Thoughts during the plague № 6 – Discipline and Punish

Hello, you're watching our series "Thoughts during the plague". 

Today I would like to discuss one of the main topics of philosopher Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punish". The topic is well-known, as are many others taken from this classic of modern philosophy. 

While studying the history of prison, Foucault draws attention to the fact that already at the beginning of the Modernity, in the era of secular bourgeois culture, a rapprochement was taking place between criminals and the sick. 

A criminal was considered not only to be a person in full health and consciousness who had made a negative impact, but also as a person marked by a dark spirit. There was something abnormal about the criminal in the eyes of this society. This kind of  abnormality was also associated with disease; for instance, being infected with cholera or the plague was considered a crime. Physical pathology, moral pathology and the commission of a crime were brought closer together in the minds of people, leading to the isolation of both criminals and the sick. 

It is interesting how Foucault views the organization of early psychiatric practice. While in the Middle Ages a person suffering from a mental illness was considered to be possessed by spirits (justifying the use of physical violence as a method of exorcism), with the transition to secular, bourgeois, materialistic culture, this transcendent dimension of the evil spirit disappeared, but the practice of punishing the mentally ill remained - mentally ill people were ‘treated’ by means of torture.

Foucault said that one of the basic ideas of Jeremiah Bentham (an english philosopher and the founder of modern utilitarianism) was the creation of the panopticon, a territory in which criminals could be watched and supervised at all times, surrounding them from all points of view by both glass and impervious walls. The idea of constant supervision of an isolated part of the population subject to periodic punishments is put forward as an important form of punishment via transparency and the deprivation of privacy. In the ideal Bentham-inspired prison, a person is punished by the fact that guards are given the opportunity to observe them at any time. 

This humiliates the inmates, reducing them to the physical and biological level of being. It deprives them of civil and social change. Man becomes a piece of physiological flesh that is watched in the same way we stare at animals in a zoo. 

The sick, the mad, the infected (lepers, plague carriers) are treated in much the same way as these criminals, leading Foucault to suggest that there is a single root of repressive psychiatry, the modern clinic and the prison. All three of these phenomena - mental illness, contagion, and crime - continued to converge at the beginning of Modernity, resulting each of these groups being outcasted, gathered together and subject to constant observation. Hence the punitive practices of modern medicine - the pain doctors inflict which society writes off and our belief that this temporary pain is the cost of eventual health -  are essentially organized and rationalized practices of torture, not unlike those practiced in the Middle Ages.

The scalpel is not solely an instrument used for delicate surgical operations, it also an instrument of torture. 

Eventually, mad houses evolved into the field of psychiatry, while those afflicted with contagious diseases began to be treated with vaccines and criminals began to be handled with rehabilitation in mind. In parallel, there was a decrease in physical violence in all three institutions: in psychiatric practices, efforts were made to anesthetize complex medical operations while torture was prohibited in prisons.

Foucault suggests that the correlation of surveillance as a form of punishment in all three institutions and the subsequent reduction of the human dignity of those surveilled pushes them into a new, lower state of existence. How did the panopticon change those it observed? What did they feel like under constant supervision, under constant torture? Those subject to this punishment lost their humanity, they even began to forget their own names. This synthesis of the criminal, the madman and the leper became a creature representing the complete outcast. Such a creature, placed in an isolation ward, in a panopticon, has lost all human properties. It has become a piece of dangerous, poisonous, aggressive flesh that performs all basic human functions, but is no longer human. 

Thus, according to Foucault, the concept of the Other - those not like us, those without status, without freedom, without private property, without the right to privacy, without names, rights, duties or dignity - was born. And at the other end - in the center, behind the glass, we began to see them as bestial, our dark counterparts whose flesh is the same, whose physiology is the same, whose basic needs are the same, and who we have nonetheless deprived of nearly everything else. 

This idea was later called "bare life" by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben - from his point of view, ‘ bare life’ can be applied to the populations of Nazi concentration camps, where people gradually dehumanized under constant observation and turned into little more than biomaterial, a biomass. 

When emergencies occur, such as an epidemic, we return to this archetype. Look at how the quarantine has developed: a sharp increase in surveillance, drones are circling like Orwell's 1984, facial recognition systems are activated, it is forbidden for more than one person to gather… these tools are replicating the panopticon on a far broader scale. These actions are considered fully justified, while even worse has become socially permitted for dealing those who are already infected… However, since someone who is not yet infected may easily become so, a broad repressive-medical system is applied to everyone... just in case. 

From Foucault’s point of view in "Discipline and Punish", the doctor, the psychiatrist and the jailer are essentially of the same type. It seems that one punishes, another treats, and the third helps to cure disease, but in fact they all establish mechanical, abstract norms. As soon as we slip from our civic position, we find ourselves in the position of biological bare life, where all that remains of us is our material, bodily functionality. In this capacity we become objects: restricted in terms of movement, objects for observation. In the end, we lose all ties with other people. 

Gradually, this structure projects itself onto all of us, not just the jailer. Look at what is happening in the US, where people who are suspected of being infected with coronavirus are treated like dogs, aliens, ‘Others’, and met with the most heinous kind of hygienic racism. We are all quarantined, relegated to life in the panopticon, left to rely on the doctor, the policeman, the military, the psychiatrist-- meanwhile we ourselves have begun policing the infected (or those we suspect of infection), guarding ourselves like sadistic Nazis in a concentration camp. The instinct toward discipline and punishment has been awakened in all of us.

These are the dark and terrible results of the pandemic. The coronavirus has had diverse results-- it brings with it the possibility for new thoughts and revives many old archetypes. However, in reviving these archetypes, we have awakened something strong, deeply rooted and terrible inside us.

Our desire to discipline and punish is rooted more deeply than we might imagine. It is part of the possibility of our becoming nothing more than "bare life" under certain circumstances, with all of our physiological demands, desires and instincts annihilated; even the desire to breathe and experience minimal freedom of movement is put under strict control.

In other words, at the extreme ends of these two poles (Discipliner and disciplined, punisher and punished, healer and sick), we have moved beyond the human.

Yet, ultimately, we are not “bare life", we are not the sadistic enforcers of the panopticon… we are something else. What kind of “others” we have and where the root of our humanity lies manifests in extraordinary circumstances.

So far, we have not yet reached the complete stratification of hunters and quarry, executioner and victims: we maintain our ties and solidarity. But if the situation continues to progress, we will gravitate closer and closer to these extremes. It is not easy to get away from the intoxicating belief that we are not like ‘them’, that we are not so bad, that we are not like those Foucault wrote about in the Middle Ages or today-- yet, such distinctions will not hold.

Instead, we must find something that resonates with these archetypes and allows us to overcome them: it's better to face the truth about our nature. To some degree, Humans must be supervised and punished. Ultimately, we are looking at our tendency to gravitate toward the poles of relations of power, leaving one side as little more than victims fighting for physical survival, to meet their physical needs at any cost, ready to lose all human dignity in exchange for food, water, health, air... but we must remember that while these poles are part of the portrait of humanity, they don’t give us the full picture.