This book has been described as Foucault's masterpiece, and for good reason. Through this "genealogy" of history, Foucault shows us how modern society has become penal and coercive in nature; and perhaps more importantly, that all us now live in the midst of an abstract, authoritative public "gaze."
Although the book traverses a lot of historical ground, Foucault's discussion culminates in an analysis of Jeremy Bentham's prison concept. Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism philosophy, believed that individual rights are subordinate to the state. In fact, he went so far as to call them "nonsense on stilts." As long as the government protected its people and treated them decently, he did not believe that the polity could be accused of oppressing its citizen - be they convicts or otherwise. Thus, Bentham was the first philosopher to give the modern penal system its rational underpinnings. Today, we take it as a matter of course that those who do not conform to laws are trucked off to prison. But with this book, Foucault attempts to completely undermine our intuitive sense of what is right, what is coercive, what is rational, and ultimately what is true. Perhaps better than any other author out there, Foucault shows us the subtle madness of Western institutional logic.
Foucault focused on Bentham's prison model, or the Penopticon as Bentham called it - which literally means, that which sees all. The Penopticon prison, which was popular in the early nineteenth century, was designed to allow guards to see their prisons, but not allow prisoners to see guards. The building was circular, with prisoner's cells lining the outer diameter, and in the center of the circle was a large, central observational tower. At any given time, guards could be looking down into each prisoner's cells - and thereby monitor potentially unmoral behavior - but carefully-placed blinds prevented prisoners from seeing the guards, thereby leaving them to wonder if they were being monitored at any given moment. It was Bentham's belief that the "gaze" of the Panopticon would force prisoners to behave morally. Like the all-seeing eye of God, they would feel shame at their wicked ways. In effect, the coercive nature of the Panopticon was built into its very structure.
Discipline and Punish is still relevant for today, even though the Panopticon has vanished. For starters, the United States government now possesses the technology to view see and hear anybody on the face of the planet. In fact, just recently the FBI announced that they have the right (invested in them by the state) to monitor any phone conversations they deem a threat to national security. Furthermore, for the same reason, the CIA or the DIA may use high-tech satellite technology to monitor actions anywhere on the face of the planet. Currently, these satellites have the ability to spot and read the date off a dime in the street. These new technological developments have completely altered the meaning "gaze" in the modern context. In a very real way, we are all living in the Panopticon now.
Moreover, Foucault would have never guessed the future of American prison systems. Today, Americans put more people behind bars than in any other country in the world, while public education, job training, and other resources that might potentially help people stay off drugs or out of crime in the first place are under funded. Furthermore, the vast majority of convicts who are released - many having been brutalized in prison - often end up behind bars again in no time, usually for small offenses involving drugs or petty larceny (that is, non-violent crimes involving property). Thirty years ago, when Foucault died, prisons were still run by the state. However, today prisons are increasingly being privatized and run as businesses, with the further benefit of huge government subsidies. The United States now prioritizes prison funding over education and rehabilitation - spending roughly 40 billion a year on operation and construction of new prisons. The prison industry is booming.
Anyway, this book is a must-read classic. It will abhor you, enthrall you, and provide immeasurable food for thought. It drove me to ask questions about the nature of knowledge, history, and the evolution of a persecuting society. Controversial to the teeth, this work will definately activate all your higher faculties and blast you off on all sort of theoretical tangents. Once I started I couldn't put it down. As Foucault said himself, he writes "experience book," and I couldn't agree more. I highly recommend having this experience, if only for the sake of where it will land you.
A final note for those who are interested... Oddly enough, Jeremy Bentham was not buried or incinerated like most people after he died. He willed his body to be preserved and displayed. It was dissected in a medical amphitheater at the Web Street School of anatomy in London, three days after his death. (By the way, this was illegal at the time. Only executed murderers could be dissected according to the law). His organs were then removed, and the original head replaced with a wax one. After being stolen by students as a joke, the real head is now kept in a safe in the College. The body, dressed in Bentham's own clothes, remains stuffed with hay, straw, wool, cotton and lavender to keep moths away. Since he was a founder of University College, Bentham is ensconced inside a glass fronted mahogany case (on casters), set unceremoniously in a busy hallway. He is regularly visited by scholars from all over the world, once went to a beer festival in Germany, and is brought to the table once a year for the annual Bentham Dinner. Amazingly, he was also trundled to the annual Board of Directors meeting for years, who still leave his old chair empty out of respect.