Early in the chapter “Generalized Punishment,” Foucault describes a rising call to reform in the eighteenth century presented on humanitarian grounds. Throughout the chapter, he draws attention to the manner in which this reform discourse was bound up in socio-economic changes taking place at the time which prompted newfound concerns with efficiency, stating that “the criticism of the reformers was directed not so much at the weakness or cruelty of those in authority, as at a bad economy of power (79).” With an interest in restructuring the distribution of the power to punish, the reformers brought about a new strategy in which this power to punish might be performed which “insert[ed] the power to punish more deeply into the social body (82).”
With the restructuring of criminality as crime against society and its body of members in place of the sovereign, “the right to punish [had] been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defense of society (90).” Attention was moved more explicitly to the relationship between a crime and its effect on the social body. According to Foucault, this move established the nature of punishment through a kind of calculation, where “what has to be arranged and calculated are the return effects of punishment on the punishing authority and the power that it claims to exercise (91).” Further, “in order to be useful, punishment must have as its objective the consequences of the crime…the series of disorders that it is capable of initiating…one must calculate a penalty in terms not of the crime, but of its possible repetition (92-3).”
What Foucault calls the “punitive city,” which relied upon a certain degree of visibility to the public in order to function appropriately in the prevention of crime, soon became replaced with another form of punishment more ‘corrective’ in nature. This form utilized the prison system with a focus on coercion and the production of reformed obedient individuals. While the first method of punishment required public visibility to function, its successor depended upon a level of secrecy and control over the individual’s actions, necessities to which the prison structure was formally conducive. This secrecy allows for penalty through imprisonment to be representative versus corporeal, enabling a greater effectiveness of the penalty by heightening an assumed level of disadvantage through “the idea of pain, displeasure, inconvenience – the ‘pain’ of the idea of ‘pain’ (94).”
I found this discussion of representative versus corporeal punishment to be of particular interest while attempting to imagine what it is that Foucault means when he says that the practice of punishment becomes no longer enacted upon the body but is rather carried out through/upon the soul. The function of this method of punishment no longer isolates specific individuals as beings outside of the law defined by a specific time and place in which a crime was carried out, rather it establishes all members of the society as potential criminals. Foucault’s explanation of the manner in which this punishment method operates with the aim of preventing crime seems to reflect much of how what is now commonly referred to as ‘the politics of fear’ in the age of the ‘war on terrorism’ aimed to function: through a “shift in the point of application of this power [to punish]: it is no longer the body, with the ritual play of excessive pains, spectacular brandings in the ritual of public execution; it is the mind or rather a play of representations and signs circulating discreetly but necessarily and evidently in the minds of all (101, emphasis added).”
Foucault, Michel. "Generalized Punishment." Discipline and Punish. Vintage Books: New York, 1995 (org. published 1977.) 73-103.