Prisons and Surveillance
Discipline and Punish (1975) offers the best example of Foucault's alternative to Marx's historical materialism. In methodology, conceptual development and content, Foucault's book presents a version of critical theory in which the mode of production is not the totalizing center of history. To escape from the confines of Marx's materialism, Foucault turns to Nietzsche and adapts to his own ends the concept of genealogy. As he said in 1976, 'Nowadays I prefer to remain silent about Nietzsche ... If I wanted to be pretentious, I would use 'the genealogy of morals' as the general title of what I am doing.1 The new strategy of critique rejects the Hegelian evolutionist model in which one mode of production flows dialectically out of another in favor of a Nietzschean tactic of critique through the presentation of difference.
The methodology of Discipline and Punish resounds with dissonance to the ears of Marxists and liberals. Causes and connections are not central concerns for Foucault. The texture of his history of prisons is choppy, disconnected, even arbitrary. But there is a reason for this peculiar approach. Foucault takes his topic, prison systems, and in Nietzschean fashion goes back in time until he finds a point where the prevailing penal practice looks to modem eyes ridiculous, without sense, irrational. The degree of intellectual
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discomfort is a measure of the difference of that system from. our own. Foucault locates such a prison system in the eighteenth century as exemplified in the punishment of the regicide Damiens. The details of Damien's torture colorfully display a world of punishment that is genuinely foreign to our own.
The next analytic step is crucial to the success of the genealogical method. 1[he torture of Damiens must be reconstructed in such a way that the logic of the pre-modern prison system is recaptured. Instead of condemning the barbarism of pre-modern society, its inhumanity, injustice and irrationality, Foucault will present the difference of the pre-modern system by demonstrating that, on its own terms, it makes sense and is coherent. The reason for doing so, let it be noted, is not to present a revised picture of the past, nostalgically to glorify the charms of torture, but to underline the transitory character of the present system and therefore to remove the pretense of legitimacy that it holds by dint of a naive, rationalist contrast with the past. The genealogy of prisons reveals that the modern system is first, finite and second, without exclusive rights to rationality. Since the torture of Damiens is part of a coherent prison system, the modem one is not the only one possible.
By proving the historicity of the modern penal institution Foucault, I maintain, is at one with historical materialism. After all, Marx contended that the purpose of revolutionary criticism was to reveal the historicity of institutions that the dominant ideology pretended were eternal. The first step of the critique was to show that the laws of capitalism were not universally necessary but historically specific. But, if Foucault is Marxist at one point in his methodology, he is anything but Marxist at another. The critical force of Foucault's genealogy derives not, as with Marx, from the demonstration of contradiction within the modern. System and therefore of its inevitable collapse at some point in the future, but simply in the difference between the pre-modem
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and modern structures. There is no hint of dialectical necessity in Foucault's pages, no suggestion that the modern system is less than rational and therefore imperfect. Progressive evolutionism is absent from his account. Instead, the critique relies on the pure demonstration of difference. In short, the appeal to reason, the promise of a more rational world, that is implicit in Marx is lacking in Foucault.
Discipline and Punish begins with a detailed, stomach-turning account of a punishment in the style of the Old Regime:
On 2 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned 'to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris,' where he was to be 'taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds'; then, 'in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds.'2
Such activity was then and remains to this day the nemesis of enlightened reformers and liberals. Damiens' travail was considered by them simply monstrous, beyond nature. What they did not see, or refused to see, was that torture was not an act of gratuitous cruelty in the manner of the isolated murderers and rapists of today, but an orderly social ritual, consciously designed to produce specific effects on the criminal, the offended party and society at large. Damiens' torture was public because it was intended to restore the power of the monarchy, a ritual enactment of the king's power before the world. It marked the flesh of the criminal as a symbolic restoration of the material wrongs he had
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accomplished. It occurred after a judicial procedure which attempted to arrive at the truth in secret sessions during which a combination of torture and questioning was employed. The prevailing view was that any accused person was not simply guilty or innocent, but subject to gradations of guilt. Once a shred of guilt was proved, torture was a permissible means to get at the rest of the truth. After all, Old Regime logic ran, the guilty party should suffer some punishment. In this way, Foucault argues, the system of punishment of the Old Regime was not pure barbarism, but a 'regulated practice'. It was designed to produce terror in the hearts of the public that witnessed the torture and thereby to reaffirm the power of the ruling class.
