Discipline, Punish, Examine and Produce: Foucault’s La société punitive


Michel Foucault. Photograph by Randolph Badler. Via

by Stuart Elden

La société punitive: Cours au Collège de France 1972-1973,
by Michel Foucault,
edited by Bernard E. Harcourt,
Seuil/Gallimard: Paris,

Delivered between January and March 1973, La société punitive was Foucault’s third annual course at the Collège de France. It is the eleventh of his thirteen courses there to be published, in what have been uniformly excellent editions under the general editorship of François Ewald and the recently deceased Alessandro Fontana. This course has been edited by Bernard E. Harcourt, Julius Krieger Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Chicago. Harcourt previously co-edited Foucault’s lectures at the University of Louvain from 1981, Mal faire, dire vrai with Fabienne Brion; a course soon to be published as Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling.

The first several courses published were produced through the transcription of tape recordings made while Foucault lectured, and subsequently archived at the Collège and in the Foucault archive at the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC). Foucault’s partner and literary inheritor Daniel Defert made Foucault’s manuscript notes available to the editors, and they frequently made use of these in their notes and commentaries to highlight undelivered material or variant readings. But with the recently translated Lectures on the Will to Know, another solution had to be found. No known tapes of that course, Foucault’s first at the Collège, existed, and so Defert himself edited the course entirely on the basis of Foucault’s manuscript.  This course presented a somewhat different challenge. The tapes did once exist, and a detailed typescript was made using them, which Foucault himself reviewed and corrected. But the tapes in the archive have lectures from 1974 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 edition, with some quite extensive 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.

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; completed a draft of the book in April; and the final version in August 1974 before its publication in February 1975. Those looking for those early traces will find plenty of connections – the regicide Damiens appears here, there are discussions of Bentham, Beccaria and Colquhoun; and the theme of the prison is very important. However some crucial themes in Discipline and Punish are not highlighted here, and it is clear that Foucault elaborated many aspects that would form part of the book in subsequent lectures both at the Collège – the course from 1974 entitled Psychiatric Power – and elsewhere, notably the ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’ lectures given in Rio in May 1973. Notable among these absences is the striking image of the Panopticon – briefly mentioned here, but Foucault discusses other prison designs instead.

Yet the course is much more than a preliminary draft, providing analyses and material that was never published in Foucault’s lifetime, and with some markedly different emphases. It should be seen as situated within a political and intellectual context that Harcourt does much to illuminate. In terms of Foucault’s own political work, Harcourt notes that the Groupe d’information sur les prisons, which Foucault had co-founded in 1971, had dissolved immediately prior to this course (pp. 273-4). In a sense the course is a historical inquiry into an institution that Foucault had spent a lot of effort in trying to make intelligible in his own present. It has long been known that the Groupe is at least part of what is behind Foucault’s comment in Discipline and Punish that he is not interested in writing “a history of the past in the terms of the present”, but “the history of the present” (p. 31; French p. 40). Much the same intention is at stake here.

But Foucault was delivering these as lectures to an audience that would, at least in part, have followed his previous two courses – Lectures on the Will to Know and Théories et institutions pénales. Only the first of those is published to date, but Harcourt has consulted the manuscript of the second in order to prepare this one for publication. His notes make it clear that we should see this course in close relation to its predecessor, which looked at the “repressive dimension of penalty”, while this course looked at both the “productive dimension of penalty, but [also] at the more general question of the emergence of punitive power, which he called ‘disciplinary’” (p. 273). Indeed, we need to see the course here in close relation to both courses, especially when Foucault relates the analysis to the concept of ‘measure’ (treated in Lectures on the Will to Know), the ‘inquiry’ (a focus of Théories et institutions pénales), and the ‘examination’, which is introduced here (pp. 200-1). The examination would take on a significant role in Discipline and Punish and some of Foucault’s later courses. Here it is described as “the permanent control of individuals… like a permanent test [épreuve], without a final point. It is an inquiry, but before all offence, outside any crime. It is an inquiry of general and a priori suspicion of the individual. We can name as examination this uninterrupted, graduated, accumulated proof [épreuve], which permits a control and continuous pressure… The examination, making this perpetual partition, authorizes a gradual distribution of individuals up to the judicial limit” (p. 200). Now this appears close to how we are used to seeing Foucault’s analysis. But the following sentence links it to a political economy that is so often muted in his work: “Thus we can see born, at this precise point of the relation of the body of the labourer to the forces of production, a form of knowledge which is that of the examination” (p. 200).

