The Great Confinement

Western penal theory, as Foucault wrote, has to be viewed through an evolutionary lens to a certain extent. In essence, Western penal theory deals with “the power to judge” as well as with the issue of who gets to judge and punish people. And as Foucault wrote, this power to judge and to punish people shifted away at a certain point in Western history from the “innumerable, discontinuous, sometimes contradictory privileges of sovereignty” and towards “the continuously distributed effects of public power.” This shift in general “defined an overall strategy that covered many struggles.” 

But the inherent harshness and torturous nature of judgment and punishment remained intact, despite this aforementioned shift from a monarchical or “sovereign” power to a “public” power. Instead, judgment and punishment merely went through “a technical mutation” to borrow from Foucault, rather than an essential or foundational evolution or mutation. What kept the basic essence and foundation of judgment and punishment in place while tinkering with the administrative and technical aspects of judgment and punishment was the creation of a state apparatus. The state apparatus emerged and was borne out of a “struggle for power” between the aristocracy and bourgeoisie on one hand, and common people on the other hand. 

It follows that at the heart of Western penal theory is repression, and it is repression which then “sets out or reorganizes the place of all those special instruments or institutions of repression with regard to the poor classes, the unemployed, beggars, vagabonds, rebels, those who join together.” And as Foucault noted, punishment itself evolved or made a transition from “the inflicting of penalties” to “the imposition of surveillance.” Through surveillance, power “reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives.” 

Prison then amounts to the institutionalization of surveillance. Because there was an evolution in the nature of punishment as mentioned before from one based on mere torture and the inflicting of penalties to more administrative and technical forms of punishment such as surveillance, prison “was linked from its beginning to a project for the transformation of individuals.” Imprisonment by the state means “acting with precision upon its individual subjects.” Because the aim of imprisonment and surveillance was transformation rather than the mere inflicting of penalties and torture in an ‘Enlightenment’ or Renaissance age, it follows that “prisons were the great instruments of recruitment.” Hence, criminals who are “transformed” either through imprisonment or surveillance make up the core of the state. 

In turn, the state – through repression and the imposition of order – seeks to absorb whomever they can for an economic function, and “confine” the vast majority of people whom they cannot absorb. What emerges from the “idleness” of the economic conditions fostered by the state is “madness” amongst certain individuals. Because madness stems from conditions that are fostered by the state, if there is madness, it means “it is no longer because the madman comes from the world of the irrational and bears stigmata; rather, it is because he crosses the frontiers of bourgeois order of his own accord, and alienates himself outside the sacred limits of its ethic.” 

Bourgeois work is of a “purely repressive nature” to borrow from Foucault. Bourgeois work does not aim towards increasing public prosperity and public productivity. And by comprehending or understanding this reality or truth, the madman seeks to transcend this repressive bourgeois ethic which is then presented or promoted under the guise of general virtue and general morality. The stigma associated with madness, ironically, comes from the refusal of the madman to conform to an arbitrary moral code which codifies and solidifies the position of a kind of repression imposed by those who were transformed by the repression in an adverse manner. Law amounts to nothing more than the imposition of certain arbitrary and subjective notions of morality. Plus, as Foucault noted: “While man can still go mad, thought, as the sovereign exercise carried out by a subject seeking the truth, can no longer be devoid of reason.”

“The Great Confinement” is then an “Enlightenment” or “Renaissance” phenomenon that has endured to this day and age which paradoxically sought to “reduce to silence” the voices which it has “liberated” through reason, to borrow from Foucault. Both the prison and psychiatry are then the administrative and judicial tools and instruments for a general or “great” confinement. Psychiatry does not necessarily have a medical character or a conceptual basis rooted in medicine, as Foucault noted. Rather, psychiatry serves the same purpose as a prison in the Western context, in the sense that psychiatry is an instrument or tool of confinement imposed upon those whom the state cannot absorb. And as mentioned before, coincidentally and ironically, the inability to absorb such people on the part of the state is fostered by the economic and social conditions that have been created by the state itself as certain modes of repression. 

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