The analysis of the torture serves to highlight the difference between pre-modern and modern systems of punishment. Like Nietzsche's description of the ethics of the Vikings who plundered, raped and murdered at whim and with no sense of guilt, Foucault's depiction of Damiens' sufferings convinces one that a system of punishment other than our own is possible. This strategy serves to define and limit the temporal scope of the modern system. It was begun after the old system was overthrown and it has characteristics that are not those of the past. The remarkable achievement of Foucault's Nietzschean discourse is that it captures the past without justifying the present, as liberals do, or anticipating an evolutionary, utopian future, the way Marxists do. The display of the difference of the past avoids the danger of dismissing it (as barbarism) and thereby legitimating the present, in the manner of liberals, as a superior and unsurpassable world. As for Marxists, they take the punishment system of the Old Regime and 'explain' it by reference to the mode of production. The function and limits of this type of explanation will be discussed below. But for now it can be said that Marxist accounts are similar to liberals' in that they implicitly condemn eighteenth-century practices and assume that the future rational world of communism will
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automatically abolish the embarrassing infantilisms of earlier ages. Both liberals and Marxists advocate reason in place of past practices, legitimating their own positions without exploring the genealogical radicalism of what they reject.
After the presentation of difference in the torture of Damiens, Foucault continues his genealogy of prison systems with an account of proposals for reform. The philosophes of the Enlightenment reacted vehemently against the punishment system of the Old Regime. Thinkers like Cesare Beccaria in On Crimes and Punishments (1764) wished to humanize punishment by eliminating torture, reducing the power of the monarch and above all regularizing the impact of the judicial system. Believing in the force of reason, the reformers wished to shift the locus of punishment from the body to the mind, to present to criminals, the certain prospect that their acts would cause more pain than pleasure so that, as rational beings, they would avoid committing illegalities in the first place. Yet the plans of the philosophies were not to become the basis for the new system of punishment that emerged in the nineteenth century. The centerpiece of that system - the prison - was, Foucault notes, 'explicitly criticized by many reformers. Because it is incapable of corresponding to the specificity of crimes. Because it has no effect on the public. Because it is useless, even harmful, to society. 3 In effect, the modern system of punishment based on incarceration is separated, for the genealogist, from the system of torture by a sharp discontinuity.
The gap between the old and the new serves to underscore in yet another way the principle of difference at the heart of Foucault's historiography. By allowing the discontinuity to remain unexplained, he violates the assumptions of both liberal and Marxist methods. The role of cause or explanation is severely reduced in the post-structuralist text, since it leads to evolutionist conclusions and works against the purposes of the genealogy of difference. Let us be clear about this point. Foucault does attempt to, explain certain
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historical phenomena and he does provide evolutionary histories at certain points in his text. There is no question of ruling out entirely the role of cause, explanation, evolution. It is only that if these methodological strategies pre-dominate in the historical text, the critical function of, difference will be lost. Foucault is not proposing a new metaphysics of history in which one age is ontologically separate from the others. Rather he attempts to extract from the complexity of the past certain lines of struggle because, he thinks, they can have an impact on the way we think about the structures of domination in the present.
Although the ideas of the eighteenth century reformers did not materialize into a new system of punishment, those of Jeremy Bentham were more successful. In fact, Bentham's Panopticon was the leading antecedent of the new technology of power than was instituted in the nineteenth century prison. There are three features of Foucault's understanding of the prison system that are important for critical theory. First, the specific features of the prison as Foucault sees it are significant to the comprehension of the new role of information systems in advanced capitalism. Second, the manner in which Foucault explores the prison system as a structure of domination suggests a detotalized version of critical theory. Third, Foucault's method of introducing the conceptual basis of his genealogy (for example, the concept of technology of power) leaves unresolved certain epistemological questions for critical theory.
The nineteenth-century system of punishment bore little resemblance to that of the Old Regime. Incarceration, a minor feature of the eighteenth-century penal system, quickly became the norm in the nineteenth century. Secret judicial proceedings were exchanged for public trials. Public tortures gave way to secret or hidden terms of imprisonment. The contrasts between the two systems are elaborated in detail by Foucault. But attention to the differences should
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not obscure the unique features of the prison. A total institution, as sociologists would say, was established in which even the minutest details of the everyday life of the inmate were enunciated in rules. Some of the features of the prison regimen were derived from earlier practices. The careful control of the temporal and spatial location of the bodies of the inmates was taken from old military practices. In this specific case Foucault acknowledges an evolutionary connection across discontinuous phenomena. What is to Foucault the astonishing new feature of the prison system, however, is the method by which the prison authorities sought to control the minds of the prison population. Bentham advocated that the prisoners be housed in a rectangular structure that surrounded a courtyard, in the middle of which was a tower containing a guard. The building was arranged so that the guard was able to see into each cell without himself being seen by the prisoners. Hence the term Panopticon (all-seeing). The ingenious purpose served by this arrangement was that the prisoner would be conscious of being under continual surveillance. The guard, a representative of society's authority, became a kind of God-surrogate who could observe the prisoner at will, monitor behavioral aberrations or improvements and mete out rewards and punishments accordingly. Foucault does not draw attention to the likeness of the Panopticon and the Christian God's infinite knowledge. Nor does he observe the similarity of the Panopticon with Freud's notion of the super-ego as an internal monitor of unconscious wishes. An even closer parallel that goes unnoticed by Foucault is that between the Panopticon and the computer monitoring of individuals in advanced capitalism, a point I shall return to shortly.
