Discipline and Punish The Birth of the Prison
Theater of the Grotesque: The Spanish Tragedy and Foucault
It is easy to look at Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, widely considered the first revenge tragedy play, as having a completely nonsensical ending. While the proceeding three acts are fairly typical for a revenge narrative, with machinations deceptions stabbings and heartfelt vows for murder, the penultimate scene defies logic to the point of nearly being comical. However, despite the surreal and uncanny feeling of what occurs therein, much of which initially appears to defy our notions of causality, there is, to quote another revenge play, “a method to this madness.” Through his grim and performative finale, Kyd is depicting the strength of a proto-Foucaultian state which has the power to control the secular bodies of all who reside beneath them.
We should preface this examination by addressing several formal and narrative aspects of the first three acts of A Spanish tragedy before analyzing the ways in which its fourth espouses the absolute authority and power of the state. Firstly, readers recognize that this is, despite the appearance of Andrea the ghost, a largely secular play. Though the dead can speak, they can not affect change in the world of the living, as demonstrated by Andrea’s outrage at being made to watch his good friend’s suffering at the conclusion of the first half of the play. Revenge, the entity with whom Andrea holds discourse, may appear to be architect of what unfolds, but may also merely have foresight into the future, as we never see Revenge actually do anything other than speak. And though Hieronomo makes multiple pleas to the heavens for guidance and closure, it is Bel Imperia who answers his prayers with a well-timed letter. With this absence of higher moral authority, the only real exchange of power and of order is between the state and its subjects. There is no other recourse for justice.
We must also establish that the state has been, in a sense, violated by both Lorenzo and Balthazar. There is an established order to martial victory and custody which is demonstrated early in the play when ransom is set for Balthazar under Horatio and his armor is given to Hieronomo. Balthazar then conspires to escape this De facto custody through a combination of murder and mendacity, convincing Lorenzo and his servants to assist in Horatio’s premature departure. Lorenzo then manipulates the court system, supposedly the ultimate indicator of innocence and guilt, by creating a fake pardon and allowing Pedringano to hang for the crime of killing Lorenzo’s servant, simultaneously concealing his involvement in the killing of Hieronomo’s son. These two characters have, in a sense, made fools of the state of Spain and the Spanish government in the pursuit of their own gains by breaking the established laws.
The fourth scene of the fourth act begins with Hieronomo staging a play which he has concocted and assigning roles to each character based on how he wishes to kill them. He then sets off a violent chain of bloody murders in front of an amassed audience, here comprised of three noble lords. By the end of his brief one-act, the architects of his misery, Lorenzo and Balthazar, are dead, and Bel Imperia has also taken her own life. This is perhaps fairly typical of plots where retribution is the instigator of conflict, but what follows is certainly not. Hieronomo then comes on stage, and explains to the three noblemen exactly what he has done. His world choice in particular is if interest: “See here my show; look on this spectacle!/ Here lay my hope, and here my hope hath end,” (Kyd 4.4.89). It is extremely important to him that he reveal dramatically, to these government bodies, what he has just accomplished and why. Further more, we must examine the word “Spectacle” as something of supreme importance here. It brings to mind immediately the eponymous spectacle of the Spectacle of the Scaffold from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: “Many…non corporeal punishments were accompanied by a degree of torture: public exhibition, pillory, carcan, flogging, branding,” (Foucault 32). The brains extension of itself is tortured in these instances, as it causes a figure to become an object of shame, or to be viewed as such by other people. A competent and powerful body, should it wish to discourage behavior without accusations of barbarism, may use a combination of an audience and the recipient’s awareness of themselves to force rectification. This publicity of punishment is somewhat troubling to the ethics of the period. On the one hand, the state has failed; it has allowed several good people to perish while the true culprits have not faced consequences. Thus these two private citizens take the law into their own hands, and then publicly display their bloody handiwork (Bel Imperia in spirit at least) ostensibly as a message. But emulate its practices and its ethics. Namely, they publicize the humiliating and shocking deaths and make the motivations for the murders clear for future wrong-doers, as a deterrent. Hieronomo doesn’t, however, blame the Spanish government or its officials. In fact, he addresses Balthazar’s father, the Viceroy, somewhat sympathetically: “Speak, Portugese, whose loss resembles mine; if thou canst weep upon thy Balthazar, ‘Tis like I wailed for my Horatio,” (4.4.114). Despite the enmity which would ostensibly exist between two such fathers and sons, Hieronomo identifies with this militaristic oppressor, claiming they have some kindred understanding of pain. Even in abject agony, he cannot taunt this high Viceroy. Hieronomo, who is a nobleman, immediately begins to leave in order to hang himself. This form of suicide is particularly significant, because as Foucault points out “Death is a torture insofar as it is not simply a withdrawal of the right to live, but is the occasion and culmination of a calculated graduation of pain: from decapitation (…the zero degree of torture) through hanging, the stake, and the wheel,” Focualt 33). Beheading is a death normally reserved for lords as it is painless, and Heironomo, even if not in possession of the flexibility and creativity required to cut his own head off, could have devised a less painful method of death. But this would most likely be one which was clean, and could perhaps be covered up or misinterpreted. Through a hanging, his body is, by his own design, to become a warning to all those who see it. If we continue with our interpretation of Hieronomo as channeling the authority of the state, which surely we must, given what has preceded it, the Hieronomo is using the power vested in him to damn himself to death.
