The Scandal and the Light: A Summary of Foucault and Post Structuralism

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Now the scandal and the light are to be distributed differently; it is the conviction itself that marks the offender with the unequivocally negative sign: publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence; the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man; so it keeps its distance from the act, tending always to entrust it to others, under the seal of secrecy (Foucault 1977: 9-10).

Structuralism takes a wide lens approach to social forces. Where these social forces exist at the institutional level of organizations, and/or the governmental level of the state, structure plays an important role in actions on the individual level. Michel Foucault was interested in describing this relationship, but in Discipline and Punish was more focused on describing a shift in how the state administers punishment. This shift plays two important roles for the state. These roles establish capabilities within the set of publically constructed laws and legitimize a monopoly on the use of force for coercion. Discipline and Punish is a treatise on constructing two eras of state level punishment and describing the historical shifts through modernity.

While the American sociologist Talcott Parsons’ positive structural functionalism reigned in the US describing patterns of social organization, the French were exploring the role of language and meaning in the organization of systems of ideas (Appelrouth and Edles, 2011: 384). The important distinctions here were access and exclusion of linguistic specificities that structured hierarchical roles established throughout society. The French structuralists endeavor to describe how language is employed and provides reinforcement of the social order in multiple ways. Language defines its own parameters for communication but also less explicit aspects of human interaction like inclusion and exclusionary dynamics. For example dialects, accents, and regionalisms often suggest more than where you are from generally. This is the school of thought to which Michel Foucault belonged and contributed much of his academic life.

Discipline and Punish can be summarized as discipline as a form of technology. This can be seen through several concepts argued and positioned historically throughout Foucault’s narrative. Primary contributions by Foucault were the terms episteme, surveillance and panopticon. The term ‘episteme’ for Foucault is described as “a framework of knowledge that shapes discourse—that collection of linguistic tools, rules, descriptions, and habits of logic that make possible specific understandings of the world” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2011: 392). The notion of systems of power further describes another central point of Foucault’s contribution, “knowledge is power.” In fact, Foucault describes how power is most potent when it becomes inculcated into “knowledge,” and unquestionable due to the protection of what he calls “the veil of obvious truths.” In this regard the language that describes a body of knowledge is baptized in the privilege of access and exclusion.


Surveillance and discipline is an adaptation of power over the past four centuries through not only the enlightenment but modern democratization of governance itself. One may suggest that the contemporary decline of corporal punitivity does not indicate a more humane treatment of inmates so much as the implementation of growing technologies of structural power. Foucault argues, “Beneath the humanization of the penalties, what one finds are all those rules that authorize, or rather demand, ‘leniency,’ as a calculated economy of the power to punish” (1977: 101). Foucault argues that this development also signifies, “the decline of the spectacle; but also marks a slackening of the hold on the body” (1977: 10). This ‘hold on the body’ harkens back to public torture and execution outlined in the introduction of Discipline and Punish through the recounting of Damien’s condemnation recorded March 2, 1757 (1977: 3-5). This marks a traditional form of condemnation as a vestigial technology of ancient civilization.

Over the next century in Europe and the US, Foucault establishes that, “the entire economy of punishment was redistributed” (1977: 7). Instead of the sovereign exercising his power through public displays of torture, mutilation, and execution on the body the state exercises its power of confinement and exile to a facility. This period in the mid-1800s marks the birth of the modern prison system. Foucault contributed the canonized discussion of the “panopticon.” Although Jeremy Bentham derived the panopticon, Foucault’s exposition in Discipline and Punish articulated its use through power and knowledge. Appelrouth and Edles state “Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable” (2011: 403). This visibility and unverifiability sets up Foucault’s concept of surveillance and discipline.

Discipline and Punish categorizes three eras employing a transition of techniques and technologies to punish. Foucault argues that the monarchy punishes the body of the offender publically to reify legitimacy and claim to power. Foucault argues, “The other [the state] to both refer to a preventative, utilitarian, corrective conception of a right to punish that belongs to society as a whole: but they are very different from one another at the level of the mechanisms they envisage” (1977: 130). One of these ways are the “reforming jurists” who saw punishment as a procedure for requalifying individuals as subjects, as juridical subjects; it uses not marks, but signs, coded sets of representations, which would be given the most rapid circulation and the most general acceptance possible by citizens witnessing the scene of punishment” (1977: 131). The scholar then goes on to elucidate the final technology, the prison. Below is Foucault’s description:

Lastly, in the project for a prison institution that was then developing, punishment was seen as a technique for the coercion of individuals; it operated methods of training the body—not signs—by the traces it leaves, in the form of habits, in behaviour [sic]; and it presupposed the setting up of a specific power for the administration of the penalty (1977: 131).

So the trends in punishment evolved from the public spectacle of torture and dismemberment to an institution of operant conditioning.

In sum, Foucault contributed a deeply historical and semiotic investigation to the structure of the state’s ability to punish and how that relationship, both materially and symbolically, has changed throughout the era of enlightenment. More importantly, the eminent scholar illustrates how carrying out punishment is still barbaric—and further entrenched in institutions of knowledge and power or conversely scandal and light.

Eddy Green
Kansas State University


Appelrouth, Scott & Laura Desfor Edles. 2011. Sociological Theory in the
Contemporary Era: Text and Readings. Sage: Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/ Singapore/ Washington DC.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books:

New York, NY.

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