Before turning to the latter comparison, I want to emphasize certain features of the Panopticon. Foucault sees the Panopticon as a technique for controlling large numbers of people in a particular institution, or, what he calls, discipline, as in
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the following description of a quarantine during an epidemic:
This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead - all this constituted a compact model of the disciplinary method.4
Applying the methods of discipline to the prison through the architecture of the Panopticon transforms simple incarceration into a diabolical means of punishment. The problem faced by prison administrators of controlling masses of people led them to turn to the solution of the Panopticon and thereby changed the effects of incarceration from simple removal from society to total power over the inmate. In Foucault's words, ' Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.'5 From the Enlightenment desire to abolish torture we have moved to a new type of punishment, unanticipated by the reformers of the eighteenth century, which in effect institutes a new system of domination. The effect of the Panopticon is not to reform prisoners: we know that recidivism rates have always been high. Instead it introduces a method of normalizing individuals that can be applied to other situations. As Foucault writes, 'All that is needed, then is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy.6 Capitalist society thus has available a means of control, a 'technology of power' that can be deployed at many locations.
When the Panopticon was introduced in the early
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nineteenth century the bureaucracy and the computer had not yet been invented. Foucault does not mention that they both foster the principles of disciplinary control. Indeed they expand its scope to a new level. With the mechanisms of information processing (the bureaucracy using people; the computer using machines), the ability to monitor behavior is extended considerably. The techniques of discipline no longer need rely on methods of regulating bodies in space as Foucault thinks. In the electronic age, spatial limitations are bypassed as restraints on the controlling hierarchies. All that is needed are traces of behavior; credit card activity, traffic tickets, telephone bills, loan applications, welfare files, fingerprints, income transactions, library records, and so forth. On the basis of these traces, a computer can gather information that yields a surprisingly full picture of an individual's life. As a consequence, Panopticon monitoring extends not simply to massed groups but to the isolated individual. The normalized individual is not only the one at work, in an asylum, in jail, in school, in the military, as Foucault observes, but also the individual in his or her home, at play, in all the mundane activities of everyday life.7
If the scope of Foucault's analysis of the prison system is extended by an understanding of the impact of information systems in advanced capitalism, the theoretical problems his position encounters are only increased. Foucault wants to argue that he is simply tracing the genealogy of the prison system, a specific phenomenon that is best left untotalized. He himself is tempted by the totalizing impulse at several points in his text, most notably when he writes:
. . . the activity of judging has increased precisely to the extent that the normalizing power has spread. Borne along by the omnipresence of the mechanisms of discipline, basing itself on all the carceral apparatuses, it has become one of the major functions of our society. The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the
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educator-judge, the 'social worker'-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based.8
The impression given by this passage is that the mode of normalization has replaced the mode of production as the basis of a new totalization with a new set of structures of domination. Yet Foucault wishes to argue the opposite, Nietzschean standpoint: that 'technologies of power' are multiple and not reducible to each other; that critical theory is best served by detotalized analyses which restrict themselves to particular clusters, of dominating practices; that epistemologically there is no basis for any theorist to assert a totalizing view since we are each limited by our situated perspectives. Most significantly Foucault agrees with the Nietzschean viewpoint that power is creative, not repressive; that technologies of power emerge at multiple points in social space and are not located in the state, as liberals and Marxists think. A disservice is done to critical theory when the distinct but interrelated technologies of power endured by women, racial minorities, gays, prisoners, inmates of asylums and workers are reduced, even with the caution of mediations, to the monolithic 'mode of production'.
Marxists who have written about the history of prisons have missed the unique features of the Panopticon for precisely these reasons. Reducing systems of punishment to the class structure they have been unable to discern. the technology of power of the prison system. The classic work of Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer (an associate of the Frankfurt School), Punishment and Social Structure, reveals the limitations of Marxist theory. They begin their analysis in typical Marxist fashion by rejecting illusory ideological formations in favor of what they regard as real social relationships. Their aim is ' ... to strip from the social institution of punishment its ideological veils and justice appearance and to describe it in its real relationships'.9 Their conclusion consists of the inevitable Marxist pronouncement: 'specific
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forms of punishment correspond to a given stage of economic development.'10 The history of prisons provides nothing more than an epiphenomenon to the history of the mode of production.