But he never gets the chance to act fully on these desires. Almost immediately after Hieronomo finishes, the Viceroy foils his attempt to hang himself by grabbing him and demanding he “in form the king of these events. Upon my Honor, thou shalt have no harm,” (4.4.158).
Why does the viceroy desire this clarification? Surely the earlier line “So Viceroy, was this Balthazar, thy son…which Bel Imperia… murdered,” (4.4.135). And the viceroy demands that this confession be made to the king, Hieronomo’s lord and due to the military engagement which preceded the play, the Viceroy’s superior as well. Hieronomo shocked his audience by telling them about his plan and motivation; by attempting to make him retell it through threats of harm, the state re-asserts its control over his body and mind. The king even brands him a traitor, an entity harmful to the state merely in its existence in other words, even though Hieronomo has not sabotaged Spain in his massacre. Thus either out of spite at this body for denying him the chance to be his own executioner and retain agency, or merely out of pride and a refusal to confess, Hieronomo balks, refusing to comply and to identify his accomplice—despite seriously implicating her in his initial confession. However, the Viceroy brandishes some ice-cold reason heretofore unseen, and quickly and decisively comes to the correct conclusion that “Was… Bel Imperia / for by her hand my Balthazar was slain / I saw her stab him,” (4.4. 177). Portugal did not even need to synthesize the largess of information which could have incriminated her that Hieronomo freely gave up; he, the envoy of the state, was able to quickly and independently determine who was guilty and their culpability in what had occurred either through deduction based on the play’s plot, or through seeing her kill Balthazar and withholding the information. Having him say this also drives home the omnipotence of state authority. These monarchs and lords may have been duped and used as a cat’s paw in the murder of Pendrigano, but they will inevitably discover the truth. The state is, in a sense, more powerful than God himself—a character who cannot affect change and ignores the pleas of his supplicants. At this point, our ‘hero’ chews off his tongue in order to keep from confessing, and from revealing the identity of his co-conspirator. But this action proves to be too little too late; The Viceroy has already discerned that Bel Imperia played a crucial role in the massacre that has just been witnessed, not to mention informed everyone else. Thus the reader is forced to assume that there is some other reason for this painful and disfiguring action. And while, for obvious reasons, the dishonored warrior cannot explain himself, the reader can come to three different possible motives fairly quickly. Either this is masochistic self-punishment for his failure to conceal Bel Imperia’s involvement, a deliberate taunt aimed at these powerful foes—implying that they will never know the full truth or get him to yield before them, or, that he is so terrified of the tortures that will be used to compel him to confess, that he bites off his tongue in order to ensure they shall never attempt this.
If we follow the logic of Foucault, there really wouldn’t be much reason to torture a body who cannot scream or convey suffering to other bodies around him. But when further lambasted and threatened, Hieronomo calls for writing implements in order to write out his confession. But this proves to be a ruse, and an ineffective one: He manages to kill but one of the three nobles, one who had done him the least amount of wrong, before killing himself. Kyd ends the whole affair then, with the Kings of Portugal and Spain still in power, all of those who broke the laws of the land dead, and many of them situated in an oddly ironic hell, which affects only Andrea’s enemies oddly enough, though he of course seems not to be there, stuck in some other existence. Even Hieronomo’s final act of defiance is erased; the last lines in the mortal world are by the monarchs who claim Hieronomo’s deeds are “Monstrous,” and proceed to give a battery of orders regarding the bodies of the dead—flexing their institutional muscles, if you will . The entire final act of the play is a long and elaborate re-enforcement of the ultimate authority of the reigning government. Given Kyd’s eventual torture and judicial ordeals it is hard not to read the work against both the volatile political environment and the run in with the state which was to occur shortly after the first performance. Whether the uncannily repeptitive nature of the last scene is intended to demonstrate a sort of break from reality, implying this total control is a fantasy, or if Kyd merely found this atypical way of portraying the power dynamics of his era in such a format is unclear.
The Spectacle of Punishment
In Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the author revels in tales of past penal methods involving brutal torture of the convicted criminal as a popular public spectacle. He subtly denounces the rigid yet humane schedules applied to contemporary imprisonment and the growing distance between the judicial system and the punishment of prisoners. At first, Foucault’s concern over a system in which criminal justice takes place mostly behind closed doors makes sense. Would it not be effective to scare potential wrongdoers into righteousness with horrific public scenes of pain and slow death of local criminals? However, in careful consideration, there are a multitude of flaws in Foucault’s sentiments. It is my belief that the long-ago methods of theatrical amande honorable are not an effective penal measure because they turned criminal punishment into a celebratory affair. The scenes of blood and gore were viewed by all, and Foucault ignores the fact that the corporal consequences were often much more despicable than the initial crime committed. Criminals are not deserving of society’s center stage. Instead of being dehumanized, they should be made relatable to the common person so one could imagine their own abhorrence to such a situation. While I agree with Foucault that a visual component can have great effect upon people, this aspect should come in the form of a thorough education in a class such as this in contrast to a common spectacle associated with excitement and merrymaking. Discipline & Punish analyzes the evolution of criminal consequence with criticism towards a system less noticeable by the public with very little regard for alternative methods of viewing the criminal justice solutions such as education for the wellbeing of the community.
