Category Archives: discipline and punish

Scientific Discourses on Sex as “Confession”

Something that came up in class discussion about History of Sexuality Vol. 1 last week was the legitimacy of the label “confession” for scientific discourses about sex, a prime example of which is doctor-patient relationships. Foucault says that confession as a method of producing truth about sex originated in religious confessions, which encouraged people to recount information about their sexual experiences. The features of confessions that Foucault describes are easy to see in the religious confession—the truth comes to light, and there is a power relationship in between the confessor and an authority figure (a priest) who hears the confession, interprets it, and prescribes a solution (penance). As we discussed, the term “confession” also seems to imply that the confessor is guilty, and that this guilt is being confessed in order to figure out how to make up for it. This is especially true if confessional discourses originated in religious confession. But when it comes to discourses like those of doctor-patient relationships, it isn’t immediately apparent that guilt plays a role, which makes it seem like confession isn’t the right term to use.

We might choose to interpret Foucault’s use of “confession” differently, and perhaps get rid of the element of guilt but keep the other implications (e.g. truth-producing, power relation). I think, though, that we can cash out the idea of “guilt” as Foucault might use it in the case of the scientific confession to make a bit more sense. We can do this in light of Foucault’s discussions in Discipline and Punish about how a goal of disciplinary institutions is to normalize individuals. Especially towards the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault develops the idea that penal institutions have become preoccupied not with punishing guilty actions, but with normalizing the “deviant” person. Calling someone guilty no longer just means that he or she has performed an action that is wrong or immoral; rather, “guilty” means that someone is a delinquent that deviates from the norm. When someone confesses their guilt in a judicial context (a context to which we can easily apply Foucault’s descriptions of confession), they confess their deviation from institutionalized norms. This deviation is manifested in a person’s actions, but it stems from their guilty “soul,” as modern penal institutions try to get at the motivations and such that underlie a person’s actions.

Other disciplinary institutions—including hospitals—share to some extent in the qualities that penal institutions have (since they’re all part of the “carceral archipelago” that extends out from penal institutions). One of these qualities is their goal of conforming individuals to societal norms, which in the case of hospitals are norms of health. When one tells one’s doctor about sexual practices as part of identifying illness, one is thereby revealing deviations from these norms. This is clearly related to how I just described guilt in the case of the penal system—as deviation from the institutionalized norm. The big difference is that this type of “confession” is much less about the “soul” and much more about the physical body. But, Foucault does say that non-penal disciplinary institutions share penal institutions’ qualities, just to a lesser degree. We thus might describe these scientific discourses as a less intense form of confession, which to some extent still preserves the idea of “guilt” in that there is an element of confessing deviation from norms, along with the typical features of confession—truth-revealing, power relation that results in the doctor interpreting and prescribing, etc.

The panopticon in modern society

For Foucault, the emergence of the prison system represents society’s transition into a more organized and effective power structure. Much of the reason for this is that the prison system emerged at the same time as other disciplines (the social sciences). These new disciplines gave a new understanding of social relations, which in turn, conditioned society to look at human affairs through the lens of these new fields of study. As a result personal thought/personal opinion became more repressive in the face of experts who began telling society what to think.

The genius of the panopticon as an image of the emerging prison system is the way in which it identifies everything of which Foucault is describing about the structure of power through the organization of bodies.  As described in Discipline and Punish, the modern prison system gave birth to the ‘modern soul’, which subsequently led to a new process of discipline embodied in the  ‘examination’ of the criminal. In my opinion (maybe Foucault’s as well) the purpose of this was to feed the social sciences which in turn operate as beacons of knowledge in society, beacons that not only inform the public but condition they’re perceptions. In the face of experts, people stop thinking for themselves: they are conditioned to believe that if they are not experts, then they should forgo they’re own reasoning on particular subjects because after all the experts know better. This works beautifully in forming docile bodies: people are no longer governed by themselves but by the disciplines that permeate society. Once this division is set up, the public begins to see the disciplines as not only beacons of knowledge, but of ‘truth’. Once this is instilled into the public, the division between normality and abnormality(not only psychological but also social(lized)) is created and power becomes hegemonic: powerful actors no longer have to convince the public of their views because it is done through social conditioning. People begin to pursue the disciplines and as a result conform to its order. The content of this ‘order’ is filled by a set of do’s and don’t(s)that individuals not only abide by but regulate within other citizens. This is how the panopticon manifests in modern society. The image (panopticon) captures a state of surveillance in which the inmates are always aware of being potentially watched and as a result conform to the order of the prison. As discussed by Foucault, as well as the class, the same can be said about society: institutions (hospitals, schools, factories, etc..) condition people to accept the attributed ‘mechanics of operation’ that come with them and as a result conform to that system. This means that the panopticon operates through people; people themselves become the panopticon because they operate as reinforcers of the status quo(as defined through the institutions). This means everybody is constantly being monitored and any deviation from the norm is likely to arouse suspicion.