Rusche and Kirchheimer explain various aspects of the pre-modern system of punishment in strictly reductionist terms. In the late middle ages, for example, 'The poorer the masses became the harsher the punishments in order to deter them from crime.11 These same economic factors account for 'the death penalty and serious mutilation'. 12 With respect to the galley as a form of punishment, their argument is consistent: 'What is significant in the development of the galley as a method of punishment is the fact that economic considerations alone were involved, not penal.'13 They conclude that the substitution of galley service for the death penalty was motivated not by humanitarianism but by economics.14 It is clear that the Marxist approach as employed by Rusche and Kirchheimer makes no effort to make intelligible the pre-modern system of punishment as a unique technology of power.
When they turn to the prison system their strategy remains the same. 'Of all the forces which were responsible for the new emphasis upon imprisonment as a punishment, the most important was the profit motive, both in the narrower sense of making the establishment pay and in the wider sense of making the whole penal system a part of the state's mercantilist program.'15 The object of knowledge made intelligible by the Marxist perspective consistently ignores all forms of domination that are not reducible to the mode of production. Bentham's Panopticon and the prisons that installed its principles in their architecture during the nineteenth century are not even mentioned. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rusche and Kirchheimer betray the close connection of Marxism to liberalism. They pay homage to the advance of the human sciences, as any good liberal would, but they have an explanation for the failure of criminology to lead to the
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solution of the question of crime.
There is a paradox in the fact that the progress of human knowledge has made the problem of penal treatment more comprehensible and more soluble than ever while the question of a fundamental revision in the policy of punishment seems to be further away today that ever before because of its functional dependence on a given social order (i.e. capitalism). 16
In this passage Rusche and Kirchheimer execute the Marxist tactic of unmasking liberal ideology: valid knowledge does not lead to social progress because of the interference of the capitalist mode of production. What is revealing is that they take at face value the purpose of the prison system: i.e. to solve the question of crime. Foucault takes a different approach, as we have seen, one that allows him to reveal a different sort of social maneuver. He considers the prison system not in terms of solving the problem of crime, but as instituting a system of power that is transferable to other social institutions and has its effect as a new structure of domination.
The point of this discussion is not to dismiss the Marxist case, only to indicate its limitations. Foucault in fact is careful to praise Rusche and Kirchheimer. He also notes connections between the history of prisons and the mode of production wherever he finds them. He relates 'the formation of disciplinary society' with 'a number of broad historical processes', among them the development of capitalism.' 17An important element in the conjuncture of the birth of prisons, he states, 'was the growth in the apparatus of production, which was becoming more and more extended and complex; it was also becoming more costly and its profitability had to be increased. The development of the disciplinary methods corresponded to these two processes, or rather, no doubt, to the new need to adjust their correlation.'18 More concretely, Foucault relates the increase in new forms of crime (illegalities,
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he calls them) to the emerging capitalist economy. One of the driving motives behind the reformers' quest for greater regularity of punishment than was offered by the Old Regimes' system of torture was the rapid increase in new types of theft., of crimes against property. Foucault repeats Marx's argument in 'The Case of the Wood Theft Laws': capitalism transformed the traditional rights of the poor into crimes against property. Traditional theft of small game, for example, 'while resented by the bourgeoisie where the ownership of land was concerned, was intolerable in commercial and industrial ownership: the development of ports, the appearance of great warehouses in which merchandise was stored, the organization of huge workshops. also necessitated a severe repression of iilegality.'19 Evidently, Foucault is not hostile to Marxist interpretive strategies. In fact, he admits that,
It is impossible at the present time to write history without using a whole range of concepts directly or indirectly linked to Marx's thought and situating oneself within a horizon of thought which has been defined and described by Marx. One might even wonder what difference there could ultimately be between being a historian and being a Marxist.20
Nevertheless Foucault finds Marxism insufficient. The conceptual arsenal of Marxism does not permit one to go beyond the mode of production to make intelligible the forms of domination that emerge at other points in social space and, in addition, to regard these forms of domination as conceptually distinct from the relations of production. For Marxists, prisoners and criminals are a marginal group. Analysis of their experience fails to reveal significant repressive apparatuses, nor does it make intelligible sources of radicality that contribute to the overthrow of the social order. For Foucault on the contrary, with his detotalized assumptions, systems of power and domination exist at
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multiple locations, each one being unique, and, as in the case of the Panopticon, some revealing at least as much about the repressive nature of modern society as the analysis of capitalist domination.
Since the appearance of Discipline and Punish Marxist historians of the prison have wrestled with the challenge Foucault's book presents to their theoretical assumptions. At least in two important cases, Michael Ignatieff's A Just Measure of Pain (1978) and Patricia O'Brien's The Promise of Punishment (1982), the test has been met in most satisfactory ways. Both Ignatieff and O'Brien acknowledge the value of Discipline and Punish and manage to integrate its advances into more traditionally Marxist approaches. A detotalized Marxist historiography may thus be compatible with Foucault's interpretive strategy.
Ignatieff explicitly takes Discipline and Punish as his point of departure. Given the features of the Panoptical penitentiary as Foucault analyses them, Ignatieff attempts to explain how at the ideological level the new system of punishment could be a progressive step. A Just Measure of Pain, he proposes,
. . . tries to establish why it came to be considered just, reasonable, and humane to immure prisoners in solitary cells, clothe them in uniforms, regiment their day to the cadence of the clock, and 'improve' their minds with dosages of scripture and hard labor. Between 1770 and 1840 this form of carceral discipline 'directed at the mind' replaced a cluster of punishments 'directed at the body - whipping, branding, the stocks, and public hanging. 21
Ignatieff accepts Foucault's critique of the liberal view of incarceration and seeks to push liberal ideology as far as he can so that an opening can be breached for a Marxist critique of it.
As a consequence of Foucault's study of prisons, the Marxist historian can no longer be satisfied with explaining
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directly the emergence of the penitentiary by the needs of the capitalist mode or production. At least one more step is now required: the logic of domination within the prison must be taken into account. The liberal position that prisons were a humane improvement over torture is not treated, as it was in Rusche and Kirchheimer., as a ruse of Capital whose interests were the 'underlying cause' of the new method of punishment. Instead, the Marxist historian may now confront the liberal position on its own grounds, questioning explicitly the moral advance of the bourgeois system of treating criminals.
Ignatieff frames his work in this more subtle Marxist strategy. His subtitle is 'The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution', a phrase that asserts the Marxist priority of the mode of production. But the specific issue he addresses is the ideological and political dimension of punishment: 'a study of prison discipline', he argues, 'necessarily becomes a study . . . of the moral boundaries of social authority in a society undergoing capitalist transformation.'22 Rather than simply looking at the machinations of the capitalist class, Ignatieff devotes the bulk of his study to the intellectual justifications of the prison system, especially as the political and cultural elite gradually becomes aware of its limitations. As the disturbing details of prison life intruded into public consciousness in nineteenth-century England (Ignatieff's field of research), the bastions of order were hard pressed to sustain their rosy image of the humanity of incarceration. And yet they did just that.
Ignatieff concludes therefore that the continued legitimacy afforded the prison system derived not from its inherently humane qualities, but from the imperatives of domination in bourgeois society. He concludes, as Foucault did, that the Panopticon instituted a technology of power that was its own political justification, belying its humanitarian claims:
The persistent support for the penitentiary is inexplicable so long
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as we assume that its appeal rested on its functional capacity to control crime. Instead, its support rested on a larger social need. It had appeal because the reformers succeeded in presenting it as a response, not merely to crime, but to the whole social crisis of a period, and as part of a larger strategy of political, social, and legal reform designed to reestablish order on a new foundation . . . it was seen as an element of a larger vision of order that by the 1840s commanded the reflexive assent of the propertied and powerful.23
The Marxist history of prisons thus confronts the political issue of a structure of domination not reducible to the mode of production.
