In the Middle Ages there were gaols and dungeons, but punishment was for the most part a spectacle. The economic changes and growing popular dissent of the 18th century made necessary a more systematic control over the individual members of society, and this in effect meant a change from punishment, which chastised the body, to reform, which touched the soul. Foucault shows the development of the Western system of prisons, police organizations, administrative and legal hierarchies for social control - and the growth of disciplinary society as a whole. He also reveals that between school, factories, barracks and hospitals all share a common organization, in which it is possible to control the use of an individual's time and space hour by hour.
Regrettably, to approach Foucault's brilliant historical apercus, one must do battle with his dense and daunting use of language. Aerated abstractions fastened to minuscule details are not to the American reader's taste; the effort nonetheless is worth it. Foucault is a College de France savant who has previously probed the "archaeology" of the human sciences as well as the rhetoric of madness. Now his subject is that juncture in time, roughly 1780-1820, when punishment of crime underwent a sea change as the philosophes, the utilitarians, and other reformers argued for the abrogation of public tortures and executions and society's new means of correction, as expressed in new legal codes, became "rehabilitative" and "humane." Thus was the prison born. But the exalted claims, Foucault suggests, are wholly fraudulent. Punishment is embedded in social structures, and if today we incarcerate rather than break on the wheel, it is because this punitive mode fits industrial society just as the infliction of pain on the body was congruent with medieval power relationships. "Prison is like a rather disciplined barracks, a strict school, a dark workshop, but not qualitatively different." Worse, Foucault, no friend of the social sciences, argues that the panoply of psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, and sociologists who now serve as auxiliaries to the criminal justice system have simply inflated it. The soul which is infinite, not the body which is finite, is today the locus of punishment. Characteristic of Foucault is this reversal of elements generally regarded as humane and progressive into something cancerous and expansionist. Characteristic too, is the incisive use of original sources (albeit mostly French) and the refusal to accept conventional attitudes. A formidable exploration of a development treated, in American terms, in David Rothman's Discover), of the Asylum. (Kirkus Reviews)