Body of the Condemned, Spectacle of the Scaffold

Michel Foucault. Disciple and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977).

The purpose of execution as a public spectacle is a ceremony of power, meant to reinforce authority of the sovereign. When a law is broken, it offends the obedient, the sovereign who created it, and thus reparation must be sought; otherwise, the authority of the sovereign is in question. “Besides the immediate victim, the crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince”(47). Further, the sovereign decides what type of reparation is in order, whether by command or in accordance to codification. The ceremony, as a whole, is a restoration of the sovereign’s legitimacy, which was momentarily injured following the infraction. The public execution of Damiens the regicide, which is grotesque, violent, and inefficient, is not necessarily about delivering justice, but more about reactivating power though retribution.

Since the criminal has offended the sovereign, only the most harsh of punishment is doled out and is directed at the body. To seek reparation, the criminal is subjected to a torturous death. As Foucault states about the public spectacle, “It must mark the victim: it is intended, either by the scar it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim with infamy; even if it’s function is to ‘purge’ the crime, torture does not reconcile, it traces…the very body of the condemned man…[so that] men will remember” (34). Since the sovereign is reaffirming power, public torture and the spectacle have to be spectacular and triumphant. Excessive violence is used to convey glory. For a criminal to be in agony is not a shameful side effect, but is the purpose of the entire event. Therefore, justice pursues the body beyond all possible pain; even in death—after the body has perished. Foucault describes the public execution of Damiens the regicide, who even after having all limbs severed remained alive and finally expired when his body was burned. In another example, the celebrated torture of Massola, took place entirely after the death of the body. Following a fatal blow to the head, his throat was cut, ligaments above the heels severed, vivisected, then the heart, liver, spleen, and lungs removed. The organs were then put on displayed, as one does when dissecting an animal. The example of Massola, is not just public execution, but to a more troubling measure, is public mutilation. In the execution of Damiens, it is an expression of infinite vengeance.

“At the beginning of the nineteenth century, then, the great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment. The age of sobriety in punishment had begun” (14). In the public scaffold, the body was the object of punishment, but following the nineteenth century the focus would change to the soul. Instead of tearing skin from the body, the new notion would not be punish the body, but to go after the soul; the mentality of the body. Instead of punishment, attacking the mentality means to “act in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (16). The objective is to reform the reasoning of a criminal, as opposed to destroying the body. Instead of offending the sovereign, when a person breaks the law, he is offending society. Instead of tearing out an organ, the new institution questions: “Does the convicted person represent a danger to society? Is he susceptible to penal punishment? Is he curable or readjustable?” (21). The revengeful spectacle exercised by the sovereign was wasteful, irregular (inconsistent), and offensive. Instead a public regime of representation was adopted, by which “values” would be reinforced through punishment. For example, those who abuse public liberty will be deprived of their own. Punishment now is a “legible lesson” that can be learned by children and on occasion, by adults. Ultimately, this new way of gentle punishment, led to the idea that prisons are the “best” alternative to the spectacle of the scaffold.


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