Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish has become a canonical text in many disciplines since its first print in 1975. Considered one of the foremost post-structuralists, Foucault has drastically impacted the way in which we today think about power, a major theme in many of his works, not excluding Discipline and Punish. For Foucault, power is intrinsically tied to knowledge. Discipline and Punish describes the evolution of various systems of knowledge that give the institutions that possess the knowledge to apply it to society in the form of power. Although the prison is used as an example in this work, it can also been seen as a larger metaphor to society.  Societal norms—created by knowledge—are a veritable prison for individuals. The power discourse that operates in prisons also operates in society, and the mechanisms of control over the criminal and the citizen are the same. As Foucault points out, these methods of observation, categorisation, and control originated in monasteries, factories, schools, hospitals and in the army and were later applied to prisons. All these institutions regulate the individual in similar ways because the power they claim over their subjects is also similar. The illustration Foucault uses in his defence is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. This model allowed for the possibility of constant observation of the subject without the subject knowing if s/he was being observed. This caused the internalisation of discipline, creating “docile bodies” required by the industrial world. The institution divided an individual’s experience of even the very basic mediums of time and space into rational/scientific units that could be regulated, essential to the development of the idea of abstract labour. In a way, the Enlightenment that promised freedom and liberty to its followers thus trapped them in a panopticon in which they are regulated even more closely and have less freedom. This argument, some claim, is inherent even in the book’s French title: Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. The word “surveiller” means “to watch over” in French, not discipline. Thus, the role of institutions in modern society is to watch over ordinary citizens and regulate their time and bodies.

A critical leap Foucault makes in Discipline and Punish is the shifting of the subject of the punishment from the body to the soul. The traditional argument for the abolition of public executions and torture is the humanitarianism that swept through Europe on the heels of the Enlightenment. Foucault’s view, however, is that with increasing contemplation on the idea of the Self, the human soul offered opportunities for greater control than the human body. Reformists were more concerned with a effective way of controlling the mob rather than have humanitarian concerns. The justice of the Crown was usually ineffective in making an example of a subject, and unfortunately, in some cases, the body became a site upon which to focus admiration for other revolutionaries. Therefore, punishment had to go beyond its traditional domain to be effective, as psychiatry and other sciences allowed. A corollary of this is that power is now firmly in the hands of a few elites that could delineate the normative discourse for society.

Foucault’s arguments then place power between entities (individual or institution) rather than ascribe it to any one entity or the other. Because power is created through knowledge and its application, it must then subsequently reside in the nature of application. This is a major shift in previous views of power, ones that placed it firmly with God, his servants (the clergy), or his political representatives (divine right of succession of the nobility). Foucault’s assertion makes power far more intangible. Its dissociation from any entity and appearance in the dynamic relationship between entities makes it more difficult to influence it. Thus, Foucault’s power paradigm becomes a prison for society. In a sense, Foucault continues Nietzsche’s assertion that the world is merely a system that the Übermensch can rise above, but he then proceeds to declare that it is impossible to escape Max Weber’s iron cage of society, an all-encompassing institution Foucault calls the carceral system. Since power can be defined only by technocrats and exercised by bureaucrats, it is impossible for the individual to access the nodes of power, and those who rise in the ranks of the technocrats or bureaucrats will have no incentive to reform, as Herbert Marcuse argued in One-Dimensional Man, because they themselves will have the most to lose.

An interesting deviation from Enlightenment thinkers is Foucault’s pessimism regarding individuality. Foucault sees the individual as a social construct created by a power discourse. Through mass technology the individual is constantly eulogised, but in reality, this created individual is merely an efficient cog in the system’s wheel. To not be an individual is not to follow the prescribed norm, and that is subversive and therefore bad. These non-individuals are then the subjects of the new prison, to be moulded into useful functionaries in the carceral system.

Discipline and Punish thus outlines a whole mode of existence with the prison at its centre as a metaphor.Foucault reveals the power relations between individuals and institutions and emphasises the difficulties in bringing change. However,Foucault reifies neither power nor society. Instead, Foucault’s aim (with a healthy superimposition of Weber) is to explain that economic “intelligence” of the day demanded that more work be crammed into less time. This basic “value” has led to our society today. Change in society must therefore necessarily come from change in values people hold since power lies at the nodes of interaction between people and the institutions they represent.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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