Examples of Foucault’s Project of Problematization: the written and spoken word

(Although it was not assigned I ended up reading the final twelve pages of chapter two of Discipline and Punish, and thought it might be interesting/useful to make a blog post about some aspect of it as I found it very interesting).

I think that Foucault’s project of problematization becomes especially salient in his descriptions of how one or another method of communication, construed in the broadest sense of the term, can both be used to promote and undermine a given institution. One exemplary example which Foucault uses to illustrate the multiplicitous nature of methods of communication is the operation of the written or spoken word in promoting or undermining the penal system viz. the last words of the condemned or “gallows speeches”. At the moment of the execution, the condemned was given another opportunity to speak, not to proclaim his innocence but to acknowledge the crime and justice of his conviction. The victim was made to legitimate the torture he had undergone, consecrating his own punishment by proclaiming the heinousness of his crimes. Whether the speeches were actually delivered or merely fictional, (in many cases, Foucault suggests, the latter was likely), the speeches were circulated and served as exhortation against crime. Sometimes, accounts of crimes and the lives of infamous criminals were even published as propaganda before the advent of a trial, to “force the hand of a court that was expected of being too tolerant”. Just as the written and spoken word could help to enforce the penal system, however, these methods of communication could also help to harm it. The condemned man was sometimes transformed into a kind of hero by the sheer extent of his widely advertised crimes and subsequent repentance; if the condemned man was shown to be repentant, is was as if he had come through some process of purification. In addition, Foucault argues, the struggle of the condemned man against the law and the powerful titles associated with the latter was a struggle with which the common man could easily identify; it was viewed as a magnified version of the tiny struggles “that passed unperceived in everyday life” (67). In this way the criminal was almost entirely transformed into a positive hero. Thus, the written or spoken word justified justice but also glorified the criminal. Just to provide a present day example of the latter, one might mention the particular fascination which contemporary American culture seems to take in the lives and notorious deeds of serial killers and other notable criminals. Whether or not these criminals are portrayed in a positive or negative light, there seems to be a blatant fetishism of the condemned man which suggests that the common individual finds something in the latter to perhaps relate to. Notably, musical artist Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about John Wayne Gacy Junior, an especially publicized serial killer, in which I believe he tries to alleviate some of the confusion surrounding the sympathy and attention offered to such a criminal and which compliments Foucault’s genealogical analysis:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otx49Ko3fxw

Subsequently, Foucault suggests, the literature of crime is a paradigmatic locus in which the multiplicitous natures of the written word can be seen to do battle through two pure minds belonging to the criminal and the detective. While the detective generally triumphs, crime literature also glorifies the criminal for his crime is portrayed much like a fine art that can only be the work of an exceptional nature; the criminal was wicked but also intelligent and subsequently powerful. One needn’t search very far for an example; the struggle between the genius detective Sherlock Holmes and his equally intelligent adversary, the criminal mastermind, Professor James Moriarty, has experienced a cultural resurgence in the past ten years with two movies and two separate television series.

1 thought on “Examples of Foucault’s Project of Problematization: the written and spoken word

  1. Christina Hendricks

    I, too, find this discussion of crime literature very interesting, and have wondered about the fascination with crime that exists in TV programs in the past couple of decades. The sheer number of programs about crime and punishment is huge, though most of them have the law winning out over the crime (Law and Order, CSI, and the like). I could not understand the fascination with Dexter as a TV program and a kind of a hero of the show, and still am not sure I do. But perhaps Foucault’s anaysis can help in some degree. The thing is, when he talked about the gallows speeches in the 18th century, that was because people could identify with the criminal and what he’d done (at least sometimes, anyway, they could). And I can see the idea of heroizing in some way someone who is a mastermind like Moriarty. But most of the criminals on those shows are not really that smart or masterful. Maybe it is that we can still somehow identify with at least some of them, even if we don’t recognize it consciously. I think that may be part of what Stevens is getting at with the John Wayne Gacy song–it’s not just that this person was a monster, but that he represents a possibility in many or all of us. That’s something few want to face, of course (if it’s true), but it might help to explain some of the fascination.


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