Foucault on Prisons

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Michel Foucault is a french postmodern philosopher who addressed the link between power and knowledge in society. Foucault uses a Genealogy—a historical technique borrowed from Nietzsche where one questions the emergence of various philosophical and social beliefs, and especially into the elements which “we tend to feel are without history”. Foucault’s project is essentially a genealogy of modernity. His first research, Madness and Civilization, gives an account of the beginnings of modern reason as it comes to be defined against madness in the 17th Century. Throughout his books, he deconstructs truth to show that is is often discovered by chance, and backed by those with power.Because of this, Foucault seems to believe that all truths are questionable, and has a tendency towards relativism and nihilism. In order to understand Foucault, it’s important to understand that he’s a postmodern philosopher. Postmodernism can be boiled down to an doubt or skepticism of meta-narratives. Examples of common meta-narratives are: the Enlightenment thinkers believe that rationality will lead to ethical and social progress. The Marxist-Leninists believe that for emancipation to occur, society must undergo a revolution. Freudians believe that human history is the history of repression of sexual desires. Now, we can look at his project Discipline and Punish. Foucault examined the history of the prison system in order to show the function of power within society. He saw that in the 19th century prisons stopped being a place that simply limited a prisoner’s freedom, and became a place for discipline. Prisons became a place where a prisoner could be reformed and taught to conform to the rules of society. He analyzed a prison design called ‘Panopticon’ that was made in England in the 18th century. It was a circular prison, with an observation area in the middle. This way, one guard could observe every cell, but, due to the light, the prisoners couldn’t tell when they were being observed, and couldn’t see each other. This constant monitoring turned prisoners into bodies that can be easily controlled and used, since Prisoners always acted as though they were being watched. For Foucault, this was an example of how power and knowledge are related. The prison guard has knowledge of the prisoners through watching them, but the prisoners never know when they’re being watched. In this sense, knowledge gives the guard power. Foucault sums this up in a creepy phrase: “In knowing, we control, and in controlling we know.” Foucault goes on to show that throughout history, prisons have been largely ineffective at making people conform. They can create delinquency, and when people are released they’re often more likely to commit another crime. He then asked: if prisons don’t work, why have we kept the system around for so long? He believed that the prison system served the ruling class in society, and that its purpose is to prevent confrontations that could lead to revolution. He says that in committing a theft, a person from the working class is calling for a change in the social system, and the ruling class uses the law to diminish the power of this. They separate the “delinquent class” from the rest of the working class. In the end of his research, he concludes that the over all purpose of the prison system is to produce criminality and recidivism, and shows how power and knowledge are linked. http://www.iep.utm.edu/foucault/‎ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/

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