How does Foucault explain the shift from corporal to carceral punishment between the late 18th and the mid-19th century?

In 1975 (not translated and published in this country until 1977), Michel Foucault published his thesis, Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison, in which he offers an explanation for the shift from corporal to carceral punishment between the late 18th and the mid-19th  century; he uses this work to explain the transition from one episteme to another using what some commentators would call a ‘history of ideas’ but what Foucault calls archaeology and genealogy (Danaher et al, 2000).  Foucault’s work merits this examination as it is considered to be the only unique or non-mimetic theory of punishment (Cohen, 1985), other theorists and commentators take a more traditional approach to explaining punishment and its ramifications for society and penology in particular, “the relation between penal practice and society cannot be reduced to a question of the state, class, interests, benevolent intention or metaphors of property, disorder and contract, although it is continuous with them: ‘there is neither analogy nor homology, but a specificity of mechanism and modality’” (Cohen, 1985:30 citing Foucault, 1977: 27). In this essay I will explore how he explains said shift; what he says about punishment and its implementation in the 18th century and what he asserts it becomes in the 19th century and if indeed the evidence supports his assertion of the shift from corporal to carceral in the time frame that Foucault cites and whether his explanation as Garland (1990:157) suggests “provides only a partial and limited basis upon which to study punishment” or enables a new approach to this subject with the result being a unique perspective and understanding.

Foucault opens his 1977 book with a graphic description of the 1757 public torture and execution of Damiens, accused and found guilty of regicide (even although the King was not harmed at all), in Paris, France and immediately contrasts this with an account of the rules drawn up by Leon Faucher, for a day in the House of young prisoners in Paris; he uses these examples not to compare similar punishments for similar crimes but to establish the shift in penal style or punishment that has occurred in less than one hundred years (Foucault, 1977).  The grandiose public spectacle of the scaffold has been replaced by the private, hidden, house of correction or prison and the object of punishment shifted from the body to the soul (Barker, 1998); it is this essentially that Foucault builds his thesis of discipline and punishment on.

The shift from corporal to carceral that Foucault asserts took place between the late 18th century and the mid 19th century can be challenged in two regards; firstly, the time frame and secondly, the actuality of the change.  Spierenburg as discussed in Garland (1990) believed that the shift had begun some time earlier – perhaps as early as the 1600s, when the judicial use of public mutilation and execution began to decline across Europe, and by the middle of the 1700s, when it seems there was a generalised change in sensibilities and attitudes towards violence and Beattie’s assertion that the use of imprisonment “was in fairly widespread use as a punishment for minor offenders in the early decades of the eighteenth century” (Garland, 1990:158).  A commentator named Moore (2013) suggests that transportation was the main punishment at this time, alongside imprisonment, which involved hard labour and flogging, and importantly, hanging was still routinely used in the UK – however not as a public spectacle – until the 1950s.

Smart (1983:70) explains that although the body is no longer the primary object of punishment, it has to still be involved as “punishment never functions without a certain bodily element”; imprisonment controlled the body in respect of regulation of time, diet, availability of resources and the space inhabited, however Smart still asserts that “bodily torture is increasingly encompassed by the non-corporal qualities of the penal system” and brought about the shift from the body as the object to be punished to the knowable man.

However, contrary to Foucault’s claim that incarceration was a punishment of the soul and no longer primarily the body there is much evidence of imprisonment being brutal, indeed one of the regimes – that of the treadwheel, being described by McConville in The Oxford History of Prison as “scarcely veiled torture” (Wachsmann, 1996), physically very demanding and totally unproductive for the prisoner; a technology of subjection.  The prevailing attitude of Victorian England being that “the criminal classes were those who had largely foresworn the world of labour and immersed themselves in crime and vice of all kinds” (Godfrey et al, 2008:83), resulted in the belief that “a strict diet of work and military discipline would help to turn them into law-abiding citizens” (Wachsmann, 1996) and flogging was still an available punishment in UK prisons up until 1967.

The deliberate infliction and considered rationale of the carceral punishment renders it difficult to accept Foucault’s claim that the object of punishment had shifted from the body to the soul with the body being just an “intermediary of punishment” (Smart, 1983:70).

Foucault acknowledges the work of the reformers such as Beccaria (1764) who were seeking a more humane form of punishment and a new understanding of what punishment was intending to achieve but offers an additional explanation for the change in punishment from public to private, he “suggests that it was in the ambiguity of the carnival of the scaffold that the glimmerings of reform were first heard, insofar as the spectacle of the public execution provided a potentially dangerous zone of confrontation between the sovereign and the people”(Barker, 1998:53).

It may be that Foucault’s unique explanation of this time is due in the main to his use of genealogical analysis which singles out important events and then breaks the event down into its smallest component parts and thereby exposes the causal multiplication which enables new insights to the event (Smart, 1983), it avoids the “insertion of events into linear processes or explanatory systems…for it concerns itself instead with the phenomena which are frequently considered to lack a history (for example, reason, punishment, sexuality)” (Smart, 1983:64) and this diversion from traditional histories allows the events to break free from the given order that would have imposed its own meaning, thus in the genealogical analysis of punishment, it explains it as “the product of a particular stage in the play of dominations, rather than as the embodiment or realisation of an originating purpose or need” (Smart, 1983:65).

For Foucault, “the adoption of imprisonment as a common punishment for crimes is just one component of the more general processes of the emergence of a new modality of power relations” (Cousins & Hussain, 1984:191) and it is these power relations that underpin the shift in punishment.   for with power there is knowledge – they are inextricably linked, Foucault is determined that, “it is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power” (Barker,1998:28).  That knowledge is gained through observation; panoptical surveillance, the ultimate observation occurring only through incarceration being how Foucault believed “knowable man (soul, individuality, consciousness, conduct, whatever it is called)” (1977:305) was created, and this ‘knowable man’ was the’ docile soul’ that Foucault believed was the product of this new disciplinary power, “the Panopticon is not merely a highly efficient and clever technique for the control of individuals; it is also a laboratory for their eventual transformation…in Foucault’s terms, the Panopticon brings together knowledge, power, the control of the body, and the control of space into an integrated technology of discipline” (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982:189).

The Panopticon was the architectural design and vision (albeit never built) of Jeremy Bentham (1791) in the late 18th century, the aim being that the few were able to observe the many, the result according to Foucault being, “they are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible…and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (1977:200-201).  Foucault asserts that it is primarily this perception of being constantly observed that modifies an individual’s behaviour and not the violence and dungeons of the monarchy; “the panopticon offered a powerful and sophisticated internalized coercion… constant observation acted as a control mechanism; a consciousness of constant surveillance is internalized” (Mason,2018).

There is little said by Foucault, or commentators on his work, about why panoptical surveillance has this normalising effect, it appears to be accepted without question; for most, it is understood that behaviour changes depending on the perceived consequences of being observed in inappropriate behaviour, one commentator alludes to this, “the result of this surveillance is acceptance of regulations and docility – a normalization of sorts, stemming from the threat of discipline. Suitable behaviour is achieved not through total surveillance, but by panoptic discipline and inducing a population to conform by the internalization of this reality” (Mason, 2018, emphasis mine), however there is no further explanation as to what form the discipline may take.  Discipline as asserted by Foucault is enacted on the mind and not the body in this new enlightened penology that he is describing and yet if the prisoner is completely isolated and has their whole day regulated and is potentially being continually observed, it begs the question what consequences could be worse?  The obvious answer is that the discipline would be physical and yet, would that not be to undermine the shift in the object of punishment?

There was a time and motion study done in a factory in 1924 but the results were not analysed until 1950 by Henry Landsberger “who realized the effect observation had on human behaviour” (Owens, 2014), this became known as the Hawthorne Effect and “simply put the Hawthorne Effect states that human behaviour is changed by the act of observing it” (Owens, 2014).  The results of this research are still used today albeit largely by researchers to assess the impact of observer effect on participants in studies.  It is potentially this effect that was observed when Foucault asserted that panopticon discipline produced docile souls, however even within the research into the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ there are questions around the impact on those being observed of; expectations, rewards and consequences (both positive and negative) of the observers, (Draper, 2016) and therefore no satisfactory resolution has been established regarding the success of surveillance in modifying behaviour. None the less, it remains that “the Panopticon was a metaphor that allowed Foucault to explore the relationship between 1.) systems of social control and people in a disciplinary situation and, 2.) the power-knowledge concept. In his view, power and knowledge comes from observing others. It marked the transition to a disciplinary power, with every movement supervised and all events recorded” (Mason, 2018).

