations through unseen methods.

Carceral Archipelago – The extension of the prison outside of its walls to include the community that supports it and how closely linked they are.


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