Foucault News

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

Colin Gordon: A Comment on Fassin and Chatterjee, 12/13 blog, 5 May 2016

Among the valuable Foucault 13/13 series of video and written discussions of Michel Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, recently coordinated at Columbia University by Bernard E Harcourt and Jesus R Velasco, I was struck by the following comments, linked to the session held on Oct. 12, 2015, addressing Foucault’s 1972-3 lectures entitled The Punitive Society, in written contributions by two participants, Didier Fassin and Partha Chatterjee:

Fassin writes:

“In accordance with his usual method, Foucault relies [in Discipline and Punish] on analyses of normative discourses from legal texts, institutional rules, criminology treatises, rather than of actual practices described in reports, testimonies or letters. As historians of nineteenth-century prison [sic] have shown, such research would have revealed, far from the fantasied projects of surveillance and discipline, the mere routine of neutralization, arbitrary power, physical and psychological abuse.” [1]

Chatterjee writes:

Didier also made an important point about the specificity of the prison as an institution and the lack of fit between Foucault’s discussion of the reformed modern prison and actual prisons in France or the United States today. […] Interestingly, the criticism of actual prison practices even today largely points to the failure of those practices to conform to the normative humane principles of modern power analyzed by Foucault. [2]

It is true that a disqualifying rendition of Foucault’s work as an ideas-based version of history which posits the frictionless and unresisted implementation of intellectual programmes as systems of power has been with us since the 1970s. It was part of Jean Baudrillard’s case for “forgetting Foucault”; it features in the 90s in Subaltern Studies, the illustrious journal which Partha Chatterjee co-founded.  It is nevertheless surprising and regrettable to find this view recycled here by two of today’s globally admired academics, who have themselves in the past not disdained to make some use of Foucault’s ideas, in the form of comments which can easily be shown to be inaccurate and ill-informed.

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