Foucault, Prisons, and Discipline

After class today, Aubrey had some good questions about the nature of liberal society (Lockean contractual modern democracy) and its connections to disciplinary thinking. While I doubt that I answered her questions, the conversation did make me think of some points of clarification.

The historical shift that Foucault writes about in his discussion of disciplinary thinking is, among other things, the shift from monarchy to democracy. He locates this roughly in the 18th century for a few reasons. First, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne after his father Charles I was beheaded by the leaders of the Cromwellian commonwealth, England had to renegotiate its model of political authority. This renegotiation was formalized in 1688 through the Glorious Revolution (also known as the Bloodless Revolution) which secured more power for Parliament and set up the conditions for a future protestant line in England. It was a moment that shifted political power away from the monarch and increasingly toward civil government (prime ministers, MPs, and members of the House of Lords and House of Commons). In the 18th century we also see the American revolution and the French revolution, both of which were an open contest to monarchical rule.

For Foucaultís purposes, what we are to read here is a shift away from the model of monarchical authority, in which criminals are exiled from the body of the soverign in order to restore the social pact. The disciplinary model of society moves us toward a self-regulating individual who takes part (like it or not) in a "democratic" social contract from which he or she cannot escape, ergo he or she will be reformed (through a penitentiary or other normalizing form of discipline) until such time as he or she embraces the social contract. If the contract is rejected, the "reformation" will continue indefinitely.

Obviously, this conversation gets into political territory quickly, and I hope the prison conversation didnít step on any toes. The fact is that Foucault doesnít offer a clear corrective to what he most certainly sees as a problem (or less desirable social outcome). The current state of affairs with regard to prisons and prisoners is volatile and not easy to resolve. Foucault and Bender make the point that a "rise in crime" statistic was easily produced in the early eighteenth century by the expansion of property rights, which made more lands private and thus more acts an infringement on that property. Such a realization might give us a way to think of the present situation as more than just the inexplicable madness of society.

If you are interested in more views on the prison system that take a more or less Foucaultian view, you might want to look at the web sites below. These are not particularly literary articles, but they do continue theoretical points from our discussion. They are both come from a very left point of view. My links are not meant as an endorsement of the writerís views (I sound like a TV disclaimer, donít I) but an attempt to let you know about some of the discussions that are taking place now about discipline, punishment, and politics.

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