“Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” by Michel Foucault

Book Review on “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” by Michel Foucault

Who is Michel Foucault?

Foucault was a 20th-century French philosopher, literary critic, political activist, and writer. His theories are essentially concerned with the relationship between power and knowledge and the ways in which they perform a function of social control by means of societal institutions. Foucault did not accept the labels assigned to him like “structuralist” and “postmodernist”.

Summary of “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison “

This book offers a historical account of the modern/western penal system. Foucault sought to study punishment in the context of society and figure out how power relations impact Punishment with the change of time. Foucault examined the pre 18th-century situation – a time when public execution and corporal punishments were the primary forms of punishment. For criminal investigations, torture was resorted to. Punishment was like a ritual and was directed at the prisoner’s body in a ceremonial manner. The role of the audience was great in these rituals. The authority and the power of the king were re-established by means of public execution.

The 18th century reformers upheld a proposal of a theatre of punishment where a complicated system of representations and signs were displayed openly. They were indifferent to the welfare of the prisoners and demanded a more efficient operation of power.

When the prison was not imaginable as a penalty, to overcome resistance towards it, 3 new models of penalty assisted. However, numerous differences existed between this and the former, punitive city. Developments of discipline, in the 17th century and 18th century, paved the road for the preparation of prison. By means of discipline, individuals can be created out of mass. 3 elements of disciplinary power include hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and examination while the main instruments of power include the gaze and observation. The development of norms occur like this.

Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon further elaborated Disciplinary power. This is a disciplinary concept that is given its form through a central observation tower that is situated within a circle of prison cells. This establishment is such that from the tower, a guard will be able to observe all the cells and inmates. However, the inmates will not be able to look into the tower. Also, the prisoners would not be able to figure out if they’re being observed. The idea of discipline develops prison. The penitentiary, which is the next development, is replaced by the Delinquent which was created with the purpose of marginalizing and controlling popular behavior.

The procedure in which the aspects of failure and operation are combined is referred to as the carceral system. The objective of prison and this system is to generate delinquency as a means by which crimes can be controlled and structured. From this point of view, they are successful.

Some important Quotes from Discipline and Punish

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.”

“There is no glory in punishing”

“Visibility is a trap.”

“But let there be no misunderstanding: it is not that a real man, the object of knowledge, philosophical reflection or technological intervention, has been substituted for the soul, the illusion of theologians. The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection more profound than himself. A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him to the existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.”

“There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”

“The ‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines.”

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

“The age of sobriety in punishment had begun.”

“A penal system must be conceived as a mechanism … to administer illegalities differentially, not to eliminate them.”

“The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.”

“We are now far away from the country of tortures, dotted with wheels, gibbets, gallows, pillories; we are far, too, from that dream of the reformers, less than fifty years before.”


Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison is referred to be a very radical re-evaluation of the assumptions concerning the penal institution’s role and their main purposes in societies where freedom and liberty are celebrated.

The book is not known to be tough by being very technical or only a specialist’s forte but certain difficulties were created due to the style of presentation. It follows a very allusive and suggestive way of writing which happens to be different from the propositions and the arguments. The book though subtitled as “the birth of prison” and taking the form of a historical book, it doesn’t happen to be a historical narrative. Rather, it is a structural analysis of power that has been described as “discipline” by Foucault.

The book is divided into 4 parts – torture, punishment, discipline, and prison. This is the perfect mixture of English and French sources indulging in the history of the prison. Foucault writes about how the form of punishment transitioned from one to another, over the years. He writes that every form of punishment reflects a different episteme – Punishment on the body goes back to the historical time and that the soul comes from the modern episteme. Right at the beginning of the book, he gives a hint of the problem that the readers will encounter throughout the book by highlighting 2 different styles of Punishment. In one, there’s the presence of a huge crowd of spectators and the other takes place in isolation without aggrandizing. He points out that the aim of punishment has changed. The purpose was not anymore to break the criminal’s body but impact the soul. Various questions cross the reader’s mind – questions on what is the connection between the soul and the Punishment; the significance of punishing a soul and so on and so forth.

Foucault focussed mainly on the soul. The book is known to have 2 poles – one of them is the punishment of the soul and the other is that of the soul. The first one interested Foucault because it was the beginning of the transition process. He was primarily concerned with the soul – making it a victim of discipline and punishment. The focus was on the end of the brutal systems of punishment in the 19th century and the creation of the modern system of prison. Foucault pointed out that the process of transition was due to the juridical changes and the related social relations. Because of numerous legal and social developments and various other developments, the soul started to be disciplined and punished instead of the body. Consequently, the contemporary prison system was set up. About the current system of prison, Foucault says that nobody from outside would develop compassion for the ones who are being punished. The detainee blurs in the public memory.

Reformers like Beccaria advocated what Foucault regarded to be ‘the gentle way in punishment’.

The concluding section of the book again resorts to historical narrative and traces the real effect of prison and its place in the contemporary network of social control.

Foucault raises a very integral question – why does the prison persist? The answer to this, he places in a wider political sphere. He argues and explains that delinquency is a very effective strategy of political domination. He further states that in a system of domination which is based on reverence for law and property, it is significant to ensure that illegalities and law-breaking activities do not go out of hand.

Foucault could not recognize the ones who have the power the generate these laws. He rejected that power is a phenomenon that can be ‘held’ by someone. Sometimes, he used Marxist terms like the “dominant class”, “the State” and so on. Thus, one might say that his conception of power is apolitical. So one can imagine why so much importance is given to the concept of Panopticon by Jeremy Bentham.

The final part of the book is entitled “The Carceral”. This part says how the frontiers that exist between judicial Punishment and other institutions become indistinct. This happens when similar disciplinary techniques advance in all of them. In the end, he returns to Punishment and one should notice that the approach towards Punishment tends to be upheld as a stretch of the less coercive.

The book has received criticisms due to its obscurity and specialized language but his own style of prose happens to be one of his intended techniques to show how discourses are complicated structures where people get trapped without having the knowledge of getting out of it. Foucault focused on the past to help the readers understand the present in a better light.






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