Discipline and punish “debunked”

Standing in the well of a jail on New York’s Rikers Island as profanities rain down on you from the cells above, you realize the absurdity of academia’s most celebrated book on incarceration. Discipline and Punish, by the late French historian Michel Foucault, criticized jails and prisons for subjecting inmates to constant, spirit-crushing surveillance. The truth is that surveillance goes both ways in correctional facilities. Inmates watch their keepers as intensely as they are watched—and usually much more malignly.

So begins a piece in City Journal by Heather MacDonald. Apart from obvious non-Foucauldian flubs such as “spirit-crushing” one might welcome a critical reappraisal of D&P. Here are the charges against it:

1. It is implied that it is ” romantic” and academic, divorced from brutal reality
2. Criminal behavior is controlled in non-Foucauldian ways 9unspecified)
3. Prisoners surveill back. Conclusion: “Like surveillance, power in jails flows between officers and inmates in multiple directions.”
4. “Left to its own devices, inmate society is not carnivalesque spontaneity, as the Foucauldians might have us believe.”

Pretty weak tea if this really is a debunking as the New Statesman called it. Not too hard to see Foucault nodding in agreement about point 3 for example.

MacDonald admits right away that her descriptions are focused on American jails, rather than prisons. Foucault of course did the opposite and then (despite a couple of digressions into Philadelphia’s old prisons) mainly French examples in the 19th century without a view to developing a general theory of modern criminality. He did have more to say in other works of course, notably about the concept of the dangerous individual.

Apart from the way the piece is hung on Foucault without ever engaging directly with Foucault (a kind of name exploitation) the piece is quite eye-opening about conditions in American jails. It’s pretty clear that they have become the locus of last resort when there are no alternatives (state provided or otherwise) to deal with the homeless and mentally ill.

In fact what she describes is more like the Wire than an anti-Foucault and all the better for it. So read beyond the article’s hook if you want to get anything out of it.

MacDonald argues that “order through discipline” and surveillance are necessary because they reduce inmate violence and officer corruption. She also argues that surveillance is inadequate.

This is her conclusion:

But the order that the lobbyists, academic critics, and neo-Foucauldians see as oppressive is inmates’ only hope for safety and even, perhaps, rehabilitation. The recent insights of urban policing—that order matters, that small violations lead to greater crimes, and that information must be gathered and analyzed—are all equally pertinent to jails, where chaos and corruption always threaten.

Again, all very Foucauldian (did she think Foucault said discipline was applied for no reason?).

6 Responses

  1. She does realise that Foucault used history to make philosophical points, yeah? That disciplining is about the constitution of a subject that internalises the surveillance, etc. Or the ‘gaze’ is partially discursive the way it shapes our vision?

  2. These kind of misunderstandings of the book aren’t new. Even people who claim to be fans of the book interpret Foucault’s book in this way.

    From the looks of this post, it seems that the time has come to put Discipline and Punish on a list with Das Kapital, The Prince and The Will to Power as among the most misunderstood works of power-philosophy in the history of Western thought.

  3. I can’t help but agree with Chathan completely. During my undergraduate years I had half a dozen professors interpret D&P in much the same way Ms. McDonald does in her piece. All too often I would get into arguments about the panopticon chapter; which is completely over-used at universities.

    It does not take much imagination to picture Ms. McDonald as one of the light readers in any of my classes. Then again, I don’t hold out much hope for the state of journalism to improve either.

  4. “I would get into arguments about the panopticon chapter; which is completely over-used at universities.”

    Well said John.

    I would also go on to say that while Discipline and Punish is by itself a fine book, it is still widely over-referenced when it comes to discussions about Foucault’s ideas on power. Too many people focus on disciplinary/panoptic power without at all considering the further developments of Foucault’s work such as complex notions of biopolitics and later governmentality, as well as his later work on the care of the self and parrhesia. I once talked about governmentality with a friend of mine when we were discussing Foucault and he was like “what? Did Foucault really talk about that? I thought his idea of power is that we’re all being watched like prisoners?”

  5. The “fault” of D&P – as it was with the History of Sexuality – was in its accessibility. In the sense of being able to concept-drop at a dinner-party a condensed version of Foucault’s work from the mid-70’s onward.

    Unlike Deleuze or Derrida and possibly via his publisher/public image, Foucault’s work was buzz-ridden with normative cliches. “Panopticism” is easily explained, or rather shrunk to an idea that can then be exchanged in simple conceptual currency.

    I’d be less inclined to defend F over an idea as petty and ill-thought out as MacDonald’s appears to be. She can easily be attacked on more even-ground (perhaps a general discussion on the nature of prisons, rather than D&P, for example).

    As it stands, the book is not used by any modern work in crime and rehabilitation nor is it the theoretical demi-cause celebre of “academic” prison reform.

    Interestingly though Paul Virillio claims Fouc ripped the central thesis off one of his MA undergraduates!

    • I think Derrida also kind of fell victim to that type of cliche. Especially his work on “deconstruction”. Deconstruction is a huge buzzword in contemporary academia and his work is parodied as an ivory tower of obscure nihilistic thought.
      Quite obscene but still a reality.

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