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?).


Lettres de cachet: La vie des hommes infâmes

The Foucault Archives have released materials (sound file and manuscript facsimiles) from Foucault’s work with Arlette Farge, Michelle Perrot, and André Béjin on the so-called “lettres de cachet.”

This work is perhaps one of the most important remaining texts that has not seen an English translation.

Brief sound clip (in French).

Foucault’s manuscript page corrected typescript.

Foucault vs. Baudrillard, round 10

Knockout punch for Baudrillard? Accuses Foucault of being non-normative and prescriptive and therefore powerless.

However this leads me to another problem with Foucault’s theories which has been commented on many times before. Namely, that it does not begin from any normative basis. This has two consequences which are extremely important:

(1) His language mirrors that which it criticises. Baudrillard put it extremely succinctly – provided you’ve wasted enough time figuring out how decipher post-structuralist jargon:

“Foucault’s discourse is a mirror of the power relations he describes. Its strength and seduction lie there, and not in its ‘truth’ index….. No, its strength and its seduction are in the analysis which unwinds the subtle meanderings of its object, describing it with tactile and tactical exactness, where seduction feeds analytical force and WHERE LANGUAGE ITSELF GIVES BIRTH TO THE OPERATION OF NEW POWERS. Such is also the operation of myth, right down to the symbolic effectiveness described by Levi-Strauss. Foucault’s is not therefore a discourse of truth but a mythic discourse in the strong sense of the word, and I secretly believe that it has no illusions about the effects of truth it produces.” (Baudrillard, Forget Foucault p.30 – My Emphasis)

The point is that since Foucault’s theories claim to be ones of praxis if his discourse does in fact directly “mirror the power relations he describes” the solutions he proposes will necessarily be of this nature also. Here’s an analogy: imagine all you ever learnt was a very strict variant of neo-classical economic theory and you wished to help build a socialist economy. You’d necessarily be unable to do so because the very language which you use to organise economic functions already contains too many presuppositions. Similarly Foucault’s language is one of “power” and yet the problems he highlights are also ones of “power”. Thus the term “power” is completely ambivalent – it is both good AND bad. (Towards the end of his life he began to realise this, especially in his last few lecture series, but these are generally ignored in most people’s use of Foucault’s thought).

From a discussion in the Left Business Observer (LBO) list.

Blog discussion of The Wire

A discussion of the HBO series The Wire over at Matt Yglesias’ blog at the Atlantic centers on politics, urban development, and how realistic the show is.

One of the issues is whether the show is too bleak. Obviously for American TV it is on the bleak side, but that’s irrelevant to whether the show is getting at something real or not. Is it that institutions are fundamentally corrupted in modern America? By contrast, another popular TV show on politics, the West Wing, featured perhaps the typical neoliberal politicians who fundamentally bought into the system and just played around at the edges (based on Bill Clinton obviously).

David Simon (creator and writer of the Wire) found the discussion and left this comment:

The Wire is dissent; it argues that our systems are no longer viable for the greater good of the most, that America is no longer operating as a utilitarian and democratic experiment. If you are not comfortable with that notion, you won’t agree with some of the tonalities of the show. I would argue that people comfortable with the economic and political trends in the United States right now — and thinking that the nation and its institutions are equipped to respond meaningfully to the problems depicted with some care and accuracy on The Wire (we reported each season fresh, we did not write solely from memory) — well, perhaps they’re playing with the tuning knobs when the back of the appliance is in flames.

I don’t think you’ll find many such voices on US or UK TV willing to say that (outside of documentary makers).

The critical point here is that the show is about the failure of modern politics as much as anything else (as a commentator notes).

What is to be done about that? Someone else uses the Foucault quote “it’s not that everything is bad, it’s that everything is dangerous” to illustrate this:

Simon is pessimistic about the possibilities of maintaining such change, and very clear that change is dangerous, but we see possibilities here, and we wish it would continue.

I think of a great Foucault quote from the later interviews. He said, “It’s not that I think everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous.” This led him to engage in what he described as pessimistic hyper-activism.

It’s interesting here that danger engenders activism, rather than say passivity.

Return of the panopticon? New super prisons in the UK

New Titan super-prisons have been proposed for the UK to deal with overcrowding:

 And yet the next generation of prisons is to be the Titan, giant super-prisons packed with biometric scanners and other gadgetry. Despite all this new technology, a quick glance at the early plans for the Titans conjure up echoes of their Victorian ancestors.

Dwarfing anything in the current system, a key quality will be “optimal sight lines which would result in better staff utilisation and deliver staff savings”.

Such a demand harks back to a crucial crossroads in the development of Britain’s prisons at the beginning of the 19th Century.

“To induce… a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.”

This could be a criticism from one of the opponents of Britain’s “CCTV society”. In fact, it is from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s attack on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a landmark concept in the British prison system.

Via BBC 

New Google streetview for Philadelphia. Here’s the Eastern State Penitentiary

Google released Streetview for 6 new cities a few days ago including Philadelphia. I’ve navigated to the Eastern State Penitentiary and you can see it in this link.

Incredibly the one street they didn’t drive is right in front of the penitentiary so you have to see it from the corner! So no front-on shots for people going to Halloween…


Halloween and Eastern State Penitentiary: Terror Behind the Walls

It’s that time of year again. Eastern State Penitentiary (which I’ve blogged about below) is holding its annual Halloween festivities.

Known as “Terror Behind the Walls” this is one of Philadelphia’s hottest tickets for the month of October (fright nights run throughout the whole month!).

For more information, go to the Penitentiary website here.

(The Foucault connection: he discusses the penitentiary in Discipline & Punish.)