The Punished

Review From User :

This book begins with a bang - in fact, a series of bangs. That is the point, you see. We need to be shocked about what is, after all, our relatively recent past. We too easily forget that there was a time when 'people like us' actually span back in history for nearly as far as the mind could imagine. Now, we struggle to believe that people who lived 20 or 30 years ago where quite like us - even when we ourselves were those people. Today we cast off selves and disown past selves like our endlessly cheap clothes - cheaper to buy than to wash, as someone pointed out recently - or like snakes and their skins, cicadas and their chrysalises. For, as Foucault points out here, the point of history isn't for us to understand the past - that is dead and gone and has only the meaning we can give it from our vantage point - the point of history is to provide the narrative that helps us to understand the present.

I want to start with one of the quotes that go off with a bang at the start of this book - that shock us by how distant our world seems moved from that of a few hundred years ago:

"in 1584 the assassin of William of Orange was abandoned to what seems like an infinity of vengeance. 'On the first day, he was taken to the square where he found a cauldron of boiling water, in which was submerged the arm with which he had committed the crime. The next day the arm was cut off, and, since it fell at his feet, he was constantly kicking it up and down the scaffold; on the third day, red-hot pincers were applied to his breasts and the front of his arm; on the fourth day, the pincers were applied similarly on the back of his arm and on his buttocks; and thus, consecutively, this man was tortured for eighteen days.' On the last day, he was put to the wheel and 'mailloté' [beaten with a wooden club]. After six hours, he was still asking for water, which was not given him. 'Finally the police magistrate was begged to put an end to him by strangling, so that his soul should not despair and be lost'."

The spectacle of eighteen days of public torture seems extraordinary to us. Perhaps what is most shocking is the level of vengeance that is taken on the body of the guilty man. A transgression of the law - and the law at the time was represented in the body and in the will of the king - was equally revenged on the body of the transgressor.

The problem was that this expression of state power was far too often arbitrary and grossly overwrought. As in the example above, the vengeance of the state seems to know no bounds. However, and I guess ironically too, the state (king) was also able to pardon - that is, reserved the right to decide when and how the law might be applied - and this arbitrary law effectively undermined the state's own moral authority.

We like to see our world as one on a kind of slow incline towards progress. And, let's face it, it would be hard to read the description above and not think that from that particular south pole of inhumanity no matter which way we might have gone would have probably been 'up'.

Our particular path up from that nadir was to decided that it was unreasonable to punish people's bodies, that what we needed was to punish (or correct, rather) their souls. Now, this is only partly true, for as Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prove, we still like to get off on torture. All the same, there was a clear shift in policy away from torture of bodies towards using punishment as means of making an example of the criminal and also perhaps being able to reform them. The focus shifted to the souls of the wrong doers - but also on the social consequences of their crimes. It wasn't any longer a matter of 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth', instead you might get punished more for a crime that might hardly harm any one single person, but have large social consequences. Punishments were increasingly seen as ways of improving both the individual and society - and therefore punishments tended to need to be seen as being 'just' - rather than an arbitrary expression of the will of the ruler. That is, punishments could no longer be 'excessive' in the way they had been before. They had to 'match' the crime. The punishment had to make risking doing the crime simply not worth it. The punishment also had to encourage the criminal to live a good life, that is, the punishment ought to make the crime abhorrent to the criminal.

That is, punishment needed a pedagogical function - it needs to teach the criminal the 'right way' to live one's life. I couldn't help, throughout this book, thinking of 're-education camps' and how we imagine changing a label from re-education to rehabilitation can allow us believe what we do is so much better than what those nasty communists did. To understand how to be good requires a particular kind of knowledge. Knowledge, then, is a direct consequence of power, of state power - and true knowledge is aligned with the exercise of power. Ok, that might sound like rubbish - but I think it is a remarkably interesting point. To punish someone now means two things, you have some idea of what is the right way to live a life and that if you inflict a certain punishment on a person that punishment will thereby make them a better person. Ever since Socrates the idea has been that if someone understands 'the good' then they must also act in accordance with that knowledge. Well, if people are acting in ways that are not in accordance with the laws (and the laws are, naturally enough, to those who make them, completely rational and totally in accordance with 'the good') then the role of punishment isn't so much to get revenge on those who break the laws, but rather, to help them to better understand the good - that is, to help them to become rational agents in society. Punishment is about re-educating those who transgress society's laws because only those without reason would ever break these laws. Knowledge and Law and therefore also Power are all instances of the same thing.

