Sunday, July 6, 2014

Discipline and Punish

Did I read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish at some time in the 1990s? I must have: It was the 1990s, and I was an undergraduate philosophy major, and then briefly, a graduate student in literary theory. Reading Foucault is just what was done, whether one understood his project or not. It is safe to say that I did not understand that project. I can still recite from memory a dogmatically Leninist thumbnail critique of Foucault. A re-reading combined with reflection on twenty years of intervening history have convinced me how off target that critique was.

Which is not to say that there are no on-target critiques to be made. What particularly struck me is how certain historical observations he makes, however true they may be for Europe, are limited in their applicability to the U.S. Specifically, the disappearance or removal of the body from the spectacle of punishment, which for Foucault serves as a precondition for the emergence of discipline and penality in their modern forms, has never been completed here. Certain bodies--especially black bodies--are forcibly kept on the scene. For example, at the time that France abolished the chain gang (1836), American slavery still had almost three decades of life remaining. The Thirteenth Amendment, in abolishing slavery, carved out an exemption "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted," and chain gangs are still with us. So are police mugshots on the nightly news, and "reality shows" displaying alleged offenders as the cops take them into custody. The last public execution in the U.S. was as recent as 1936, and the man executed, Rainey Bethea, was black. I suspect also that, if one takes into account the various forms of punishment employed in the French colonies, the course of development is not quite so clear. The emergence of the carceral as the logic of power and knowledge in advanced capitalism is discerned by Foucault only by abstracting from race. And whenever a white philosopher abstracts from race, the resulting concept warrants suspicion.

That suspicion, however, does not negate its potential, partial accuracy. The challenge that the United States poses as a polity for such a theory is to understand how the spectacle of corporeal punishment and the discipline of countless refined surveillance practices can coexist in the same time and space. A theory that could account satisfactorily for that could, perhaps, begin to explain how it is that this country can, at the same time, incarcerate more human beings than any other and yet be acclaimed by most of its citizens as a land of the free. As the Texas GOP tells us, America is exceptional: exceptionally cruel, to start with.

Such a theory would have to synthesize spectacle and surveillance, trace the genealogy of how the crowd at a lynching and the covert action of a Pinkerton compiling a Red Scare list, or the panopticism of the NSA and an enraged crowd in Murrieta, can condition, facilitate and support one another. Such a theory would have to begin where Foucault left off, but would end up covering much the same ground in different ways.

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