«BEYOND DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: FOUCAULT’S CHALLENGE TO CRIMINOLOGY Published in English thirty years ago, Discipline and Punish has exercised a ...»
There was therefore an important convergence between the ‘social control’ scholars and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: both rejected the lazy academic habit of limiting one’s scope to existing fields of governance (with criminology as the intellectual reflection on ‘crime’ and ‘criminal justice’). In line with this anti-internalist approach, which challenged scholars to explore whatever relationships seem to be empirically important instead of falling into the habit of saying ‘but I only study crime’, David Garland furthered the critical agenda greatly through his 1985 book, Punishment and Welfare (Garland 1985). This work, which is now rarely cited4, constituted a sustained and thorough effort to document how institutions previously regarded as distinct (eugenics, social insurance, corrections) had in fact developed intertwined with one another and drawing on the same logics and the same knowledges. It gave English-speaking criminology a new sense of itself by giving it a new history, one which was ‘critical’ not because of a normative agenda but rather because it de-centred the criminal justice system—while avoiding the vagueness and abstract over-inclusiveness of ‘social control’.
Both Discipline and Punish and Garland’s Punishment and Welfare were replete with information about the practices of governance that historically constituted the modern soul and simultaneously built knowledgebased institutions. But their thick descriptions of particular practices tended to fade into the background in most works produced by later critical crimBeyond Discipline inologists. Instead of being inspired to produce new, empirically rich accounts of the governance of social ‘problems’, left criminologists tended to seize the rather general and dangerously abstract term ‘discipline’ and wield it as a classic Platonic Idea—with the real world of governance being largely reduced to the status of ‘examples’ of ‘discipline’. Generations of graduate students (and even more mature scholars) published papers which began with a general description of Foucault’s argument about sovereignty and discipline and went on to then use ‘discipline’ as a cookie cutter.
Kindergartens, physicians’ offices, even university classrooms were all reduced to what Hegel would call a ‘night in which all cats are grey’ sameness by being described as examples of discipline.
‘Discipline’, the key conceptual innovation of Foucault’s book, thus met with great success precisely because it could be taken up to renovate the content of one’s analyses but without forcing a wholesale rethinking of the intellectual habits of the past. While avoiding class reductionism, the description of correctional disciplinary practices provided in Discipline and Punish verged on the kind of functionalism that was in the air we all (including Foucault) breathed in the 1970s—in stark contrast to the Nietzscheinspired radically anti-functionalist perspectives found elsewhere in Foucault’s work. In other words, ‘discipline’ looked like a traditional sociological ‘concept’—a term acknowledged as having a particular historical origin but treated in scholarly practice as a Platonic Idea. One could thus borrow this new term, which had the virtue of being more specific than ‘social control’ but just barely, in order to produce analyses that were relatively new in content while remaining (for the most part) traditional in form. By contrast, ‘governmentality’, a term that Foucault had indeed used but in loose and somewhat contradictory ways, could not be so easily recuperated as a traditional sociological concept: the ‘governmentality literature’ certainly prospered for a decade or so, and much of this did indeed turn ‘governmentality’ into another conceptual cookie-cutter; but ‘governmentality’ is a somewhat more ambiguous and problematic term (Rose, O’Malley and Valverde 2006).
Foucault’s account of ‘discipline’, therefore, resonated with the methodological and political preferences that already existed among critical criminologists beginning to find Marxism either tired or insufficient but wishing to maintain a left-wing stance. Discipline was clearly linked by Foucault to the rise of the industrial proletariat and bourgeois society’s need for working bodies with standardized capacities; but the Discipline and Punish story carefully avoided making capital the motor force of history.
Thus, Foucault’s ideas could be used by the sizeable number of intellectuM a r i a n a Va l v e r d e als who remained on the political left—and who had a lot of trouble breaking out of functionalist habits of thought—but who no longer found Marxist theory intellectually satisfying.
An additional factor that explains why Foucault’s work itself became the victim of the success of ‘discipline’ concerns Foucault’s analysis of the relation between knowledges and powers, which in Discipline and Punish was not as clearly distinguished from the ‘critique of ideology’ approach as would be the case in later work, on governmentality/security and on sexuality and ethics. That supposedly neutral knowledges such as psychology or social work wield a great deal of power even when used benevolently was already an accepted point of view in the 1970s, in the left at any rate (and it must be recalled that the left was then, relatively, much larger than it is today). Foucault’s analysis of the role of expert knowledges in the formation and implementation of disciplinary apparatuses was thus not completely novel. Many readers of Discipline and Punish missed the fact that Foucault took the critical view of knowledge and power one crucial step further: instead of focusing on the ways in which knowledge systems could function as delivery systems for ‘ideology’, Foucault argued more radically that knowledges are themselves forms of power.
