Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michel Foucault, La société punitive: an editorial curiosity

by Graham Burchell, 2014

Graham Burchell is the translator into English of the lectures Foucault delivered at the Collège de France. With thanks to Graham Burchell for sending this note to Foucault News.

Translating Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, La société punitive, I have come across the following curiosity, which, unless I am mistaken, no one has commented on before now. In the “Résumé du cours”, p. 261, discussing the model of talion (lex talionis, an eye for an eye), Foucault remarks that this model was never proposed in a detailed way, but that it did enable different types of punishment to be defined. He then gives, apparently, two examples from Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene. The first is: “Les attentats contre les personnes doivent être punis de peines corporelles (the penalty for violence against persons should be corporal punishment)”. This corresponds, more or less, to the reference to Becccaria given by the editors of Dits et Écrits in footnote 10, p. 261. The second example, however, is rather confusing: “les injures personnelles contre l’honneur doivent être pécuniaires (personal injuries to honor should be pecuniary)”. This is confusing for two obvious reasons. First, the phrase just does not make sense as it is. Second, if we supply the missing words “punis de peines” to give “doivent être punis de peines pécuniaires (should be punished by pecuniary penalties)”, then the example does not in any way support Foucault’s point that the talion model was used to define different types of punishment: a pecuniary punishment for an injury to honor is not an example of talion.

The solution is found in the references given by the Dits et Écrits editors (and reproduced in the previous English translation by Robert Hurley), and in the lecture of 24th January 1973, p. 70 and p. 82 notes 34, 35, and 36. Here we find not two, but three examples:

– violence against persons; corporal punishment

– injury to honor; penalty of infamy

– robbery without violence; pecuniary punishment.

All three of which do support Foucault’s argument. What seems to have happened is that the second and third examples have been merged, with suppression of the second’s punishment and the third’s offense.

The most likely explanation for this is a simple transcription error, a line skipped perhaps, either by Foucault himself or by his editors. The garbled example appears in the earlier publication of the Résumé des cours. 1970-1982, by Julliard in 1989, but this did not contain any notes or references that might have directed a reader to the source of the examples. However, what does seem strange to me is that, again, unless I am mistaken, this has not been picked up before, not even by the Dits et Écrits editors who supplied the references to Beccaria that allow us to restore the correct examples. It is, of course, a minor curiosity, and absolutely nothing of importance hangs on it, but maybe it contains a lesson for all of us who have read these old lines without ever noticing anything odd.

Graham Burchell

One thought on “Michel Foucault, La société punitive: an editorial curiosity (2014)

  1. Reblogged this on Stockerblog and commented:
    This post from the Foucault News blog provides an interesting supplement to my recent blogging on Foucault’s Collège de France lectures on the punitive society, from Graham Burchell, who is translating these lectures and has translated many others.


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