Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Book Report: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

The problem with a liberal arts education is that although you may know a little about many things, you know a lot about very few things. Postmodernism as a philosophical movement became popular after I was in college, so I know even less about it than many other things about which I should have been educated. The French writers, Derrida and Foucault, are often mentioned as postmodernist theorists, and even casual readers of popular periodicals are familiar with their names, if not with their works.

So it was that in a conversation with a university professor several months ago, I picked up that she had taken a post-modernist approach in her work, and asked about the influence of Derrida and Foucault on her ideas. She was unduly impressed that a mere Amish lawyer had ever heard of those two names, but I quickly confessed that my knowledge of the subject had already been exhausted as soon as I said the words, "postmodernism," "Derrida" and "Foucault." That's how I got the assignment to read Michel Foucault's classic work, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The book was originally written in 1975 and translated from French into English in 1976.

The book starts out with a graphic description, taken from contemporary accounts in 1757, of a man being publicly tortured with boiling oil and red hot pincers and then being drawn and quartered (for those, like me, who have heard the phrase but not given any thought to what "drawn and quartered" means, it involves tying the victim's four limbs to four horses and then literally pulling the victim apart.) In this particular instance, four horses couldn't get the job done so they used six horses and when that did not suffice, "cut off the wretch's thighs to sever the sinews. . . ."

Foucault then traces the evolution of the purpose of punishment of crime from the "shock and awe" intended by the public spectacle of punishment in the 18th century to the rehabilitation aims of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to our current systems, which include elements of the entire history of punishment.

Foucault, less successfully, in my opinion, tries to show how all of society is organized as a system of discipline and punishment, from the educational system, to the health care system, to the economic system. Although there are many footnotes, I thought he made sweeping generalizations not supported by the footnotes, and not obvious from the examples he cited in support of his generalizations. That was a criticism also of some of the reviewers (who really knew what they were talking about) that I found on the internet.

I found Foucault's writing style to be very dense, and although the book is only 308 pages long, it took me a long time to get through it. If I didn't have this obsessive compulsive requirement that I finish every book I start, no matter how difficult I find it, I would have given up after the first 100 pages. I will take this as a criticism of my own intellectual ability and experience more than a criticism of Foucault, as people much smarter and better educated than I have pronounced him to be an authority worth reading. Nevertheless, since my rating system is based on how I, not the experts, react to a book, I gave it two stars.

8 comments:

PG said...

Your honesty is refreshing. Or at least unusual in the world at large. You always say you are a slow reader. That's not true. You read voluminously while I'm watching trash like The Shield on TV. I'm only on page 200 of East of Eden.

Amishlaw said...

Thank you for your support.

Uncle_Menno said...

Don't be too hard on yourself. Clear and concise writing is not seen as a virtue by French philosophers.

smuggy said...

I'd heard of Foucault, but not the other guy, so you're ahead of me. But I can certainly relate to what you said about finishing a book once you've started it. There's only been a few (most notably "The Jungle" by Sinclair) that I've not been able to wade through once I've started them.

Amishlaw said...

Smuggy, I'm now going to have to go back and tackle the jungle. I haven't read it since high school, but I don't remember it as being that bad. Was it the writing style or the subject matter that you couldn't bear?

Anonymous said...

Your effort to finish such a dense volume seems to appropriately match the book's title. I read mostly for enjoyment so your description would keep me away selecting such a book.

Becky

rdl said...

I'll definitely be skipping that one.

smuggy said...

Well, it's been a while, but I think I found the story too slow-moving. I thought it was going to be a gruesome story about what goes on in a meatpacking plant, but it seemed like it had as much to do with immigrant family life as it did with the meatpacking industry.