Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Stabbing at Foucault

Abstract of Michel Foucault’s “The Body of the Condemned” from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

by Tyson Livingston

Description of Article

This piece is the first chapter of the book and also serves as an introduction to the topics and methods of research used for the book. Foucault begins by providing a description of a public execution that occurred in 1757. The description is gleaned from a number of eyewitness accounts and reveals the physically brutal and torturous nature of this type of execution. He then compares this event to a “daily schedule” for prisoners that was written about eighty years after this execution had taken place. Foucault acknowledges that these are examples of different situations with different crimes, but he shows them as representations of two different types of penal styles.

The chapter then focuses on the historical shift from this type of torturous public display of punishment to the modern penal system that we have now in most of the western world. Foucault gives two reasons for this. First, the disappearance of punishment as spectacle (8), and second, the slackening of the hold on the body (10). His discussion of these topics also leads to another key element of this chapter, which is that our modern justice system does not judge merely the criminal act, but the passions and normalcy of the accused. He indicates that “the soul also is to be judged and share in the punishment” (18).

The next section of the chapter launches into a description of the goals of the book, and the core methods Foucault uses in his study. He indicates that the book is a “correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge...” (23). The four guiding “rules” of the study are, in short, 1) Regard punishment as a complex social function, 2) Regard punishment as a political tactic, 3) make the technology of power the very principle both of the humanization of the penal system and of the knowledge of man, and 4) Try to discover whether this entry of the soul on to the scene of penal justice, and with it the insertion in legal practice of a whole corpus of ‘scientific’ knowledge, is not the effect of a transformation of the way in which the body itself is invested by power relations (23-4). Foucault finishes the chapter by providing information about other theorists who have had similar ideas and describing in greater detail the foundational ideas of their and his research.

Key Terms

Penal System
Technology of Power
Micro-Physics of Power
Corpus of Knowledge
Power-Knowledge Relations

Comments and Questions:

This is the first time I have read any Foucault, though I have obviously heard him referenced numerous times, and I have to admit that I found the first chapter of the book much more interesting than I expected. Some of the ideas that initially jumped out at me are physical pain being a possible unintentional but inevitable byproduct of imprisonment — can you have a gilded cage? — and especially the idea that in modern penal systems “an army of technicians” takes over the job of the executioner, that the “immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists; by their very presence near the prisoner, they singe the praises that the law needs: they reassure it that the body and pain are not the ultimate objects of its punitive action” (10). Foucault’s take on the formation of this group, and that they are a result of the interplay of knowledge-power relations within the justice and penal system is extremely fascinating.

Foucault’s ideas of power relations are a little different than I previously understood them. That power constitutes a “network of relations, constantly in tension, in activity, rather than a privilege that one might possess” (26) is a slight shift from how I have traditionally viewed such relations. I tend to think of it as haves and haves not, rather than as a sort of eco-system.

How knowledge relates to power is also very interesting. Foucault states that “Perhaps we should abandon the belief that power makes mad and that, by the same token, the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge. We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (27). This is still a little foggy for me, but the idea above, about psychiatry, psychology, and other specializations to determine the nature of deviancy and possible “treatments” or courses of action to determine the future of the criminal, seem to be the best example of this. This whole body of knowledge, and the careers and institutions that rise from it, are produced because of the power relations between the criminal and the members of the justice and penal systems. They are symbiotic and cannot be separated from each other.

Another area that I am having trouble wrapping my head around is Foucault’s idea of the soul. It is obvious, even before he states it, that his concept of the soul has nothing to do with Judeo-Christian ideology. But it also seems obvious that for Foucault the soul is not simply the sum of our personality, experience, and the elements that we would include to form our concept of “self.” He says that “This real, non-corporal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power” (29). To me this seems to indicate that the soul is a construct created out of the activity and tension of power-knowledge relations, which is then superimposed upon “the self.” This construct then becomes the “prison of the body” (30).

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