Colin Gordon: A Comment on Fassin and Chatterjee

By Colin Gordon

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. Professors Fassin and Chatterjee might like to reread the section in Discipline and Punish starting on page 264-217 (269-276 in the French original) of the chapter entitled “Illegalities and delinquency”. The very first sentence of this section reads:

For the prison, in its reality and visible effects, was denounced at once as the great failure of penal justice.

Foucault’s following pages provide a concise but powerful account of continued and perennial contemporary diagnoses of the failure of the penitentiary prison in France from the 1830s and before, down to 1974, based on contemporary investigations and reports, reformers’ denunciations, and press coverage, including the press of the Fourierist workers movement. Before Marx, there were revolts in prisons, and prisons were already a political issue in working-class activism.

In terms of what Foucault had to say concerning French prisons in his own time, Fassin’s comments give the unfortunate impression of attempting to airbrush the existence, by now well known to most people who have taken an interest in Foucault’s work, of the Groupe d’Information sur Les Prisons, a initiative co-founded by Foucault which between 1971 and 1973 carried out an effective and high-profile campaign to raise public and media awareness of the barbarous and oppressive conditions endured by the inmates in many French prisons.[3] It is true that in Foucault’s time social scientists did not have access to French prisons to conduct year-long ethnographic observational studies, such as the work reported in Fassin’s recent 600-page book[4]. The opening of prisons to the outside world, in terms of communication and scrutiny, was one of the key demands of GIP, and one which it helped to progress. The work of GIP not only sought to expose the truth of the prisons, but to empower prisoners themselves and their families to speak that truth and be heard. Some people, prisoners and others, paid a price for their fearless speech. In the 1970s, information about material conditions and the contemporary revolts against these conditions had to be got out by clandestine means, such as the ‘counter-investigation’ questionnaires which the GIP, with prisoners’ families, were able to smuggle into and out of twenty French prisons. Apart from his own short-term experiences of police custody, Foucault was able to visit Attica in 1972, where 43 people had died in the previous year’s revolt. Foucault was not in danger of imagining that the reality of prisons in his time was the realisation of “fantasied projects of surveillance and discipline”, as Fassin puts it.   It was, as Foucault himself said, the materiality of these findings and events that which led him back to the 19th-century archives to seek to account for the strange persistence of the prison as project and reality.

His book makes it abundantly clear that neither his contemporary nor his historical enquiries indicate that the reality and effects of the prison, in implementation and effect, ever corresponded to the projects of its founders and reformers: on the contrary, his problem was to explain the prison’s prolonged and continuing survival, given the abundant evidence of its failure. There is, it must be said, a sad obtuseness in these   stereotyped, recycled, point-scoring responses of Fassin and Chatterjee, because their comments radically miss a key point of Foucault’s book, which is not about the magical power of discourses to shape reality, but the improbable longevity of a reform model which is endlessly reintroduced as the antidote for its own failure:

For a century and a half the prison had always been offered as its own remedy: the reactivation of the penitentiary techniques as the only means of overcoming their perpetual failure; the realization of the corrective project as the only method of overcoming the impossibility of implementing it. (268)

We should not be surprised, or excessively censorious, if Foucault’s analyses don’t predict or explain what has happened in the penal sphere since his time. The history of our present is our job, not Foucault’s. Foucault may still be able to help us, but by helping us to help ourselves. We should not make a hagiographic cult of Foucault’s public and political activism. But it might be reasonable also not to pretend that it never happened. In another of his short cutting comments, Fassin concludes a recent collective work by informing us that we should attend to “two domains which have been remarkably ignored by Foucault himself: injustice and inequality”[5]. Yet Foucault writes explicitly in Discipline and Punish of a “class justice”[6], and of the lawless justice administered within the prison. Foucault’s track record of practical engagement is well enough documented by the biographies, by Dits et Ecrits, and by many personal testimonies, for those who wish to know. He challenged presidents of the Republic who used the guillotine for demagogic advantage. In his public lectures and in the press, he exposed the roles of pseudo-experts in lending plausibility to unproven criminal charges. He lent his presence to protect the protests of oppressed minorities from police violence.   As Georges Canguilhem said, in his tribute to Jean Cavaillès: let others do as well, if they can. Those who show themselves so eager, in would-be condescending way, to cut Foucault down to size and diminish Discipline and Punish to a dematerialised discourse on discourses, are at risk of diminishing themselves and demeaning their own talent.




[3]          All Foucault’s biographers deal extensively with this episode. For detailed history and documentation, see especially: Philippe Artières, Laurent Quéro & Michelle Zancarini-Fournel (eds.), Le Groupe d’information sur les prisons. Archives d’une lutte 1970-1972 (Paris: Éditions de l’IMEC, 2003). ISBN: 2908295571; and now Andrew Dilts and Perry Zurn (eds.) Active Intolerance. Michel Foucault, the Prisons Information Group, and the Future of Abolition (Palgrave, 2016)

[4]   Didier Fassin, L’Ombre du Monde. Une anthropologie de la condition carcérale. Paris: Seuil, 2015. Here he writes: “Foucault has notably been reproached for relying too much on the proposals of penal system reformers and theoreticians of the carceral system, and for drawing conclusions which the study of what actually happens in prisons is far from confirming. He is an analyst of discourses, not a historian of practices. (517f, n5); and “in Foucault’s case, the [theoretical and methodological] approach is based on an analysis of discourses (philanthropists, jurists, political authorities, ordinary citizens) rather than on the realities of life in prison.” (496) [my translations].

[5]   Didier Fassin et, al. At the Heart of the State. The Moral World in |Institutions. (Pluto Press, 2015), page 260.

[6]   The translator unfortunately eviscerated one key remark: “si on peut parler d’une justice de classe” (277) becomes “if one can speak of justice” (272) (!).


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