Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison Study Guide

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (or the original French Surveiller et Punir :  Naissance de la Prison) is a 1975 work by the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. The evolution of Foucault's thought is a complicated pathway. He first received a degree in Psychology in 1949. At this time he flirted with Marxism and was briefly a member of the French Communist Party. As a homosexual in a time when such orientation was heavily frowned upon, Foucault began to explore such sexual expressions as sado-masochism. These early ventures lead him into a personal confrontation with societal norms, political values, and accepted ways of thinking that would last the entirety of his professional life.

During the early 1950s, Foucault taught psychology at various institutes in France, after which he traveled and worked across Europe until 1960. At the age of 34, Foucault completed his first major work, Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age, as a thesis in 1960. The work was later abridged and amalgamated into Madness and Civilization in 1961. The groundbreaking study critically analyzed the conceptions of mental illness and madness dating from the 17th century to the current era. The work was acclaimed by French philosophers of the era.

Foucault followed up with The Birth of the Clinic in 1963. Much like his previous effort, The Birth of the Clinic sought to critically analyze the accepted practice of the medical profession. Foucault contended that medical procedures effectively disembodied the patient, separating their body and their humanity. He further probed what he referred to as "the medical gaze" or the ways in which the medical profession regards the human body. As he did in History of Madness, in The Birth of the Clinic he looked deep into the Renaissance era to provide historical backing for his suppositions. In 1966 he accepted a position as a professor in Tunisia. He arrived at a time when anti-French sentiments were high in the French colony. Student activism inspired Foucault, as did the 1968 student insurrection in Paris. During this time he published Archaeology of Knowledge, a study on the construction of historical narratives. He returned to France in 1970.

In 1970 Foucault began a posting at the greatly-respected Collège de France. During this time, he began to study the French penal system. In 1971 the Information Group of Prisons (or the French GIP) which aimed to constructively study the life of prisoners in France. His work focused on such topics as suicide, mental health, and sexual assault in prisons. All of this work directly contributed to Foucault's celebrated 1975 work, Discipline and Punish.

This book theorizes transformations in how crime was understood and punished in the early to mid-1800s. It looks at the changing nature of punishment in order to look at the changing nature of how Western societies are structured. Discipline and Punish is therefore both a work of history and a work of social theory. It has been vastly influential both for its argument and for its methods. In terms of argument, Foucault’s explanation of how power works in modern societies has influenced many social theorists, who critique how social structures disempower the people who live in them. Because Foucault argued that social norms police people and their behaviors, his work has been particularly important for theorists who want to deconstruct social norms. For instance, queer theorists turn to Foucault to understand how society incentivizes a specific kind of sexuality—heterosexuality leading to reproduction—at the expense of others.

In terms of method, Foucault paved the way for grounding social theory in historical documents. In particular, he practices in Discipline and Punish a kind of discourse analysis: looking at patterns in how people talk about themes like crime, society, and the “soul” of the individual. He looks at how different bodies of knowledge rise and fall and intersect, such as legal discourses and medical discourses. Many historians and literary critics have drawn from Foucault’s emphasis on discourse and language.

Foucault followed up Discipline and Punish with the even more sprawling, multi-volume History of Sexuality before succumbing to HIV/AIDS-related illness in 1984. The influence of his thought in contemporary academics cannot be understated. Works like Discipline and Punish provided the framing and language for which power, politics, punishment, sovereignty and discourse are now analyzed. Concepts like "power-knowledge," "biopower" and "discourse" were all proposed by Foucault and have now become popular in usage. As a result, Foucault is frequently listed amongst the world's most cited academics. Four decades since the publishing of Discipline and Punish and three decades since his death, the work of Foucault remains as relevant now as ever.