Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society XIII (concluding here)

Lecture of March 28th, 1973

The last lecture. Coming soon, summaries of the lectures in Subjectivité et Vérité: Cours au Collège de France. 1980-1981, published a few weeks ago.

Foucault refers to the role of the prison, as the dominant form of the punishment of criminality, having a history of 150 years. It has been a failure from the beginning in that criminals and recidivists did not decline in number, while the coherence of delinquents as a group increased. The architecture of the prison is discussed in relation to the development of the state. The prison has a particular kind of space, in a star shape. The centre of the star is an observation tower which is the place of constant and universal surveillance of prisoners. The arms of the start shaped prison contain the life and work of the prisoners, pushed towards complete regularity and order.

The architectural problem of the prison is the reverse of a theatre, since the centre is the place for watching and must be protected from those watched. The form of the prison is a social form as well as an architectural form. Foucault takes the idea of the relation between architectural and social form back to ancient Greece. The Greek city had a an agora (central space), which was the condition for the institutional possibility of logos (which Foucault seems to be thinking of here with regard to knowledge, but the senses of language and speech should not be ignored either). The star-prison, with its power of surveillance, is just as much a form of knowledge.  The prison is at the heart of society as the source of orders and prescriptions.

Foucault suggests a connection with the images of power in the medieval throne, as the magisterial form of power, or the (early modern) image of the sovereign in the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s classic of political theory, and other issues, Leviathan (1651). The famous frontispiece of a kingly figure towering over his land, composed of many people, presumably his subjects, wearing a crown and carrying other symbols of royal power, can be found easily with an internet image search for ‘Hobbes Leviathan’. Hobbes’ image is that of power through control and surveillance as the king figure is looking out over his domains. Foucault suggests that the institution of the prison is best understood through its place in the system of power, rather than in the history of delinquency.

The idea of power cannot be understood as something possessed by a class. Power is not possessed because: power exists in a dispersed way so that it exercises itself; power is not appropriation, it is a bellicose set of relations existing as changing immediate strategies between individuals, in the manner of chance or a game; power is never entirely on one side, power never follows a single scheme given once by the totality of oppression, it is never used completely by a few individuals, but exists in little singularities where there are localised defeats as well as victories. Power can never be reduced to the property of  a few people, it is a permanent strategy resting on civil war.

Power in the form of surveillance and control in the nineteenth century is connected with a mode of production for Foucault, that is the capitalist mode of production which he defines with regard to the accumulation of capital and the control of time in order to maximise the wealth created by workers. This is opposed to the feudal model, which Foucault thinks of as lasting until the eighteenth century, right up to the 1789 Revolution, in which wealth comes from the rents generated from the land. Space, control of land, is at the heart of feudalism; time, control of the hours at the disposal of worker, is at the heart of capitalism.

It is important to be careful about how far one takes these references to modes of production as a Marxist foundation. Foucault is just as much saying that Marxist thought rests on the surveillance-control power system and is just a part of it. Foucault suggests here that the model for that system is not economics, he refers to the limited influence of the eighteenth century physiocrats, that is the early economists whose ideas overlap with those of Adam Smith to some degree. Foucault suggests that the model for surveillance power is medicine and let us not forget that Foucault’s father was a doctor. I believe there is at least one interview in which Foucault suggests that his own work is a continuation of his father’s professional activities. So it is the difference between the normal and the pathological which is the key to power in the nineteenth century.

Foucault understands power and knowledge to be intimately connected, so that power generates knowledge, structures the kinds of knowledge that appears through the habits if produces. The habits produced by surveillance-control give rise to norms, very regularised rules of behaviour, which themselves become the object of Durkheimian sociology, a key moment in the formation of sociology as a disciple. Disciplines and forms of knowledge exist because of the kind of knowledge existing in the networks of power, the productive nature of power in which objects of power and necessarily the objects of knowledge.

Returning to Foucault’s brief reference to ancient Geek cities, we can take it that he is largely thinking of Athens and that he is implicitly opposing Athenian democracy, with the place of public speaking at the centre, to the surveillance society, with the prison at the centre. The prison architecture is defined as the opposite of the architecture of a theatre and that should lead us to think of Athenian drama since ancient Greece is mentioned in the subsequent paragraph. It is probably tragedy that Foucault is thinking of, something he often refers to in his writing while comedy features rather less. We can think of the texts of Foucault’s last years on free speaking (parrhesia) in ancient Greek democracy here, which he partly discusses in relation tragedy, and conclude that these ideas are already in earlier texts. The sense of a democratic and tragic world that flourished briefly and was lost has a lost of resonances, which I won’t go into right now, as that would drift away from the lectures summarised here.

(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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