Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

by Cam N. Coulter


Posted on December 31, 2018 reading


Photo of Discipline and Punish

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Vintage Books, 1995. Originally published in France in 1975.

Foucault’s Ideas

We had discussed this book in a few of my college classes, so I had some context for understanding it, but it’s still admittedly a challenging text to parse, so after I read it, I listened to the recent Philosophize This! podcasts about Foucault and his work. I’m very glad I did. Those podcasts helped a lot with my understanding and appreciation of the text.

Discipline and Punish may look like a history book, but it’s not. It doesn’t point to the past and tell us how things used to be, back then. Foucault would argue that Discipline and Punish is more of a genealogy, a book which traces how our current mechanisms of power developed over time. On the face of it, this is a book about prisons, but it’s really concerned with systems of discipline and with disciplinary power, which are at play all throughout society—in prisons yes, but also in schools, in business, in government, in the military, and even in our private lives. The key modalities of power have shifted, Foucault argues. No longer is power primarily exercised by the brute strength of the state. Nowadays, power operates and functions most significantly through discipline, a widespread and diffuse (and even internalized) system, a process of surveillance, normalization, and examination. All throughout society, we are constantly monitoring and tracking ourselves and each other and then comparing everyone to normalized standards of behavior. In this process, we become both controlled subjects and active participants, simultaneous following and reinforcing the norms of society. Discipline is the primary mode of power in our modern world, and in most cases, it shapes our behavior more significantly than the state’s threat of force.

My Reactions

The book is entirely a descriptive account. Foucault doesn’t directly argue whether this system of discipline that has developed is good or bad. Which is fair. Discipline is somewhat like a tool; it’s more or less neutral, neither good or bad. As Foucault writes:

“‘Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology.” (215)

Which makes sense, but I still found myself a little annoyed by the fundamentally descriptive nature of the book. Foucault outlines this system of discipline through which power operates in our modern world (and he also shows his readers how things used to be different), and then he won’t say whether this shift has been a good thing or a bad thing. This was just one of my reactions to the text; I recognize that it isn’t an entirely fair criticism.

After all, discipline is relatively neutral. What really matters is how you apply it, what you use it to do, how it operates in particular contexts. For example, I’d much rather be an inmate in prison than be drawn and quartered. (Although that’s not to say I don’t have problems with prisons and their use.) On the other hand, I think schools excessively surveil and evaluate students and also reinforce behavior norms that are too narrow and constricting. In some contexts, I’m grateful for systems of discipline; in others, I’m critical. So, it’s probably more useful to talk about how discipline is beneficial and/or harmful in specific cases, rather than reduce it to the somewhat naive question, “So, is this good or bad?”

So I guess I’m a little frustrated that Foucault didn’t engage in this sort of analysis—although again, I can’t really fault him for it. The book is already of sufficient length and depth, and venturing into normative arguments would have opened up a whole nother can of worms.

Moreover, discipline has become so ingrained in our lives that, as Foucault puts it, “there is no outside” (301). It’s reach is inescapable. How can you truly know where your authentic desires end and where the internalized norms and standards of society begin? You probably can’t, not fully, not always clearly. If that’s the case, if there is no outside to the system, then it’s particularly useful to understand how exactly this system operates, and that’s a question that Foucault devotes a lot of energy to answering.

Discipline and Me

As I read Discipline and Punish, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that I’ve recently been researching GTD, minimalism, and Cal Newport’s work (especially his ideas concerning deep work), and subsequently I’ve been incorporating some of these ideas into a developing system of personal habits and practices. In short, I’ve been “getting productive” and getting into productivity, although I’d argue that I’m just trying to spend my time in ways that are more meaningful to me. (I need to write a future essay in which I reflect on the points of both overlap and tension between “being productive” and trying to spend my life more meaningfully.)

There is some enjoyable irony to this. As I read Discipline and Punish, I was leaning into a practice in which I routinely exercise disciplinary power upon myself. Discipline is fundamentally a process of surveillance, normalization, and examination, and I, uh, I’ve been doing all of those things to myself.

I’ve been tracking habits in my bullet journal. I’ve been logging more items on my to-do list, tracking next actions and whether tasks are completed. (Surveillance.) I’ve started time-blocking to be more intentional about how I use my time. I’ve been setting weekly goals and priorities. (Normalization.) I’ve even started taking thirty minutes to do a weekly review, wherein I review what I got done last next and select my goals and priorities for the next week. (Examination.)

I’m a cog in the system of discipline. At the same time, I’m also the manager. Well, maybe more of a middle-manager. My own agency and the normalized standards handed down from above—sometimes those blend together. It can be hard to differentiate the two. Sure, when I set my goals for the week, I am intentionally exercising my own agency, my own will, to decide what I value and what I want. But at the same time, I know that my will and my desires have already been shaped to some extent by society. Am I exercising my own agency, or following the normalized standards handed down from above? Both, probably. It’s inescapable.

I’d like to think my evolving practice isn’t as soulless and corporate as it may seem from how I’ve just described it. It certainly doesn’t feel so soulless. On the contrary, I feel more in control, and I feel like I’ve been using my time more meaningfully, in ways that better accord with my values and passions.

I see why discipline has wormed its way into practically every aspect of modern society. It’s effective, efficient, and powerful. Recently, I’ve gotten a lot done and felt more relaxed.

Anyway, moral of the story, there’s a lot to discuss with this book, and I wish I were in grad school and could discuss it all in a classroom and with classmates. Have you read it? What do you think?

Photo by Cameron N. Coulter


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