Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Chapter three, “Panopticism” pg 195-200
Michel Foucault begins his third chapter entitled “Panopticism” with a description on what happens when the plague comes. He writes what first happens is “a strict spatial partitioning” (195). Everyone in the city is put in a space. This is done to ensure that everyone can be seen and accounted for. In order to contain and treat the plague everyone must be “caged.” Foucault explains, “This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised…– all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism” (197). This is necessary, Foucault explains, in order to both control the plague and to control the evil in people that the plague might bring out.
Foucault next compares a leper to the plague. He uses these two examples not only as literal points of distinction, but also as two different methods of being in society. Lepers represent “rituals of exclusion” and the plague “gave rise to disciplinary projects” (198), or, in other words, “The leper and his separation; the plague and its segmentations” (198). While two separate diseases mostly operating in different times, they represent two different ways to deal with society.
Foucault makes clear that while the leper and the plague are certainly two different things, they are not necessarily totally separate. The ideas that were present during the treatment of leprosy are still present with the means of treating the plague or other unwanted societal distractions. For example, we place unwanted people in the society (madmen, criminals) in segmented places (the panoptic building). Foucault believes that this is not something that was practiced just in the high time of leprosy and the plague, but that we continue to do the same thing in modern society. He writes,
The constant division between the normal and the abnormal, to which every individual is subjected, brings us back to our own time, by applying the binary branding and exile of the leper to quite different objects; the existence of a whole set of techniques and institutions for measuring, supervising and correcting the abnormal brings into play the disciplinary mechanisms to which the fear of the plague gave rise. (199)
We currently do the same thing to those who we feel are unwanted and abnormal. Foucault feels this mechanism “to brand him and to alter him, are composed of those two forms from which they distantly derive” (199-200).
I decided to do the beginning of the reading assignment again for two reasons. First, I feel this beginning part is important in order to understand the subsequent parts of the reading assignment. And secondly, I have had some experience with leprosy and so found his discussion of it particularly interesting.
I was again confused with the language he uses while describing the techniques for trying to contain the plague. I know that his work is mostly based on interpretation and not theory. But, it seemed a very negative description, something that to me felt like he was saying was a bad element of society. Yet, this is what was done in order to contain the plague, which was responsible for killing many people. For example, when referring to the people quarantined in their houses he says, “Everyone locked up in his cage” (196). And he says that this method, “lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him” (197). He is of course right, in fact dead on. But I am still confused if he is trying to tell us how it is, or if he is making a judgment. His use of language to me suggests that he is critical of it, but I am just not sure.
I found the section where he talks about leprosy and the plague coming together in figurative terms to describe the way in which we deal with unwanted people today very relevant. For example, people who are deemed insane are both exiled and segmented. I think this is not only true for situations today, it is still true for leprosy today. I studied abroad in Thailand for a year and while there I was able to teach an English class in a leprosy camp. I had previously thought that leprosy was no longer a modern problem, that it was eradicated. However, not only is it still a problem in Thailand, (in fact a rather large one) but it is still being treated in the same way. These people are made to feel they have something wrong with them, some sort of curse, and they are told to live in a colony with other lepers. The Thai government does not force them to go, but they are given no support or treatment if they do not go and once it becomes general knowledge that you have leprosy you are immediately ostracized. It is in fact the ancient equivalent to what Foucault thought would happen in the modern era with more modern problems. He is absolutely right when he explains that the way abnormal people are dealt with today is directly related to how the plague and how leprosy was dealt with in the past.