Foucault and the Visual Reconstitution of Criminological Knowledge
Summary and Keywords
Criminology began as a speculative historical discourse about lawbreaking. Guided by the classical utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria, criminology in the late 18th century viewed crime as the result of a hedonistic calculus employed by rational individuals to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But by the middle of the 19th century, criminology had transformed into a positivist science of the determined causes of crime. New visual technologies of surveillance, classification, and measurement contributed significantly to this reconstitution of criminological knowledge. A genealogy of this transformation in criminological inquiry is found in Michel Foucault’s landmark study, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in which the French social philosopher pictures optical transformations in the nature of criminological inquiry as an early instance of modern, disciplinary modalities of power and knowledge. Beginning with an analysis of Bentham’s 1791 architectural drawings for a panoptic prison, Foucault links the visual turn in criminological thought to compulsive modern efforts to observe, map, categorize, code, and analytically penetrate the bodies, minds, and behavioral patterns of captured offenders. But visual objectification of this sort results in other things as well—a tragic displacement of the once subversive wisdom of medieval festival and the inscription of a sado-dispassionate “gaze” at the heart of the criminological enterprise itself. Together, these processes institute a seemingly fixed distinction between the subject and the object of the criminologist’s gaze. This distinction is amplified and transgressed in the early 21st century by a host of new, fascinating, and fearful visual cybernetic technologies of power. Following Foucault’s provocative genealogy of the optical foundations of early criminological science, recent digital technological advances in visual surveillance and the high-speed global transmission of visual images of crime today challenge criminology to be reflexive about the situated character of its own power-charged claims to knowledge.
The sciences of man . . ., which have so delighted our “humanity” for over a century, have their technical matrix in the petty, malicious minutiae of the disciplines and their investigations. These investigations are perhaps to . . . criminology what the terrible power of . . . the Inquisition . . . was to the calm knowledge of animal, plants, or the earth. Another power, another knowledge.
Foucault (1979, p. 226)
Before the late 18th century, criminology was a speculative political discourse about lawbreaking, rooted in utilitarian ideas about the rational calculation of pleasure and pain. This was exemplified by the classical criminological treatises produced by reform-minded Enlightenment thinkers, such as Cesare Beccaria (1775) and Jeremy Bentham (1789). By the middle of the 19th century, however, the character of criminological discourse had changed significantly. Criminology had become an empirical science aimed at explaining the behavior of individual lawbreakers. The transformation of criminology from speculative jurisprudence into a positive science of criminality is a focal point of Michel Foucault’s landmark study, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1979). Central to the French social philosopher’s genealogy of the modern penitentiary is a theory of visual surveillance and its impact, not only on incarcerated individuals and society at large, but also on the epistemological gaze of the modern “criminological sciences” (Foucault, 1979, p. 74).
Foucault’s theoretical reflections on the concomitant production of penal discipline and the discipline of criminology are grounded in an analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 architectural drawings for the Panopticon—an all-seeing prison that the utilitarian philosopher hoped to construct in Tothill Fields, England. In a series of letters exchanged with his brother, an architect residing in Russia, Bentham described his optical penitentiary as a round, glass-roofed “inspection house.” A towering “inspector’s lodge” located at the center was to be fitted “with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring.” This would permit guards to gaze upon inmates “shut up” in cells along the periphery (Foucault, 1979, p. 200). The cells themselves would have “two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows light to cross from the cell from one end to the other. By the effect of backlight, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive cells in the periphery” (Foucault, 1979, p. 200). Caged like laboratory animals, illuminated for observation 24 hours a day, inmates served time in monotonous routines of monitored labor and rigid discipline, knowing that they might be spied upon at any moment, but never knowing exactly when. “Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen front the front by a supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. . . . Visibility is a trap” (Foucault, 1979, p. 200).
According to Foucault (1979, p. 200), Bentham’s Panopticon “reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions—to enclose, to deprive of light, and to hide—it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two.” Despite its reliance on “full lighting and the eye of a supervisor,” the Panopticon would nevertheless keep those it confined “in the dark” (Staples, 2014, p. 32). Architecturally, this was due to “an elaborate Venetian-blind effect” produced by what Bentham called “the ‘inspector’s lantern’: a sort-of one-way mirror that masked the presence or absence of an observer. Bentham devised this part of the lodge because . . . the inspector would also function as the institution’s bookkeeper. Yet if he performed this task, his lamp would give away his presence to the inmates. Therefore, Bentham designed the lantern so that the only thing the inmates could see was a dark spot at the center of the aperture” (Staples, 2014, p. 32).
Bentham drafted specifications and obtained a permit to erect the Panopticon. But failing to secure state financing, he later abandoned plans to build his own model prison. His model of permanent visual surveillance nevertheless took on a life of its own, inspiring a host of new optical technologies of control and what Foucault (1979, pp. 216, 26) refers to as a new “political anatomy of the body.” Bentham’s ideas also resulted in something else—a “generalized mechanism” of knowledge that doubled as a disciplinary “microphysics of power.” Beginning with his genealogy of the disciplinary effects of panoptic prison architecture, this article explores what Foucault (1979, p. 18) imagined as the visual underpinnings of the “repetitive discourse of criminology” and their impact on the study of crime. It was not that most actual prisons faithfully implemented Bentham’s panoptic design. They did not.
Nor was Bentham’s Panopticon the first time that optics of spatial partitioning and omnipresent surveillance were deployed as a strategy of social control. Foucault posits efforts to combat the contagious character of the plague near the end of the 17th century as a blueprint for subsequent practices of visual classification and contagion. This was accomplished by means of “permanent registration” and the creation of “enclosed, segmented” spaces, “in which all events are recorded” (Foucault, 1979, p. 195). Equally important were violent visual controls associated with Black Atlantic slavery. In this sense, the “architectural design, registration, documentation, and examination at slave trafficking forts and ports, . . . and on slave ships during the Middle Passage . . . from Africa to the auction blocks and plantations of the New World” also prefigured Bentham’s plans for a model penitentiary (Browne, 2015, p. 42).
In amplifying these earlier paradigms of social control, Bentham’s all-seeing prison spurred the disciplinary development of both modern European forms of punishment and the science of criminology. Criminology may have been visually reconstituted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But the visual cultural foundations of criminological knowledge—as well as that which criminology keeps from sight—remain as important today as ever.
In reckoning with the visual turn in criminology theorized by Foucault, this article is divided into four interrelated sections. The first details Foucault’s provocative ideas about panoptic incarceration as the disciplinary birthplace of the human sciences. Indeed, within prison’s incarcerated “field of visibility,” innovative forms of observation, classification, and examination were produced that permitted the science of criminology to map, categorize, code, and “penetrate” the bodies, psychological dispositions, and behavioral patterns of captured inmates. In this, the modern penitentiary functioned as an optical “laboratory” of both power and knowledge, as due to its “mechanisms of observation . . . new objects of knowledge” were produced “over all the surfaces on which power is exercised” (1979, pp. 202, 204).
The second section of the article discusses how visual technologies accompanying modern criminological observation, measurement, and analysis contributed to the displacement of the subversive wisdom of medieval festival. With its sensory enchantments, ritual inversion of authority, and frenzied dance of “Unreason,” festival periodically turned the normative social world upside down, darkening the light of its reason. For participants caught up in its contagious effervescence, festival subverted the rule of law and granted temporary license to commit acts that were ordinarily considered criminal. This, according to Foucault (1979, p. 197), enabled an uncommon form of “truth to appear”—a transgressive truth that laughingly reminds its communicants that rituals of law enforcement are simultaneously rituals of sacrifice—ceremonial actions that sanctify certain forms of power and knowledge at the expense of others. This made the subversive wisdom of medieval carnival dangerous to those in positions of authority. But by the early 19th century, festival’s rebellious effervescence was under assault from many directions, and technologies of panoptic surveillance hastened its demise. The epistemological implications for criminology of the suppression of festival are examined in the second section of this article.
