Discipline and Publish
To the editor:
In fact, the notion of rehabilitation is exactly the point of Foucaults argument about power (rather than oppression), though he takes an ambivalent and frequently negative position on the matter. He argues that power revealed in such ways is neither good nor bad but merely dangerous, as one can see from the fashioning of good subjects, say, under neo-fascist or heavily militarized liberal regimes. Foucaults work in Discipline and Punish is less of an argument about prisons themselves and more about the nature of modern power itself as manifest through discrete apparatuses.
Mac Donalds peripheral jabs at the work of a man who is a strong candidate for the most important thinker of the twentieth century detract from her otherwise incisive analysis, which is, ironically, much more in line with Foucaults ideas than she has taken the time to understand.
For any reader of Discipline and Punish, the similarities seem greater than the differences, except for her unwarranted outpouring of sympathy for jail administrators and guards, a perspective that itself seems to go astray as she depicts the terrible conditions and violence to which mentally ill prisoners are subjected. Other than this bizarre authorial perspective, Mac Donald might well be branded a neo-Foucauldian herself for her approach to this subject matter. In the future, she should study her subjects of critique before launching pointless barbs.
To the editor:
None of these oversights bothers me as much as her unwillingness to interrogate the prison system apart from guard abuses. Maybe she should try to tackle questions such as: Why does the wealthiest nation in the world have the highest prison population? Or: How has the growth of prisons served to fill in the gap left by the decline in social programs such as welfare by hiring thousands of guards, wardens, psychologists, and specialists?
Heather Mac Donald replies:
Mr. Ranz implies that my observation about the two-way nature of surveillance and power in jails is also derivative of Foucault. Nowhere in Discipline and Punish is there any suggestion that incarcerated criminals retain power over their guards or one another; Foucault presents the hierarchy as strictly top-down. Mr. Ranz faults me for failing to quote Foucault. So heres some of what possibly the most important thinker of the twentieth century has to say on the one-way nature of penal power:
The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.
It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. . . . The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other sideto the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.
In an article that was intended to provide a concrete sense of jail life, I may perhaps be forgiven for not including more of the above.
As for interrogating the prison system, I have done so elsewhere (Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?, Spring 2008) and have found that data-driven policing and incarceration are the most reliable means for reducing crime that have yet been discovered. Crime was skyrocketing in the 1960s and 1970s, the same time that Mr. Ranzs social programs such as welfare were growing by leaps and bounds.
Would we be better off subjecting criminals to gruesome, cruel torture rather than incarceration? A reader of Discipline and Punish could certainly be forgiven for thinking that Foucault toyed with that notion, without ever taking responsibility for it. I see the evolution of Enlightenment liberal reform regarding punishment as a clear win for humanity, one that the jail administrators whom I wrote about continue to advance.