Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

86: Michel Foucault part VIII:
Complete and Austere Institutions & Illegalities and Delinquency

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In his chapter “Complete and Austere Institutions,” Foucault looks at the question of how the prison became the principle form of punishment today. The terms “prison” and “penitentiary” were not synonymous until recently. A prison was a temporary legal detention center and a penitentiary had its origins in the catholic church: it is the office that deals with matters of penance, confession, dispensations and absolution.
         The modern prison became the “the par excellence” system of punishment at the turn of the 19th century due to the convergence of several forces. With the Ideological idea of equally and freedom as the highest values, the notion that punishment should affect everyone equally and in their most valuable possession became popular. As the present is the only thing that we all have an equal amount of access to and as freedom is the greatest value, it became logical to extract time away from freedom and from people's lives as the most egalitarian and hurtful punishment. This is the emergence of the notion of serving time to pay one's debt to society as the penalty of civilized societies. And the prison very quickly assumed a self evident characteristic that had never existed before (Q1).
         A second force that made the penitentiary the most natural of institutions was the success of the discipline society in the army and in industrial labour. The all encompassing forces of the discipline society that made armies and factories so economically productive (ie skillful and efficient) and politically docile (ie malleable and trainable) when applied to the justice system created a whole new person with its own branch of knowledge and institutions of power: the delinquent.
         “The delinquent is to be distinguished from the offender by the fact that it is not so much his act as his life that is relevant in characterizing him.” One of the unspoken desires of power is to fix in place all the elements under their power. Moving the narrative from an “action” based description and classification system to a “being” based description system has a stabilizing and rigidifying characteristic. It is a powerful tool of in the tool box of the micro-physics of power(Q2).
         The creation of a delinquent as a being necessitates the investigation of his/her life to answer the question of origin: how did this being come to be. As we saw earlier a quest for origins is always a retroactive quest for the justification of power. “The introduction of the 'biographical' is important in the history of penalty. Because it establishes the 'criminal' as existing before the crime and even outside it.” This psychological explanation for criminality is used to magnify the juridical judgment of responsibility. No longer could a crime be a one time act; now it is a proclivity. The mixture of justice and psychology creates a new knowledge discipline: criminology. Whose principle purpose is to manufacture knowledge of the delinquent and is used by prisons to justify their continued “natural” existence (Q3).
         “The delinquent is also to be distinguished from the offender...but is linked to his offense by a whole bundle of complex threads (instincts, drives, tendencies, character).” These threads are both natural and deviant. One of the purposes of the science of criminology is to determine the normality of each vis-a-vis the non-delinquent and among delinquents.
         The creation of delinquency allowed the union of two contrary objectifications of a criminal, (as a monster and as a subject of rehabilitation) to be constituted under the authority of science (medicine, psychology, criminology etc.) such that “punishment will be able to function openly as treatment” on the ground of its own internally manufacture truth.
         This process has always existed (as can be seen when we consider the process of burning witches) but today it has grown in scoop and depth: the punishments that function openly as treatments have been extended to every aspect of life and with every object of life.
         In his chapter “Illegalities and Delinquency,” Foucault considers how successful prisons have become as an institution in spite of the terrible record they have always had in achieving their stated aims. He quotes from criticisms of prisons in 1820-45 that sound very much like criticisms of prisons today: 1) prisons do not lower crime rates; 2) detention cause recidivism; 3) prisons produce delinquents; 4) prison educates criminals in criminal techniques; 5) detention does not make people respect law or authority; 6) a delinquent's families on the outside is made delinquent by its destitution. For nearly 200 years the prison is continually and successfully proposed as its own solution. How could such a failure be repeated so often in so many places? (Q4)
         The prison is not a failure. Its job is to create delinquents. Which then highlight politically useful forms of illegalities in the midst of others which are not highlighted. By hiding some and spotlighting others we can see the power holders in society and the beneficiaries of crime and punishment. Witch hunts of earlier eras served a similar political purpose: to establish orders of people, branches of knowledge, and domains of power (Q5). But both are just as ridiculous.
         Q1 Without the notions of freedom and equality the prison would not be considered a particularly good or useful form of punishment. How does this connection strike you?
         Q2 The whole modern debate of being gay or straight is only possible within a “being” based classification system. Prior to the Renaissance there were no such categories: a man would be described as having fallen into temptation; as having committed the sin of sodomy. There were no prideful, gluttonous, lazy, angry, greedy, lustful, or covetous people (the seven deadly sins) only people who need God to overcome forgive their occasional weakness their occasional sinful actions. Are there any advantages or disadvantages to having an “action” versus a “being” based categorizing system?
         Q3 Setting up your own truth generating machine is a powerful force for the stabilization and perpetuation of an institution even ones based on ridiculous ideas. Does this sound familiar in the case of religious cults? All branches of knowledge manufacture a knowledge that supportive of power relations. How does this strike you?
         Q4 Has the prison system been a failure in your mind?
         Q5 How does the notion that knowledge and institutions serve to create orders of people, branches of knowledge and domains of power strike you?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren