Foucault’s La société punitive – some initial thoughts on the first half

318prs0sjdlI received Foucault’s La société punitive last week, and it was the only academic book I took with me on my Christmas trip to Ghana. As with these lecture courses generally I know I will read them several times, so I’m half-way through a first fairly quick read. I use the initial read to get an overall sense of the trajectory of the course and how it sits in relation to the courses that preceded it and those to come. In this instance the course immediately preceding it – Théories et institutions pénales – is not published, but Psychiatric Power and The Abnormals, which follow, have been available for some time.

I will be writing a review of this course for Berfrois, and there will be some discussion of it in Chapter One of my Foucault’s Last Decade book, so I will be returning to this text in much more detail. But, for now, some very early initial thoughts on the first half of the book. [update: some additional comments on the second half here.]

The most obvious way to read the book is as an early draft of Discipline and Punish. Foucault gave these lectures between January and March 1973; the book was completed in August 1974 and published in February 1975. Those looking for those early traces will not be disappointed. There is a lot of connection – Damians appears here, as does Bentham, Beccaria and Colquhoun; and the theme of the prison is important. Alongside these there are discussions of other institutions, such as religious communities, factories, Mettray, and so on.

But the course is much more than that – and, conversely, there is a lot of work still to be done to create Discipline and Punish. The Panopticon, for example, is briefly mentioned only one (and again in the course summary), even though Bentham is discussed more.

There are discussions of the army here – a key theme in Discipline and Punish, and arguably the true model of the disciplinary society. But what is striking about this course is the quite lengthy discussions of civil war, in a way that anticipates Foucault’s 1976 course ‘Society Must Be Defended’. And the course anticipates even later lecture courses – the grain regulation from Security, Territory, Population, for instance, and the discussion of political economy and population from The Birth of Biopolitics.  There is much more on the state (with some unspoken allusions to Althusser) than in Discipline and Punish; and some interesting comments on Lévi-Strauss.

The most interesting interlocutor, only briefly mentioned by Foucault but brought more to the fore in editor Bernard Harcourt’s exemplary notes and ‘Situation du cours’, is E.P. Thompson. The dialogue with Marxist historians about the repression of workers (and especially the use of their time) and peasants is very interesting and will need careful work – building on Harcourt’s initial labours – to really establish what is at stake here. But it provides an interesting answer to critics who asked what the purpose of the disciplinary society was; whose interests it served. Here there is a very clear answer – it is an element within class politics and the interests of capital. This is arguably Foucault’s most Marxist text.

There is a footnote in Discipline and Punish where Foucault says (I’m paraphrasing) his investigation is going to be in relation to France and that a comparative analysis would be too difficult. But here there is a lengthy discussion of England as a counterpoint to France. This perhaps makes sense of why Discipline and Punish – concentrating largely on French examples, also made use of English debates and theorists. There is also some interesting discussion of the relation between archaeology and genealogy here, among other theoretical asides.

The editorial work is excellent. The tapes for this course once existed, and a detailed typescript was made using them, which Foucault himself reviewed and corrected. But the tapes in the archive have 1974 lectures on them, instead of this course, and attempts to find other copies have been unsuccessful. Harcourt has therefore used the typescript as the basis for this course, with additions and variant readings from Foucault’s manuscript provided in the notes. He has filled in the references in some detail, and contributes a very useful ‘Situation du cours’ at the end of the volume.

Onto the second half

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8 Responses to Foucault’s La société punitive – some initial thoughts on the first half

  1. Pingback: Foucault’s La société punitive – some initial thoughts on the first half | Progressive Geographies | PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR

  2. Pingback: Foucault’s La société punitive – some additional thoughts on the second half | Progressive Geographies

  3. paulvernell says:

    Interesting about the link with Thompson. I have read D and P but did not realise there was some engagement with Marxist historians. Thank you.

  4. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

  5. Pingback: Foucault’s Last Decade – sixth update | Progressive Geographies

  6. Pingback: The twenty-five most important academic books to me from 2013 | Progressive Geographies

  7. Pingback: Foucault’s Lectures on the Punitive Society I | Progressive Geographies

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