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Foucault, Surveiller et punir

Bentham's PanopticonWe shall be reading and discussing selected excerpts from Michel Foucault's influential study of the prison as a social institution, Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison (1975).

Foucault (1926-1984) was, by training, a philosopher, although much of his published work is both philosophical and profoundly historical in character. He is particularly concerned to understand how social institutions such as the prison and the asylum came into being and how, in turn, these institutions have not only shaped the society around us but informed the way in which we experience our innermost selves. As a philosopher with an acute historical sense, Foucault is also concerned to understand how these modes of thinking and experiencing have changed through time.

As well as being a philosopher with a keen sense of history, Foucault is often described as a 'theorist', a producer of theoretical writing. One of the things we shall be doing in looking at his work is thinking about what 'theory', or theoretical writing, is and how it functions. Foucault's work typically combines minutely detailed historical research with a strong, often unexpected or counterintuitive, interpretation of that research. We shall look at how, in his theoretical writing, he retells dramatic and sometimes shocking examples or anecdotes from the archives to help convey his point; we shall also discuss the relationship with the reader which this particular writing strategy implies. So in studying excerpts from Surveiller et punir we shall be seeking not only to understand some of the key points of his argument about prisons and their social function but also to identify the characteristics of his very particular style of theoretical writing.

We shall approach the text in lectures and seminars by discussing some of the following key issues:

  • What are the main points of Foucault's argument in Surveiller et punir?
  • To what extent is Surveiller et punir a relatively modest historical study of the prison as an institution or to what extent does it seek to present a far more ambitious argument about the way in which society operates now and has operated in the past?
  • What does Foucault mean by 'disciplinary power'?
  • What strategies does Foucault typically employ as a writer of theory? In other words, how does he seek to persuade, or seduce, the reader into sharing his view of the prison and of society more widely?
  • How does his writing use its archival and other primary sources?
  • What is assumed about and expected of the reader of his texts?
  • To what extent is his theoretical writing informed by his own political activism on behalf of French prisoners in the early 1970s? What are the dangers and attractions of reading his theoretical writing in (auto)biographical terms?

Editions and excerpts

Please make sure you read the text in the Gallimard tel edition, which looks like this. The full bibliographical reference for this edition is:

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard/tel, 1975).

Only the following chapters in that edition are prescribed for reading and discussion: 'Le corps des condamnés' (pp. 1-40), 'Les moyens du bon dressement' (pp. 200-27) and 'Le panoptisme' (pp. 228-64).

Although you are only expected to read these selected chapters, the lecturer will fill in some of the gaps, where necessary, by briefly summarizing material you have not been asked to read.

Seminars and lectures

The worksheet for both seminars can be downloaded here.

The slides from the first lecture can be downloaded here.

The slides from the second lecture can be downloaded here.

For podcasts click here.

Recommended further reading

Boullant, François, Michel Foucault et les prisons (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003).

Downing, Lisa, The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Text available electronically via the library catalogue.

Eribon, Didier, Michel Foucault (Paris: Flammarion, 3rd ed. 2011), 351-71. Available as an electronic extract from the Library Strategies e-extracts page. Click here to access it.

Garland, David, ‘Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, ­­An Exposition and Critique’, American Bar Foundation Research Journal 11, 4 (1986), 847-880. Available electronically here.

Mills, Sara, Michel Foucault (London: Routledge, 2003), ch. 2 (‘Power and Institutions’), 33-52. Available as an electronic extract from the Library Strategies e-extracts page. Click here to access it.

Prado, C. G., Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy (Boulder: Westview, 2000), ch. 4 (‘Making Subjects’), 53-84. Available as an electronic extract from the Library Strategies e-extracts page. Click here to access it.

Schwan, Anne and Stephen Shapiro, How To Read Foucault's Discipline and Punish (London: Pluto Press, 2011). Text available electronically via the library catalogue.

Sheridan, Alan, Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth (London: Tavistock, 1980), ch. 2 (‘Society, Power, and Knowledge’), 135-163. Text available electronically via the library catalogue.

Other learning resources

'Thinking Allowed' (BBC Radio 4, 28mins, 2013): Laurie Taylor presents a special programme on the life and work of Foucault, with Professor Stephen Shapiro, Professor Vikki Bell and Professor Lois McNay. To listen to a recording of the programme please click here.

Interview with Foucault on the text (June 1975):