Michel Foucault was a fierce critic of the French criminal justice system and a founding member of Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (GIP), an activist organization that endeavored to provide inmates with a public forum to speak openly about what many viewed as the inhumane character of their confinement. The GIP issued a series of pamphlets documenting the brutal state of French prisons and lobbied with inmates’ families “to allow daily newspapers previously banned, to be circulated freely inside prisons; . . . convened committees of sympathetic professionals—doctors, lawyers, and social workers—in order to publicize the conditions insides specific prisons; and . . . organized rallies in support of prison hunger strikes as they occurred” (Miller, 1993, p. 189).
During the time of his involvement with the GIP, Foucault authored Discipline and Punish, a searing critique of the visual turn in modern criminological inquiry. Detailing the uses of panoptic surveillance in prison, other modern institutions of control, and the human sciences, his analysis of the disciplinary character of criminology is anything but flattering. With this in mind, the third section of this article explores a darker side of criminology’s enlightened “gaze”—the sado-dispassionate character of its relentless disciplinary objectification (1979, p. 154). This, according to Foucault, was an optical effect of modern scientific discipline—a fixed distinction between the observing subject and the object of criminology’s gaze.
The article concludes with a brief meditation on the implications of Foucault’s ideas about the visual turn in modern criminology for the study of crime in the early 21st century—an era marked by new global cybernetic technologies of power. This is a core feature of digital culture today: the deployment of an arresting array of visual technologies of surveillance, data collection, and coding. These are instrumental aspects of contemporary crime and crime control, but also criminology. The same is true of optical technologies of a more expressive sort—technologies that that communicate fascinating and fearful images of crime, criminals, and crime control to audiences worldwide. Criminology in the 21st century must reckon with both of these visual cultural realms—instrumental and expressive. As such, the article concludes by putting Foucault’s thinking about the visual reconstitution of criminological knowledge in conversation with challenges posed for criminology today by the cynical “sign-crimes” of ultramodern technologies of cybernetic power (Kroker & Cook, 1986).
The Birth of the Prison: A Panoptic Microphysics of Power
Prison is the only place where power is manifest in its naked state, and where it is justified as a moral force.
Foucault, in Miller (1993, pp. 189–190)
Discipline and Punish opens with a gruesome account of the 1757 public torture and execution of Damiens, an individual condemned to death for attempting to kill the king of France. Foucault paints a disturbing picture of this violent spectacle of sovereign state power. Commonly referred to as a “ritual of a thousand deaths,” this “meticulous” ceremony of “armed justice” was characterized by excessive violence, torture, and pain (Foucault, 1979, pp. 50, 47). This visually intense “penal liturgy” was said to induce feelings of “horror” in onlookers and dramatically showcased the death-wielding power of the king over his “enemies” who broke the law (Foucault, 1979, p. 47). The scaffold at the center of this violent ritual was surrounded by a “whole military machine” composed of the “cavalry of the watch, archers, guardsman, soldiers” (p. 50). The presence of this small army of enforcers was intended “prevent any outburst of sympathy or anger on the part of the people” assembled to witness the execution (p. 50).
To convey the dreadful character of this bloody spectacle, Foucault quotes at length from the following account provided by Bouton, an officer standing guard during Damiens’s execution:
The Sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, study fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so. . . .
After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horse were attached with cords to the patient’s body. . . .
Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, “Pardon, my God! Pardon, Lord” . . . Several confessors went to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him, he opened his lips and repeated: “Pardon, Lord.”
The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull toward the head, those at the thighs toward the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed at the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.
. . . After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and curt the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried the two thigh after them . . .; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horse pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.
When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking.
Foucault (1979, pp. 3–5)
As terrifying as this violent scene may appear today, by the second half of the 18th century, rather than inducing fear in those assembled to witness the murderous majesty of sovereign state power, spectacular public executions began to mutate into contagious rites of social unrest and popular revolt. “In their most elementary forms, these disturbances began with the shouts of encouragement, sometimes the cheering, that accompanied the condemned man to his execution. . . . This was especially the case if the conviction was regarded as unjust—or if one saw a man of the people put to death, for a crime that would have merited, for someone better born or richer, a comparatively light penalty. . . . In these executions, which ought to show only the terrorizing power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed into heroes” (Foucault, 1979, pp. 60, 61).
This “uncertain festival contained all the principal elements of the theater of horror: the physical confrontation between the executioner and the condemned man, the reversal of the duel, the executioner pursued by the people, the condemned man saved by the ensuing riot and the violent inversion of the penal machinery” (Foucault, 1979, pp. 63–64). Carnivalesque outbursts of this sort put the cruelties of royal power on full display, amplifying incipient forces of resistance and hastening the birth of the prison. Following a rise in these contagious disturbances, executions were soon removed from public view and sequestered behind the walls of the penitentiary. Inside the prison, a distinctly different mode of punishment emerged—one based on meticulous practices of discipline rather than ceremonies of excessive bodily pain.
Foucault illustrates this new “penal style” by contrasting the spectacular “art of unbearable sensations” on display in Damiens’s torture and execution with the “time-table” of regulated disciplinary activities found in Leon Faucher’s 1838 rules “for the House of young prisoners in Paris” (Foucault, 1979, pp. 6–7). Faucher’s handbook details exactly how inmates are expected to behave when drum rolls signal to them that it is time to rise, eat, work, pray, wash, read, exercise, attend school, be silent, or go to sleep. This highlights a new machinery of social control—a mutation of the vengeful logic of sovereign penology into new disciplinary apparatuses of power. It involves a new art of distributing individuals in space and time: a partitioning of inmates into cellular spaces based on measured rank, hierarchy, and an endless series of examinations, and a temporal serial division of a prisoner’s every act, gesture, and body-object articulation. The goal here is to exhaust inmates through useful activity and counter idleness by a productive routine (Foucault, 1979, pp. 141–156).
Most histories of Western jurisprudence interpret the replacement of torturous spectacles of state violence with rites of penal discipline as something humane—a progressive departure from barbaric religious rites that targeted the sinful flesh of criminals. Brutal practices of torture and execution, it is said, may have belonged to the Dark Ages of religiously inspired punishment, but they have no place in Enlightened penal practice. Modern punishment was instead to be guided by reason and operate in keeping with a diverse array of sanctions, each broadcasting the same rational message—crime does not pay. This is what separates modern European punishment (and the criminology that justifies it) from the so-called savage penology of bygone years. Medieval society viewed punishment as a religiously ordained tool for cleansing a sinner’s body of evil. By the late 18th century, however, a conjuncture of historical forces prompted penal sanctions to be seen in an entirely different manner—not as rites of supernatural retribution, but as punitive sanctions administered in strictly secular and rational terms. The conjuncture of forces that contributed to this mutation in the meaning and practice of punishment includes the influence of scholastic theology, which sanctified the realm of the reason; Enlightenment philosophy, with its speculative emphasis on natural law; the Protestant Reformation, with its individualistic spiritual ethic; and the profit-driven restrictive imperatives of the modern patriarchal and capitalist/colonial world system. Together, these forces gave birth to a collective imagination of punishment that resonated closely with some of the most influential vectors of early modern social power.