There is a wonderful bit in Stephen Fry's Moab is My Washpot where he says that having been at an English Public School meant that he had much less difficulty adjusting to prison life than other people. That a boarding school was run in much the same way that a prison is run and so it all seemed quite normal to him. This is Foucault's point exactly, I think.

I need to talk about how you change people's souls now - and therefore I need to talk about Foucault's most fascinating metaphor - that of Bentham's Panopticon. The Panopticon was designed to be an 'ideal prison' - and it was literally ideal, never actually having been built. The point is that the 'ideal' often helps explain the actual world. It is probably easier if you just Google Panopticon - but the basic idea is to build a prison in which all of the cells are in the circumference of a circular building while at the centre of the circular prison there is a tower. Inside the tower is a guard (or citizens who have dropped by to see that the prisoners are reforming). The cells on the circumference of the circular building all have two windows - one facing into the centre of the building and the other on the opposite wall looking out. The second window looking out provides light into the cell - the window facing the tower means that the prisoner can be watched at any time of the day or night by the guard. The whole thing is designed so that the prisoner just doesn't know if or when the guard is watching - but the prisoner does know that there is no time when the guard will definitely not be watching. It is all a bit like God - constantly watching to constantly provide you with a conscience (or what is the next best thing to a conscience, as you act as if you are doing right for its own sake, even though you are doing right just in case you get caught doing wrong).

There was also the problem of having lots of criminals in one place that needed to be addressed so as to stop that one place becoming a university of criminality. So, prisoners were not allowed to talk to one another. And they were kept in isolation for long periods of time. All the better to allow the voice of the prisoner's conscience to work on them and thereby to help teach them right from wrong.

The secret to right moral action, then, is more than just the relationship between knowledge and power - but also of proper surveillance. And surveillance now dominates our lives. And not just the cameras that are everywhere filming our every movement. But also in our obsession with tests in schools and performance reviews at work. To Foucault, the panopticon was not just a model for the ideal prison, but also for the ideal hospital, factory and school. He points out that this surveillance has meant turning our lives into texts. There was a time when only the heroes of our world had books written about them - today we are our high school report cards, our credit ratings, our performance review results, our medical history cards.

One of the things Foucault does that I find utterly fascinating is to look at the etymology of words and to show how earlier meanings hang around the word's usage today like ghosts. In this book he points out that the word discipline has always had the dual meaning it has today - a discipline as an area of study and discipline as in being forced to behave correctly. This seems terribly important to me.

Like in Orwell's 1984 - the terrifying vision here is that power always acts in ways that are essentially inhuman. I'm certainly not advocating going back to a time when killing a king might involve you in 18 days of unspeakable torture - but then, one has only to read The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism to know we use torture today in ways that would make O'Brien blush with pride. We are shocked when we learn of the surveillance used by the Stasi - and rightly so - but we actively sign up so that international corporations can monitor every single item we purchase so as to better sell to us because they might agree to giving us a free chocolate bar every year or so. But then, what is the point of freedom and privacy if you can't trade it for some chocolate

This is a very disturbing book - it is also a must read.


Curt Regis, a beggar and a thief, uses his guile and street smarts to reign as king of the street rats. When he’s caught and sent into foster care he knows that it’ll be a short stay. Yet his luck has run out. Curt is sent to what is thought to be the perfect home, where not a word of complaint is ever heard, where the only real sounds that disturbs the air are the screams of the punished.

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