Abstract of Michel Foucault’s “The body of the condemned” (pages 3-16) from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
By Jenny Lowry
Description of Article
Foucault begins this chapter with a vivid description of a torturous public execution from 1757, he then fast forwards eighty years and gives a “time-table” of prisoners’ daily life. He goes on to give a history of criminal punishment and the transition from a public spectacle to a more private punishment. He states that with the abolishment of public punishment, the publicity is now the trial and sentencing. He argues that there is a shame in criminal punishment; that the “legal violence” or public torture put shame on the executioner, but now the shame is in the justice system. Even the use of chain gangs was stopped because of its spectacle and public display of criminal punishment. Public punishment turned the punishers into criminals as they became the murderers and made the prisoner something to pity.
Foucault describes how the “body” plays a role in punishment. Unlike the public executions of the past in which the body was tortured, in the current penal system the body is no longer touched: It is the deprivation of liberty that has become the punishment. The prisoner is no longer supposed to feel any pain, even in executions, which should be quick deaths. Machines were made to ensure a quick and painless death for criminals, making capital punishment an “equal death for all.” The condemned man was not to be seen by the public; in executions the prisoner head was covered with a “black veil”- making the crime and the criminal “faceless.” Even with these new tactics, the practice of capital punishment was still too shameful so it had to be moved behind the prison walls, making executions completely private. Even the prison system can be seen as a place of torture since the prisoners body is deprived by the “rationing of food, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment, solitary confinement” (16).
Questions and Comments
I am a little confused about the idea of “shame” and who is or should be ashamed in the penal process. Foucault writes:
“Punishment had gradually ceased to be a spectacle. And whatever theatrical elements it still retained were now downgraded, as if the functions of the penal ceremony were gradually ceasing to be understood, as if this rite that ‘concluded the crime’ was suspected of being in some undesirable way linked with it. It was as if the punishment was thought to equal, if not exceed, in savagery the crime itself, to accustom the spectators to a ferocity from which one wished to divert them, to show them the frequency of the crime itself, to make the executioner resemble a criminal, judges murderers, to reverse roles at the last moment, to make the tortured criminal an object of pity or admiration” (9, my emphasis).
I understand the point he is making here to be that the punishment for the crime was often so much worse than the crime itself that the persons who executed the punishment (executioner, judge) were just as guilty, if not more so, than the criminal himself, but was it there intention do this? I wouldn’t think so, but it kind of sounds like that is what Foucault is implying. I am also confused by the section in italics: does Foucault mean that by this public torture the spectators would (hopefully) not commit crimes? I am assuming that is what he means but I don’t understand the “frequency of the crime itself”? Where the executioners acting out the crime of the criminal? He states later that the shame was on the executioner - but what about the shame of the criminal? In the torture account, the confessors repeatedly tried to get the criminal to admit his guilt but he wouldn’t, is Foucault saying that the criminal is not shamed by the torture? That the act of torturing itself is what is shameful or that the persons doing the torturing should be ashamed by their behavior, their acting like criminals?
I also find this confusing: “Justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice” (9). Has justice every taken responsibility for the violence in its practice? Did justice take responsibility when they held public executions? Was the fact that they were public seen as responsibility? Are they no longer taking responsibility because the punishment happens behind closed doors?
He goes on to say that punishment was kept in secret that “It is ugly to be punishable, but there is no glory in punishing” (10). Then later in the same paragraph, “Do not imagine that the sentences that we judges pass are activated by a desire to punish; they are intended to correct, reclaim, ‘cure’; a technique of improvement represses, in the penalty, the strict expiation of evil-doing, and relieves the magistrates of the demeaning task of punishing […] there is a shame in punishing” (10). I am still confused as to where the shame comes from? I don’t really understand why the judges or magistrates should be ashamed of punishing a criminal? I can see how the public executions of the past would be shameful in that they were often worse than the crimes committed, but I don’t see how putting someone in prison is shameful. Maybe I am missing something; this is just confusing to me.
Another source of my confusion is the section on the body, which begins on page 10. Foucault writes:
“But the punishment-body relation is not the same as it was in the torture during public executions. The body now serves as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property” (11).
I think he means that punishment is no longer physical in the torture sense, but physical in that the prisoner is confined – not to do as he chooses, but as someone else chooses for him. The prisoner’s body is now the property of the prison system and no longer belongs to him.
It also seems like all of the things Foucault describes as physical punishment are meant more to break the spirit of the prisoner than to cause physical harm. He does discuss the soul in the next section as well as the prisoners state of mind, but I think that the physical punishment, even that of torture, was meant to break the prisoners spirit more than anything else. Even when death was inevitable it was still the ultimate goal to get the prisoner to confess his sins, as is shown in the torture account.