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Discipline & Punish

The Birth of the Prison

By Michel Foucault
13-minute read
Audio available
Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

Discipline & Punish (1975) is a celebrated work of renowned French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault. Foucault studies the history of forms of power, punishment, discipline and surveillance from the French Ancien Régime through to more modern times, seeing it as a reflection of a changing society.

  • Concerned citizens worried about the overreach of mass surveillance
  • Philosophers, historians, cultural scientists and sociologists
  • Anyone interested in modern prisons

Michel Foucault (1926-1984), born in Poitiers, France, was a superstar academic of the twentieth century. He served as director of the Institute Français in Hamburg, Germany, and at the Institute de Philosophie at the Faculté des Lettres in the University of Clermont-Ferrand, France. Foucault wrote articles for newspapers, numerous essays and ground-breaking books such as The History of Sexuality. He also held at a chair at the Collège de France.

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Discipline & Punish

The Birth of the Prison

By Michel Foucault
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault
Synopsis

Discipline & Punish (1975) is a celebrated work of renowned French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault. Foucault studies the history of forms of power, punishment, discipline and surveillance from the French Ancien Régime through to more modern times, seeing it as a reflection of a changing society.

Key idea 1 of 8

In the nineteenth century, public punishment of the body gave way to private punishment of the soul.

On 2 March 1757, the streets of Paris witnessed a ghastly spectacle.

Robert-François Damiens, a domestic servant, was publicly executed before a baying mob for his attempt to assassinate the French king, Louis XV.

Damiens was to be quartered: his limbs were pulled by four horses driven in opposing directions. But when the arms and legs refused to detach from Damiens’ torso, the executioner drew out his knife and sheared through the tendons and tissue before the horses completed the dismemberment.

But the execution was the last of its kind. By the turn of the eighteenth century in Europe, punishment as a public spectacle was no longer in vogue. Instead, a new approach to punishment became the norm. Now it was to take place behind closed doors and its workings were set to a timetable.

In the nineteenth century, fewer than a hundred years after Damiens’ execution, the new penal style was codified in texts such as French politician Léon Faucher’s rules “for the House of young prisoners in Paris.”

The prisoners’ day began at five in the morning, when they were woken by repeated cracks on a drum. By quarter to six, they were at work. They were fed at ten. Teaching began at twenty minutes to eleven. From one o’clock until seven was another period of work. Then, at half past seven, the cells were locked for a night curfew.

Such a regimen indicated that the nature of punishment had changed. It was no longer a public indication of the will of sovereign governmental powers. It was now one in which bureaucratic penalties were fused with defined imprisonments and stringent schedules.

Where once corporal punishment and pain had been central to ideas of punishment, now the soul of the criminal was deemed much more important.

It’s very easy to think – as many historians have – that this represents some sort of development, that the declining severity of punishment indicates a humane advance.

But the author thinks they have the wrong end of the stick. The purpose of punishment had changed. The objective was no longer to break the criminal’s body. It was now to target hearts and minds, thoughts and will.

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