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Foucault Discipline and Punish quotes

Tuesday 12 April 2005, by Neal Andrew


There are many parallels to be drawn between current antiterrorist legal and penal developments and the medieval and modern economies of power that Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish.

Opacity of Criminal Procedures

First, the opacity of current procedures. One of the main controversies of current and proposed antiterrorist legislation in the UK is that suspects are not allowed to see the evidence against them. Turning to Foucault’s historical account we can see some resemblances in the opacity and secrecy of the archaic sovereign regime:

«[T]he entire criminal procedure, right up to the sentence, remained secret: that is to say, opaque, not only to the public but also to the accused himself. It took place without him, or at least without his having any knowledge of the charges or of the evidence. In the order of criminal justice, knowledge was the absolute privilege of the prosecution.» [1]

In the period that Foucault describes, the production of truth forms part of complex economy of power. The means of investigation and the means of punishment coincide. Today, as then, suspicion is the «mark of a certain degree of guilt as regards the suspect and a limited form of penalty as regards punishment». [2]

The procedures of investigation/punishment relate not to transparent codes of law and scientific truth, but to the symbolic affirmation of sovereign power. As Foucault writes:

«The secret ... form of the procedure reflects the principle that... the establishment of truth was the absolute right and the exclusive power of the sovereign...» [3]

The Body in Economies of Truth and Punishment

It is the body that constitutes the central object and point of application of both the means of acquiring the truth of guilt, but also the point of punishment for the guilt that is already presumed:

«The body interrogated in torture constituted the point of application of the punishment and the locus of extortion of truth. And just as presumption was inseparably an element in the investigation and a fragment of guilt, the regulated pain involved in judicial torture was a means of both punishment and of investigation.» [4]

The body is a necessary component in what Foucault describes as the sovereign’s right of life and death. The body, marked by torture, bears the imprints of guilt, the marks of retribution that correspond to the terrible acts committed and the reaffirmation of sovereign power. Unlike the ideal of modern legal proceedings, the truth of the crime is not uncovered by Aristotelian ‘reason without passion’. The sovereign claims ownership of the crime and its truth and therefore claims ownership over the production and demonstration of this truth. The body is not simply the object of punishment, but the site of the production of sovereign truth and the inscription of the symbolic and material reality of sovereign power:

«The body, several times tortured, provides the synthesis of the reality of the deeds and truth of the investigation, of the documents of the case and the statements of the criminal, of the crime and the punishment. It is an element, therefore, in a penal liturgy, in which it must serve as the partner of a procedure ordered around the formidable rights of the sovereign, the prosecution and secrecy.» [5]

Sovereign Power, Vengeance and Exceptionality

A symbolic crime against sovereignty is not simply an affront to the law, but an affront to sovereignty itself.

«It ... requires that the king take revenge for an affront to his very person. The right to punish, therefore, is an aspect of the sovereign’s right to make war on his enemies». [6]

In its symbolic import the spectacle of Guantanamo, however shrouded in mystery, corresponds to the spectacle of public execution in the middle ages.

«Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, at its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.» [7]

Guantanamo is a contemporary echo of the archaic form of sovereignty that Foucault describes in such detail. As he explains:

«in monarchical law, punishment is a ceremonial of sovereignty; it uses the ritual marks of the vengeance that it applies to the body of the condemned man; and it deploys before the eyes of the spectators an effect of terror as intense as it is discontinuous, irregular and always above its own laws, the physical presence of the sovereign and of his power.» [8] [my italics].

The exceptionality of this archaic power lingers on today in synthesised remnants, reassertions and resurgences.

Disciplinary Power

The central trope of Discipline and Punishis to contrast and separate the old ritualistic forms of sovereign power from the minutiae of the new disciplinary techniques. This theme recurs constantly throughout the text. As Foucault explains here:

«Hitherto the role of political ceremony had been to give rise to the excessive, yet regulated manifestation of power; it was a spectacular expression of potency, an ‘expenditure’, exaggerated and coded, in which power renewed its vigour. It was always more or less related to the triumph.... Discipline, however, had its own type of ceremony. It was not the triumph, but the review, the ‘parade’, an ostentatious form of the examination. In it the ‘subjects’ were presented as ‘objects’ to the observation of a power that was manifested only by its gaze.» [9]

Foucault describes this new mechanism of ‘disciplinary power’ as coinciding with the birth of «an art of the human body». [10]

«What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.» [11]

Disciplinary power was spawned from and spawned in turn a whole series of techniques and knowledges of the body. Disciplinary power was to be constructed not around the spectacular ritual, but around an intricate focus on the smallest details of human life.

Andrew Neal, School of Politics, Philosophy and International Relations, Keele University


[1] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 35.

[2] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 42.

[3] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 35.

[4] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 42.

[5] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 47.

[6] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 48.

[7] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 48-49.

[8] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 130, my italics.

[9] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 187-188.

[10] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 138.

[11] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ibid., p. 138.

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