First and foremost, it should be recognized that the types of severe corporal punishment that Foucault is not necessarily advocating for, but using in example of a proper and effective spectacle, often end in death or at the very least bodily harm and deformity, such as the case of Damiens in which “the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers […] and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire” (3) This is the type of solution that he deems necessary to properly create “the gloomy festival of punishment” (8), and it is a very permanent one at that. Though never explicitly stated in the first chapter of his work, by his tolerance for spectacle punishment Foucault either assumes that the justice system is entirely without fault or that if someone were to be wrongly convicted, their unmerited torture would be acceptable for the higher purpose of setting an example for the public. The prospect of mistakenly convicting a regular upright citizen and subjecting them to such irreversible horrors is enough to make this penal method objectionable.
Also concerning the justice system, Foucault has some contradicting words on how the modern public perceives the judicial branch after penal reform, what he calls “the great ‘scandal’ for traditional justice” (7). He believes the haste, privacy, and almost clinical manner to contemporary executions reverses the role of the punisher and the punished, making the judge, jury, and executioner appear evil in the public eye (9). He claims “the public execution is now seen as a hearth in which violence burst again into flame”, which creates a martyr of the convicted. While I am vehemently opposed to the death penalty, I still find noteworthy contradiction in Foucault’s explanation because it seems to me that nothing puts the law in a more negative light than having the torture they inflict upon prisoners be much more heinous and gruesome than the crime that initially warranted punishment. As for the thought of the criminal becoming a subject of pity or admiration (9), it is worse to make them the center of attention, the main object of a torture celebration. When witnessing a beating or a hanging is a community activity, the excitement of the spectacle is associated with violence it is based upon. This is likely to desensitize the populace to cruelty and bloodshed, therefore promoting criminal behavior rather than deterring it.
Additionally, Foucault asserts that there is a movement towards more “humanization” of the criminal, and this is not favorable to “the great public execution” (7, 14). In the past, those to be punished in public were veiled, their faces hidden beneath dark cloth, so as to make a crime faceless and to make a monster of the criminal (14). I disagree that this practice would be more impactful in discouraging criminal behavior because it allows people to separate themselves from what they see and know about punishment. By making prisoners appear as human as they are, they become relatable to the average citizen who can then imagine themselves in a similar position and feel dissuaded from it. On one argument Discipline & Punish is unmistaken – “visible intensity” of criminal penalty is highly significant. The public should be well aware of criminal consequences because such consciousness keeps unlawful behavior in check (9). Nevertheless, this need not involve violent public spectacle and instead should focus on education. Foucault makes no mention of teaching the community the ways of the law and the consequences of breaking it, he only gives attention to the effectiveness of startling people into submission by way of spectacular horrors. Today we have better methods for introducing the public to the unpleasantness of a criminal lifestyle via prison visits, police ride-alongs, criminal justice education, and the ever-present media coverage.
In “The Body of the Condemned” Foucault is quick to dismiss the example of a prison timetable in favor of the public spectacle punishment. The value in such a prison system is overlooked. Instead of using the criminal simply as an example of wrongdoing and its abhorrent ramifications, prisoners can be more valuable to society and for a longer time frame through the involuntary labor they perform. By continuing their education and providing labor services, some prisoners of lower-grade offenses can become better candidates for reform and the rejoining of society, which is another aspect Foucault disregards. Overall, as Foucault begins his analysis in the first chapter of Discipline & Punish, he demonstrates a tendency to look back upon barbaric penal methods with praise for their effect on society as a deterrent of criminal behavior, while questioning the punishments of the more humanitarian approach of contemporary prison systems as appropriate reprisal for unlawful and immoral actions. Upon close inspection, there are significant flaws to the typically violent public spectacle that call for a more progressive prison-based criminal justice system that makes itself visible in more forward-thinking ways.
