Discipline and Punish
A L A N D. S C H R I F T
Michel Foucault published Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison in February 1975 in the Éditions Gallimard series “Bibliothèque des Histoires.” It was his ﬁrst major work since The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) and the ﬁrst since his election to the Chair in the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France in 1970. When it appeared, it conﬁrmed Foucault’s position as a major force on the French intellectual scene and to this day it remains perhaps his most inﬂuential work. In this essay, I will review (1) the context in which Foucault wrote this work; (2) its structure and central themes; (3) its initial reception; and (4) its general place in Foucault’s oeuvre and its inﬂuence.
On February 8, 1971, just nine and a half weeks after delivering his inaugural address at the Collège de France,1 Foucault, along with Jean-Marie Domenach (the editor of Esprit) and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (a distinguished historian, well known for his early opposition to the French army’s use of torture in Algeria), announced the formation of the organization Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP). At the Saint-Bernard de Montparnasse Chapel, Foucault read the following announcement of its purpose: There is no one among us who is certain of escaping prison. Today less than ever. Police control is tightening on our everyday life, in city streets, and on the roads; expressing an opinion is once again an offense for foreigners and young people, and antidrug measures are increasingly arbitrary. We live in a state of “custody.” They tell us that the system of justice is overwhelmed. That is easy to see. But what if the police are the ones who have overwhelmed it? They tell us that the prisons are overcrowded. But what if the population is over-imprisoned? There is very little information published about prisons; it is one of the
A Companion to Foucault, First Edition. Edited by Christopher Falzon, Timothy O’Leary, and Jana Sawicki. © 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
alan d. schrift
hidden regions of our social system, one of the dark compartments of our existence. It is our right to know. We want to know. That is why, with magistrates, lawyers, journalists, doctors and psychologists, we have created an association for information about prisons. We propose to let people know what prisons are: who goes there, and how and why they go; what happens there; what the existence of prisoners is like and also the existence of those providing surveillance; what the buildings, food, and hygiene are like; how the inside rules, medical supervision and workshops function; how one gets out and what it is like in our society to be someone who does get out.
This information is not going to be found in the ofﬁcial reports. We will ask those who, for one reason or another, have some experience with prison or a connection with it. We ask them to contact us and tell us what they know. We have composed a questionnaire they can request. As soon as we have a sufﬁcient number of results, we will publish them. (Eribon 1991: 224)
The ﬁnal line of the announcement noted: “Anyone who wants to inform, be informed or participate in the work can write to GIP: 285, rue de Vaugirard, Paris-XVe.” 285, rue de Vaugirard was Foucault’s own address, and he, along with his partner Daniel Defert, would go on to be the real intellectual and political force of GIP, which would remain a focus of his attention until its dissolution in December 1972. In 1971, prisons were a site of political unrest in France, as they were in the United States.2 Among the issues at the time in France, beyond the generally intolerable situation of life within the prisons, were the frequent imprisonment of journalists from leftist and other anti-government papers, the treatment of leftist activists, many of whom were engaging in hunger strikes to be treated as “political” rather...
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