O'Brien's history of prisons, in this case those of nineteenth-century France, responds to Discipline and Punish in a manner different from Ignatieff. The Promise of Punishment is framed as a social history, history 'from the bottom up'. As such it derives from E. P. Thompson's classic text, The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Thompson there revises the standard Marxist historical strategy by emphasizing the creative response of the oppressed to their conditions of life. The subjective side of the dialectic is reinvigorated, as the issue for Thompson is not the weight of capitalist structures on the proletariat but their resistance to them. The model Thompson provides has served well a new generation of Marxist social historians who are unhappy with merely enumerating the burdens suffered by the working class. 24
O'Brien's book is a credit to the tradition established by Thompson. With a humanity that avoids sentimentality, she analyses in depth the group of souls who inhabited the penitentiaries of France. She presents composite portraits of the male,, female and child prisoner, noting how their features change in the course of the nineteenth century. Unlike Foucault's account of the Panopticon, in which the impression is given that all prisoners were dealt with in the same
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fashion, O'Brien reveals how each category of prisoner presented unique problems for the penitentiary system and was handled in quite different ways. The single cell system, the standard for the adult male prisoner, was thought by many to be unsuitable for the female convict whose constitution was considered weaker than the male's and whose moral character was imagined to be more pliant. Child prisoners were in general not subject to the Panopticon at all, but secluded in rural work farms. Children were not isolated in cells but banded into living groups called 'families'. For the worst offenders the penitentiary was likewise unsuitable; they were shipped out to the infamous penal colonies. Thus the penitentiary was not at all a uniform system applied equally to all criminals. What is more, the nature of the criminal group required alterations in the system of punishment. In other words, the characteristics of the subjects led to variations in the technology of power employed. Foucault, it will be recalled, avoided reference to the subjects in his analysis. O'Brien's account of the variety of treatment of prisoners suggests that the subjects should indeed be brought into the historical drama. If this is not done the historian cannot describe or explain the limitations of the dissemination of the disciplinary system of punishment.
Not only did the objective traits of the prison population affect the nature and extent of the Panopticon model, but so too did the response of that group to their punishments. The prisoners, in O'Brien's account, were not an inert mass passively accepting the dictates of the new mode of domination. Rather they responded to the administration of their lives by resisting in different ways the impositions placed upon them. They rioted, they refused to participate in the routines established for them, they developed their own language, they tattooed their bodies, they engaged in illicit forms of sexuality - in short they created a prisoner subculture. This subculture established statuses, hierarchies and norms and was spread from prison to prison by the
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recidivists. The guards and prison authorities were helpless in eradicating this culture, even when, as in the case of homosexual practices, they regarded the behavior as noxious. O'Brien demonstrates for French prisoners what we know to be the case from studies of Nazi extermination camps: human beings have the capacity to resist even the most extreme forms of authority and the authorities inevitably accept most aspects of the subjugated group's culture because administration of the institution would collapse without it. The impression left by Discipline and Punish of the passivity of prisoners faced with Panoptical regimentation must be corrected. Of course, Foucault does not argue that the prisoners obeyed the guards. He says very little about the response of the prisoners to the new system of authority, since he is only concerned with the characteristics of the new technology of power. Nevertheless, O'Brien's construction of the culture of the prisoners as an active creation of resistance serves as a valuable corrective to Foucault's work.
There are still other features of The Promise of Punishment that illuminate the history of prisons. In the course of the nineteenth century French prisons became factories: they produced commodities for the market. Prison labor was organized and supervised most often by businessmen who significantly were placed in charge of the surveillance and discipline of the inmates. The administration of the Panopticon was not solely the work of the guards, but was shared by capitalists. If the new technology of power spread to the capitalist mode of production, or indeed was partly influenced by it, one need look no further than this group of entrepreneurs for the link between prison and factory. Moreover, the work of the prisoners brought them into conflict with the working class. In some instances prison production presented a challenge to the proletariat; the prisoners were a cheap source of labor in competition with the 'free' labor market. In all of these ways O'Brien adds a new dimension to our understanding of the relation between capitalism and
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the penitentiary. In contrast to Rusche and Kirchheimer, Foucault is right to assert that the capitalist mode of production did not 'determine' the origins and nature of the prison system. But the actual relationship between the two institutions is more complicated than that. The prison served as a training ground for capitalists in. the new technology of power and it spawned a 'class struggle' pitting inmates against the proletariat, developments that fit neatly into neither the traditional Marxist nor Foucault's model.
O'Brien concludes her social history of the prison from the bottom up with a revised image of the prisoner class. In the early nineteenth century prisoners were seen by the élites as a segment of the working class. They were a group born to and created by conditions of poverty. The couplet laboring classes, dangerous classes' summed up the prevalent attitude toward criminals. By the end of the century the criminal 'element' was no longer associated with the proletariat. The Panopticon had produced 'the hardened criminal', a new social type whose recidivism could be explained not as a consequence of poverty but as a result of life in the penitentiary itself. The emerging human science of criminology and associated disciplines produced 'knowledge' about the criminal class that thwarted attempts to identify it solely with the proletariat. Specific traits of heredity and personality were the new determinants of social disorder. It is a fascinating story: the new technology of power is set into place; its subjects resist; recidivism emerges as an index of the failure of liberalism; a human science is born which 'explains' the failure in a way that deflects blame from the bourgeoisie and relocates it in the remote realms of genetics and psychology, indirectly legitimizing the Panopticon.