The rational hedonism posited by classical criminology in the late 18th century is nowhere more evident than in Bentham’s hedonistic psychology of calculated pleasure and pain. Bentham pictured criminals as rational actors, each seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In order to combat crime, argued Bentham and his Italian counterpart, the legal theorist Cesare Beccaria, penal sanctions must be rationally calibrated such that the anticipated benefits of lawbreaking will be outweighed by the proportionately greater costs of punishment. For lesser offenses, mandated fines and the forfeiture of property were thought to be most effective. For more serious acts of crime, however, imprisonment was the method of choice. By removing convicted offenders from society and subjecting them to technologies of perpetual inspection, it was believed that prospective lawbreakers would calculate that the pain of punishment exceed the likely pleasure of crime. With this in mind, rational actors were imagined as aligning their future actions so as to better conform to the law. Signaling a general message of deterrence to everyone who witnessed the punishment of others, classical penology was also believed to stem future lawbreaking on the part of the public at large.
From Classical Rational to Positivist Determinist Disciplinary Approaches to Crime
Perhaps . . . we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist only where power relations are suspended. . . . We should admit rather that power produces knowledge . . .; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.
Foucault (1979, p. 27)
By the middle of the 19th century, another major shift in penal philosophy was under way. No longer were crime and punishment regarded as strictly rational matters. Crime was instead viewed as the determined effect of an offender’s physical or psychological condition and circumstance; and punishment was reimagined as the administration of treatment or rehabilitation. Two historical factors spurred these changes. Each was occasioned by the visual turn in criminological thinking sparked by the panoptic ideals of the inspection house penitentiary. The first factor involved something not anticipated by Bentham’s classical criminological viewpoint—the fact that within a few short decades, society would come to rely on prison as a nearly exclusive or primary response to crime. This meant that varying forms of lawbreaking were met with basically the same punitive response—the only thing that differed was the amount of time that a convicted offender would be sentenced to spend behind bars. The second factor was more far-reaching—the transmittal of disciplinary practices of power that began in prison to a wide range of other modern institutions of social control, which lay beyond the penitentiary’s walls.
Although classical criminological theory had envisioned imprisonment “as one among other penalties,” as Foucault (1979, pp. 116–117) remarks, “within a short . . . time, detention became the essential form of punishment. . . . The theatre of punishment of which the eighteenth century dreamed and which would have acted essentially [as a rational deterrent] on the minds of the general public was replaced by the great uniform machinery of prisons. . . . The diversity, so solemnly promised, is reduced in the end to this grey, uniform penalty.”
What prompted this shift from a diverse range of classical rational utilitarian sanctions to the gray, punitive uniformity and secluded mechanics of incarceration? Foucault (2006b, p. 46) suggests an intriguing possibility—that the “total hold” or “exhaustive” visual “capture of the individual’s body, actions, time, and behavior” provided by prison resonated so well with the individualizing imperatives of the emergent capitalist marketplace that incarceration soon usurped all other forms of punishment.
The disciplinary technologies of surveillance deployed in prison and juvenile reformatories were, with few exceptions, the same as those used to regulate the lives of debtors confined to poorhouses, children at school, patients in hospitals, and workers in factories. Together, these modern institutions of control were bound by a common social architecture—one that separated the examining eye of an inspector from the “objectified” body of the person who is gazed upon and exhaustively captured by the inspector’s eye. According to Foucault, the “total hold” or “exhaustive capture” promised by such institutions resonated with the structural demands of an emerging capitalist economy. This was because “life in the penitentiary, reformatory, and poorhouses” and in schools, hospitals, and factories “was conceived as an idealized version of a utopian, bourgeois society; a machinelike, disciplined culture, set on obedience, order, and uniformity and bent on ‘normalizing’ classified instances of aberrant behavior. The shaping, molding, and construction of ‘docile bodies’ would be accomplished through the use of various ‘disciplinary technologies.’ These technologies ranged from the ‘lockstep’ to ritualistic examinations with their ‘hierarchical observations’ designed to instill the gaze of authorities and produce self-control and ‘normalizing judgments’ that set the behavioral standards to be upheld” (Staples, 2014, p. 34).
Foucault comments positively about Punishment and Social Structure (Rusche & Kirchheimer, 1939), describing this early product of a Marxist criminological imagination as a “great work” that analyzes connections between changing rates of incarceration and changes in the labor market (Foucault, 1979, pp. 24–25). This is not to suggest that imprisonment is merely an offshoot of capitalism. Equally important for Foucault is the influence of modern disciplinary technologies of power. This means that capitalism denotes something more than the privatized accumulation of profit. Capitalism also depends on “a general deployment of disciplinary apparatuses” that result in “the accumulation of men. That is to say, . . . a distribution of the labor force with all its somatic singularities,” which, by means of “a subtle, calculated technology of subjection,” aims to make the work, as well as work time, of individuals and organized multiplicities of individuals at once “usable” and “productive” (Foucault, 2006b, pp. 72, 73; Foucault, 1979, pp. 220–221).
This underscores the importance of the second major factor, which Foucault posits as force in the transformation in modern criminological thought—“a whole disciplinary technology that produced the [subjected] individual” as a determined object of scientific inquiry (Foucault, 2006b, p. 57). This is “what gave birth to the sciences of man”—disciplinary “techniques for the distribution of bodies, individuals, time, and forces of work.” And nowhere was this “remarkable . . . microphysics of disciplinary power” more evident than in Bentham’s model of the panoptic prison (Foucault, 2006a, p. 73).
As a total institution, prison does not just remove individuals from society; by means of perpetual observation and a step-by-step program of “normalization,” it strives to colonize an inmate’s psychic disposition or soul. This was the decidedly idealized or utopian vision of prison advanced by its ardent proponents and defenders (Rothman, 1971). Spurred by visual technologies of perpetual observation, the prison would enable the state to strategically isolate, administratively classify, and compulsively work to convert determined lawbreakers into disciplined marketplace actors. When most effective, its disciplinary apparatuses would help produce individuals who conform, not merely to the precepts of law, but to the profit-driven imperatives of capitalism as a guide to social life. In practice, however, the penitentiary quickly became something else—a brutal and sadistic institution, the functions of which included managing a suffering surplus labor population and punishing the racialized poor (Gilmore, 2007; Wacquant, 2009).
While initially designed to deter calculated acts of crime, optical technologies embedded in prison architecture and ritual soon also fostered a very different view of criminality. Under the perpetual eye of surveillance, inmates were now seen less as rational actors than objectified subjects—“abnormal” individuals whose behavior was shaped by forces beyond their control. In addition to spurring penal initiatives aimed at treatment or rehabilitation, new visual technologies of disciplinary power altered how criminology conceived of its object of inquiry and methods of inquiry. This, as Foucault (1979, pp. 101, 99) suggests, is because linear visual technologies of one-way inspection and “objectification” deflect attention from the agonistic material complexities of history, redirecting criminology’s disciplinary focus to an inmate’s “nature, to his way of life and attitude of mind, to his past, to the ‘quality’ and not the intention of his will.”
Spurred by panoptic technologies of discipline, over several decades the punitive ideals of deterrence mutated into something else entirely—criminal justice strategies aimed at rehabilitating the “abnormal” minds and behaviors of inmates. Like the classical reforms that preceded it, this shift in criminological theory and practice from a calculative economy of “punitive signs” to a new “descriptive anthropology” of “criminality” was widely celebrated as a humane social development (Foucault, 1979, pp. 94, 100). But for Foucault, the effects were again decidedly less sanguine. Contrary to popular wisdom, he argued that, while seemingly less harsh, the “widespread panopticism” accompanying modern penology’s “formally equalitarian judicial framework . . . masked . . . a dark side”—the ascendance of “normalizing” technologies of power and knowledge that targeted, not merely an inmates flesh, but his or her psyche or “soul” (Foucault, 1979, pp. 223, 222, 23).
