Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Quick Thought

A month or so ago, FLG borrowed Discipline and Punish from the library, but with b-school and all he only read it sporadically. He figured no big deal; he'll just renew it. Well, when he went to renew it somebody was waiting for the book. So, he only got through about a third.

That's great, FLG. What's your point?

Glad you asked. Jon Rowe posted a video in which Steven Pinker argues he is optimistic about a long-term decline in violence among us humans. Pinker specifically mentions that while torture is still currently used, as a means of extracting information, but that it is no longer used as a form of criminal punishment.

Well, this reminded FLG of the first section of Discipline and Punish. Foucault argues that torture and ritual surrounding execution in the Middle Ages was about the physical. About punishing the convict's body for transgressing against the law, which was an extension of the body of the sovereign. It's focused on the physical. Questions about the person's motives or state of mind while committing the crime were largely irrelevant. The person physically committed the crime, attacked the body of the sovereign, and so they must be punished. The punishment was a spectacle for a variety of reasons, but mostly to serve as demonstration of justice and warning to the rest of the community.

Foucault then contrasts this with post-Enlightenment punishment. He specifically mentions the guillotine. The spectacle was still there, but the device was designed to minimize the physical punishment. One quick slice and done. The very opposite of the drawn out torture ritual. But Foucault says, the punishment had shifted from focus on the body to focus on the soul. It was no not about punishing the body of the convicted, but about examining and reforming his soul.

Foucault openly questioned whether that was more humane. That's where FLG stopped. Pretty interesting, and FLG can see from his past Foucault readings where this moves into the systematic application of power in society through a prison system. It's always about power for Foucault.

Anyway, FLG hadn't ever really thought that the shift from torture and execution to prisons could be considered less humane, but Foucault, for all the ways he annoys the shit out of FLG, was one smart fucker.


Anonymous said...

University Diaries linked to this article, which shines some light on the 'what is humane?' question. dave.s.

Withywindle said...

Given that he died from fucking stupidly, you might want to rephrase.

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