In the late eighteenth century a well known English philosopher called Jeremy Bentham proposed the idea of what he called the ‘Panopticon’. A prison that would allows a handful of guards to watch (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates, without them necessarily knowing whether or not they’re being watched. The basic design is a circular building with all cells located on the outside of the circle where in the centre is located the guards watch tower of which the guards can observer all the inmates of that floor.
He asserted that one watchman could in theory watch an entire prison of inmates with a device that would trick the prisons into believe they were being watched all the time. The reason he did this and the main focus of my essay will be that of the use of coercion by the state and other such parties to facilitate the obeying of the law and other such frameworks of less formal nature.
Initially I will discuss how information around offending is dispersed and filtered for public consumption and in how much this might differ from the truth. I will then follow on from this referencing the handling of information in terms of the difference between the bloody code, changing punishment from a public spectacle to something more private. I want to highlight the significance of the loss of the bloody code and indeed what it was replaced by, something which could be considered even worse, a bloody code of the mind.
Why do people say things then do the opposite? Why are surface intentions so different from actual intentions? Are we not capable of fathoming our own real intentions? Someone keeping the truth from us in the perspective of John Stuart Mill is paternalistic, the state is not our parent and we are not children so it keeping the truth from us as if we couldn’t handle it ourselves is wrong and quite sinister.
Foucault argues that in ways that are often subtle and thereby seemingly invisible such as control of information, individuals are under constant surveillance and regulation, leading to normalization and acceptance of such systems. This is where this idea of docile bodies comes in from his larger work Discipline and Punish.
Docility is a notion that highlights the point in which “the analyzable body and the body than can be manipulated” are connected, Foucault uses this to illustrate the means in which individual people within their bodies are at the mercy of institutional regulation. The body is focused on specifically by Foucault, as the sight of the aforementioned regulation, more specifically “as object and target of power” historically (Foucault 1975).
Foucault argues “A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved” bodies are confined spatially (i.e in a prison cell), partitioned as to divide people and to maintain “order and discipline.” (Foucault 1975).
“The individual body becomes an element that may be placed, moved, articulated on others.”
The state in effect wants to be our parent and by controlling what knowledge we have or don’t have is a very powerfully method of social control. Social control isn’t a new thing, it’s been steadily and continuously increasing in size and what’s worse getting less visible, there are so many social controls around that are so minor that you don’t even notice they’re there but they still have some effect on your behaviour, we’re just so accustomed to them we just obey without thinking which is exactly the point.
The point of this argument is that this social control that surrounds us is completely opposed to what it is we’re told is happening so we’re told one thing when what is really happening is something completely opposite. The social control we suffer on a regular basis is completely against the ideology that justifies it, so in effect we’re held captive and told we’re free and we believe it because this is substantiated and justified by experts and scientists.
“Discipline is an art of rank, a technique for the transformation of arrangements. It individualizes bodies by a location that does not give them a fixed position, but distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations.” (146)
When we hear words that sound like dismantling in relation to freedom we assume that is a step forward for the good of all, more freedom for all but Cohen is suggesting is that this is just a more sinister form of control. What Cohen is alluding to when he discusses difference between what we’re told by and what is actually happening, Cohen is outlining that he thinks that when people believe they are in control that is actually when they are most susceptible to manipulation.
The increasing distrust of monopolies and experts is what’s supposed to be happening. This will allow people to make informed decisions on their own without the use of institutional coercion and evidently this isn’t happening but the state just claims it is anyway.
Even the people who take part in this talk about dismantling and increasing freedom claim that it wouldn’t be a good idea like it’s been happening and isn’t turning out well even though it hasn’t been happening in the first place. Essentially what Cohen is saying is that these people are saying all we’ve ever been working towards like the abolition of prison and the weakening of professional power and informalism aren’t really that good and we shouldn’t want them anyway like they’ve been tried and tested and they obviously haven’t been. We still use prisons as our main source of punishment and rely heavily on expert opinion in most matters of importance.
“Discipline is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine.”
My understanding of what Cohen says about the bloody code is that he believes the modern system is just a much more sophisticated version of the bloody code. The shift in punishment is from body to mind; The bloody code was more or less simple the body suffers the crimes you yourself commit but now the mind is what we punish and control, this is so much more complex and harder to track and regulate and because of its sophistication and invisibility; entirely more dangerous and coercive.