This signals the advent of far-reaching “normalizing” technologies of social control—disciplinary rituals of power that work to serially record, classify, and examine virtually all aspects of someone’s mind, body, and behavior. The discipline of scientific criminology was shaped by these developments. In this sense, panoptic surveillance represents much more than an idealized model for prison architecture. It also signals the emergence of a swarm of disciplinary mechanisms that pass through the walls of the penitentiary into the fibers of society as whole. As Foucault (2006b, p. 74) suggests, panopticism operates as a “multiplier” or “intensifier” of power—a disciplinary “schema” enabling “normalizing” modern institutions,” including the “hospital, . . . school, factory, orphanage” and prison to “gain maximum force” over those they gaze upon.
Visual Technologies of Observation, Recording, and Normalization
The breadth of the experiment seems to be identified with the domain of the careful gaze, and of an empirical vigilance receptive only to the evidence of visible contents. The eye becomes the depository and source of clarity; it is the power to bring a truth to light that it receives only to the extent that it has been brought to light; as it opens, the eye opens first to truth: a flexion that marks the transition from the world of classical clarity—from the ‘enlightenment’—to the nineteenth century.
Foucault (1973, p. xiii)
Foucault posits intimate structural connections between optical technologies of surveillance and the disciplinary practices of normalization that are central to modern forms of power and knowledge, including criminological knowledge. By ritually subjecting those they gaze upon, classify, examine, and rank to the “normalizing judgement” of disciplinary apparatuses, optical technologies of surveillance produce the impression that humans are solitary individuals, each occupying a place along a continuum of judgments separating what is “normal” from “that which does not measure up to the rule” (Foucault, 1979, p. 178). In this sense, “although disciplinary power is individualizing, by way of normalizing judgment, individual actions are referred ‘to a whole that is at once a field of comparison, a space of differentiation, and the principle of a rule to be followed’” (Browne, 2015, p. 41; Foucault, 1979, p. 182).
This idea of a normal (and abnormal) individual subject is very different from the premodern imagination of the subject as a reflection of the grandeur of a sovereign ruler. Indeed, during the European Middle Ages, individualization resided only at the top, in the figure of a reigning king or queen. Everyone else was imagined as subservient to the majesty of a divinely ordained ruler, and it is the sovereign alone who holds the power over the life or death of one’s subjects. Sovereign power was dominant in medieval Europe and a constitutive feature of its feudal economy. Under feudalism, peasants or serfs were required to deliver a portion of what they produced to a sovereign ruler in exchange for the ruler’s promise of protection. In this context, transgressions of the law were viewed as crimes against the sovereign and were dealt with by torturous investigative procedures and spectacular rites of pain. As such, under conditions of sovereign governance, “authoritarian . . . judicial investigation” and the “power to punish” each found an “operating model” in the violent religious techniques of the Inquisition (Foucault, 1979, pp. 225–226).
With the concomitant rise of capitalism, colonial conquest, and the Atlantic slave trade, this form of power began to wane precipitously. This is not to suggest that Foucault routinely depicted the disciplinary character of modern power in intersectional terms. He did not. While he discussed enslavement and colonial violence as forces shaping modernity in various lectures and interviews (Foucault, 2006a, 2015), in Discipline and Punish itself, one encounters a “puzzling silence on the imperialist power to punish” (Agozino, 2003, p. 36). As such, to grasp the interlocking character of racialized capitalism and gendered ideology on modern practices of punishment in a more complex way, one needs to move beyond Foucault’s analysis (Haley, 2016; Bartky, 1988). Nevertheless, in keeping with Foucault’s genealogy of historical transformations in the power to punish within Europe, sovereign forms of command were being replaced everywhere by new disciplinary apparatuses of control by the early 18th century.
This signaled a fundamental transformation in the dynamics of power, as collective allegiance to exterior forms of truth was replaced by an adherence to the truth of one’s supposedly individuated self. Ideas about crime also changed. No longer was lawbreaking imagined as a contest between a sovereign and one’s feudal subjects. It was instead pictured as a violation of a general social contract in which each individual citizen was believed to have an equal stake (Foucault, 1979, p. 90). Together, these transformations were quickened by modern disciplinary apparatuses (dispositifs) of optical surveillance and inspection: technologies that beckoned individuals to take society’s ever-watchful eye inside themselves and to watch themselves, just as they themselves were watched by a panoptic swarm of unseen inspectors.
Disciplinary technologies rose to prominence in the global Northwest during the first half of the 19th century, short-circuiting the existing networks of sovereign power from whence they arose. Aspects of such technologies had existed previously but largely were confined to marginal social enclaves. Foucault cites innovative forces associated with Cistercian monastic reform as an example. Disciplinary forms of power were also on display on “the eve of the Reformation” in “relatively equalitarian communal groups which were not governed by the apparatus of sovereignty” (Foucault, 2006a, pp. 64, 65). But for the most part, prior to the 17th and 18th centuries, “disciplinary apparatuses existed like islands in the general plasma of relations of sovereignty” (Foucault, 2006a, p. 66). “Throughout the Middle Ages, in the sixteenth century, and still in the eighteenth century,” remarks Foucault (2006a, p. 66), “disciplinary systems remained marginal, whatever the uses to which they may have been put or the general effects they may have entailed. They remained on the side, but nevertheless it was through them that a series of innovations were sketched out which will gradually spread over the whole society.”
The challenge to sovereignty posed by disciplinary power escalated during the late Middle Ages as “the meticulousness of the regulations, the fussiness of the inspections, [and] the supervision of the smallest fragments of life and the body” began to exercise “a sort of general parasitic interference” in several realms (Foucault, 1979, p. 140; Foucault, 2006a, p. 66). Foucault pays particular attention to the “parasitic invasion” of pedagogical institutions by disciplinary rituals targeting “young students who, until the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, had maintained their autonomy, their rules of movements and vagabondage, their unruliness, and also their links with popular unrest” (Foucault, 2006b, p. 66). Under regimes of disciplinary power, students would no longer be educated in such unregulated ways. Pedagogy was instead turned into “a learning machine, but also a machine for supervising, hierarchicalizing, [and] rewarding” (Foucault, 1979, p. 147). In this, disciplinary control practices honed in the prison extended their reach into the schoolhouse, as each student is assigned both a desk and a rank that can visibly “read off the position of his desk in the serially ordered and segmented space of the classroom” (Bartky, 1988, p. 62).
Foucault singles out two mid-18th-century educational innovations as particularly important: the meticulous regulation of childhood pedagogy instituted by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle and his Brothers of the Christian Schools, and the serial structure of ranked examinations introduced by Jesuit colleges. Concerning the first, Foucault (1979, p. 147) writes, “Jean-Baptiste dreamt of a classroom in which spatial distribution might provide a whole series of distinctions at once: according to the pupils’ progress, worth, character, cleanliness and parents’ fortune. Thus, the classroom would form a single great table, with many different entries, under the scrupulously ‘classificatory’ eye of the master.” The Jesuit system of classificatory examinations, in which “individuals replace one another in a space marked off by aligned intervals” served a related purpose—the ritual production of ranked individuality by disciplinary technologies of various kinds, many of which were architectural, such as placing students who tested similarly within the same spatial confines, and all of which served to normalize categorically measured codes of hierarchy, against which each individual was forced to assess one’s own attributes and self (1979, p. 147). Celebrated as a means of bringing order to an unruly and chaotic mass, related strategies of modern discipline were brought to bear on the factory and workplace. There, as Max Weber observes, in language resembling that of Foucault, “The individual is shorn of his natural rhythms . . . his psycho-physical apparatus is attuned to a new rhythm through a methodological specialization of separately functioning muscles, and an optimal economy of forces is established corresponding to the conditions of work” (Weber, 1958, p. 262).