The Problems with Historical Materialism in Discipline and Punish
In “Two Lectures,” Michel Foucault criticizes historical materialism for inadequately explaining social phenomena. He derides academics that use bourgeois domination to explain a diverse range of social trends, including the exclusion of madness and the repression of infantile sexuality. Foucault calls this kind of social theory too easy and faults it for yielding results that are both true and false simultaneously. Yet, Foucault commits the same error when he derives the origin of disciplinary power from bourgeois domination in Discipline and Punish. According to Foucault, an eighteenth century shift from an illegality of rights to an illegality of property prompted the bourgeoisie to protect their goods by making the penal system more efficient. They removed public execution and torture, symbols of the inefficacy of the sovereign, and targeted the criminal’s soul. Later, the upper class created the concept of delinquency to supervise and normalize the poor (Discipline 277). By using bourgeois influence to explain penal reform, Foucault ignores other social trends and insufficiently explains power outside of the prison. Without providing substantial evidence to support his claims, Foucault dismisses the idea that the reformers might have changed punishment by appealing to human sympathy. Instead, he forces their efforts into a larger discourse, dominated by the bourgeoisie. Although upper-class influence offers a plausible explanation for penal reform, it fails to justify disciplinary power in its other forms. Foucault asserts that disciplinary power extends throughout all society, but does not give a reason for it to exist outside of the prison. The errors in Foucault’s ideas about penal reform reflect a larger problem with his idea of power. Foucault finds power in discourse and social relations, but neglects to discuss the reasons why power exists in a given situation. His problems in deriving the origin of modern discipline arise because he conceives of power as strategy but leaves the employers of power and their goals unclear. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault attempts to create a genealogy of the modern soul by examining the evolution of punishment (Discipline 29). His primary interest is in how punishment stopped targeting the criminal’s body and instead controlled his behavior through examination and discipline. During the eighteenth century, protest against public torture increased, and people demanded that punishment respect the humanity of the criminal. In Foucault’s view, the call for punishment to be humane lacked a rational explanation (Discipline 74). He rejects the idea that sympathy for others prompted this change and instead emphasizes a transformation in crime. With the wealth of society increasing, crime became more widespread and shifted its focus from physical violence to material goods. Foucault cites the fact that from the end of the seventeenth century, the rates of murder and assault decreased, while those for economic crimes increased (Discipline 75). The higher prevalence of crime and its new nature called for a change in punishment. Foucault argues that the concentration of power in the sovereign incapacitated the penal system by making justice irregular. The old system demonstrated royal power through the excess of physical torture but was not effective at preventing economic crimes. It left open loopholes that permitted popular illegality to mushroom at the end of the seventeenth century (Discipline 78-9). For example, the king could suspend the courts or overrule their judgments. The king could also sell a portion of his judicial power to magistrates who made the application of punishment even less consistent. Thus, Foucault believes that the change in punishment was a strategy to control a new and quickly spreading kind of crime. Although the reformers appealed to a concept of humanity, a larger discourse that called for penal regulation influenced their claims. In Foucault’s terms, a discourse defines what is conceivable within a field of knowledge. Foucault believes that knowledge and power are inseparable, because every opinion must be situated within a discourse (Discipline 27). Saying something outside of a discourse is nearly impossible, and Foucault gives the example of the modern penal system to illustrate this point. Although many people realize that the prison fails at rehabilitating the criminal and preventing crime, abolishing it is inconceivable. According to Foucault, modern thinkers aim to improve the penal system, but the discourse concerning it presupposes the existence of the prison (Discipline 232). Discussing the relationship between power and knowledge, Foucault writes that “we should admit rather that power produces knowledge… that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Discipline 27). Thus, Foucault asserts that the reformers’ efforts to make punishment more humane must be placed within the discourse of the time. The protest against torture and public execution coincided with a shift in crime’s focus from hurting others’ bodies to stealing goods. According to Foucault, this transformation necessitated less severe modes of punishment and more subtle ways of ordering the lives of individuals (Discipline 89). Foucault believes that there was a strategic coincidence between what the reformers wanted and what the bourgeoisie needed. He argues that the reformers’ criticism was not aimed at the cruelty of power, but instead at its ineffective management. The reformers wanted to eliminate public execution, because it was where the excess power of the sovereign and the illegality of the people were most visible. They thus set up man and a respect for his feelings as the limitations of power. In this explanation of penal reform, Foucault’s placement of every opinion within a discourse results in a very cynical and limited view of social change. Without providing any evidence except the coincidence of the reformers’ efforts with other trends, he dismisses the idea that human sympathy might have caused penal reform. Foucault suggests that the eighteenth century reformers were acting within a bourgeois discourse of power either consciously or unconsciously. The bourgeoisie not only made punishment less severe, but also gave the prison its current disciplinary qualities, according to Foucault. After economic crime caused the first change in the penal system, another shift in illegality led to the prison’s focus on the supervision and normalization of the criminal. Foucault claims that in the nineteenth century there was a shift from material illegality to political illegality. He refers to the period of political uprising from the French Revolution to the Revolutions of 1848 to illustrate this point (Discipline 273). The ruling class started to recognize that the majority of “murderers, thieves, and idlers” came from the lower class and associated that class with crime (Discipline 275). People no longer connected illegality with the momentary passions and circumstances of men, but instead made it an inherent quality of the poor. Thus, the upper class sought to control people who were prone to crime by creating the concept of delinquency. The delinquent is the product of the carceral system and human sciences. He is defined as abnormal and is therefore subject to the disciplinary power of society. Foucault writes that “it would be hypocritical or naÃ¯ve to believe that the law was made for all in the name of all; that it would be more prudent to recognize that it was made