“The murder that is depicted as a horrible crime is repeated in cold blood, remorselessly” Beccaria (1764)
The bloody code is seen as barbaric and entirely based on vengeance which today is seen as immoral and today these give way to informed and expert intervention. Foucault uses Beccaria to illustrate the fact that to torture or to punish someone publicly is to take on the role of the criminal but lack the passions of the crime.
It stands to reason that it’s impossible to set an example that murder is wrong by committing murder publicly in cold blood. Beccaria (1764) actually critiques the utilitarian point of view on punishment (which is retributivist, you enact an equal amount of suffering on the criminal as he/she caused) in ‘On crimes and punishment’. According to Beccaria, as a deterrent capital punishment is not necessary. Execution is permanent, whereas Long-term imprisonment is transient it can happen more than once so it is a better deterrent as the offender can learn from their mistakes and better themselves. Basically how can you deter people from crime if they’re dead?
If they’re dead they’re not suffering. It’s a harsh punishment but it can only be carried out once and how can you learn not to commit crime if you’re dead? Nietzsche also believed that punishment is a memory exercise, you do something bad, you’re punishment and you remember not to do the bad thing again but again how can you remember when you’re dead?
“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.”Jeremy Bentham
Punishment today is sophisticated and hidden, punishment is not daunting in its spectacle and it’s ferocity instead by its inevitability, the increased likelihood of punishment is what we today use as a deterrent for crime not the intensity and violence of the punishment alone. The system we have now can still be seen as having irrational tendencies, prison overcrowding, and police brutality, which is why the need for secrecy is ever more apparent.
Our modern system isn’t perfect morally or in any respect, but it can still be humanised which is one of the main differences between the bloody code. We understand today that to punish is shameful and we do it only in the hopes of reforming people, secrecy is there to protect people from the reality of the states hypocrisy of telling us not to kill by killing.
Today’s punishment has experts to rationalise and justify itself whereas the bloody code only had vengeance in mind and vengeance essentially is its own rationale. Our system uses scientific principle and good intentions to justify the punishment and control of people.
“The body now serves an instrument or intermediary: if on intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regard both as a right and as property. The body, according to this penalty, is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions. Physical pain, the pain of the body itself is no longer the constituent element of the penalty” Foucault
Things like deaths in custody are rationalised and subverted; they are seen as sad tales of bad communication or bad coordination (Mckelvey 1977). Mistakes are seen as bad people in a good system which takes all culpability away from the system we rely on. It’s as if we need these experts to reassure us every day that the government always works in our best interests even when it’s killing us, or locking us up, we need that reassurance.
Foucault points out the necessity of a doctor present at executions to do the opposite of what they are tasked i.e. end life instead of saving it and this is all rationalised away as they are there to prevent the victim from feeling pain. Foucault is obviously parodying the bloody code where pain was the point of the death and now it’s painless and private and no longer a spectacle the taking of life is now justified.
“All punishment is mischief; all punishment in itself is evil.”Jeremy Bentham
Technically it’s still murder it’s just a lot less messy, obviously still by no means justified. You can’t necessarily take away a person’s right to life and expect it to be the only recourse. Intentions are from reality it’s not the systems professed aims at fault but their imperfect realisation.
Penal reform rhetoric is always claiming moves towards enlightenment and belief in progress but the gap between rhetoric and the truth is enormous. Benevolence when it comes from this system always goes wrong because they constantly have to weigh conscience and convenience they’re trapped in that constant hard place of trying to do the best and easiest thing which obviously is pretty bad coming from a system we trust so implicitly(Rothman 1971).
How can you put faith in a system that tries to do good but only the easiest minimal amount it can afford, how can you support a system that weighs goodness? One of the lessons best taught by history (that is obviously relevant today and in relation to this topic) is that benevolence should never be trusted.
In conclusion I have come to understand Foucault’s argument against types of informal mechanisms that have so much influence on human behaviour. The prison system is almost a microcosm of the normal world with more extreme social controls, so it highlights what little power the individual really has in society.
Bottoms, Anthony E. from Garlend, D and Young, P (1983)
Neglected Features of Contemporary Penal Systems, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, penguin (1859)
Cohen, Stanley (2002) Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the mods and rockers,
Cohen, Stanley, from Garlend, D and Young, P (1983)
Social Control talk: Telling stories about correctional change,
Foucault, M (1975) Discipline and Punish
Reiner Robert Media made criminality,