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?

4 thoughts on “On the Body Condemned: pain

  1. alanj

    I agree that this is a strange concept, but the fact is that we do find it easier to deal with things that are pushed to the side rather than dealt with directly. In the 18th and 19th century when torture and public executions were common, juries would sometimes find criminals not guilty even though there was plenty of evidence to show otherwise. This was a result of an unwillingness on the juries part to condemn someone to death. This does not seem to be a problem when the punishment is jail time. The change in punishment definitely draws the focus away from the punishment and onto the crime. Unfortunately, as you mention this can also draw to much attention away from the effect the punishment will have on the accused.

  2. jeremyyu

    This actually calls to mind the idea of bloodletting – a treatment method which actually worked occasionally merely because it shocked the immune system into responding to the actual disease. Maybe public punishment can be seen as an instance of social bloodletting, where we get more humane through stressing the immune system of our humanity?

    More widely, lack of pain seems to be a cause of chronic harm in so many places in human affairs. For instance, lack of hunger leading to obesity, lack of physical exertion leading to weakness, etc. Some have even suggested that the modern lack of manners is due to physical conflict being unacceptable in today’s society. Imagine how much nicer people would be to each other if it was socially acceptable to clock assholes in the face!

  3. Michael Izatt

    This is certainly a hot topic of debate with modern discourses on punishment. The idea that bodies disappear and evade the public’s consciousness I believe is extremely problematic, particularly when we understand modern punishment in direct contrast to public executions. While modern forms of punishment seem to be more humane than what took place with public executions, which I think holds some merit, there are nevertheless major problems with what we have come to understand as “humane.” For instance, for many years now, particularly with the rise of Supermax prisons (23 hour lockdown in a 6×8 cell), there have been a great deal of research which suggests these people are suffering from extreme mental health issues as a result of isolation. With the public executions, there is an element of sociability that is involved which the prisoner contributes to a great deal with what they endure. However, with modern day prison systems of isolation, all sociability is stripped from the prisoners life, essentially reducing existence from a human to an animal. It is important to note that in major zoos around the world, there is an insistence from many animal rights organizations that if animals are to be locked up, which they most adamantly oppose, there should at least be some form of sociability that the animal can partake in. For example, if a tiger is contracted to a zoo for lets say 5 years, for a certain amount of years that tiger must be accompanied by another tiger so there is sociability that relieves the animals stress and reaffirms its natural essence as a social creature. So, what do we say for humans?

    With the current form of punishment, it is actually more inhumane than public execution, particularly since the brutal form of punishment does not claim to be humane, it simply punishes. However, with today’s modern form of punishment, where prisoners are sent to overpacked, cramped, disease-ridden prisons, the apparatus is still maintained and justified as a form of rehabilitation claiming to be more humane. Yet, when prisons serve as a warehouse for the mentally ill and actually do more harm than good with the prisoners morality (turning petty crooks into hardened criminals), how can we claim rehabilitation? The notion is absurd.

    Add to the fact that local communities are being subsidized to expand the prison system to stimulate these local economies, effectively substituting rehabilitation for an incentive to create human commodities, you then have a very complex system of punishment where prisoners are sent away from the public’s consciousness. So as mentioned in your post, modern forms of punishment are indeed impersonal, but still carry a significant violation on the body (a complete intervention of denying all that is bodily human: sex, eating, touch, social interaction, etc, etc.). For these reasons, I think modern forms of punishment are extremely problematic precisely for claiming to be “humane.”

  4. Christina Hendricks

    Really thought-provoking in the last paragraph of your post. I wondered at first if, when seeing a human being suffer pain, we have to acknowledge that person as a human being, because maybe people thought of some criminals as having lost their humanity by having done the things they were being punished for. But I don’t know if this was the case, and I came to agree that at least by seeing what was happening, we had the chance to acknowledge the person as a human, whereas if we don’t then the person becomes more of a mere “subject with rights that have been taken away.” That tends to be most of what we see of most criminals, in the public: we hear of the crimes, we hear of the legal proceedings, and then all they are is subjects who have lost many of their rights and they disappear as human beings. Michael’s points about the prison system itself suggest that it does not treat people as humans either–not allowing us the sociability we need, violating the human functions of the body, etc. So we not only don’t see the human being punished, in a way the punishment is perhaps not even treating them as humans.


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