for the few and that it was brought to bear upon others” (Discipline 276). The prison separates delinquents from the rest of society and makes them less dangerous than they would be otherwise. Foucault contradicts his own theory of power when he uses bourgeois influence to derive penal reform. He argues against the traditional idea that power is held by dominant groups and used against marginalized people within society. Foucault believes that separating people into bullies and pushovers is overly simplistic. He asserts that power is a strategy used by all, instead of a possession owned by the dominant class (Discipline 26). “This power is not exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who ‘do not have it’; it invests them, is transmitted by them and through them,” Foucault asserts, “it exerts pressure upon them, just as they themselves, in their struggle against it, resist the grip it has on them” (Discipline 27). Although Foucault believes that the modern prison arises from class struggle, the lower classes have no input in developing methods of punishment. The bourgeoisie uses punishment to supervise, normalize, and debilitate the lower classes. Foucault emphasizes that power is something which circulates, although its distribution may be unequal (Critique 37). Yet, in Discipline and Punishment, the bourgeoisie has complete control of the penal system. The upper class decided to focus on regulating the soul instead of inflicting pain to protect their livelihood. The upper class also created the concept of delinquency to control the lower class. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault fails to give the poor much choice except to obey the wishes of the bourgeoisie. Although Foucault focuses on the development of the penal system, he believes that disciplinary power extends throughout all society. “The ideal point of penalty today would be an infinite discipline…” Foucault writes, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, and hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Discipline 227-8). Schools, hospitals, and military institutions all control the time and movement of the individual. The goal of these organizations is to force the individual to conform to a norm by defining what is acceptable within society. Despite the similarities between schools, hospitals, and prisons, they serve different purposes under Foucault’s conception of power. The prison resulted from the bourgeoisie’s effort to control the lower class, but schools and hospitals are not apart of this endeavor. Everyone, rich and poor, must attend school and is therefore subject to disciplinary power. Whereas the penal system is a tool for bourgeois domination, schools affect all people by subjecting them to norms and managing their time. Foucault does not explain the purpose of disciplinary power within schools in the same way that he does for prisons. His conception of power is vague in showing who is using power towards a specific goal. Foucault derives a pervasive disciplinary power from the bourgeoisie, but shows that they are also affected by their own strategies of domination (Critique 42). Thus, a central problem with Foucault’s theory of power is that it emphasizes the existence of power relations in society, but ignores why these relations exist. Regarding this aspect of his work, Foucault argues that it is more important to analyze the effects of power than to discern the intentions behind it. “Let us not, therefore, ask why certain people want to dominate, what they seek, what is their overall strategy,” Foucault asserts, “Let us ask instead, how things work at the level of ongoing subjugation, at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies” (Critique 35). However, power loses its meaning when the motives behind its use are not considered. If power is a strategy as Foucault claims, then it is equally important to consider the goal in mind as well as methods of domination (Discipline 26). Although Foucault gives the bourgeoisie the credit for penal reform, it is difficult to understand whether the upper class is the most significant agent in this process. Foucault criticizes historical materialism for giving dubious explanations of social phenomena. He gives the example of infantile sexuality in “Two Lectures” to prove his point. Although Marxian thinkers would argue that society prohibited infantile sexuality to save people’s energy for production, an opposing explanation is equally plausible. The bourgeoisie could have encouraged infantile sexuality as a way of promoting sexual precociousness and thereby increasing the labor force (Critique 38). Because Foucault uses bourgeois domination to explain the changes in the penal system, his theories have the same quality of being true and false at the same time. Although Foucault argues that the protection of bourgeois property was the catalyst for modern penal reform, he also explains the change in the judicial system by referring to the social contract. The criminal must accept the laws of the society, because he has chosen to be apart of it. When he breaks the social contract by committing an illegal act, he hurts the entire society and gives it the right to punish him (Discipline 89-90). However, when referring to the social contract, Foucault does not suggest that the criminal hurts certain sections of society more than others. He asserts that the “defense of each individual is involved” in the criminal’s punishment (Discipline 90). This understanding opposes the one in which the sovereign protected his honor by inflicting pain on the criminal. The idea that the “defense of each individual is involved” when crime occurs indicates a shift to a more democratic way of thinking. Thus, Foucault implies that judicial power was transferred from the sovereign to all people – not just the bourgeoisie. Foucault writes that “the right to punish has been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defense of society” (Discipline 90). It is thus plausible that all citizens resented that one person possessed judicial power and therefore altered the old system of punishment. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx writes that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Although Foucault dismisses historical materialism, it figures prominently in his work. Foucault believes that the bourgeoisie caused crucial changes in the function of power. When the upper class sought to protect its property, punishment targeted the soul instead of the body. When the bourgeoisie associated illegality with the lower class, they gave power its disciplinary qualities. The problem with Foucault relying on historical materialism is that he is not a true Marxist. Marx divides society into the exploited proletariat and the oppressive bourgeoisie, and he sees history as determined by class struggle. Foucault resists this categorization of society and prefers to view power as something that circulates. He is also wary of attributing social phenomena to bourgeois domination. Foucault thus demonstrates ambivalence on how much influence to give to the bourgeoisie. Although Foucault explains that penal reform protects upper class property, he also justifies penal reform by referring to the social contract. Similarly, Foucault gives the bourgeoisie the credit for disciplinary power, but fails to show how discipline outside of the prison promotes its aims. Thus, power is more difficult to comprehend in Foucault’s work than in Marx’s. Foucault conceives of power as strategy, but does not clarify who its agents are and how much influence they have.