This is one of the revelations of the course: Foucault’s very explicit use of Marxist categories and a relation of his ideas to a wider body of Marxist work. There is a lot of discussion of the relation of the body of the worker to the body of wealth they help to produce, and how the constitution of a labour force through the disciplinary society and techniques of normalization is crucial to the workings of capitalist production. Marxist theories of the accumulation of capital are, in Foucault’s reading, dependent on the production of docile bodies. Nonetheless, Foucault still distances himself from his Marxist contemporaries. There are a number of muted criticisms of Louis Althusser’s arguments about state apparatuses, and, as Harcourt elaborates from a single note in Foucault’s manuscript, a dialogue with the English historian E.P. Thompson. While Discipline and Punish had largely concentrated on France, Foucault spends much time in this course analysing the English condition, with examples of the Quakers and dissenters. There is much work to be done, building on Harcourt’s suggestions, in thinking the links and differences between Foucault, Thompson and others on these questions.

Foucault’s questions are, as ever, broader than just the range of historical examples he marshals in the course. At base there is what he would call a genealogical question, which he phrases here as “what are the relations of power which made possible the historical emergence of something like the prison” (p. 86). And yet, the course does not just point the way to Discipline and Punish, but sketches out themes that Foucault would develop in his later writings including History of Sexuality and subsequent lecture courses. There is some discussion of monomania as a criminal question; the dangerous individual; and sexuality and education. Particularly striking is the discussion of civil war, in a way that anticipates Foucault’s 1975-76 course ‘Society Must Be Defended’. Foucault’s civil war is not a Hobbesian war of all against all, but serving specific purposes. There is a very strong sense here of the logic behind discipline and incarceration, and of whose interests it serves. The supposed absence of this explanation would be one of the critiques Henri Lefebvre, among others, would level at Foucault’s work. It is interesting to see that Discipline and Punish – which does have some references to Marx, and makes use of some Marxist categories at times – offered only a partial view of what Foucault’s initial researches were pointing towards. We can profitably re-read Discipline and Punish in the light of the analyses provided here and perhaps should look at them again in the wake of ‘Society Must Be Defended’, seeing the advent of the disciplinary or punitive society as one of the strategies within a wider civil, or class, war. This is a condition he describes in the following way:

The pair survey-punish [surveiller-punir] is established as the indispensable power relation for the fixation of individuals within the apparatus of production, to the constitution of productive forces, and characterizes the society that we can call disciplinary… it is a society which links a connected activity of knowledge, of registration to the permanent activity of punishment … we live in a punitive and examining  society, disciplinary” (p. 201).

It is worth noting that the original title of the course under review was indeed La société disciplinaire, and that the French title of Discipline and Punish was Surveiller et punir. Discipline encompasses both the physical and the visual aspects. Yet situating it so explicitly within this economic analysis makes it an arguably even more political book.

The volume concludes with Foucault’s own course summary from 1973, and Harcourt’s commentary on the course. Harcourt’s comments are extremely insightful, but rereading the summary after the course is also surprisingly revealing. Foucault usually wrote these summaries in June, a few months after the course had concluded, and they were published in the Annuaire de Collège de France. He often emphasized aspects of the course that he retrospectively saw as important even if he underplayed them at the time, or neglected ones that had seemed previously seemed crucial (the summary of ‘Society Must be Defended’, for example, marginalises race). The summary for this course was written after he had given the Rio lectures on 21-25 May 1973, where he made use of material from his three courses at the Collège, along with additional material (some of which was drafted for this course, but not delivered). As noted above, Foucault finished the first draft of Discipline and Punish shortly after the end of this course, but would continue to revise it for almost another year and a half. Reading the course, the Rio lectures and the summary in sequence is interesting as he shows some sense of the movement in his thinking towards the book, with significant shifts in emphasis.

The chaotic order that the lectures have been published has meant it has been difficult, until recently, to get a sense of the overall contours of Foucault’s thirteen courses at the Collège. With this course published, only two remain unpublished in French – the previously mentioned Théories et institutions pénales (1971-72) and Subjectivité et vérité (1980-81). The English translations, after a delay getting started, have kept pace at an interval of between one and two years – On the Government of the Living (1979-80) is due out in 2014, after Lectures on the Will to Know appeared in 2013, and presumably the course under review here will appear in English in 2015. The ongoing legal status of Foucault’s manuscripts and notes remains unclear, and it is not certain how they will be archived and how, if at all, they will be published. There are undoubtedly fascinating texts still to see the light of day. But in these lectures, which constitute Foucault’s public outline of his work-in-progress, we have a privileged view of the development of his ideas. In addition, we have a whole series of indications of paths for future productive research.


About the Author:

Stuart Elden is a Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, and one of the editors of the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. He is the author of five books, including most recently, The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013). He is currently writing a book for Polity Press entitled Foucault’s Last Decade, and runs the Progressive Geographies blog, which has regular updates on the writing of that book.