Jan 22 2011

I’ve almost always been in a habit of reading. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time in the library. I’d just grab an entire series of novels, and read them all, right in a row. Sometimes I’d end up reading non-fiction too. I ended up with a lot of books on software.

Then my local library got Internet access. Slowly, I started to spend less time in the stacks and more in front of a terminal. This wasn’t a bad thing; I still kept reading. What’s more, what was previously a one way street turned into two: I didn’t just read the Internet, I wrote it. I spent hours and hours discussing the things I’d read with others.

In any case, as the years flew by, the things that I’ve been reading have become less and less substantial. Current events are fine and all, and pictures of cute cats are nice, but I feel like the volume of what I’ve been reading has gone up, but the quality has gone down. It happens. I can’t really be snide about not owning a TV while being subscribed to /r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu. Reddit somehow has morphed into a place where you can feel superior, but it’s really just the same exact thing in different clothing. Combine this general unease with my aspirations for grad school in the fall, as well as my renewed interest in political philosophy, and my need to hit the books has become readily apparent.

Luckily, I have an ally in this quest, and Jamie has given me a reading list. Since reading and writing are two sides of a single coin, I’ll be writing about the things that I read here. Like many other things I’ve written about in the past, I’m sure that putting my thoughts down on paper (?) will help to gel my understanding and thoughts. First up: Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish.”

I’ll get right to it: I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s partially because it took a lot of random things that I kind of knew and tied them to some experiences that I’ve had in a meaningful way. It’s also partially because I have a substantial infatuation with the conspiratorial; I re-read “1984” every year, and I often think about its all-knowing, all-seeing telescreen imagery when discussing anything vaguely political. “Discipline and Punish” gave me the same sort of images, but they were fewer, and more firmly rooted in history and reality. The book opens with a section named “Torture,” and the scene of Robert-François Damiens’ punishments for attempted regicide. I’m sure that before the release of “Saw,” these images were even more shocking:

… he was to be ‘taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burningwax weighing two pounds’; then, ’in the said cart, to the Place de Greve, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs, and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax, and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes, and his ashes thrown to the winds.

Let it never be said that the people of 1757 were not thorough. Regardless, by January of 1840, we’d transitioned to a prison system that looks pretty much the same as it does now. The book’s primary theme is discussing how we got from point A to point B, and then examining the ‘why’ to explain how modern society has a new sovereign institution: the ‘carceral system.’

Before we can examine that question, though, we need to ask why we used torture as a form of punishment in the first place. The reasoning is actually straightforward: during the period of monarchy, everything revolves around the monarch. He is sovereign in a more absolute way than we even initially think of; the pop-culture image of a king has more to do with something of a popularity contest or that he’s simply the guy on the top of the pyramid, but the nature of a monarch’s power runs more deeply than that. It was called ‘divine right’ for a reason, the physical body of the sovereign was the representation of God himself, and since the entire world belongs to God, thus it belongs to and is a part of the monarch. It reminds me of the kind of doublethink necessary to grasp the Catholic conception of the Holy Trinity, in this case God the Father, the king his son, and the world rather than a Holy Ghost. All one, yet three at the same time. In any case, if the land itself is the literal body of the king, then any transgression is an act of defiance not only of the rule of the monarch, but is making war upon God himself. And since damage has been done to the body of God, so must an equivalent exchange be made with the body of the aggressor. Torture also has an element of the theatrical to it, and therefore demonstrates to all of those watching that they must also comply with the rule of law or face the consequences.

However, eventually, torture became socially inconvenient. Basically, it was a case of the Streisand Effect: when you place that much attention on someone, you create a forum for sympathizers to create romantic images of their fallen hero. There’s a great historical example of this in the Christian mythos: consider the polarizing effect that Christ’s torture on the cross maintains to this day. History is littered with the songs of fallen heros, and a call to follow in their stead. Eventually, whenever a new convict was to be strung up at a gallows, there’d be a state of disarray. Foucault describes several images of rioters throwing stones and even in some cases killing the executioner.

As a result of this, the nature of punishment slowly changed. Reformists argued that punishment was metered out unevenly, and inconsistently. Thus in the same way that monarchy gave way to democracy, the absolute right of the king to punish became distributed as well. However, centralized and distributed systems are quite different, and require different constructs to operate properly. Therefore, a distributed form of the right to punish would need some mechanism by which to operate. This mechanism is termed “discipline” by Foucault. Discipline creates a certain order all by itself, and he uses a great example of monks and monasteries to illustrate the concept of discipline. Think about all of these things that we consider virtuous:

But discipline has even greater roots in our society. Think about Taylor’s Scientific Management, for example: it’s a means of imposing discipline on workers to maximize their production. Schooling is a way of giving children a ‘structured environment’ (structure seems to be synonymous with discipline in many cases) to develop in. Churches are places for the soul to become disciplined.

Submitting to discipline has deeper psychological effects as well. It creates the idea of a division: there’s those who follow the rules, and those that disregard them. And since we’ve established that those who follow the rules are virtuous, those who don’t must not be. Since those that don’t follow the rules are doing bad things, they should be subject to punishment, so that they can remain disciplined. And thus the system of rules can be used as the distributed form of this right to punish, replacing the absolute right of the monarch. Submitting to this mentality makes people into ‘docile bodies’ that perfectly fit into this worldview.

As an example of how far this disciplinary approach has gone, Foucault presents the Panopticon, which was a prison shaped like a pie, with a tower in the middle. Prisoners would be able to observe others directly across from themselves, and the guard who may or may not be in the tower would be able to watch all of the prisoners at once. Since you couldn’t tell if the guard was in the tower or not, discipline would become internalized, since you always had to assume that Big Brother is watching you… This way of thinking about society ends up creating an all-encompassing ‘carceral system’ that we now live in.

It’s also important to note that this carceral system is total and absolutely permeating every aspect of society, yet they aren’t presented as such. Foucault specifically mentions that it’s important to consider that the delinquent are still a part of the system, and not outside of it. Yet we’re constantly presented with images that serve to present the idea that there’s a ‘criminal underworld,’ that those who lead a life of crime are part of a shadowy alternate universe. Foucault refers to this idea as ‘enclosure’: “Discipline sometimes requires enclosure, the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself. It is the protected space of disciplinary monotony.” The enclosure embodies this separation, since there’s a space both within and outside of the enclosure. A self and an Other.

… so yeah. That’s my summary. I’m still digesting a lot of this stuff, and so I may have more to say about it later.