The Tightrope of Power: the balance between power, knowledge, and authority in relation to Antigone
Foucault’s Discipline and Punish reads partly like a historic text and partly like a speculative essay. Its themes revolving around power, knowledge, and authority however, conveys fundamental principles that is innate to human nature. Foucault addresses these issues in a circular fashion where the end of the capacity for one is also the beginning of another. The question that is posed is deceptively simple: what does Foucault mean when he talks about power, knowledge, and authority? To answer this it would be helpful to bring in a text that deals with the same issues (although in a different context) and compare them side by side. The play Antigone by Sophocles is no stranger to these themes. Full of power struggles between authoritative figures and an unyielding pursuit of knowledge (or the truth), Antigone, despite being centuries apart in the time of its publication to Discipline and Punish, speaks to a truth of human nature that is timeless. Both texts understand that power, knowledge, and authority are theoretically and practically linked. Foucault argues and the characters of Antigone show that power exists in a fragile relationship, knowledge is acquired but not definite, and authority can sometimes be its own entity. Using Foucault’s teachings and examples as backdrop, I will be looking at the power relationships, the spectrum of knowledge, and command of authority between the characters in Antigone.
What does power mean to Foucault? To him, power is not a thing, rather it is a dynamic tension that exists between two or more people. It is also the amount of influence that you are able to exert over someone else in a relationship. He is describing of course a mental rather than physical force where also “one should decipher in power, a network of relations. (pg. 26)” According to Foucault, everyone has some power, but their power is such to the extent that one can exert the behavior (or determine it) of another. He says that everyone has a certain degree of power but the power is fluid, and “constantly in tension or activity. (pg.26)” Therefore he would say that Creon is not necessarily more powerful than Antigone because of his place on the hierarchy (as King), but that there exists a constant and equal power dynamic between Creon and Antigone because they both have power. Creon only appears more powerful because he has learned to use his power better than Antigone. Of course I am not completely disregarding the fact that Creon is king and Antigone is not but in Foucault’s terms we are always on one side of the power relationship or the other, so there is no hierarchy of power in that sense. The hierarchical difference in social standing (king to citizen) would be more an issue of authority than power.
It can sometimes be unclear who has power over the other but ultimately you cannot escape all power relations because everybody has a relative amount of power. However, there cannot be a power relationship without resistance. We may not be able to escape all relations of power acting on us, but we can try to change or challenge a power imbalance. Because this power is not “a privilege that one might possess (pg.26)” and is ‘fluid’, this power is also fragile. In the beginning Creon tries to use his power to change Antigone’s mind but later on as we see in the play, Antigone could resist Creon’s power and gain her own to diminish his. Antigone uses her power to speak her own voice which takes away the power of Creon’s. The point that Foucault tries to get across is that power is not a force set in stone. Just because you are a student or child does not mean your professors or parents always have absolute power over you.
Foucault admits that sometimes there is not much room in power relations to resist but you can keep trying. In his book he describes petty criminals acting in solidarity and attempting to resist police searches to unsuccessful ends (pg. 63). In the play, Antigone resists Creon’s order by burying the body but Creon has the ultimate authority as king to condemn Antigone to death. Antigone’s struggles to gain power through her words and actions is ultimately unsuccessful but the singular act of doing so diminished Creon’s powers. Even in death we see that Antigone dies by her own hands instead of the way Creon subjected her to death. That in itself is an small act of resistance to Creon’s power although it was only a different means to the same end.
For Foucault, truth and knowledge are linked to power in a reciprocal relationship. He says:We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations. (pg. 27)Thus briefly, he says that knowledge gives power and power implies knowledge. In order to get the truth, the criminals were tortured to confess. Similarly in Antigone, the characters go through suffering in order to see the truth. Creon witnesses the bloodshed of his entire family before understanding that he was wrong. The point Foucault wants to make is that however the means we go about finding truth, there are always modes of power behind it. Who decides how we find the truth? Who benefits from the truth? Foucault challenges the idea that power is wielded by people or groups by way of ‘episodic’ or ‘sovereign’ acts of domination or coercion, seeing it instead as dispersed and pervasive (pg. 29). Instead it is a kind of ‘metapower’ or ‘regime of truth’ that pervades society, and which is in constant flux and negotiation. The criminals were forced to speak the truth by the power of the police and Creon’s powers led him to find the truth but at a steep price.
In the chapter ‘Docile body’ Foucault writes that many scientific models are replaced by new disciplines of old forms (pg. 149). Who decides these new models or ways of thinking? More often than not, those in positions of power can convey knowledge that are by default considered the ‘truth’. This relationship is central to his work. In the book, those in power can organize and chart the methods of the power to punish. In Antigone, Creon’s position of power allows him to set his laws as truth and implement his models of thinking. His laws against Polyneices’ burial might not have been correct yet as king his knowledge is conceived to be the truth and thus it affected the way the citizens approached this ‘truth’.
Another interesting extension of the idea of knowledge is that to see all is one way of knowing all. Such like Foucault’s description of the Panopticon, there is an inherent type of power within such a system that depends heavily on the abundance of knowledge of the one in power and the lack of knowledge of those in captivity. In a slightly different fashion, Tiresias, the blind prophet in Antigone, knows many truths. But his power is figurative unlike that of one standing in the center of the panopticon; he is all-seeing but he does not have the power to change any outcomes.
