Torture in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Last Updated: 27 Mar 2020
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Michel Foucault was considered as a postmodernist philosopher. He was known to expose the changing nature of human institutions. In the book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault revealed the evolution of social correction and discipline. Torture was part of this evolution and it disappeared due to the shift in the power. In the 18th century, torture was used as a punishment for criminals and the public display of violence was done in an effort to deter crime and show the power of monarchy. In the 19th century, power was shifted to the soul.

As a result, changes in correctional methods were made. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault used the issue of torture to illustrate the change in power and prove the arbitrary nature of disciplinary institutions. In the book, Foucault began his discussion on torture with the gruesome account of the execution of Damiens the regicide on March 1, 1757 (Foucault, 1977). The details given provide a horrifying picture: the criminal, who was clothed with only a shirt, had his flesh torn with the use of pincers.

After the flesh was removed, a combination of hot molten lead, oil, resin, sulfur and wax was poured on his body. Initially, it was planned that the body would be torn with the help of horses, which would be drawn apart. When this plan did not work, the executioner named Samson had to sever the joints. After the limbs were pulled away, the body was burnt to ashes (Foucault, 1977). According to Foucault, torture as punishment was a judicial ritual (Foucault, 1977). To fully understand the notion of torture, it is important to consider the historical context from which it was taken.

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Foucault wrote that torture had been practiced since the ancient times and was a significant part of ancient legal procedures. In the 18th century, the monarchical form of government and feudalism was prevalent (Sarup, 1993). The king possessed absolute power, and he manifested this power on his subjects. At that point in history, the crime was perceived as similar to sacrilege. This perception was the reason why punishment became the ritual which was not created for the purpose of reform; it was made with the intention to uphold the sacredness of a law which had been broken by the criminal (Sarup, 1993).

Hence, torture was ineffective as punishment because reform was not its objective. Foucault pointed out that torture was not merely a judicial ritual; it was also political in nature (Foucault, 1977). Public execution, like the case of Damiens, involved the participation of sovereign. By committing a crime, the criminal had offended the sovereignty. As a response to the offense, the sovereign would inflict harm on the body of the criminal. Torture was the means in which the offense of the criminal against the sovereign can be undone (Foucault, 1977). Torture as a method of punishment focused on the body.

He explained that torture allowed the body of the criminal to reveal the truth of the crime (Foucault, 1977). In the brutal ceremony of torture, the body of the offender would create and recreate the truth of the offense. In the context of Damiens’ execution, his torture presented the truth of the parricide he committed. The authorities relied on the effect on the body to achieve the desired outcome. They believed that the viewing public would react accordingly to the execution; they thought that the violent display will decrease the number of crimes because the audience would be overcome with fear.

However, this was not the case. The public had a different reaction. The body of the criminal became the source of pity. Instead of feeling fear after witnessing the torture, they felt sympathy for the criminal. The broadsheets which documented the details of the crime and the punishment did not succeed in preventing crime; rather, it succeeded in arousing admiration from the public. The accounts depicted the object of torture as a hero as opposed to a criminal. In addition, torture became a source of conflict between the sovereign and the people.

Torture was supposed to be a manifestation of the power of the sovereign on the body; it was designed to make the people fear the sovereign. Instead, the public executions made the audience detest the sovereign’s power over them and their bodies. As a result, the public often intervened at the executions. Foucault wrote that the criminals had to be guarded from the audience and that the people often attempted to liberate the jailed convicts (Foucault, 1977). Eventually, torture as punishment was rendered obsolete because power was redirected to the soul.

In the book, Foucault juxtaposed the account of Damiens’ torture in the 18th century with the schedule of prisoners in a 19th century jail (Foucault, 1977). This juxtaposition presented the dramatic difference between punishments in those time periods. According to Foucault, the transformation occurred because the penalty shifted from body to soul. In the past, the punishment was directed towards the body. By the 19th century, torture disappeared because punishment was already directed to the soul. The executioner, who was once a relevant figure, was replaced with new figures of authority.

Professionals such as doctors and psychologists took over the correctional process. Foucault claimed that those who were responsible for the transformation of correctional methods had learned to consider the humanity of the criminals; they sought to respect and reform the human body rather than diminish it. Prison life was more humane than torture, but both methods of correction were still grounded on power. A new kind of power existed for the criminals, that which resulted in impersonal method of supervision which influenced the psychology of the inmates (Foucault, 1977).

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison is a postmodernist text. Michel Foucault had undermined the stability of institutions by exposing its changing nature through his discussion on torture. Foucault illustrated the prevalence and obsolescence of torture as a form of punishment in history. He proved that the existence of torture was due to the manifestation of power on the body. When power was manifested on the soul, it ceased to exist. Indeed, Michel Foucault had shown the arbitrariness of institutions through his discussion on torture.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books (Original work published 1975).

Sarup, M. (1993). An Introductory Guide to Post-structuralism and Postmodernism (2nd ed.).

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Torture in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (2016, Aug 22). Retrieved from

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