An Illustrated précis of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish

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Recently I was able to be part of the Marshall Container Company’s lecture series Rough Draught. Each part of the lecture series is based off a two word topic, and having the privilege of choosing the topic for this round of lectures I chose Discipline and Punishment (with the  intent of basing my presentation off a book by Foucault with a very similar title: Discipline and Punish.) 

One very challenging part of the lecture is to distill a topic down to a presentation that can be accomplished in 15 minutes or less. This can be difficult, especially when working with someone as dense and meticulous as Foucault. Below I’ve included the visuals from my presentation, along with a slightly more wordy summary of my entire talk.

All of the following is meant as an overview of his work Discipline and Punish – there is plenty I left out; some relations and transitions are oversimplified; some causes and perspectives are left undiscussed; the overall impact of the power he describes is barely explored. But, I hope that what I’ve managed to scrap together can be useful as an overview, though it should not be used as a substitute for an actual reading of Foucault. Now, onto Foucault!



Public torture and execution where considered business as usual for thousands of years. It was one of the primary ways the power of a monarchy expressed itself. These were often ceremonious events, lasting hours.  Torture before execution was inflicted on the guilty in careful doses, intending to prolong and maximize the duration of torture for more serious crimes. This image represents an event that took place in 1775 AD, but it could have just as easily been an execution taking place in 1775 BC Egypt. Yet, less than a century later, everything changes:


We see the birth of the prison. Not a form of power that was merely concerned with adding convicted citizens to a workforce instead of executing them, for that had previously existed. But a new kind of power that sought to “Rehabilitate”, to correct the person convicted of a crime. It was the first time in history that this goal existed with such force and bellow I’ll explore some of the causes that brought it into existence.


The answer we are generally given is that torture was done away with because of a kind of humanism that grew out of the enlightenment movement (pictured above in all it’s fluffy sensibility).


But, if we look at the writings of politicians and aristocrats during this transition we see that they disapproved less of the horror of torture, or the injustice of monarchy, and instead direct their complaints more at the inefficiency and irregularity of torture. The modifications they sought to make can be summarized as the following:


Rule of Perfect Certainty: The condemned can no longer be pardoned or made an example of because the monarch or local magistrate woke up cheerful or extra pissy. Instead, consistent and known punishment must be the natural and unavoidable circumstance for anyone convicted of a crime. In this way the public will be certain that a specific punishment awaits them if they are found guilty.

Rule of Lateral Effects: The punishment must have it’s most extreme effect on those who have not committed the crime. Once again the public at large is the true target of this modification, which seeks to better emphasize the deterrent effect of punishment.

Rule of Common Truth: Someone can only be completely guilty or completely innocent, and guilt must be arrived at through a public process of common reasoning. In other words these politicians and lawmakers chose to replace the inquisition model of determining truth (an interrogation involving moderate amounts of torture) with the then emerging field of what we call experimental science.

Restructure of Sentencing: Crimes of property theft face more strict penalties, where as crimes of fraud, tax evasion, unsanctioned commercial operations, were redirected towards special legal institutions that punished more with fines than torture. Does this sound familiar? This is the advent of white collar crime, and of course its creators are the very people expecting that they’ll soon be committing these crimes.


Punishment evolves. None of these modifications involve doing away with torture, rather they seek to better calculate the ideal use of torture. Punishment, thanks to the emerging field of science, becomes something that can be calculated.

Agents of Change – Specters From the Past

Although there certainly are individuals influencing this change, there is also a new methodology influencing the creation of this new technology of power: science.  What causes or is signified by the emergence of science? Certainly much more than I am about to outline below. The complete change from one mode of knowing to another, across the entire continent of Europe, is as profound a change as it is difficult to understand the thinking of those that were antecedent to its development. But one relationship I want to bring into the light is the tie between the Inquisition and the method of discovery utilized by empirical observation. This ritual of inquiring, observing, and examining that is key to experimental science is actually an old method being put to a new use, it is a method that had been bolstered and prioritized by the Inquisition itself.


The inquisition started in the 13 century and lasted several hundred years, it was made up of institutions within the Catholic Church whose aim was to suppress heresy by conducting prolonged interrogations with the accused, aka inquisitions; by questioning, observing, and prodding them, all of this involving torture and often ending in death. The inquisition bolstered the interrogation, supposing that the more meticulous and systematic an interrogation was, the more truth that could be gotten from an individual.


The new method of examination that defines experimental science in 1775 is a method of truth finding that partially originated in the Inquisition. This doesn’t somehow restrict science from doing good, or breaking completely with its ugly ancestry, but it does imply that an authoritarian power would easily be able to put to use a method that had ultimately originated from the needs a very similar authoritarian power. And we are about to see that happen.

