Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society V

Back to blogging on Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France, 1972-1973, La société punitive published last year by Seuil, English publication probably still more than a year away. Since I last posted (January 14th), Seuil has brought out the  1980-1981 lectures Subjectivité et Vérité, Amazon France are apparently currently preparing my order for delivery, so it should reach me in Istanbul within a couple of weeks, and I will blog on it after I worked through La société punitive. The period since September has been extremely demanding, largely for the following reasons. I put Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, but in print since November 2013) through proofing and indexing stages and into print; I was one of two people making the co-edited volume Nietzsche as Political Philosopher ready for publication (it is available for pre-order from De Gruyter and should be in print by July), and getting the co-authored e-book Rousseau on Language and Writing (Roussseau etc, 2014, available now via online booksellers)  ready for publication; I prepared a lot of new material for four different undergraduate courses, to get some new ideas and stimulation for my teaching (an engaged approach which should also benefit  students), which should also spill over into various forms of writing. There is rather a small gap between semester in Turkey, and the publication work detailed conceded with the two semesters, so quite an intense period. I have plenty to work on for the Summer, but I’ll be less pressured and should be able to blog regularly, and even when teaching starts again, more than I have recently.

Anyway blogging targets include finishing lecture by lecture comments on the Foucault volumes and some commentary on a recently published volume  from Carl Schmitt,  Dictatorship (Polity 2014, first published by Schmitt in 1921). There will be other material as well, though I will leave that to emerge rather than try to plan  it all out now.

For now comments on Foucault ‘s lecture on the punitive society from 31 January 1973.


Foucault announces a move from archaeological to genealogical analysis. This appears to mean a move, from tracing the possible moves from penal theories to penal institutions, to the derivations that took place in practice. So here Foucault gives a useful brief indication of how to think about the relationship between archaeology and genealogy, already  resisting the idea of change in his way of thinking from early archaeological works to later genealogical works. The implication is that even if there is a change of emphasis, and I have some doubts about that, particularly if History of Madness is taken into account when discussing early Foucault, so not artificially isolating Archaeology of Knowledge and Order of Things as an ‘archaeological early Foucault’, there is not a change in overall claims. Foucault suggests an integration of an archaeological approach which deals with all the deep possible ways of moving from theories to institutions, and a genealogical approach which looks at the actual derivations, which maybe requires less archaeological depth, though is not completely isolated from archaeology. Putting it very crudely, for the sake of a clarificatory starting point, this could be the relation between Husserl (and maybe early Heidegger?) and Nietzsche.

Foucault  rejects the idea that the prison has a pre-existence in the monastery or convent. The closed religious community protects its inhabitants from the outside world, rather than protecting the world from its inhabitants. Penitence there is a voluntary activity, so the monastery does not exist to punish but as a place where people can engage in penitence. Foucault does allow for three ways in which the medieval and early modern Church used imprisonment from a penal point of view. 1. Holding clergy for transfer to the civil arm for punishment, as in the Inquisition. 2. Where canon (church) law allowed and required, which Foucault implies was not at all often 3. As a result of a secular penal practice, Foucault refers to the very French example of ‘lettres de cachet’ (royal documents demanding indefinite imprisonment), which as he explains elsewhere largely arise from local demands for the royal state to detain disturbing people without judicial process.

In Britain and America the enthusiasm for prisons as a form of punishment came from Protestant Dissenters. Foucault emphasises Quakers, their exile in  America, and their conflict with the British crown until Independence. The Quakers opposed the death sentence when it was on the statute book in Britain for about 200 crimes. In Pennsylvania, after independence, the death penalty was abolished for nearly all crimes, and prison became the normal form of punishment. The Quakers were very opposed to the power of the Church of England.

I am not entirely clear about this, but I think Foucault is suggesting that this is evidence of distinction between monasticism and prison as a penal practice, because closed religious communities exist within the Church of England, which completely purged all aspects of the Catholic past, though on a much lesser scale than in Catholic churches). It may also be the case that Foucault wants to emphasis the secular aspect of Quakerism, it does not require state  enforcement so does not have the kind of church-state link which exists in the state controlled Church of England, even where Quakers are the majority community and dominate politics.

The prison comes from Quaker conceptions of morality, religion, and power, not the penal theories of Beccaria and Brissot. For the Quakers power and politics had to be moral in purpose. For the Quakers, punishment could only be directed at evil defined by religion, not with reference to sovereignty of the law or social utility. The Quakers believed that the light of God is in everyone, so that while evil is universal, God’s light can win in every individual presuming they are protected from external passions and objects, and belong to a community looking for the light. The prison fits in well since it can be seen as a place where the soul is emptied out ready to receive God. From the Quaker point of view, the prison should be full of penitents of serious mind guided by this search for the divine light inside. The prison cells are ideal for isolating the sinner before God,

The term penitentiary was used for those prisons which is in contradiction with penal thought devoted to sovereignty and social utility, these are heterogenous ways of thinking. Foucault is presumably referring to the origin of ‘penitentiary’ in the idea of penance, a linguistic connection that happily works in both English and French. The triumph of the penitentiary as the dominant mode of punishment, is not a continuation of monasticism, but it is rooted in a theological way of thinking.  Though the prison becomes dominant at a time of secularism, it is a shift towards a more Christian oriented form of penal punishment than during the 12th century, when France moved from German laws of compensation to laws based on the sovereignty of the monarchy (a process which received a classic exposition from Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws). The process of adopting which excluded the church despite its apparent power at that time, since Roman law largely emerged before the Christianisation of the Empire, and was never based on theological concepts, or any special power for the church.

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