Review: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book while sitting in a prison at night, surrounded by sleeping prisoners locked in their cells, during the last few nights of the year I spent as a correctional officer in a Georgia prison. Each point made by Foucault in this book stood out in high relief all round me. So did the points he missed.

While Foucault’s analysis here is, as always, insightful and fascinating, I think his own obsession with the idea of power led him to miss some points which he often seems to be very close to. In one instance, for example, he correctly refers to the prison system as the product of puritanism. This point taken deeper and examined more thoroughly I believe would yield greater insight than the rather nonchalant way Foucault throws it out and moves on.

Ultimately, the word I believe Foucault misses is: Gnosticism. The prison system, as so much of the modern world, is essentially Gnostic. It is the product of an absolute mind-body dichotomy for which Descartes might be blamed for popularizing most recently but which stretches very far back in Western thought. It is, however, even a bastardized Gnosticism at work in the penal system, a Gnosticism stripped of its spiritual elements, which have instead been replaced by a supposed “science of the mind,” “psychology” which no longer takes the “psyche” (that is, the soul) as its subject but some sort of disembodied but ultimately material “mind”.

Simultaneously, God has been replaced by the State. Whereas the medieval prisoner undergoing torture was expected to confess to a priest and receive the absolution of God, the modern prisoner, subject to the State, sits under the watchful gaze of its representatives and has his every bodily function regulated in accordance with the State even as it attempts thereby to control his mind. One need only compare the masses huddled on that Arch of Constantine, an early example of emerging Christian art coupled with political propaganda to, for example, the Panopticon of Bentham. Whose all-seeing Eye do each stand under? What relation does each individual in each respective mass have to his fellows under observation and control?

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the penal system and, more broadly, in the development of the post-Enlightenment world and its differences from the medieval one which preceded it. This book is, simply put, fascinating and thought-provoking.

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