Notes from Discipline and Punish: How Intentional Tactics Become Unintentional Strategies Producing Subject-Objects

Foucault is well-known for his ability to draw out and bring into full view the double-sidedness of discourses, institutions, historical events, and socio-cultural practices. This is precisely what he does in his analyses of the inescapability of power relations, the social construction of subjectivities, and the often surprising manifestations of counter-hegemonic resistance. For example, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault retraces the genealogy of the modern prison system and argues that the primary intention (i.e. tactic) of its beginning phase, namely, the rehabilitation of the criminal, was eventually eclipsed by what the prison system actually produces, delinquents—a new class of individuals that can be more easily monitored, isolated, and controlled.[1] As to reducing crime, the prison system has failed; neither has it meet its goal of rehabilitating and reforming inmates. Yet, failures to meet its tactical aims have morphed into numerous “successful” strategies which now seem ineradicable from modern society. As Foucault explains,

the prison, apparently “failing,” does not miss its target; on the contrary, it reaches it, in so far as it gives rise to one particular form of illegality in the midst of others, which it is able to isolate, to place in full light and to organize as a relatively enclosed, but penetrable milieu. It helps to establish an open illegality, irreducible at a certain level and secretly useful, at once refractory and docile; it isolates, outlines, brings out a form of illegality that seems to sum up symbolically all the others, but which makes it possible to leave in the shade those that one wishes to—or must tolerate. This form is, strictly speaking, delinquency.[2]

Foucault then speaks to the way that the carceral system produces delinquents and how these subjectivities become objects of knowledge, which then become politically useful to the administrators of society. Delinquency is

an effect of penality (and of the penality of detention) that makes it possible to differentiate, accommodate and supervise illegalities. […] it [delinquency] is an illegality that the “carceral system,” with all its ramifications, has invested, segmented, isolated, penetrated, organized, enclosed in a definite milieu, and to which it has given an instrumental role in relation to other illegalities.[3]

Delinquents can, for example, serve as informants. Likewise, because of their prison record, which of course follows them for the rest of their lives, they are easily monitored, tracked, and in many cases, owing to the stigma of a criminal record, locked into the lower socio-economic strata of society. Recidivism is, of course, common with delinquents; but such a phenomenon is part of the feedback loop necessary for the proper functioning of the carceral system. The delinquent, no longer viewed primarily as an offender but as “pathologized subject,”[4] simultaneously functions as an object of knowledge; and with these new knowledges, we see the rise of new sciences such as criminology ever-engaged in classifying, categorizing, codifying, and dissecting the various species of aberrant “souls.”[5] With the modern prison’s production of its new subjects, delinquents, we have a clear example of how intentional tactics and unintended strategies coexist, combine, conflict, and while working at cross purposes with one another, construct a mechanism so firmly entrenched in our social consciousness that we are unable to imagine an alternative to replace it.


[1] As Kevin Jon Heller explains, Foucault uses the terms “tactics” and “strategies” to mark whether or not an action is intentional. “[T]actics” are the intentional actions carried out in determinate political contexts by individuals and groups; “strategies” are the unintentional—but institutionally and socially regularized—effects produced by the non-subjective articulation of different individual and group tactics. Both tactics and strategies involve power, because both create social change; only strategies, however, involve non-subjective power (“Power, Subjectification, and Resistance in Foucault,” 87–8).

[2] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 276–77.

[3] Ibid., 277.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Regarding the “carceral system” and its production of new knowledges, Foucault writes, “[w]e have seen how the carceral system substituted the ‘delinquent’ for the offender, and also superimposed upon juridical practice a whole horizon of possible knowledge” (ibid.).