Discipline and Punish: Genealogy as Method

Currently the trucrimers here at UMW are reading the first two chapters of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975). One of the most salient sections of this immensely influential study of crime and punishment is in the first chapter wherein Foucault lays out his methodology (which he refers to as a genealogy):

This book is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules, from which it extends its effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity. (23)

Soon after this, Foucault unnumerates four general rules his study “obeys” (23-24). First, regard punishment more than simply repressive effects, but consider it more broadly as “a complex social function.” Second, “regard punishment as a political tactic.” Third, “make the technology of power the very principle of the humanization of the penal system and of the knowledge of man.” Fourth, and finally, “study th metamorphasis of punitive methods on the basis of the political technology of the body.”

What does he mean by this? How do these basic guiding principles for his analysis and reading define a way of approaching this idea of a genealogy he lossely frames? Danielle Sharp, while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, tried to explain this “notoriously difficult” concept in his post on the Philosophy Forum:

Genealogy, according to Foucault, does not inquires into the timeless conditions which endure in the subject throughout history, but rather examines “the constitution of the subject across history which has led us up to the modern concept of the self”.

What does this mean? How might the concept of the modern self in the 18th century colonal crime narratives of Levi Ames and Owen Syllavan be udnerstood as distinct from those of Esther Rodgers and Patience Boston? Can they? Is this the basis of a critical study of the changing nature of crime and punishment in colonial America? How does this relate to questions of Power?

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