Instructive Incarceration Inquiry


“Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages….”

— from Bob Dylan’s Thunder on the Mountain

In Madness and Civilization Michel Foucault makes the claim that the period of the Enlightenment in Europe effected a transformation in the way deviancy was managed. Whereas Medieval and Renaissance society allowed beggars, thieves, and lunatics to congregate in public areas such as the city gates, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century communities incarcerated their deviants in ever-larger prisons and asylums.

Foucault explains how a belief in Cartesian rationalism and a celebration of individual autonomy led to such strategies of isolation and restraint. The presence of a deviant person among other fallen but functional creatures may be an inconvenience; in a would-be perfect world, deviancy is a scandal that must be corrected or hidden.

It’s fascinating to me that as society moved toward the Nietzschean “God is dead” outlook an increasing lack of personal restraint was coupled with the increasing restraint of deviants.

A hallowed belief in reason and human perfection means that madness and “the presence of the inhuman” created embarrassment, a massive, collective shame. “Feeble-minded” human beings scandalized Enlightenment claims of universal vitality and competence. Thus the motive to help the mentally ill or disabled, while apparently altruistic, was actually rooted in shame, Foucault argues.

He links the desire to cure with the need to correct, expel, or incarcerate living reminders of failure and fragility. The confidence of a progressive and enlightened order depends on the absence of the criminal and the madman. The prison, hospital, and the asylum go hand-in-hand with enlightened, progressive, egalitarian societies.

I was introduced to Erving Goffman at the University of Pennsylvania when I was teaching at New York Institute of Technology. Drawing from his work in Asylums, published the same year as the first edition of Madness and Civilization, the sociologist told me that boarding schools, concentration camps, and orphanages should be added to prisons, hospitals, and asylums. All, he emphasized, are total institutions because they use regimentation to strip the individual of volition and control.

Foucault’s valuable contribution, developed more fully in The Birth of the Clinic, is that such institutions, as edifices, serve not merely to contain and demean those who are incarcerated but also to instruct those who are “free.” They become markers not of the divide between health and illness but between normality and illness, a very different distinction.

Huge buildings such as the Hopital General in Paris were as educational as they were operative: by signifying what happens to the mad, they instructed and comforted the normal majority. Visiting asylums became a great source  of public entertainment, titillation, and, presumably, reassurance. According to Foucault, 96,000 people a year visited “Bedlam,” the Bethlehem Hospital in London. Yet visiting was not really necessary: these ostentatious manifestations of power and knowledge educated passers-by at the same time they implicated them in a legally and medically authorized strategy of incarceration.

As a professor of Dramatic Art for decades, I’ve often wondered why so-called institutions of higher education rarely, if ever, produce Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Cherenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (aka Marat/Sade). For it captures the thrust of what’s delineated in the above paragraph definitively. But, then, higher education does not seem to be devoted to addressing such relevant dynamics from the past in general; for half-a-century I’ve been hard put to find anyone in Sociology, History or any disciplines driving home the instructive dynamic I’ve cited. Academia is quite complicit in perpetuating what works for the powers that be.

Foucault’s contribution, then, is that “houses of confinement” are needed not only to contain abnormality but also to define what works for the powers that be. Those whose behavior challenged the narrative of universal progress — an illusion that buttressed social, political, and economic practices and institutions– had to be quarantined, yes, but they also were needed as case studies and embodied cautionary tales.

Incarceration does more than create the order and tranquility that make progress possible; Foucault claims that prisons and asylums are required for the inculcation of a way of knowing, a communal mind-set, an episteme. The episteme of a community or  historical moment is an unexamined knowledge system, a way of seeing and being seen, that exudes power through its political, social and economic arrangements; for those who lack extraordinary critical acumen, an episteme or way of knowing is simply the way things are.

Foucault follows Nietzsche in his assertion that knowledge is always purposive and purpose is always self-interested. Thus a way of knowing is not a simple will to truth; instead, an episteme is a system of meaning that is motivated by a will to power, a striving for superiority, domination, and control. Historical persons think they see things as they are but actually see only what a particular knowledge/power matrix allows them to see.

Since, according to Foucault, our very reality derives from power and the threat of force, including the possibility of incarceration, modes and methods of confinement become rubrics of meaning and determiners of reality.

I am posting this to invite the reader to not only discuss the various rubrics of meaning and determiners of reality which go unquestioned in most academic circles and throughout mainstream media outlets nationwide, our primary sources of information. That would be reason enough to write this, but I’d like to also address what we can do about all that in solidarity.

So that we can break out of our self-imposed intellectual prisons and unnecessary orphanages.

Rachel Olivia O’Connor is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at [email protected].


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