Foucault on Discipline and Punish

Here's a video of Foucault talking about Discipline & Punish.(Well, an audio track with images)  He explains his motivation for writing the book and the central question he sees posed by the development of the penal system in France.  In short, there was a rapid growth of prisons in France.  The prisons still functioned as institutions of punishment and an extension of the power of the sovereign, but they also became to be seen as institutions of reform.  Reforming criminals required disciplinary techniques - which the reformers found in schools and the army.  [The techniques for shaping character are the same].

So the modern prison system is not the same as the ancient prison/dungeon, it is more like other institutions of discipline such as educational institutions and the military.  In turn, the expansion of the application of discipline gives rise to the development of further techniques that spread to other areas of society like factories.  In each case, the system of discipline gives rise to a field of knowledge specific to the subject to affected:  the student, the soldier, the criminal, the worker.

[Note: The poster disabled embed, so this will take you to youtube]

Lest you despair, Foucault in the second part of the recording notes that structure of disciplinary systems is "rational", not "totalitarian".  This was Katie's point in the podcast that Foucault doesn't see Power as bad in itself, but simply as a way in which society is ordered to influence people.  Awareness of this ordering and influence is necessary to question and potential change or resist it.



  1. David Buchanan says

    I’m thinking about Max Weber’s thesis, the idea that Protestantism provided a disciplinary structure that made capitalism possible. Ben Franklin made this work ethic into pity little rhymes. You know, early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Penny saved, penny earned, etc.. It’s supposed that we impose this discipline, live by the clock, delay gratification, etc., to achieve a later but greater good. This is probably obvious to anyone who has taken music lessons long enough to play. Freedom takes a lot of discipline.
    Maybe Foucault is only saying that power is less sinister than we might have feared and I guess nobody ever accused him of painting his picture too rosy. But isn’t he talking about disciplinary structures as a necessary part of the systems of order and civilization?

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi David,

      Good point, but I wonder why Foucault would emphasize the theme of the transition from punishment to discipline? There was order and civilization prior to the 19th Century. And even the Greeks and Romans proclaimed the virtues (or necessity) of discipline.

      Also, I’m skeptical of interpreting “discipline” as “self-discipline”. The French title of “Discipline and Punish” is “Surveiller et punir”, which I think better translates as “Monitor and Punish” or “Supervise and Punish.” Framed that way, the Weberian connections don’t seem nearly so strong to me, but certainly others have commented upon the relationship between Weber’s and Foucault’s analyses.

      • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

        Both good points. Foucault isn’t claiming that discipline was invented in the 18th century, as Daniel (and Dylan on the podcast) both point out. I would say that yes, for Foucault, systems of social order have power structures which aren’t inherently good or bad, simply the way that order works on individuals and communities. If Weber’s thesis is correct, then we could say the field of knowledge generated by capitalism is economics (like psychology for criminal discipline).
        I’m not sure that Foucault would agree with Weber though, as he points out that the same system of discipline he is calling out for criminals was in place for the army and schools and then further put into place in factories. If true, then Protestantism would actually have made not only capitalism, but also modern military and educational institutions possible as well. To validate that, I think you’d have to do a genealogy of religion and it’s relation to power, which I don’t think he ever did.

  2. dmf says

    my sense of Foucault is that for him power isn’t like say gravity a force in the world, but more of an acknowledgment that when people interact they are influencing (Rorty would say manipulating) each other, not unlike feminists who observe that when two or more people are present there is then politics, that we are a political species, homo rhetoricus, and that this grasping nature (which can of course be formalized), this social constructionism, is what Heidegger was trying to overcome. One might question whether or not there is ‘pure’ knowledge/science or knowledge for Its own sake, something that might be self-evident, a mirror of nature. For Foucault I don’t think there is an other to power, much like Derrida’s narcissism without end, and a bit of amor fati.

    • Ryan says

      I can’t decide whether it’s lovely or frightening to listen to them discuss the same concerns with Foucault still being played out thirty years later.

    • dmf says

      this is a look at aspects of contemporary socialization/parenting and how peoples’ anxieties are translated/disciplined into social norms that put individuals into service of the powers that be and the all too human costs involved. Widens our understanding of technologies of discipline/punishment.


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