The Promise of Punishment adds immeasurably to the accomplishment of Discipline and Punish. In that way it only reinforces the argument against totalizing historical theory. At the same time it eloquently speaks for the combination of Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives. And yet
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the question of the status of the subject in Foucault's discourse and more generally a theory of resistance remains open. Foucault's chief argument remains intact: the disciplinary technology of power is made intelligible only by constituting the historical field outside the perspectives of the subject. And yet, thus constituted the object of history (discourse/practice) is inadequate in accounting for resistance.
The achievement of Discipline and Punish goes beyond its value for a history of prisons in the nineteenth century. It raises in addition questions about a form of domination in the twentieth century and it does so in two distinct ways. First, Foucault's text analyses the disciplinary technology of power in relation to surveillance. As I indicated above, new technologies concerned with electronic information extend the reach of surveillance far beyond its nineteenth-century limits. The vast ability of the established authorities to gather information about individuals or groups places in question or even eliminates the distinction between the public and the private. At this time it is not possible to estimate the impact on the population of this surveillance capability.
There is another side to the question of surveillance, one that is more indirect than the monitoring of individuals. Discipline and Punish astutely draws a connection between surveillance and normalization. The prison was designed to rehabilitate criminals, to re-orient their minds and behavior in a manner closer to that of the non-criminal, normal population. Crime is abnormal. The guards are trained to be alert to deviations from the norms of the penitentiary routines. Implicit in surveillance systems is the criterion of the norm. Surveillance selects out for examination those items that are different from the norm. A black man walking at night in a white suburban neighborhood is suspect. Loud laughter or dance-like movements in an exclusive department store are signs that alert the security system. Normalization is disseminated throughout daily life and secured through surveillance monitoring.
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Still another level removed from the surveillance of prisoners pertains to surveillance through the electronic communications media. These information systems rely upon normalizing criteria in constituting their audiences. The communications media speak to the population, but they do so without the feedback information of two-way conversations. They are constrained to organize their emissions in such a manner that the receiver can accept them. The receiver must be a general receiver, without too many individualized traits, not a real person but a fictionalized norm of a person. By the same token, the receiver of the message must transform him or herself into the norm in order to comprehend the message as it was intended. The receiver must become the norm. One can resist, at least for a while. A literary critic watching a TV show can maintain a distance and take note of grammatical mistakes, vulgar characterization, and so forth. A black person can be aware, that the values implicit in the show are racist. A recent immigrant can recognize the alien mores of a different culture in network dramas. Yet inevitably each one will gradually accept the norms displayed on the screen and come to regard them as the real norms. It is fair to say that the result of the receiver's self-transformation is a kind of surveillance practiced continuously in advanced industrial society. The mode of information enormously extends the reach of normalizing surveillance, constituting new modes of domination that have yet to be studied.
The second way that Foucault's text raises questions about the mode of domination in the twentieth century concerns the concept of discourse and the treatment of language more generally. Against the assertion that Discipline and Punish should be interpreted as a history of prisons Foucault counters that it must be evaluated in relation to a history of reason:
What is at stake in the 'birth of the prison'? French society in a given period? No. Delinquency in the 18th and 19th centuries? No. Prisons in France between 1760 and 1840? Not even that . . .
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In short it is a question of a chapter in the history of 'punitive reason '. 25
Foucault's topic is thus discourse, discourse of a certain type.
As we have seen, in the case of prisons Foucault relates the discourses of certain human sciences to the practices instituted in the penitentiary. The couplet discourse/practice is intended to bypass the traditional separation between attitudes and behavior, language and action in the historical field. Critical social theory has not looked favorably on positions rooted in theories of language, such as Foucault's concept of discourse. In The German Ideology Marx relegated language to a minor place in social theory.
From the start the 'spirit' bears the curse of being 'burdened' with matter which makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, in the form of language. Language is as old as consciousness. It is practical consciousness which exists also for other men and hence exists for me personally as well. Language, like consciousness, only arises [entsteht] from the need and necessity of relationships with other men. 26
The 'need and necessity of relationships with other men' becomes the central concern of historical materialism. Language tends to be analyzed in the form of ideology, as obscuring and mystifying human relationships. Workers act; the bourgeoisie justifies the structure of action through language.
Foucault's concept of discourse must be viewed in this light if its advantages are to be grasped. First, Foucault rejected the split between knowledge and power, discourse and practice. Since, as Nietzsche had shown, knowledge was a form of power and since power created and shaped practice rather than limited it, discourse was deeply implicated in the critique of domination. This strategy required that discourse be analyzed not as a form of consciousness, not as an expression
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of the subject, but as a form of positivity. The rejection of the subjectivity of discourse led Foucault in The Archeology of Knowledge to elaborate a new set of categories that would allow discourse to stand on its own as a form of power.