Few 1970s intellectuals (outside of a small group of Lacanaian psychoanaltic film theorists) would have said that the act of looking, the act of recording data, and the act of writing are themselves exercises of power.
Since Foucault’s book dealt exclusively with forms of knowledge embodied in oppressive institutions, his critique of the power effects of those knowledges could be easily recuperated for ‘critique of ideology’ approaches. In the work of Louis Althusser and other influential ‘critique of ideology’ intellectuals, observation, data gathering, and classification were seen as problematic insofar as they were imbricated in class structures and state institutions; but the act of observing was not itself problematized. While Althusser and his allies avoided singing the praises of proletarian knowledge as the Stalinists did, nevertheless, the Marxism of the 1970s implicitly held that in a future just society knowledge would indeed be free from power — that knowledge would become purely technical, and government would be the administration of things rather than the government of men.
That all knowledges including critical or ‘resistant’ knowledges are also forms of power was thus a truly radical insight going well beyond the intellectual toolbox of the 1970s left. This insight was largely absent from Discipline and Punish but was explored by Foucault in some later work (though admittedly, without ever subjecting his own work to reflexive cri
tique), most importantly in the critical analysis of sexual liberation discourse with which The History of Sexuality, Volume I opens (Foucault 1980). It is perhaps not surprising that the wing of critical criminology that actively pursues ‘liberation’ for offenders and others has not spent much time wondering how Foucault’s critique of vulgar-Freudian liberation discourse might be reflexively used.
If ‘discipline’ was the Foucaultian term with the greatest influence and success in criminology, the silver medal undoubtedly belongs to the related term ‘panopticon’. The panopticon image addressed many of the concerns and research interests of critical scholars, but detached the critique of state institutions from the class-reductionist Marxist theoretical edifice underlying those critiques. Like Foucault’s critique of disciplinary knowledges, then, Foucault’s interest in Bentham’s panopticon could be read two different ways. The more radical and less common reading is interested in the panopticon as a novel technique, but does not demonize it, since—from a Nietzschean perspective—there is no ‘innocent’ knowledge; thus, this reading would not hold out any hope that abolishing panopticons and prisons and surveillance would in itself create freedom. However, the panopticon allegory is more commonly interpreted from a quasi-Marxist perspective, in which knowledges are seen as corrupt if and insofar as they are imbricated in oppressive institutions. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish account does not preclude either reading, since nothing is said about whether prisoners themselves and prison abolitionists also engage in practices of knowledge that are simultaneously practices of power. That crucial ambiguity probably contributed a great deal to the success of the panopticon image.
A second crucial ambiguity is that while in Discipline and Punish Bentham’s panopticon is rendered as a chapter in the history of disciplinary governance, elsewhere Foucault pointed out that the panopticon is, from another perspective, “the oldest dream of the most ancient sovereign” (Foucault 2004, 68 [translation MV])—since it embodies the inherently sovereign desire to not ever lose sight of any subjects. That offhand remark about the panopticon in the governmentality lectures shows that for Foucault there is no one-to-one relation between a particular architectural technique and discipline as such—and that, more generally, modes of power-knowledge are highly mobile, flexible, creative, and historically variable. As Paul Veyne has repeatedly reminded us, in the end, for Foucault it is actual practices of governance that are the object of analysis, not generalized notions (such as ‘discipline’) that have much heuristic utility but are inherently oversimplifying (Veyne 2008).
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The panopticon theme would later gain new life in the ‘surveillance studies’ literature. Much of this literature owes more to George Orwell’s humanist quest to free humans from surveillance than to Foucault’s Nietzschean critique of the ways in which the free human subject of liberal society is itself the product of governance (rather than a ‘born free’ individual who only needs to have Big Brother dethroned to regain his natural freedom). Thus, just as current critiques of medicine and other expert knowledges cite and use Foucault’s ‘discipline’ to denounce the kind of abuses of power that any liberal humanist would also condemn, so too, the current fascination with CCTV cameras, security systems, and computerized surveillance of data provides intellectuals with numerous opportunities to cite Foucault’s famous chapter on the panopticon, but without having to go on to question the status of ‘liberatory’ discourses including those from the critical academy.