Throughout his text, Foucault does not explicitly discuss authority on its own. Rather, he tends to talk about authority always in relation to knowledge or power. The command of authority in Discipline and Punish is exists mainly in the control of males. He writes about women working in workhouses and factories but not in schools or the military, the two largest institutions in charge of creating the “docile body.” (pg. 135-70) Although Foucault does not deal with gender specifically in this book in relation to power, knowledge or authority, the fact that half the human race is left out does not seem to disturb the drive of the thesis. It seems almost as if the definition of the power relations and the seek for knowledge can exist in both men and women alike. Yet the fact that women is never described to be in positions of authority as teachers, “inspectors,” military commanders, or as supervisors in a hospital, meant that the place of women in the social condition was never in a position to fight for any power, much less exert authority. Of course, this could simply be a reflection of the actual social structure of the time and not a personal bias on behalf of Foucault but it sets an interesting stage for Antigone’s character in the play.
In Antigone, it is obvious that Creon has the ability to exert his authority and power as both a male and a king. However, Antigone is the epitome of a woman with authority if not power. Although she is unable to overpower Creon she is able to assert her authority through her actions (burying her brother) and her words (reasoning with Creon). This is an instance where authority can be deprived of physical power to command, but in Foucault’s terms, has the ability to shift the power imbalance other means. Authority in Foucault’s work is more closely tied to power than we can argue in the story of Antigone. In a way, authority is tied to truth because we assume those in authority know the truth and vice versa. Authority and power also has a similar relationship but the difference is that power is fragile and as Foucault says, must depend on a relationship. In a way it can be described that the faults of those in authority is not so much weakness or cruelty but a bad utilization of the economy of power.
The turmoil of power dynamics introduced by Foucault is no better explained and exhibited than by the characters in Sophocles’ play Antigone. Foucault does not tell anyone how to resist but we can infer from the story of antigone that freedom from a power relationship does not mean getting rid of all restrictions, it is about remaking ourselves in the best way that we can under the constraints of power. In Antigone’s case, it is getting the support of the people and resistance of the law. Freedom, Foucault hints, is endless questioning that leads to choice. He reminds us that “power is not exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who ‘do not have it’; it invests them, is transmitted by them and through them; it exerts pressure upon them, just as they themselves, in their struggle against it, resist the grip it has on them. (pg. 27) In Antigone, Antigone’s search for her own truth collides with Creon’s struggle to maintain authority and the delicate balance of power between them tightens the stranglehold over their relationship. Thus, one way for us to understand the themes that Foucault has put forward is that the endless pursuit of knowledge or the truth propels those to seek authority both over others and more importantly, their own powers.
Foucault’s Panopticism as Applied to DuBois: The Ideal Model of Power?
As a type of power that is vital to the function of institutions, discipline works to control the thoughts and actions of individuals to fulfill a specific agenda, such as preserving public safety or maximizing profits. Although numerous variations of power exist, institutions idealize the efficiency of panopticism, a psychological model of discipline. By discussing the manipulation of the human mind, Foucault’s “Panopticism” advocates for this “visible and unverifiable” (201) power which increases the efficiency of institutions and DuBois’ “Of Our Spiritual Striving” analyzes the use of psychological discipline to address “problematic” black people (4). Group mentality, the idea that the disciplined party will act as a group, either to resign themselves to a life of insignificance and inefficiency or to become productive members of society is an integral aspect of panopticism. DuBois’ work seems to highlight panopticism’s dependence on group mentality as a potential vulnerability, but through the application of Foucault’s lens to DuBois’ work, one realizes that DuBois’ work portrays how this perceived vulnerability actually strengthens the disciplinary system by making it more efficient, which is important in refining panopticism, a system that Foucault repeatedly calls the “ideal model of discipline”.
Even if the Panopticon and similar institutions effectively discipline and “strengthen social forces” (Foucault 207), they are not necessarily foolproof. In “Panopticism” and “Of Our Spiritual Striving”, authority figures observe individuals in order to control their psychological state. The Panopticon’s architecture allows constant visibility of the inmates since “full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected” (Foucault 200). The psychological pressure of being watched causes the observed to demonstrate their best attributes since they do not want to incur judgment from the onlookers or retribution from the guards that may be examining their actions. This tendency to hide imperfections from the public causes humans to “become the principle of [their] own subjection” (Foucault 203). Since power does not manifest in physical form in this scenario, Foucault’s psychologically-driven mechanism of discipline depends on groups that consider the consequences of their actions rather than yielding to desperation and acting according to their emotions. Modeled after Foucault’s panopticism, DuBois’ society strives to establish an efficient disciplinary system which requires little time and resources to operate. The resulting system allows the white population to exert psychological discipline on the black population by constantly observing and judging them. DuBois’ work discusses the effect of judgment on the black population. While judgment pressures black people to further themselves, it also leaves them prone to self-degradation, which may ultimately lead to a decrease in the efficiency of the disciplinary system.
