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.


59 thoughts on “Torture, Punishment, and Discipline: Reading Foucault

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  1. The book does look a bit intimidating, and very pink, but that was no excuse to harass you over it. People do seem to regress more and more into childish pettiness as they grow older. About the book itself, the progression from physical to psychological control exercised by authorities over time is very interesting. Does the author also comment upon the shifting definitions of social norms, and shifting modes of ‘discipline’ that came along with it?

    1. Yes, the book does cover shifting modes of discipline and just the overall idea of what is normal and how do we try to enforce that normality on the “other.” It is such a great book, even if heavy and dense!

  2. Emily, I must confess, this would probably not be on my list to read, were it not for your comments. I agree with Pianolearner’s comments about the teasing over your preparation and notes. Best wishes and I like the pink sticky notes concept. Take care, BTG

    1. I definitely would’ve never read this without an assignment to do so. I’m glad I did, though. I am looking forward to taking my comp exams because of those sticky notes. I will be able to find whatever I need in all of the texts I will be using.

  3. I’ve always thought of reading Foucault akin to climbing a large mountain: the burn feels pretty good, and the views from the top are spectacular. Along this same vein, I think there may be a market for bumper stickers “I read ‘Discipline and Punish’, and totally got it.” Very nice summary of salient points!

    1. So true! Exactly like climbing a mountain and there should be bumper stickers. I saw a bag once that said, “I like big books and I cannot lie.” The Discipline and Punish sticker could be part of that line of products!

  4. Most of my books for class look like that and instead of teasing me people try to look at what I’ve written and copy it down. It actually worries me a little…do people really put that little work into their studies now!? Most people in my classes don’t do the readings at all and just rely on the lectures alone (I’m in an undergraduate program right now)

    1. Seriously! Why are they in school if they can’t do their own work or they don’t care enough to study hard? I totally hear you! I expected to be pushed by my classmates, but instead I feel like I am alone.

      1. “Why are they in school if they can’t do their own work or they don’t care enough to study hard?” – hear hear!

        There are a few people in my group at university who turn up to classes and make it clear that they would rather be somewhere else. I probably sound like a little miss goody-two-shoes but I always do my work on time and put a lot of effort into it. I think it’s an insult to the lecturers and professors to turn up to classes and look bored.

  5. I think Foucault is the most readable of the French theorists I encountered in grad school. And Kay is right: your classmate sounds obnoxious. And foolish. Do you have to take oral exams/comps? If so, I hope he gets a question about Foucault.

        1. I think he’s already made plenty of bad impressions on professors. He can’t help it. But it would be more satisfying if his grade were tied to them.

  6. I’ve really liked reading some of Foucault’s work. I have not read Discipline & Punish, though. It sounds really interesting. Does he cover the punishment of the insane or how mentally ill people were imprisoned? I’ve read parts of his History of Madness but I’m very curious if he re-touches on that in the theme of discipline and punishment. I might have to pick this up and trudge through it. I like the other comment that reading this kind of book is like climbing a mountain with all the tenacity required and then the rewards. I love the pink posties!

    1. Thanks, Denise. I don’t remember much about mental illness in this one. It was more about law and order. I want to read more of his work now. Would you recommend History of Madness? What else of his should I look at? And yes, the mountain climbing metaphor is perfect!

      1. I would absolutely recommend History of Madness. Although I only read assigned parts of it for a class long ago, I wish I’d kept the text because I would like to go back and read it in whole. I would also recommend his volumes on sexuality, which are an absolute foundation to a modern understanding of gender and queer theory. Foucault fascinates me. He really was a brilliant theorist.

  7. I tried to find this book at my school library, but sadly, they don’t think high schoolers should be reading it. 😦 they rather let us read about sex and drugs. *sarcasm* LOL. Great post!

  8. haha oh my goodness, reading the title I thought this was going to be a scathing review! But I’m glad you ended up enjoying it—or at least learning from it. I’ve only read a tiny little bit of Foucault for a class on existentialism, but I found myself relishing his ideas, turning them over & over in my head.

    I’m sorry to hear about that nasty student! It’s strange to think you’d get made fun of for that. As an undergrad, whenever I marked up a book like you’ve done here, I’d get glances of admiration and whispered questions such as “how on earth did you find the time to do that?!” So that would be my response to your deep reading!

    1. Why, thank you! Finally somebody who appreciates my style. I actually used to never write in books, but I read a great essay by Mortimer J. Adler advocating that we should mark them up and devour them and keep notes to helps us remember, so I started and now I’m hooked. It makes it hard to read library copies now.

  9. I rememember reading Foucault in Literary Theory and struggling to slog through his dense and brilliant ideas!
    I found it interesting how you mentioned that since prisoners by disciplines are educated to attempt to reform, in term, education becomes a form of discipline. Unfortunately, some high school classes felt like that!

  10. Hmm..I don’t usually read books like these..but I might give it a try! 🙂
    Great post!
    -The Reading Girl

  11. I find it absurd that your classmate teased you about it. People can be very strange and silly sometimes. Hats off to you for reading and actually enjoying the book ,Emily. I really liked your review, very deep. It’s funny how books that are old, long, and dense can still benefit us today. I remember reading The Prince by Machiavelli for my undergrad and shared the same reflections about how the points he made play out in lives everyday. 🙂

    1. Thank you for the support! Yes, people can be silly, me included. But you’d think in this situation… And yes to deep books crossing time and generations.

  12. Great post, it’s quite rare to find a blog review for such a ‘difficult’ book. Now I’m seriously tempted to put it in my reading list Thanks for sharing with us!

  13. You were punished for your discipline, alas. I love marking up my texts, and all the Norton anthologies I use for class have several levels of brightly-colored Avery index tabs that you can write on and stick to your pages. Ah, office supplies. . . I shall write thee an ode.

  14. Thank you for a thought-provoking piece, one of many you have written. I suggest there is a confusion here between the political and the criminal prisoner – and I also wonder if we have really moved as far as Foucault suggests?

    What conclusions can we draw when faced with the images of humiliation, and hearing about the use of torture (that’s what it is, surely) not to mention the suspension of habeas corpus, a propos the prisoners held for years in Guantanamo? From the perspective of Egypt, where I live, thousands are now in jail without trial, as far as I am aware, following the round-up of demonstrators and political opponents of the (unelected) ‘authorities’. In both cases we appear to be a long way from the Rule of Law. Yet these are not isolated instances, and it is worrying that many are happening out of sight – secrecy is not necessarily preferable to the awful public spectacle of the earlier period. I see a clear link between the king setting an example (you mention for treason) in the first section and where we are now.

    Concerning the second phase of imprisonment, the psychological and material effects were devastating well beyond the prisoner: as I understand it, Charles Dickens’ life was for ever coloured by the trauma of his father’s imprisonment for debt. Ruthlessly depriving a man of freedom without recourse to justice was justified by the reasoning: the debt had to be paid (how, if the breadwinner was in prison?) According to British lawyer Helena Kennedy this kind of thing was still happening in the UK fairly recently, only it was more likely to be women (mothers!) thrown into jail for non-payment of a fine for not having a television licence – this is how we fund the BBC. Who cared for the children?!

    I like your anecdote about your hostile colleague: it reminds me of a very unwise admission once to a group of Book Club friends that my favourite novel was “War and Peace.” ‘Intellectualism’ being frowned upon, you could have heard a pin drop. Now, I hedge: there are too many of them to select one – or even ten!

    1. What a great comment. You make some clear connections to the use of modern-day torture and spectacle. While it seems that Foucault’s book is historical, it is clearly connected to us in ways that are just as frightening and physical as they were then. You make some fantastic points. Thank you for commenting!

  15. I know I am reading old posts, so I’m sorry for the very late comment. I hope you know that if I ever tease you about your studiousness it’s out of admiration rater than disdain.

      1. Hey, most welcome! Was doing a comp lit PhD at Stanford, actually taught the first-ever queer studies undergrad class there, then got sucked into software development. So of course was steeped into Foucault.

        Just getting back to blogging. I started back in 2003, developed a decent readership, pretty high google rank…and then got bored.. let it slip and even lost my domain name. It was apparently bought by a porn outfit for over $5000 😢.

        I had backed up the database, but this was the pre-cloud days. Lost *all* my content, some 5,000 to 10,000 posts and hundreds of pages of writing.

        Not sure *how* to go about blogging now when it’s so very crowded. Back then, I linked to other bloggers (Matthew Yglesias back then was one of the early guys), they linked back to me, and at least some people came to knew the blog existed.

        So figuring out how this works now. Oddly enough used to know the WordPress codebase pretty well, from when the *entire* content presentation logic was contained on the index.php page itself.

        Now, not quire so sure how re-blogging works. Initially setup a free blog on but then switched to one hosted on GoDaddy, but now WordPress actually links them. I am trying to reblog though my “main” blog, which is (damn, you know, I probably should have made those melons plural, but sorta too late now). But I think the re-blogging is happening only on my blog. Which…might not be too bad, could keep it as a “link” blog. Only problem is, won’t get people reading the “real” blog. Not that there is much there now.

        Thanks for listening to me blather.

        Just started reading your blog an enjoying it. If you’ve followed me back though, I assume it’s connecting you to the… even though I’ve gone to setting and listed the other one as primary. And I go on to bather…

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