Breaking out of Foucault.

February 5, 2008

I spent the month of January moving and taking care of some unfinished legal business, which meant that I tried my hardest not to think. About anything. It was, in some ways, a glorious month. However, to make up for it, I have embarked on a quest of intellectual ridiculousness.  You probably could see it coming. I have started reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish while Netflixing Season 2 of Prison Break.  

While the issues of the commodification of the body in the prison system are more applicable to Season 1, I don’t care, Michael Scofield is totally my secret boyfriend and I consider all of his be-tattooed activities to be important research.  Also: reading philosophy is sexy as hell. I want someone to dominate the micro-physics of my power economy, oh boy, do I ever.Moving on! Some thoughts thus far!

Chapter 1, The body of the condemned, discusses mostly the pre-Enlightenment policies of public execution.  This, clearly, does not relate to our beloved Fox River crew directly. However, it is interesting to note the change in societal ideals that our executions are now held in the utmost secrecy. What used to be a public display, serving to unite the populace in condemnation for the criminal, is now hidden away from public viewing entirely. The only witnesses invited to an execution are the press and those chosen, not by the state, but by the condemned man himself. (1) It is now considered the highest punishment that the condemned be completely removed from society, rather than having to face its judgement head-on. (2) 

The state has also been removed from the process. Instead of an identifiable executioner, the process is now completely mechanized and sterile. The actual procedure for a lethal injectionis as medically simple as a blood transfusion, except of course, for the end result. Of course, in the case of Lincoln Burrows, it was to be the electric chair – which is a step more gruesome, but still a far cry from the drawing and quartering that was favored for regicide (3) in seventeenth centruy France.  On this move towards sterility in capital punishment: 

 Today a doctor must watch over those condemned to death, right up to the last moment – thus juxtaposing himself as the agent of welfare, as the alleviator, within the official whose task it is to end life.  This is worth thinking about.  When the moment of execution approaches, the patients are injected with tranquilizers. A utopia of judicial reticence: take away life, but prevent the patient from feeling it; deprive the prisoner of all rights, but do not inflict pain; impose penalties free of all pain.  

It is a paradoxical situation that our legal system has created: to avoid becoming murderers by association (for what is capital punishment, really, but legalized murder in the old “eye for an eye” system?), we’ve set up a situation so filled with ritual that it is not unlike any other medical “procedure.” We’ve even got doctors! How bizarre is that!  One of the first things a doctor must pledge is to do no harm, and here they are setting up the system that allows a “patient” (note that the condemned is no longer referred to here as a prisoner, but as a patient, again, as if this were a simple medical procedure) to be put to death. It should be noted that the doctor is not the one who pushes the button to finally kill the prisoner, but that seems like an arbitrary detail in the whole setup.

And, as we know from Lincoln Burrows, a doctor must give a patient a physical before an execution may be performed because the prisoner must be healthy before the state can kill him. A relevant detail in Season 1, where Michael feeds him a pill to induce the stomach flu so that Dr. Tancredi has no choice but to delay the execution for 24 hours, thus giving Michael an extra day to complete the escape plan.

The morality involved is very complicated: it wouldn’t be “humane” to execute someone who was already suffering, since the point of this is to distance the prison system from actual suffering as much as possible. A prisoner can only be executed if he is in good health and not already suffering from any kind of pain – besides, of course, from the mental anguish of his impending death. And that will have to be saved for another post, because it’s time for me to go load up another episode!

1) Yes, I know that women are also capable of crimes that are punished by the death penalty, and that women are sentenced to death, blah blah blah. Until I start analyzing Monster, I am, to my own chagrin, sticking with masculine pronouns.  
2) Or head-off, in the case of the guillotine.
 
3) Ok, so the President’s brother isn’t exactly regicide, but I think it’s analogously close. Celebrities are the closest we’ve got to aristocracy these days.  Even though the u-SOFA lacks a monarchy proper, our current President is the son of a previous President and one of the leading Democratic candidates this year is the wife of a previous President. C’mon! If that’s not royalty, it’s damn close enough.