Given evidence from “Of Our Spiritual Striving”, there are logical reasons for thinking that DuBois’ work emphasizes panopticism’s vulnerabilities by highlighting its dependence on group mentality. Under the pressure of prison walls or an oppressive society, maintaining rationality may be difficult for disciplined groups. Since panopticism’s role as an “intensificator of power…may [confiscate or impede]” power (Foucault 208), desperation among the disciplined may result. This desperation decreases the effectiveness of panopticism, a concept which Foucault acknowledges, claiming that the “productive increase of power can be assured only if… it can be exercised continuously…in the subtlest possible way” (208). Unfortunately, the constant observation, judgment, and prejudice that the disciplined must endure become oppressive to the extent where they can no longer be classified as [continuous] and [subtle] (Foucault 208) forms of psychological discipline. Once prejudice and judgment infringe on the continuity and subtleness of power, panopticism morphs into “sudden, violent, discontinuous forms [of discipline]” (Foucault 208) that no longer guarantee efficiency. Given the overbearing nature of society, an institution modeled after panopticism, people may experience “bitterness, distrust, [desperation, and] resentfulness” (DuBois 5). In the face of desperation, the black population may cease their efforts to further themselves, thinking that “[they] are diseased and dying…[they] cannot write, [their] voting is vain; what need of education since [they] must always cook and serve” (DuBois 10)? If such inefficient, self-degrading sentiments permeated the entire black population due to the existence of group mentality, then how did DuBois’ society, modeled on the core principles of the Panopticon model, exist efficiently despite its dependence on group mentality?
As it turns out, panopticism’s efficiency is strengthened by its dependence on group mentality. Group mentality is exemplified in the military, an institution that derives its power from panopticism. This group mentality allows the institution to exist, not as an assembled crowd but as a unity that derives from this very unity an increase in its forces; discipline increases the skill of each individual, coordinates these skills…broadens the fronts of attack…increases the capacity for resistance (Foucault 210).In essence, group mentality enhances all the positive attributes of each member of the military. When viewing DuBois’ society through panopticism’s lens of group mentality, one realizes that the divisiveness between black and white individuals hinders progress and decreases the efficiency of the Panopticon model. Neither black people nor white people exist without flaws or gaps in talent, which makes collaboration between the races vital to societal progress.
If Foucault’s lens is not applied to DuBois’ society, these groups may never “give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack” (DuBois 11). The missing attributes prevent the blacks and whites from maximizing their potential, thus creating a less than ideal disciplinary system. Therefore, the application of Foucault’s lens to DuBois’ work allows the reader to realize that panopticism is actually strengthened by its dependence on group mentality. Unity between races and between the disciplined and their superiors maximizes efficiency since the strengths and weaknesses of each group creates a harmonic balance.
According to Foucault, unity between the disciplined and their superiors establishes a community of efficient individuals who can perform virtually perform any task, from protecting the nation to mass manufacturing. Applying this concept of community to DuBois’ society would liberate black people from self-degradation, giving them the opportunity to solve their social problems. As a result, they will become positive contributors to society rather than being the race in need of discipline. Instead of having their “powers of body and mind…wasted, dispersed, or forgotten,” they can “be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, escape from both death and isolation, husband and use [their] best powers and [their] latent genius” (DuBois 5). This group mentality frees the black population from their feelings of inferiority so that they can make progress.
According to DuBois, if the black population in society is not incorporated productively into the community, their self-doubt will cause them to compare themselves to their white counterparts.This competition between the races is inherently unfair since blacks, “without land, tools, or savings, had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors,” leaving them at the “very bottom of hardships” and “feeling the weight of [their] ignorance, – not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities” (DuBois 9). The unfavorable results of this competition often lead black people toward additional self-degradation. Although some black people have become determined to prove their value to their white counterparts, others become discouraged if they cannot achieve as much as their white peers, leading to self-discouragement and inefficiency. Therefore, it is best for “a people thus handicapped not to be asked to race with the world but rather to be allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems” (DuBois 9). Self-pity and resentment are counter-productive to the disciplinary mechanism’s ultimate goal of efficiency. However, the self-magnified psychological pressure that accompanies the group mentality, such as the fear of disappointing one’s community, increases the effectiveness of Foucault’s system. Therefore DuBois’ work allows the reader, after careful consideration, to realize that Foucault’s panopticism is actually stronger because it depends on the acquiescence and unity of the masses.
However, Foucault fails to realize that dependence on group mentality, through the promotion of unity and the sense of community, potentially liberates the disciplined from self-doubt, thus increasing the efficiency of his system. Most of the shortcomings in Foucault’s model result from his generalizations of humans. He does not consider the mindsets of marginalized people when creating this psychological model of discipline and he fails to anticipate the self-disparagement and desperation that may plague their sentiments and drive them towards resentment of authority. In Foucault’s perspective, isolation and observation allow authority figures to exert power over people’s minds, which results in efficient reform and peaceful submission of power, without employing numerous guards, building fortress-like prisons, or tormenting prisoners. Therefore panopticism seems like an ideal model because it utilizes psychological discipline toarrange power… mak[ing] it more economic and more effective…to strengthen the social forces…to develop the economy, spread education, [and] raise the level of public morality” (Foucault 207-208).
Unfortunately, panopticism is not ideal since it can still be improved, and it will not be ideal until its dependence on group mentality is embraced. Although the examination of Du Bois’ work immediately raises awareness about the potential vulnerability of the Panopticon model, the analysis of DuBois’ work through the lens of Foucault seems to highlight that in the right scenarios, panopticism derives its strength from the existence of group mentality.