In the early years of modernity, disciplinary power was also manifest in new modes of military training. Here, as in the factory, “calculated constraint” was applied to “each part of the body,” resulting in an “automatism of habit” and the transformation of peasants into “useful” soldiers (Foucault, 1979, p. 135). Disciplinary processes were likewise in evidence in the violent European colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Here again, visual practices of “supervision” and “classification” functioned as “an absolutely permanent system of punishment” that forever kept an eye on the “actions or attitudes” of colonized subjects for the smallest sign of “a bad tendency or inclination” (Foucault, 2006b, p. 69). The “internal colonization” of Europe and the “confinement” of its “vagrants, beggars, nomads, delinquents, [and] prostitutes” are likewise discussed by Foucault as early modern examples “of disciplinary systems” (2006b, p. 71). Together, these practices contain all the basic elements of discipline—a fixing of individuals in ranked spaces and time and “the exploitation of the body’s forces through the regulation of actions, postures and attention,” ceaseless visual surveillance, and anonymous coding (Foucault, 2006b, p. 71). It is this “whole corpus” of disciplinary “methods and knowledge,” contends Foucault, that gives birth to not merely the prisoner, student, or worker, but “the man of modern humanism” and “human science,” as well as what haunts, if unconsciously, this man’s contested historical legacy (Foucault, 1979, p. 140; Gordon, 1997).
From the Panoptic Gaze of the “Inspector’s Lodge” to the Gaze of Criminology
The day was to come, in the nineteenth century, when this “man,” discovered in the criminal, would become the target of penal intervention, the object that it claimed to correct and transform, the domain of a whole series of “criminological” sciences.
Foucault (1979, p. 74)
When effectively implemented, whether in the prison, hospital, school, or military barracks, normalizing technologies of surveillance were thought to produce docile citizens—individuals who took the disciplinary gaze of power inside themselves. Discipline, declares Foucault (1979, p. 200), makes normal individuals: “Each . . . in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor . . . He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication.” This, according to Foucault (1979, pp. 201, 202–203), is a “major effect” of panopticism: “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power . . . . [Here] the perfection of this power should render its actual exercise unnecessary. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is [being observed] at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so . . . . 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.”
Here, Foucault closely follows Bentham’s own writings on panopticism, underscoring the “Herculean strength” with which the observing subject gazes upon the object laid bare before one’s eyes (Foucault, 2006b, p. 74). “This concept of seeing without being seen and of imaging oneself being seen when in fact no human subject is looking is what Bentham had in mind when he described this as a plan for gaining power of mind over mind. Because prisoners would come to imagine themselves being seen by the guard, there was no need for an actual guard to keep the community of prisoners under control. What mattered was the imagined spectator fixed in the mind of each inmate. Unlike the dungeon, which removed prisoners from sight yet afforded some protection from scrutiny, the panopticon subjected prisoners to a relentless gaze” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p. 107). This radical division between the gaze of an unseen inspector and the inmate who is objectified by the inspector’s criminological gaze is a core aspect of Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary modalities of power and knowledge. This is also how scholars of visual culture depict the effects of the linear visual perspective that took hold in Northwestern society during the Renaissance.
Linear perspective separates modern European ways of seeing from those that were dominant in medieval times. Before the invention of linear perspective, people were sensuously immersed as participants in natural history and the nature in which they were enveloped felt alive. In this context, visual representations of the world conveyed a “sense of clutter and confusion” that is difficult to appreciate today. This is because, since the mid-15th century, most Europeans have “learned to see” themselves and the world differently (Romanyshyn, 1989, p. 33). Previously, when beholding a visual icon or image, one was likely to experience “what it felt like to walk about . . . in the midst of things, . . . experiencing structures, almost tactilely, from many different sides, rather than from a single overall vantage. . . . If we find it confusing, then it is because with the advent of linear perspective we have managed to spatialize time, to distance ourselves from the body, and to distance ourselves from the body, and to remove ourselves from the midst of things” (Romanyshyn, 1989, p. 35).
Like the disciplinary technologies of power described by Foucault, linear visual perspective produces a “geometrization of the space of the world, and within that space we become observers of a world which has become an object of observation. Linear perspective is a celebration of the eye at a distance, a created convention which not only extends and elaborates the natural power of vision to survey things from afar, but also elevates that power into a method, a way of knowing, which has defined for us the world with which we are so readily familiar. It is the transformation of the eye into a technology and a redefinition of the world to suit the eye, a world of maps and charts, blueprints and diagrams, the world in which we are silent readers of the printed word and users of the camera. . . . Linear perspective places a window between ourselves and the world and establishes the hegemony of the eye as the world’s measure (Romanyshyn, 1989, pp. 33, 176). This is an aspect of “panoptic modernity” (Mirzoeff, 2009, pp. 94–112). It turns the self into an emotionally detached spectator “and transforms the body onto a specimen, an object of vision and observation” (Romanyshyn, 1989, p. 176).
Empty of meaning and emotional resonance, and divided into a series of interchangeable parts, the world gazed upon by the conventions of linear perspective resembles the objectified world of the inmate, patient, student, soldier, or orphan spied upon by the panoptic technologies of disciplinary power. Each is part of the same modern assemblage of power and knowledge. The same is true of the discipline of criminology, which is subject to these same processes.
With this in mind, it is important to ask what it means for criminology to be embedded in such panoptic epistemological networks. Does that mean that criminologists, like other modern subjects, have become so thoroughly schooled in the lessons of linear visual perspective that this way of seeing seems entirely natural? Does it mean that, like distanced spectators, criminologists are sentenced to see lawbreakers through well-guarded analytic windows rather than as participants in a complex social world marked by struggle and conflict? Does it mean that criminologists are destined to view those that they study as spectacles or specimens rather than as fellow citizens in the contested making and remaking of history?
These are among the difficult questions posed for criminology by the critical scholarship of Foucault. While these questions are matters for ongoing debate, one thing is clear—by embracing linear optical technologies of observation, classification, measurement, and normalizing judgment, modern criminology reinforces and amplifies the historical undoing of the once-subversive wisdom of medieval festival or carnival.
Panoptic Criminology and the Displacement of Festival
Against . . . a whole literary fiction of the festival [which] grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of time passing, bodies mingling together without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoning their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized, . . . discipline brings into play its power which is one of analysis.
Foucault (1979, p. 197)
The panoptic gaze of criminology makes it appear as if the criminologist is located outside of social history, looking down. This makes criminology a spectator science: a science that analyzes lawbreaking from a distant, “extra-local” vantage point (Smith, 1990). As such, criminology, like the penitentiary in which its disciplinary skills were honed, intensifies the historical displacement of the parodic epistemology of medieval European festival, a popular and subversive form of wisdom that was once an immanent aspect of premodern social life. Although Foucault was not himself a formal scholar of festival, the author of Discipline and Punish and History of Madness makes numerous references to carnival’s disciplinary demise when depicting the origins of the modern prison, medical clinic, and mental asylum. Indeed, when discussing contagious spectacles of resistance on the part of early modern witnesses to the “infamy” of public executions, Foucault (1979, p. 60) likens the “agitation and excess” of the assembled “crowd” to practices of “carnival” or “momentary saturnalia.” In addition, while writing his genealogy of the prison, Foucault also penned “Preface to Transgression,” an influential 1963 essay celebrating the writings of Georges Bataille, a sociological theorist of festival (Foucault, 1977, pp. 29–52). Bataille viewed the suppression of collective rites of excess as a fateful turning point in Western history. Before modernity, he argued, people had long found “relief in festival” and the “transgressive” wisdom it offered in periodically turning “the social order . . . upside down” (Bataille, 1988, p. 24; Bataille, 1986, p. 112).