Blurring Lines between Prisons and other Institutions

Towards the end of the “Carceral” chapter of Discipline and Punish, Foucault says that “the specificity of the prison and its role as link are losing some of their purpose” (306). If I understood it correctly, it seems like he is arguing that this process will take place as the lines start to blur between prisons and other institutions where the “human sciences” are practiced. There will be a “more massive transference to [these institutions] of judicial functions,” and “the penal apparatus will be able, in turn, to become medicalized, psychologized, educationalized” (306). It seemed ambiguous to me whether Foucault was expressing some hopefulness about the future of our disciplinary networks in this section. I thought at first that these passages were meant to be hopeful, as he argues that the prison will lose some of its purpose and prominence as other institutions themselves become more prominent and take on some of the prison’s observational roles. Reading some more of the surrounding context here, though, made me change my mind about this.

The full sentence from which my first quote above was taken reads: “In the midst of all these mechanisms of normalization [schools, hospitals, etc.], which are becoming ever more rigorous in their application, the specificity of the prison and its role as link are losing some of their power” (306). Several pages earlier, Foucault says: “We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements” (304). I think part of the reason that I originally thought Foucault was reacting positively to the rise of other institutions in place of the prison was that we have a tendency to see schools, hospitals, etc. as more benevolent institutions than prisons. However, Foucault’s arguments in this chapter are that all of these institutions are part of a carceral network that extends out from the penal system.

With this in mind, it no longer seems to me that replacing the prison with other institutions will be a positive process for Foucault. These institutions are an important part of the bigger picture in which our disciplinary networks are responsible for such intense efforts to normalize individuals. The specific responsibilities given to all of these institutions will be distributed differently throughout this network (i.e. non-penal institutions will become more judicial and penal institutions will become more “medicalized, psychologized, educationalized”), but the total amount of disciplinary power that is being exercised over individuals wouldn’t change.

Panopticon: Tyranny and surveillance

What I wanted to discuss in this blog post is the Panopticon, the cage which “makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power” (206). There were various issues surrounding this ideal cage which caught my attention and I will attempt to briefly examine each of them.

First is the conception of ‘perfecting the exercise of power’ while simultaneously having no risk that the power “may degenerate into tyranny” (207). The Panopticon allows one person to have absolute power over a large number of others, yet it cannot be tyrannical as it is democratically controlled. This seems problematic in my mind. The fact that the person in power has his/her power in check but some outside power does not necessarily make it impossible for there to be a tyranny. This would normally be the case where there is an effective democracy to act as a check on the source of power, yet in this case those present in the democracy are not the same as those who are being controlled by the source of the power. Those within the cage who have power exercised upon them, have no power, while the ‘person in the tower’ has absolute power. The fact that some outside observers could control the ‘tyrant’ if they so desired does not mean that the ‘tyrant’ cannot be a tyrant. It seems to me that to prevent power from becoming tyrannical, those on who the power is exercised must have some way of controlling the source of power if things get out of hand.

Foucault attributes the idea of the Panopticon to Bentham who is also the founder of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism looks to maximize utility and as a result virtually anything would be acceptable if it maximized utility. The Panopticon seems to follow the same concept in that no matter who is under its control, whether it be students, madmen or criminals, the goal is to maximize efficiency. Efficiency in the sense that those who are under the control of the ‘watchman’ will do as they are supposed to, in the way they are supposed to, to the greatest degree that they are able to achieve. The question then becomes, is the efficiency worth the cost of freedom? I imagine that most people would say it is not. I for one would not prefer to have my schooling conducted in such a way. This caused me to consider the state of privacy and technology in general. As what we have access to increases, so too does the ability of others to be aware of what we are accessing. The (somewhat) recent information that has come to light about NSA monitoring raises the question ‘how different is this from the Panopticon’? The Panopticon functions on the basis that one feels as though they are being watched, even if they aren’t. This forces the prisoner to always act as though they are being watched. To return to the NSA someone said to me in a conversation I had “Why do you care if you are being monitored if you aren’t doing anything illegal?” Modern surveillance is creating the same sort of system as the Panopticon as the pressure acts even before the offence has been committed. The possibility for action which those conducting the surveillance would not approve of is removed.

