Review: Discipline & Punish

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

What can you say about Michel Foucault that hasn’t already been said? No other thinker since Foucault has had more of an impact on history, literature, cultural studies, and a number of other disciplines that comprise the humanities and social sciences, if not the gamut of them. This goes without saying. No other thinker has caused so much debate and division within history in the past few decades as has Foucault. Again, this goes without saying. Yet, precisely because of Foucault’s influence, these things must be said and acknowledged time and again. That one individual could have such a huge impact is astounding, and it begs the question:[1] how did he do it? Discipline and Punish (hereafter Discipline) possibly offers the best avenue for answering this question because it is a blend of his theoretical and practical work in a way that was new even for Foucault. Specifically, it was the first time he attempted to employ what he called genealogy. Previously, in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences and The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language, Foucault laid out archaeology, a method of analysis aimed at deciphering the discourses that structure discursive formations for a given episteme, or period of knowledge. However, archaeology had a major flaw: it could not account for change. As the Foucault-scholar Gary Gutting writes, “genealogy, the new method first deployed in Discipline and Punish, was intended to remedy this deficiency.”[2] In particular, genealogy was meant to address the deficiencies of archaeology by showing how one episteme became another; in other words, genealogy was about transition and transformation. Discipline, then, is perhaps the most Foucauldian text in all of Foucault’s oeuvre because of its unique place in the development of his methodology. After all, Foucault cannot be separated from his methodology, for, in the end, it was his methodological innovations that allowed him to make his most successful arguments on discourse.

In four parts (Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison), using a variety of French and English sources, Foucault attempts to show how and why punishment moved from being inflicted on the body to being inflicted upon the soul. Another way to say this is, the book is about the transition from one mode of punishment to another. Each mode of punishment comes from a different episteme, according to Foucault, with punishment upon the soul coming from our modern or current episteme and punishment on the body coming from the episteme just before that. What is the soul in relation to punishment? What does it mean to punish the soul? If punishment in our current episteme is the manifestation of the formulation that “punishment … should strike the soul rather than the body” (16), then how did it come to be? And why? These are the guiding questions of the book. Note that Foucault’s focus is on the soul, which indicates that he is primarily interested in the current episteme, and specifically, the transition to the current episteme. As Foucault writes of Discipline, “this book is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules, from which it extends its effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity” (23). In Discipline, there is a Point A and a Point B. Point A is punishment of the body. Point B is punishment of the soul under “the present scientifico-legal complex.” Point A interests Foucault only insofar as it represents the beginning of the genealogy; Point B interests Foucault only insofar as it represents the end of the genealogy. Foucault’s main interest is in the genealogy of the soul as the victim of discipline and punishment.

But genealogy is more than an academic rendering of photojournalist Dan Eldon’s oft-quoted adage “the journey is the destination.”[3] Looking at Foucault’s argument a little closer allows us to get a better understanding of just what exactly genealogy was intended to do. In Discipline, Foucault argues that, contrary to what Enlightenment narratives and its dutiful histories would suggest, the move to punishing the soul was a consequence not of humanistic impulses or any newfound revulsion to the mutilated body, but rather of “epistemologico-juridical” changes and relations that evolved together. Contingent legal and scientific developments wove into one another, which led to a power structure that disciplined and punished the soul instead of the body. From this, we see that genealogy is not simply about transition but specifically about “the causes of the transition from one way of thinking to another.”[4] Some scholars and students new to Foucault will no doubt wonder what makes genealogy different from other historical methodologies, which, they may say, are also interested in change over time. Even though genealogy is about change over time, however, it is unique because it is concerned with change at the discursive level, and this change, Foucault argues, is contingent rather than intentional. Whether Foucault demonstrates this adequately in Discipline is how most readers will judge the success of the book and of genealogy. I, on the other hand, challenge the reader to judge success based on the answers to these two questions: first, could Foucault have written Discipline without genealogy? Second, would we have wanted him to? In his attempt, Foucault gave us a book that is both insightful and innovative and, because of that, a book that is now indispensable.


[1] Like Foucault, the phrase “begs the question” is controversial. The philosophical meaning of begs the question does not mean “raises the question,” which is how the phrase is used colloquially. Nevertheless, it has become acceptable to use begs the question to mean raises the question in academic writing, and I have chosen to do so here.

[2] Gary Gutting, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/foucault/>. Note that I consulted this piece for the contextual information in this paragraph.

[3] http://www.daneldon.org

[4] Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault.”

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