Until the 16th and 17th centuries, transgressive rites of festival periodically mocked social hierarchy and timeless assertions of law and order. Indeed, festival (or carnival) had for centuries signified a “time between times,” during which taken-for-granted forms of hierarchy (and the common sense that justified them) were playfully overturned (Duerr, 1985). During festival, the kingdom of everyday “Reason” was dethroned and replaced by a spiraling dance of “Unreason.” This ritual dance between “Reason” and “Unreason” was a core feature of medieval social life as “for a long time the two threads were intertwined” and in “constant exchange” (Foucault, 2006a, p. 25). Indeed, for those enchanted by carnival’s uncanny wisdom, the “opposition” between “Reason” and “Unreason” was neither “clear cut” nor “immediately discernable,” and the world as a whole assumed a “familiar strangeness” (2009, p. 25). Enmeshed in festival’s ecstatic dance, celebrants accessed dreamy, dark, and cavernous pathways of communication that were ordinarily taboo—sensuous waves of effervescent contact that transgressed and for a time supplanted the restrictive economic logic of daily life. From this spiraling vantage point, “Reason” assumed a tragic edge, as festival enabled its ecstatic participants to recognize that no social limit—no matter how well intentioned, principled, or noble—was untainted by the sacrifice of what it excluded.
Festival typically involved excessive expressions of transgressive laughter, parody, noise, dirt, useless expenditure, and polymorphous erotic effervescence. In turning the normative order inside out and twisting its categorical imperatives, festival released those that it enchanted from the normative binds of power and knowledge. By transgressing common cultural distinctions between what is corporeal and spiritual, personal and social, natural and cultural, human and animal, festival also energized heartfelt connections between humans and the complexities of nature as a whole. In this sense, the “devouring, lascivious, laughing body” of festival was an iconic body—a body adorned with “open orifices which facilitated a merging with other people and . . . the wider environment” (Mellor & Shilling, 1997, p. 41). This was a grotesque body, a body that laughed fearlessly at authority, anxiety, and death. Indeed, during carnival, everything “that was terrifying becomes grotesque” and one of “the indispensable [iconic] accessories of carnival was the set called ‘hell,’ a cornucopia; the monster, death becomes pregnant. Various deformities, such as protruding bellies, enormous noses, or humps are all symptoms of pregnancy or provocative power. Victory over fear is not its abstract elimination; it is simultaneous an uncrowning and renewal, a gay transformation. Hell is burst and has poured forth abundance. . . . [so that] there can be nothing frightening on earth, just as there can be nothing frightening in a mother’s body, with nipples that are made to suckle, with genital organ and warm blood. . . . All unearthly objects were transformed into earth, the mother . . . swallows up in order to give birth to something larger that has been improved. . . . The earthly element of terror is the womb, the bodily grave, but it flowers with delight and a new life” (Bakhtin, 1984, pp. 88, 89, 90).
Foucault (1977, p. 33) theorizes festive or ecstatic social rites as surpassing “all words” and the language of reason. This involves a ritualized “play of limits and transgression” that, like a “flash of lightning in the night, . . . incessantly [crosses] . . . a line which closes up behind it in a wave of extremely short duration” (Foucault, 1977, pp. 33–34). This is the source of festival’s “laughing” wisdom—intimate participatory knowledge of a “world exposed by the experience of its limits,” a world “made and unmade by that excess which transgresses it” (Foucault, 1977, p. 32). “Transgression,” writes Foucault (1977, p. 37), opens into a scintillating . . . world without shadow or twilight, without that serpentine ‘no’ that bites into fruits and lodges . . . contradictions at their core.” Festive transgression of this sort “was originally linked to the divine,” not because it signifies “the promised return to a homeland or the recovery of an original soil,” but because it speaks “from the depths where . . . language fails” and “forces the limit . . . to find itself in what it excludes” (Foucault, 1977, p. 34).
When the limit cycles back upon itself in this deconstructive manner, what is limited suddenly “opens violently” into the realm of what is “limitless” (Foucault, 1977, p. 37, 41). This results in an ecstatic “experience of the impossible,” as the limit itself is “carried away” by an “alien plenitude” which “invades it to the core of its being” (Foucault, 1977, p. 34). A “cause for laughter,” transgressive inversion of this sort is also a source of festival’s uncommon wisdom—an immanent liberation of “life from . . . experience that limits it” which provides a momentary glimpse into how “the limit and transgression” each depend on the other “for whatever density they possess” (Foucault, 1977, p. 34). Foucault (1979, p. 197) argues that, by symbolically wedding the limit to what transgresses it, the festival enables “a quite different form of truth to appear”—a transgressive truth that reminds its communicants that rituals of law enforcement are simultaneously rituals of sacrifice, ceremonial actions that glorify normative forms of behavior at the expense of those that they expel.
With its sensory enchantments, ritual inversion of authority, and frenzied dance of “Unreason,” festival periodically subverted the rule of law and granted license to commit acts that were considered criminal in ordinary times. But it did something else as well. As Foucault observes, by playfully darkening the light of reason, festival enabled an uncommon form of “truth to appear”—a transgressive form of wisdom that laughingly reminds us that rituals of law enforcement are simultaneously rituals of sacrifice, ceremonial actions that sanctify certain forms of power and knowledge at the expense of others (1979, p. 197). Foucault (2006a, p. xxix) associates festival with what he calls “limit-experience”—a “confrontation” with haunting matters that reside “below the language of reason.” “Where might this interrogation lead,” he asks, “following not reason in its horizontal becoming, but seeking to retrace in time this constant verticality, which . . . confronts . . . the length of Western culture. . . . Towards what region might it take us, . . . which was commanded neither by the teleology of the truth nor the rational concatenation of causes, which only have value or meaning beyond the division? A region, no doubt, where it would be a question more of limits than of the identity of a culture” (Foucault, 2006a, p. xxix).
“To interrogate a culture about its limit-experiences,” suggests Foucault (2006a, p. xxix), is to raise questions “about a tear” at its historical core, a fundamental epistemological division “at the doors of time,” the recognition of which confronts “the temporal continuity” of any “history of knowledge” with “the revelation” that history itself involves a “tragic structure.” The challenges posed by “limit-experience” gave festival its uncommon and subversive wisdom. It also made carnival dangerous to those in positions of authority.
The same may be said of Foucault’s scholarship. As James Miller demonstrates in his biography of the French philosopher, the pursuit of “limit-experience” was an animating “passion” in Foucault’s life and work (Miller, 1993, p. 29). What is philosophy, asks Foucault, “if not the critical labor of thought upon itself? And . . . in place of legitimating what one already knows, . . . does it not consist in undertaking to know how, and up to what limit, it would be possible to think differently?” (Foucault, in Miller, 1993, p. 36).
Until the early modern era, rites of festival periodically mocked taken-for-granted social hierarchy. But by the early 19th century, the “ecstatic wisdom” of carnival was under siege on many fronts and targeted for control by organized religion, the state, and industrial capital (Ehrenreich, 2006, p. 92). “In different areas . . . the pace varied, depending upon religious, class, and economic factors. But everywhere a fundamental ritual order of western culture came under attack—its feasting, violence, drinking, processions, fairs, wakes, rowdy spectacles, and outrageous clamor were subject to surveillance and repressive control” (White, 1989, p. 160).
Until the second half of the 19th century, the Dionysian spirit of carnival continued under the guise of religious and secular holidays, but soon even these milder forms of festival were abolished. The St. Bartholomew’s Fair in London and the Great Donnybrook Fair of Dublin were each outlawed in 1855, and following the British Fairs Act of 1871, another 700 British fairs, feasts, and wakes were eliminated. By the 1880s, the wildly effusive Paris Carnival had been transformed into a regimented display of commercial enterprise, and throughout Germany, remnants of medieval feasts were transformed into military pageants. In this context, the impact of festival’s suppression on both popular and scientific understandings of crime should not be underestimated, and new technologies of panoptic surveillance hastened carnival’s demise as a periodic pathway into limit-experience.