The knowledge that comes from observation creates power and this knowledge became “information about the individual deviant [that] were collected and processed.  If only we knew the right information, at the right time and could match it to the right method, then we would know what to do” (Cohen,1985:183), Smart (1983) offers that the prison was the place within which knowledge of the offender; their individual (and offending) history and their offence could become known and thus the type of punishment is indicative of the place of criminals within society and therefore how they are manipulated demonstrates two objectives; to change the balance of power in larger society and the reform or normalisation of the criminal and Foucault alleges this is explained by the shift from sovereign torture, through humanist reform, to normalising detention (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982).

Foucault believed that all of these technologies of power were used to control individuals by normalising behaviour, “disciplinary power is exercised on departures from the rule, on non-observance of imposed norms, and its aim is essentially corrective, to restore or reproduce the norm, to close the gap between the (deviant) actuality of human behaviour and the programmed norm” (Smart, 1983:71), this would suggest that the disciplinary power exercised within the prison system would be successful at transforming the behaviour of those who choose to act outside of legally imposed norms, however recidivism rates show this to not be the case. It may be argued that the prison fails to produce Foucault’s ‘docile souls’ but does indeed produce ‘knowable man’.

In determining whether the prison system is a success or failure, Foucault asserts it is successful if the parameters of success are changed, if reform is not the actual end goal, but it is instead the identification, classification and even production of delinquents.  Then, it is prison that necessitates the technologies of power and apparatus of punishment and the walls of the prison exhibit “clear spatial boundaries to mark off the normal from the deviant” (Cohen, 1985:57), however these technologies of power as displayed within the prison system are not used solely by the state, as the power that Foucault describes “is not restricted to political institutions. Power plays a directly productive role, it comes from below, it is multidirectional, operating from the top down and also from the bottom up” (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982:185) and therefore “power also provokes its own resistance” (Smart, 1983:66).  Smart offers Foucault’s assertion that the prison riots since the 1960s were not so much about prison conditions but about “the prison as an ‘instrument and vector of power’ over the body. Furthermore, Foucault comments that it was from such revolts and resistances within the prison that he came to understand that punishment in general and the prison in particular belong to a political technology of the body” (Smart, 1983:68).

In conclusion “the penalisation of incarceration was not in accord with the proposals advanced by the eighteenth century penal reformers; rather the practice of penal incarceration which emerged at the end of the eighteenth century signified the successful diffusion of a particular type of power, namely, discipline” (Smart, 1983:74) and that “discipline does not simply replace other forms of power which existed in society.  Rather it invests or colonizes them, linking them together, extending their hold, honing their efficiency and above all making it possible to bring the effects of power to the most minute and distant elements” (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1982:153).  This discourse, by Foucault, on the ramifications of power and discipline as exercised through punishment offers much by way of new understandings of how to interpret the dispersal of power in our society, and how it may be used to identify and classify those deemed deviant or not seen to be supporting the accepted norms, however there remains doubt as to the object of the punishment in the time frame that Foucault uses to explain his thesis.

Foucault does however show that as penal policy progressed, it became imbued with  “power over life, rather than as had been the case under monarchical law with its extravagant public ceremonial and ritual torture and execution, a power over death” (Smart, 1983:78) and this is most evident in the system of surveillance used in prison and probation; not perhaps the humane reform that was intended but as Foucault says, “and yet one cannot see how to replace it.  It is the detestable solution, which one seems unable to do without” (1977:232).

Did Foucault explain the shift from corporal to carceral?  It could be argued that what he explains is thus; “this was the transition which Foucault charted – from the visible public spectacle (torture, execution, humiliation) to the more discreet form of penitentiary discipline” (Cohen, 1985:57), from the public to the private, emphasising the emergence and consolidation of disciplinary power.

Author: Lindsay Sunderland

Reference List

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