Until 18th century, torturing criminal was grisly public spectacle even in developed countries. For instance, a man who attempted to the king was drawn and quartered in a public execution.
The form of punishment experienced notable changes from 18th to 19th century in Europe. First, the punishment became no longer public spectacle and the executioners tried to abbreviate pain of criminals (in a case, criminals are injected with tranquilizers). The change implies a whole new morality concerning the act of punishment. Second, the leniency was accompanied by the change of objectives in punishment. The punishment began to be designed to strike the soul rather than the body.
It is easy to explain the change simply as the expansion of humanity or the development of the human sciences, but that approach faces risk in missing the important perspectives, argued Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, known as the representative structuralism thinker.
In his book, “Discipline and Punish”, he analyzed the history of the modern spirit and of a new power to judge, through the study of history of punishments and prisons.
Four rules in studying history of punishment
Foucault suggested four general rules in studying the history of punishments to see it from much broader perspective, such that we can reach to the profound understanding of the social change. I believe the methodology is applicable to all the related studies:
First, he regarded punishment as a complex social function. He did not concentrate on the study of the punitive mechanisms on their repressive effects alone, but situated them in a whole series of their possible positive effects, even if these seem marginal at first sight.
Second, he regarded punishment as a political tactics. He analyzed punitive methods not simply as consequences of legislation, but as techniques possessing their own specificity in the more general field of other ways of exercising power.
Third, he made the “technology of power” the very principle both of the humanization of the penal system and of the knowledge of man. He thought the technology of power is behind both the history of penal law and the history of human sciences. He said:
“We should admit rather that power produces knowledge; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that 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. These ‘power-knowledge relations’ are to be analyzed, therefore, not on the basis of a subject of knowledge who is or is not free in relation to the power system, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to be known and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many effects of these fundamental implications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations.” (page 27-28)
Fourth, he studied the metamorphosis of punitive methods on the basis of a political technology of the body which might be read a common history of power relations and object relations. In that way, he regarded the change of penal leniency as one of the power techniques.
Power shift behind the change in punishments
Foucault thought that the public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial but also as a political ritual; more precisely, he thought that the execution is the representation of power, saying: “The reform of criminal law must be read as a strategy for the rearrangement of the power to punish. … The new juridical theory of penalty corresponds in fact to a new ‘political economy’ of the power to punish.”
The cruel (and costly) tortures reflected the absolute power of monarchy at that time. The style of tortures changed, essentially because of the power shift from monarchs to the bourgeoisie. After the Revolution, new power needed to constitute a new economy and a new technology of the power to punish, and the rise of the social contract theory can be understood through this context.
The penalty changed accordingly. After the Revolution, the main penalty became imprisonment, i.e. the penalty to deprive the criminals of freedom, which is the central value in the Revolution. The characteristics of the penalty underwent the following changes:
- Unarbitrary application and public acceptance of rules
- More focus on incentivizing people not to commit crimes
- Designed to emphasize rules rather than sovereign powers
He summarizes his idea as follows:
“In the late eighteenth century, one is confronted by three ways of organizing the power to punish. The first is the one that was still functioning and which was based on the old monarchical law. The other two both refer to a preventive, utilitarian, corrective conception of a right to punish that belongs to society as a whole; but they are very different from one another at the level of the mechanisms they envisage. Broadly speaking, one might say that, in monarchical law, punishment is a ceremonial of sovereignty; it uses the ritual marks of the vengeance (retaliation) that it applies to the body of the condemned man; and it deploys before the eyes of the spectators an effect of terror as intense as it is discontinuous, irregular and always above its own laws, the physical presence of the sovereign and of his power. The reforming jurists, on the other hand, saw punishment as a procedure for requalifying individuals as subjects, as juridical subjects; it uses not marks, but signs, coded sets of representations, which would be given the most rapid circulation and the most general acceptance possible by citizens witnessing the scene of punishment. “ (P130)
Individualism and the rise of discipline
The next thing Foucault analyzed is the discipline. He pointed out the discipline experienced major change at the same when punishments became lenient. Discipline is like a substructure of the social body. While the upper structure is established by politicians and philosophers, disciplines are often made by soldiers in army, teachers in schools, doctors in hospitals, etc. Foucault meticulously looked into how discipline worked to people, by saying that discipline is political anatomy of detail, quoting Marshal de Saxe: “Although those who concern themselves with details are regarded as folk of limited intelligence, it seems to me that this part is essential, because it is the foundation, and it is impossible to erect any building or establish any method without understanding its principles.”
Discipline is composed of three factors. The first is observation - especially the apparatus that makes it possible to see everything constantly. The ultimate form of observation apparatus is that of panopticons. The second is a small penal mechanism, the informal rule which is intrinsic to the group and requires no judicial system; the penal mechanism works to correct individuals’ behavior. The third is examination, which combines the techniques of observation and the group’s internal rules.
Foucault argued that the discipline marked the moment when the political individualism takes place. The essence of discipline is that it “makes” individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise. As the society put much importance of individuals, power becomes more anonymous and more functional, those on whom discipline is exercised tend to be more strongly individualized. As discipline worked to reduce the “gap” from the ideal status, after the rise of discipline, the child, the patient, the madman and the delinquent became more individualized than the adult, the healthy man, the normal and the non-delinquent man.
The birth of prison
Although prisons existed before the modern civil revolution, the penalty of detention (deprivation of liberty) was a new thing, Foucault argued.
As Baltard said, prisons are “complete and austere institutions”; prisons are the perfect disciplinary institutions in that it assumes responsibility of all aspects of the individuals, his physical training, his aptitude to work, his everyday conduct, his moral attitude, his state of mind, etc. (page 235) The penitentiary technique and the delinquent of prisons are a technological ensemble that forms and fragments the object to which it applies its instruments. In that sense, the prison is the place where the power to punish organizes a field of objectivity in which punishment will be able to function open as treatment and the sentence will be inscribed among the discourses of knowledge. Foucault thought that the characteristics of prisons are the reason why justice adopted a prison.
This is an outstanding book. Foucault tells us how to look through the things. As Marx once said a good reflects everything of capitalism society, discipline and punishment played the same role, explaining social changes. If we just look at phenomena, we may miss the larger change (power shift in his terminology) that fundamentally drives all the changes. As Foucault showed in this book, the importance thing is to (1) look through details of the phenomena and (2) relate the phenomena to the other social changes. This analysis requires extensive knowledge in many fields, and this reminds us of learning various topics.
Michel Foucault, “Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison”, Vintage, 1995