For Foucault, the suppression of carnival was symptomatic of a modern war against the dialogical dance between “Reason” and “Unreason” that had long been a feature of Western social life (Foucault, 2006a, pp. 93–107). Visual technologies of surveillance and the disciplinary practices of power and knowledge that they induced were part of this attack. This is because modern linear visual technologies of control harden the distinction between seeing and being seen and, as such, restrict festival’s ability to playfully upend the privilege that an observer exercises over the object of one’s sight. This is no innocent matter. Positivist criminology does something similar. Under its watchful eye, the subversive epistemology of carnival is pushed to the margins of scholarly inquiry and transformed into a haunting object of disciplinary analysis. What had once been a ritual pathway into limit-experience and ecstatic wisdom is instead reimagined as an atavistic throwback to an earlier moment in human evolution. The next section of this article addresses a tragic consequence of this fateful criminological displacement—what Foucault portrayed as the sadistic character of normative human scientific inquiry.
The Sadism of the “Criminological Sciences”
Sadism is not a name . . . given to a practice as old as Eros: it is a massive cultural fact that appeared at the close of the eighteenth century, [as did criminology].
Foucault (2006a, p. 360)
The term sadism is historically derived from the pornographic writings of the Marquis de Sade. To suggest epistemological connections between sadism and criminology is not to impute a malicious intent or deviant sexual aura to the disciplinary study of crime. Following observations made by Foucault, this is instead intended to observe disturbing structural connections between how criminology typically addresses its object of inquiry and the ravages of de Sade’s pornographic protagonists as they target, objectify, torture, and silence those whom they analyze and assault. Foucault interprets sadism as a mirror image of modern social power and knowledge—the disciplinary hollowing-out of an interior psychic space that places modern humanity at a distance from the unreasonable world in which he finds himself alone and afraid.
“The appearance of Sadism,” Foucault writes, “comes at a moment when unreason, emerging from a century and a half of silence, reappears not as a figure of the world, nor as an image [of festive dialogue between the “limit” and what the “limit” excludes], but as discourse and desire. And is no coincidence that Sadism, as an individual phenomenon, that bears the name of a single man, is born from and within confinement, and that confinement figures so strongly in an oeuvre ordered around images of the Fortress, the Cell, the Dungeon, the Convent, the inaccessible island that seem to be natural places of unreason” (2006a, p. 362).
The Marquis de Sade was a contemporary of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria, the architects of classical criminological thought. A pornographer and criminal convicted of a series of sexual assaults against women, de Sade was also a theorist of the rationality of crime, as Bentham and Beccaria were. Indeed, when writing about crime and punishment, de Sade’s language often appears remarkably similar to that of his criminological counterparts. Is sadism a shadowy double of criminology’s abstract commitment to rational hedonism, then? Both classical criminology and sadism view crime as resulting from rational calculation. Each also advocates the swift and certain application of punishment. As argued by one of de Sade’s monstrous characters, in words that could easily have been written by Bentham or Beccaria, “pain must be preferred” over pleasure’s uncertain effects, “for pain’s telling effects cannot deceive” (de Sade, 1966, p. 252).
In 1791, de Sade was imprisoned for publishing the pornographic novel Justine. This was the same year in which the French republic issued its landmark rational penal code and Bentham drew up plans for his panoptic prison. This was also the year that Africans enslaved in Haiti revolted against French rule, exposing the hypocrisy of France’s acclaimed commitment to the universal “Rights of Man.” Together, these events make 1791 an important year in the history of criminology.
As such, following Foucault’s suggestive analysis, it is tempting to read de Sade’s Justine as a monstrous allegory of the excesses of modern patriarchal and capitalist/colonialist power. In the novel, virtually all of de Sade’s villains are men of respectability and power—men of royalty, law, wealth, religion, and military might. On page after page, these “libertines” assault Justine, penetrating her with the coldness of logical abstraction while championing the precepts of “natural law.”
Justine resists being incorporated into her captors’ narrative of top-down desire and domination. But her resistance is criminalized and ends in tragedy—she is tortured and raped, and although she tries to escape, there is no escape. Unlike her Haitian counterparts, Justine is on her own. She is denied what enslaved Africans kept secretly alive—ritual access to festive spaces of limit-experience less vulnerable to the death-defying narcissistic terrors of masculine European selfhood. Justine’s hope for a better future lies nostalgically in the past. At the end of de Sade’s novel, just when it appears that she is about to escape, Justine is struck dead by lightning—perhaps an allegory of the inescapable violence of Enlightened European modernity.
Between Justine’s story and that of Juliette, a text penned by de Sade about Justine’s orphan sister seven years later, Foucault argues, a new form of power has entered the world—the power of discipline Discipline, he writes, exercises control over “life and death, desire and sexuality,” reaching “below the level of representation” to an immense “expanse of shade . . . a bottomless sea”; and like “the prosperities of Juliette,” discipline is “solitary and endless” (1970, pp. 210–211). Justine could not be rationally persuaded. But Juliette is converted to the ways of modern “Man” by Delbene, a corrupt abbess and rigorous Spinozian.
Unlike Justine, Juliette mutates within the structural confines of modern power and knowledge, embracing her rational education by becoming a cold and calculating libertine. Juliette prostitutes herself and becomes a thief, property owner, and stoic philosopher, indifferent to all but the analytic pleasures of the dispassionate ego. This is history. Juliette is well paid for her sacrifices. At the end of the novel, she dies at peace, well defended from those she exploits.
Despite their “oneiric” and “orgiastic quality,” de Sade’s texts, argues Foucault, never really transgress the Age of Reason, of which they are a monstrous part. They instead exhibit “an eroticism appropriate to a disciplinary society: a regulated society, anatomical, hierarchicalized, with its carefully allotted times, its controlled spaces, its duties, and surveillances” (Foucault, cited in Miller, 1993, p. 278). As such, reading de Sade’s arguments for rational punishment in tandem with those of his classical criminological counterparts prompts the questions: Doesn’t strict juridical adherence to equal individual applications of the law avoid reckoning with basic social contradictions? After all, how free can “free choice” be in a hierarchically stratified social world? Questions such as these are sidestepped by the utilitarian individualism of classical criminology.
Following Foucault’s reflections, a further question presents itself: Is there not something sadistic about the isolated individual application of punishment and the criminology that justifies it? This is not to reduce criminological thought to the logic of sadism. However, it does note structural affinities between these two excessively rational discourses, as each abstractly pins punishment onto individuals removed from the concrete confines of history. Does this mean that criminological knowledge and sadism are invariably intertwined? The answer, of course, is no. Criminology can always endeavor to reflexively situate its methods of knowledge within the fields of power in which they are produced. When failing to do so, however, the result is a criminology that favor a very special form of rationality—the rationality of the advantaged, the rich, and the powerful. The rationality of the disadvantaged, the poor, and the powerless will either be denied or classified as deviant.
In distinguishing the narrative enclosures that incarcerate Justine from those embraced by Juliette, Foucault repeats, in a different register, a distinction that he made in Discipline and Punish between the representational signwork of classical criminology and the positivist analytic practices induced by panoptic penal discipline. Positivism emerged in the 19th century as a dominant method of criminology knowledge. It labors to observe, classify, and analytically dissect the body, mind, and behavior of the captured criminals upon which it cast its disciplinary eyes.
Positivism thus implements in scientific discourse something that Foucault’s colleague and friend, Roland Barthes (1989), discerns in de Sade’s pornographic literature—a stylized normalization of self-isolation, analytic dissection, reasoned calculation, and the command of articulated meaning by a distanced or emotionally detached spectator-director. While de Sade’s sadistic pornographic texts isolate, strip bare, and cut into their victims’ bound bodies, positivism gazes in like manner upon the objectivized minds, bodies, and behavior of those that it analyzes.