My final question is that most people would have a problem with the Panopticon, but far fewer would have a problem with surveillance for ‘anti-terrorism’ reasons. Is this inconsistent, or are the two totally different?

Punishment as Redemption: Life and Death

I’m curious as to what other cultural elements allowed for this transformation of public executions to the more “humane” forms of punishment. For some reason, suggesting that Western societies were adopting more humane approaches to punishment just seems a little too general. What I find interesting is the notion of redemption through death, as illustrated with Damiens and various others killed by the state. The specific need for a designated role, the “confessors,” surely suggests that apart from the act of punishment, there is a secondary element of punishment that involves God, which comes in the form of a confession. When Damiens cries, “Pardon, Lord,” he somehow appeases the crowd and the executioners with his pleas. While the confessors are there to secure an apology for the state, there is a significant religious portion to the confession itself, hence the crucifixes and priests. So, as the state has already committed to the criminal’s execution, they also have a secondary commitment to unite the criminal with God before they perish. In this sense, redemption comes through death. A perfect example would be Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony where the victim’s crime is inscribed in their body for numerous hours, and right before they die they have a chance to read what their offence was, which allows them to fully conceptualize what their death signifies. Again, redemption through death. We still witness small remnants of these old procedures with the death penalty when inmates are given a prayer and encouraged to confess their sins to both God and the witnesses.

Modern forms of punishment are directed in the here and now: corrective measures by rehabilitating the soul. Redemption does not come with death, but comes with a long sentence isolated from society with the hopes of one day reacquainting themselves with the community. In other words, redemption comes with time. With all this said, why did this transformation occur? A change in values is not really an adequate answer. I’m almost inclined to think that this transformation is linked to the withering away of religious authority as a centralized sovereign power. It would be wrong to suggest that the Enlightenment was just a period of religious critiques–a notion many scholars subscribe to. However, in the case of the transformation of punishment, there is a striking parallel between the disintegration of religious authority and new forms of punishment. The most significant change, however, would seem to be the reappraisal of redemption as a means of restorative peace. Why? 

On the Body Condemned: pain

There are so many interesting elements in the first chapter of Discipline and Punish that I have had a difficult time deciding what to write about. I find Foucault’s description of “the slackening of the hold on the body,” through the “double process [of] the disappearance of the spectacle and the elimination of pain” (11), an especially interesting topic, however, with some potentially intriguing and strange implications. As Foucault reports, “one no longer touches the body…physical pain…is no longer the constituent element of the penalty. From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights” (11). In addition, punishment has gained a certain degree of anonymity; while people were once executed in public, “the condemned man is no longer to be seen…capital punishment is fundamentally a spectacle that must actually be forbidden” (15). Subsequently, the law “is not directed so much to a real body capable of feeling pain as to a juridical subject, the possessor, among other rights, of the right to exist” (13).

People often hail the current systems of discipline and punishment as a monumental improvement on the systems of the past in which people often endured excruciating physical pain for their crimes and, personally, I don’t disagree with them; I can’t say that I would like to be draw and quartered or have any of my limbs hacked off in public in case of any future misgivings.  Pain is generally unpleasant and to have one’s pain exhibited, is demeaning and, as most people would probably agree, anti-humanistic. I think there is also, however, a very strange way in which, based on Foucault’s descriptions, current systems for discipline and punishment also have an unexpectedly anti-humanistic element which actually appears in virtue of the disappearance of pain and the elimination of spectacle. When we intentionally inflict pain upon another human being in public, we are forced and force others to acknowledge a human subject who feels pain. But when the condemned man is no longer observable, the human body/subject starts to disappear. Discipline and punishment become impersonal, as Foucault describes, they are directed towards “a juridical subject…not so much a real body capable of feeling pain”. Wow! How strange! (And, potentially problematic?) I don’t know! What do you think?