I shall abandon any attempt...to sec discourse as a phenomenon of expression - the verbal translation of a previously established synthesis; instead, I shall look for a field of regularity for various positions of subjectivity. Thus conceived, discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject, and his discontinuity with himself may be determined.27
This is a concept of discourse (language) appropriate to a critical theory of the mode of information, one that, properly understood, remains materialist because it points to the analysis of modes of domination in contemporary social space.
Historical materialism is based on the conviction that the object of historical knowledge cannot be ideas, because the ideas that people hold about social existence do not determine their existence. Marx formulated this salutary principle at a time when historical thinking, especially in Germany, was indeed idealist. At that time however, in the mid-nineteenth century, vast social changes were occurring in the organization of political and economic action. A theory grounded in idealism was particularly unsuited to lay bare the structures of these political and economic transformations. But what must become of historical materialism at a time when the structures of linguistic experience are undergoing drastic change - when bureaucracies accumulate extensive files on the population; when visual and aural electronic impulses (TV, telephone, radio, film) constitute significant portions of the communications in everyday life; when commodities are produced through the mediation of computers and sold through the mediation of clusters of
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meanings generated by advertising teams; when political processes are shaped by mass communication devices; when the digital logic of the computer threatens to extend itself into every corner of the social world; when the human sciences and the natural sciences are integrated into the systems of social control and reproduction? In this context, historical materialism must do more than calculate rates of exploitation and declining profit margins. It must do more than demonstrate the alienated conditions of the act of labor. Indeed, it must take into account these new forms of language; it must develop categories to analyze the patterns of domination and distortion inherent in their contemporary usage, and it must examine the historical stages of their development.
Employing only the traditional categories of Marxism, perhaps adjusted by the traditions of Western Marxism, one would learn how the new systems of language serve the ruling class and are controlled to some degree by them.28 While that is a valid enterprise, it is not by itself adequate for the analysis of the mode of information. Foucault's recent work is useful precisely on this account. Discipline and Punish avoids centering critical theory on a totalizing concept of labor. It grasps structures of domination in their specificity and, while relating different patterns of domination to each other, resists the temptation to reduce one to another. In addition, the book employs a notion of discourse, elaborated further in The History of Sexuality, which sanctions the analysis of language yet avoids grounding it in subjectivity. Critical theory thus has an example of an examination of a structure of domination in language that is not rooted in idealist assumptions. For these reasons aspects of Foucault's methodology are valuable for a critical theory of the mode of information. In chapter 6, I shall present the main outlines of the concept of the mode of information. Before, doing that I must examine The History of Sexuality, paying particular attention to the development by Foucault of the concept of discourse.
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- Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings,1972- 1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), p. 53.
- Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon, 1977), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 114.
- Ibid., p. 197.
- Ibid., p. 201.
- Ibid., p. 200.
- I do not mean to adopt the standard attitude toward the spread of computer technology: that is, that it will solve all society's problems and will replace all other forms of technology. An excellent example of an analysis of the introduction of one computer technology is found in Rob Kling, 'Value Conflicts and Social Choice, in Electronic Funds Transfer System Developments', Communications of the ACM, Vol. 21, No. 8 (August, 1978), pp. 642-57. Kling demonstrates how the values and interests of various social groups are affected b the introduction of a new computer technology. The resulting picture is shaded in grays; different groups are affected differently, some benefit, some do not. Only naive ideologists can make themselves believe in an utopia through computers.
- Discipline and Punish, p. 304.
- Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer, Punishment and Social Structure (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968, original edition 1939), trans. M. Finkelstein, p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Ibid., p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 55.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- Ibid., p. 68-9.
- Ibid., p. 207.
- Discipline and Punish, p. 218.
- Ibid., p. 85.
- Power/Knowledge, p. 53.
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- Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), p. xiii.
- Ibid., p. 2 10.
- Patricia A. O'Brien, The Promise of Punishment: Prisons in Nineteenth Century France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982). See also her essay, 'Crime and Punishment as Historical Problem', Journal of Social History (1978), pp. 508-20, where she evaluates Discipline and Punish.
- Michelle Perrot (ed.), L'Impossible Prison: Recherches sur le système pénitentiaire au XIXe siècle (Paris: Editions du Seuil,1980), p. 33
- Easton and Guddat, eds., The Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (New York: Anchor, 1967), p. 421.
- The Archeology of Knowledge, p. 55.
- Herbert Schiller, Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500 (New York: Ablex, 1981).