During the heyday of classical criminology, which was also the heyday of early modern capital and colonial conquest, Beccaria and Bentham envisioned a world where the rational power of signs would deter potential wrongdoers from violating the law. But confined within the penal system imagined by Beccaria and Bentham, de Sade’s fictive imagination exceeded that of classical criminology. So did the positivist criminology that took their inspiration from the visual control technologies of the prison. The Marquis de Sade imagined a world where isolated humans would be forced into submission, not by rational signs, but by disciplinary machines that bound and dissected those whom they exploited.
Positivist criminology likewise dreams of placing the individual criminal under an analytic microscope in order to classify, code, and serially dissect all attributes of an individual’s life—every variable, down to the smallest detail—so that one can operate upon and alter that life in the interests of public safety and risk reduction. By restricting knowledge of lawbreakers to such disciplinary objectifications, following Foucault, it is possible to recognize in the visually inspired, modern so-called criminological sciences a mode of knowledge that resembles sadistic pornography put into practice.
The epistemological machinery of both sadism and positivist criminology penetrates the lives of those that they probe, until the variance of the captured objects that they investigate are statistically reduced and rendered reliable and docile. At the edge of de Sade’s prose, a twisted logic claws at the fortress of reason and wraps itself around the prison house of modern disciplinary power and knowledge, like a misshaped vine severed from the tree to which it once belonged. The writings of de Sade dizzily mirror modern history’s disciplinary patriarchal parade of capitalist/colonialist and law-and-order metaphors. Here, theft becomes interchangeable with the privatization of property and life becomes equivalent to the deadly pursuit of profit.
Nevertheless, for all its violence, de Sade’s vision of objectification remains a literary one—a virtual realm of total control, fueled by the poetic power of words. By contrast, positivist criminology puts into practice what de Sade’s pornographic writings only hint at—a disciplinary ability to analytically capture and then therapeutically make over the minds, emotions, and bodies of convicted criminals, whether by behavioral modification, surgery, pharmaceutical treatment, or genetic intervention. Following Foucault, then, the question must again be asked: Is there not something sadistic about the isolated individual application of criminology’s dominant theoretical logic?
In de Sade, the masterful discourse of modern reason is linked to the ruthless forces of egoistic self-interest and an indifference to anything but profit and advantage. The rich dine upon the poor and the strong feed off the weak, all the while repeating, in the most excessively violent registers, the ascendant rational philosophical doctrines of the early modern era. The world of de Sade is an inverted, male-governed European world turned upside down, not unlike the modern world of capitalist/colonialist conquest. But while patriarchal capitalism and colonial conquest labor to disguise their sacrificial violence, de Sade’s depiction of modernity brings all that is excremental about modern culture to the surface. Excrement: this what those who leech off the bodies of others feast upon in scene after scene in de Sade’s relentless dramas of exploitation. Nothing remains outside the productive extraction of profit in either capitalist/colonial society or de Sade’s rational pornography. But there is one important difference—de Sade’s fictive criminology, in other words, makes visible what the positivist science of crime renders practically unconscious. And this, perhaps, is the greatest of his crimes.
Foucault and Power-Reflexive Criminological Knowledge
In short, it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge, . . . the machinery by which power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge that extends and reinforces the effects of this power.
Foucault (1979, p. 29)
Beginning with his analysis of the epistemological implications of Jeremy Bentham’s diagram for a panoptic prison, this article has explored the implications of Michel Foucault’s critical theorization of the visual reconstitution of criminological knowledge. In keeping with critiques of the dominance of linear visual technologies of modern Western knowledge production, Foucault imagines a shadowy side to criminology’s enlightened scientific gaze. As such, normative criminological inquiry can be said to involve the following characteristics: (a) the historical construction of a methodological window between the criminologist and the “spectacle” of the world that he or she gazes upon; (b) a privileging of the “hegemony of the eye” and visual surveillance technologies over other forms of empirical engagement; (c) an “objectifying” emotional withdrawal of criminology from the social world being studied; (d) a disciplinary treatment of the criminal as a specimen to be analytically dissected; and (e) the establishment of criminology as a spectator science, looking down on the world as if from outside (Romanyshyn, 1989, p. 176).
These “processes and struggles” traverse normative criminological inquiry. As a result, the ecstatic wisdom occasioned by premodern rites of festival has been suppressed, or exiled to the margins of the discipline, while a troubling resemblance to an epistemology of sadism haunts criminological knowledge from the late 18th century to the present. These vectors of power and knowledge are intensified in the communicative feedback loops of contemporary cybernetic society.
Here, new global technologies of panoptic surveillance extend criminology’s objectifying reach beyond institutional architectures of control into the interstices of everyday life (Pfohl, 2005). From full-body scanners at airports to global positioning satellite (GPS) tracking devices lodged in cell phones, credit cards, and cars, to the omnipresence of video cameras and data-banking in nearly all aspects of life, ours is a world where the colonizing gaze of disciplinary power extends “far below the central administration of the state and out to the most distant regions of society,” where it is exercised not only “by low-level criminal justice bureaucrats and technicians armed with a new discourse of accountability,” but by a multitude of corporate actors whose digital eyes monitor our bank accounts, consumer habits, and movement through space (Staples, 2014, p. 50).
In addition to ever more intense technologies of disciplinary surveillance, contemporary cybernetic culture responds to a widespread nostalgia for festively transgressing the disciplinary confines of modern selfhood by simulating access to mesmerizing visual depictions of crime and crime control. This is an important aspect of the entertainment industry today—the profitable marketing of crime dramas in ways that both fascinate and create contagious waves of fear in the viewing public (Pfohl, 2017). It is also a matter of significant political concern, as the high-speed circulation of fascinating and fearful visual images of crime today not only offer somnambulant relief from anxieties associated with disciplined modern subjectivity, but also traffic in dangerous racialized, gendered, and class-based stereotypes of evil criminals and heroic agents of criminal justice. Visual consumption of such stereotypical imagery may scapegoat those on the outside of global power today. It can also distract people, including criminologists, from reckoning with how stratified structures of power contribute and amplify the crime problem.
How might criminology best reckon with these complex visual cultural matters without retreating to the disciplinary confines of positivist criminological methods and the sadism diagnosed by Foucault? This question converges with those raised by critical scholars in the fields of cultural and visual criminology (Young, 2011; Cohen, 1998; Brown & Carrabine, 2017; Brown, 2017; Schept, 2014). While there is no single answer to this concern, one strategic response to the challenges raised by Foucault, is for criminology to abandon a stance of false objectivity and the pretense of being outside of the social world looking down. This involves adopting a power-reflexive approach to situated criminological knowledge—a methodological approach that invites the criminologist to become situated with the unequal fields of power in which she or he is an active participant, not a distant observer.
A power-reflexive method begins by acknowledging that everything that criminologists know about crime is conditioned by her or his position with complex circuits of power. With this in mind, a power-reflexive approach must begin by doubling back upon the historical and structural conditions that simultaneously enable and limit the ways in which criminology understands the world that it studies. Although more analytic than festive, today this may be a pathway into what Foucault imagined as the challenges of limit-experience.
Practicing a power-reflexive approach to criminological knowledge is no easy task. It demands that criminology endeavor to make the relations of power that condition its research and theory at least partially visible. How can this be done? How are power-reflexive criminologists able to display the partially distortive effects of the social fields in which they labor? The job involves more than simply separating scientific facts from nonscientific ideology. As Foucault (1980, p. 132) points out, “It is necessary to think . . . not in terms of ‘science’ and ‘ideology,’ but in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘power.’” The promise and challenge of power-reflexive methods is to make partially visible the ritual scenes of power in which criminological inquiry is situated and, thereby, to increase the truthful character of criminology’s claims to knowledge. This article ends with this promise and this challenge.
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