Back to Punishment 2.0 for a moment. With these recent modifications we still don’t have anything resembling the modern day prison.  For the most part the only real buildings that continuously housed people convicted of a crime are either debtors prisons, vagrant workhouses  (which were a kind of prison), and jails that were meant to be temporary prisons for people awaiting trial. But, it is from these already existing structures that a completely new technology of power is most rapidly evolving.10

All across Europe and America unique experiments are being conducted on these already existent prisons, in one prison they ask, can these vagrants not just be put to work but also taught a skilled trade? In another they ask, can they be forced into religious study daily so as to improve their moral constitution? Can they be taught good habits while in temporary holding? In short, these questions all lead to this idea: can they be “rehabilitated” into ideal citizens?


And in less than a century, what would have been the punishment of torture or mundane labor gives way to the formula of Constant Discipline and Surveillance. An equation that calculates a greater degree of Rehabilitation if there is a proportionally greater degree of discipline and surveillance. Well within this hundred year timeline all other penalties of torture are transmuted into prison sentences. Still, this is seemingly less the result of careful planning and more the result of this new power seemingly facing no resistance.


In the name of Rehabilitation The prisoners days are scheduled down to the minute.  When they wake, how many steps they take to table, posture, words used, water drank, every12 piece of time is carefully portioned by a disciplining power, and all on an individual basis. Even though lawmakers and politicians were in general agreement about making torture more efficient and effective, plenty of them were surprised by this sudden boom in imprisonment.

And this very word “rehabilitation” creates the idea of the criminal. Instead of being a person that had committed a crime, they become someone with motives, a history, mental perversions, they are a person that can be cured to the degree that they can be studied. This new power uses science to justify a closer examination of those 14convicted.  The science of criminology is born from the ghost of the inquisition.

It is no longer the judge who is judging you, now it is the criminal psychologist, the psychoanalyst. Judgment of your guilt can now come from the seemingly neutral field of science. In this way the power of the state can remove themselves from recrimination, it’s not the state that classifies you as a criminal, it is the unbiased proclamation of science that does so, from the base of criminology. To quote Marat, “…Penalties no longer proceed from the will of the legislator, but from the nature of things, therefore one no longer sees man committing violence on man.” And with the coalescing of all this – the monastic cell, surveillance, constant discipline, criminology – there is born an ideal prison: The Panopticon.


The above is a drawing of a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, infamously known as the Panopticon. Its design represents the ideal architecture of a power that is able to not only constantly observe, but much more importantly, is able to make those within its walls know they are under constant observation without allowing them to observe their observers. The key structure defining this design is that featured in the center of the prison is one guard tower, from which all of the prisoners can be seen. On the windows of this guard tower are venetian blinds, allowing the guards to see out but preventing the prisoners from seeing within.


The prisoner is unable to know when they are being watched, therefore they assume constant surveillance. The prisoner acts as if they are being watched, they become their own policing force. With this new design, you don’t even need someone in the guard tower to create the effect of subservience. And although this technology of power originates in the prison, Foucault argues that it doesn’t remain there, but instead spreads throughout society, going as far as to completely alter the physical architecture of power.

What was for millennia a power that, more than anything, desired to be seen:


Became a power that desired, more than anything, to be able and see you.


25What originated in the prison as the punishment of discipline and surveillance, spreads through society as that same punishment, altering the very architecture of society to spread punishment as the endless surveillance and disciplining of the population at large. This new technology of power seeks to “rehabilitate” it’s population into the most useful and efficient subjects possible. It seeks to divide space into as many sections as there are bodies.

Just like the prison, it is the fact of being constantly seen, judged, and ranked, that accomplishes the punishment of continuous discipline, and maintains the subjection of the individual.

Seen, Judged, and Ranked:Consolidate1

 The punishment of being seen, judged, and ranked, creates individuals that see, judge, and rank. It creates a group that reacts to its own self policing by living out the disciplining effect of this mutually ensured punishment: the individual self corrects. Their degree of “improvement” is directly proportional to their narrowing of the proximity between themselves and the collaborative norm set by all that inhabit this technology of power. We magnify our surveillance over ourselves and each other, and the punishment is willfully renewed and intensified by the very people being punished.

Thank you for reading.  As I mentioned in the very beginning this is at best a general overview of Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish.  There is much more that could be said about the impact had on society by the conceptual framework perfected in the Panopticon. The example I left off with is a simple one, but ties in well to the medium this précis exists in.