Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society VII.2

Lecture of 14th February 1973

(The rest of the of summary and some remarks by way of commentary)

Most of the ‘lettre de chachet’ led to confinement, but not always in prisons. Religious residences, private residences, and houses of correction could also be used. The origin of clinics for mental illness is in these buildings. Detention in these houses was not punishment for a fault, inhabitants were kept in them until a change in behaviour or attitude was detected. These places moved away from the emphasis of the classical economy of the penal system on deterrence towards the dispositions of the detained purpose, leading onto the moralisation and psychologisation of punishment in the nineteenth century. The ‘lettre de chachet’ was not an intervention by absolute pows but of a moral consensus based in families and localities. Mentally disturbed behaviour offensive to the Catholic church was punished through the ‘lettre de cachet’ because of the lack of conscious rational intention and in order to avoid pretexts for criticisms by libertines and badly converted Protestants.

Regular behaviour was a very important issue and religious communities seemed ideal for imposing regularity on the irregular through the strict routine observed. The ‘lettre de chachet’ are part of a circulation and exchange of power between top and bottom. They define what become taken as signs of psychological disturbance. They produce a kind of anti-Plutarch [as in the Graeco-Roman author of a series of parallel lives of exemplary Greeks and Romans], which create narratives and causal explanations of infamy. Knowledge emerges that integrates biography into itself as it struggles with irregularity. This biography-knowledge is a major influence on the penal system, along with psychiatry, sociology, and criminology. Politics,sexuality, and mental disturbance all enter here, along with syphilitic paralysis [joining sexual delinquency with irregular physical functioning]. It also leads to the study of hysteria on this model, which itself leads the way to psychoanalysis and the study of desire, from the the ways in which rule breaking had been understood in the ‘lettre de cachet’.

In England social control was imposed by a gradualist movement of the state using religious redemption. In France the social control came from a state that was already centralised. In England, moral exhortation and exclusion from the group was important, in France it was imprisonment that was important. There was a common movement of control of the same elements, reenforcing family, religious community, and work. In both cases the  state was strengthened. The ‘lettre de cachet’ fell into discuss in the late eighteenth century, but not in a weakening of central state power, but because central state power had constructed places of correction for beggars, vagabonds, and the deliberately unemployed. The new state institutions create a system of the power of the class that is in the state, over the lower class, in contrast with the more interactive form of power in the ‘lettre de cachet’. This process was continued and intensified by the French Revolution, as we see in Adrien Duport’s belief that it is a sign of despotism for public order to be different from state justice, so that with liberty there must be an integration of public order within state justice.

A few remarks on the summary of Foucault above. Foucault uses a language of class power at some points, but it does not necessarily fit with Marxism in every sense. The presence of class power in the state is decisive rather than the economic class relations, though the intervention of the state in strikes and the confinement of those who do not participate in work is an issue as well. The analysis of economic classes was not invented by Marx, who was drawing on the work of Montesquieu, Physiocrats; the Scottish Enlightenment, and early political economy as it developed from Smith to Mill in his understanding. Alexis de Tocqueville and Hippolyte Taine continued to develop these analyses, in a classical liberal or some might prefer to say liberal-conservative direction, just before and contemporaneously with Marx. It continues further in the German speaking world through Nietzsche (who corresponded with Taine) and Nietzsche’s colleague at Basel, the historian Jacob Burckhardt (particularly with regard to the emergence of the ancient city).  It is hard not to see  large part of these sources present in Foucault’s discussion above, and in other places in Foucault.

There are some elements of Marxist class and economic analysis in Foucault, but not in a teleological assumption of the development of a politically unified revolutionary class. The direction of thought is more that of identifying outsiders and marginals and their struggles, which are just as much the struggle with forms of moralism and communal pressure present in the lower classes, as with the synthesis of state and dominant class power, which often acts in symbiosis with lower class defences of what they understand as honest regular behaviour. Sometimes as Foucault suggests the local aristocracy and lower bureaucracy, in some forms, are the most effective barrier to central state power and the power of the class that dominates the state. The discussion of the continuity of centralising monarchical power with the French Revolution is very much in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, as is the scepticism of the use of Enlightenment language to mask growth of state power in the Revolution, the point on which Foucault finishes the  above lecture.

(Referring to La société punitive: Cours au Collège de France. 1972-1973. Ed. by Bernard E. Harcourt under the direction of François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana. Paris: Seuil, 2013)

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One thought on “Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society VII.2

  1. Pingback: Barry Stocker on Foucault’s The Punitive Society VII 1 and 2 | Progressive Geographies

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