Torture, Punishment, and Discipline: Reading Foucault

I began last semester terrified that I would have to read brilliant French philosopher, historian, and social critic Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975).  It is an intimidating work and seemed so dense and heavy.  I didn’t think I would like it much, and I assumed that the week of having to read it would be the worst of my academic life so far.

I was wrong.  It was delightful.  Well, as delightful as a history of the prison system can be, but you know what I mean.  I ended up using Foucault’s ideas and theories to interpret the data a colleague and I gathered for a research project on Google Analytics this semester.  We focused on discipline and surveillance.

The book has three main parts: Torture, Punishment, and Discipline.  The book opens with a description of a man being tortured for his crime, a true account from 1757.  While his punishment of being burned, drawn, and quartered seems harsh, Foucault examines how punishing the body publicly was a huge part of government control and power back in those days.  A sovereign had to inscribe his power on the bodies of those who tried to overtake him or undermine his authority.  Not only did the punishment and the torture ensure that the offending individual would never live to see another day of treason again, but it warned all of the other citizens that they too would meet the same fate if they did not comply with the laws of the king.  Spectacle, while it seems gruesome and uncivilized, worked to make the sovereign’s power visible to his people and to serve as a warning of what would happen to those who break the law.

Punishment later turned into another form of controlling the body: locking it up in prison.  This form of punishment became less physically painful and more focused on the psychological burden of being alone, being watched through the Panopticon, and being away from one’s family and freedom.  The Panopticon is a building designed with a central tower that can see every jail cell, but the occupants of those cells cannot see the person watching them in tower and therefore never know if they are being watched.  This is a psychological form of control.  It is essentially “Big Brother,” and the internet and governments function in much the same way today.  We are all being watched online, but we really don’t “know” it and it happens in such an invisible way that most of us don’t think about it or let it really bother us.


All of this torture and punishment is meant to discipline, which is where the prison system headed after spectacle and bloody bodily punishment.  We now imprison criminals to reeducate them.  We want them to change, transform, be rehabilitated, or conform to societal norms.  We attempt this by locking them up.  (It isn’t very successful.)  Prison systems then become systems of education, and for those who do not accept the discipline of being reeducated as a “normal” citizen, they end up back in prison.  Interestingly, as this serves as a form of education, so, too, is education a form of discipline.  The fields are divided up and called “disciplines” and we are fated “to be redefined by knowledge” (p. 22).  However, Foucault warned, “But we must not be misled; these techniques merely refer individuals from one disciplinary authority to another, and they reproduce, in a concentrated or formalized form, the schema of power-knowledge proper to each discipline” (p. 226-227).

As I read this book, I marked it up and began filling its pages with pink sticky notes.  I wanted to make sure I remembered which pages were pertinent to my research and upcoming comprehensive exams.  I wanted to make sure that I read the heck out of this book.  And I did.  But when I got to class, I was teased for it.  One of my classmates made a point of saying something snarky about my marked up book (pictured below) on two separate occasions, claiming that I had done it to look good for the professor (who is my adviser).  It was annoying, but my adviser just thought the situation was ridiculous, and I eventually told this student to stop teasing me.  (This student also pronounced Foucault with the “T” at the end, so I laughed at him privately all semester.)  Anyway, it all worked out, but apparently reading a book with enthusiasm and studiousness will get you teased in a Ph.D. program.  Who would’ve thought?

discipline and punish cover

This book is long and dense, but so interesting.  I’ve only touched on a fraction of the ideas in the book, but I was enthralled by it and learned much from it.  It served as a way of disciplining me in my field and in the language of prominent critical theory.  I plan to apply the ideas to other research.  Foucault’s observations about prison are not limited to that institution.  They play out in all of our lives every day.