Classification & Disciplinary Systems: The Birth of the Monster Prison

by Hannah Spector

September 9, 2009


This paper has two aims: 1. to apply Foucault’s theories of disciplinary systems to European Jewish history, which acts to enrich our understanding of this particular group’s own experiences under punitive powers; 2. to reconsider Foucault’s framework for Discipline and Punish (DP), a framework that is problematized when examined from the receiving (rather than the exercising) end of discipline, punishment, and torture. That said, the inspiration for this paper could not have been conceived without Foucault’s unique understanding of disciplinary structures to begin with. While scholarship owes a great deal to Foucault, this paper draws out the inherent problems in attempting to think about crime and punishment from a historical perspective, as the disciplines have not been, as Foucault claims, an evolutionary process.
A somewhat experimental opening to the paper, Part I attempts to invoke Foucault’s own factual descriptions of the disciplinary power configurations exercised over the leper colony and plague-stricken town by a comparative study of the disciplines employed in the medieval Jewish ghetto and the Lager, respectively.


I. The Jewish Ghetto vs. the Leper Colony & The Lager vs. the Plague-stricken Town: A Comparative Analysis

The Jewish Ghetto vs. the Leper Colony

Though Jews in Europe had actively chosen to live together‚ it wasn’t until the 16th century that decrees forced them to live in exclusion from the rest of Christian society. The first Jewish ghetto‚ Ghetto Vecchio‚ erected in 1516 by the Venetian Republic‚ was a State-sanctioned institution (Roth 273). Other ghettos of this kind began to multiply throughout Europe in such cities as Rome‚ Frankfurt am Main‚ and Prague: “City by city and province by province the institution was established until there was scarcely a spot in Europe where Jews were not herded together” (Sachar 252).

The ghetto-institution itself‚ a small quarter for a sizable population‚ was erected by Christians in a section of a city considered filthy and undesirable. Each ghetto usually had one entrance and exit locked from the outside at night and guarded by Christian authorities at the monetary expense of the Jews. The ghetto acted as a type of quasi-prison since the inhabitants were prohibited from multiple civic freedoms. Fearing the mixing of religious groups‚ the Church considered it a serious and punishable crime for Jews to be outside after dark – a sin comparable to incest.

The interior of the ghetto varied to a degree in each city. While some consisted of only one street‚ others were a “real town within a town” (Roth 275). A testament to the will of the Jews‚ the ghettos had thriving businesses‚ schools‚ religious centers‚ and guilds. Those who lived in the ghetto were viewed by the outside world as an amalgam; the government barely recognized Jews having individual existences. “The Ghetto constituted in the fullest sense an imperium in imperio. It was only in his collective capacity that the Jew had any connection with the government...” (283).

The existence of the Jew in the ghetto bears a striking resemblance to Michel Foucault’s description of the leper colony and the treatment of the leper in his study of “Panopticism” in DP. According to Foucault‚ the presence of the leper “gave rise to rituals of exclusion...the leper was caught up in a practice of rejection‚ of exile-enclosure” (198). The leper and the Jew are two types of groups that society perceived as needing to be excluded. While both the leper and Jew were marked and exiled‚ the leper’s physical demarcation was born by his disease; the Jew was branded by badges. The perception was that both groups were seen as contagions. In its 20th century incarnation‚ Jewish ghettos experienced an unlikely metamorphosis under the Nazi party. While the end goal of the medieval Jewish ghetto was to segregate a population‚ the Nazi-constructed ghetto acted as holding cells‚ with a final destination of annihilation: the Lager (or concentration camp). And while Foucault observed that the leper “was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate‚” the Jew under Nazi rule was not “left to his doom‚” but thrust towards his doom.

The Lager vs. the Plague-Stricken Town

As houses of discipline and punishment‚ the Lager became a ‘step up’ from the ghetto‚ where the mechanisms of discipline became intensified. Erected over four centuries after Ghetto Vecchio‚ the Lager functioned as a maximum security prison. The Lager was a disciplinary institution in which strict rules and partitioning were part of its configuration.

In the Lager‚ Jews now extradited from ghettos‚ hiding places‚ or in rare instances mainstream society faced a process of subjugation that took the form of an initiation rite. The process intensified on the train transport to the Lager‚ where individuals sometimes faced over a week without food‚ water‚ or latrine. Upon entering the Lager‚ individuals who survived the journey continued the rite of passage as Zugangen (Lager terminology for new arrivals)‚ in a weakened and disoriented state. The Zugangen faced two prospects: as Musselmen‚ those whose physical conditions had deteriorated to the point where they would die “naturally” or be sent to the gas chamber‚ or as veteran prisoners who represented the majority of inmates and functioned at the lowest level of Lager hierarchy. Although they survived the rite of passage‚ these inmates spent most of their day in enforced labor or standing in line for roll call. They were consigned to certain blocks depending on each prisoner’s specific identity traits: Jews were separated by gender and were isolated from other prisoners such as political dissidents‚ homosexuals‚ criminals‚ and gypsies‚ who also lived in distinct quarters.
The Sonderkommandos‚ a work battalion completely isolated at all times from the rest of the other inmates‚ were charged with expediting the gas chambers and crematorium operations. Each Sonderkommando unit was gassed itself after several months by the new unit‚ who took the place of the former. The cycle of forcing prisoners to bear and be the bearer of punishment continued until liberation. Death represented the final stage of the prisoner’s rite of passage. The Sonderkommando’s role differed from the Leichenkommando who coexisted withthe other prisoners and were in charge of carrying out the Musselmen who died in the camp before being selected for gassing.

Along with the spatial-lateral organization of the Lagers‚ an inmate hierarchy existed that in many respects mirrored the hierarchy of the SS. The SS‚ at the top of the power pyramid‚ were responsible for overall policy and means of punishment and were rarely visible to the prisoners. They administered camp affairs‚ enforced discipline‚ were charged with the roll call‚ “manned the watchtower‚” and performed other removed duties (Gutman 155). In short‚ the SS were the all-seeing‚ omniscient presence that lay on the periphery of the camp and the prisoners’ psyche; the SS were both verifiable and unverifiable to inmates.

The prisoners who worked in varying administrative capacities were considered “privileged” and acted as the immediate oppressors to those individuals beneath them. At the top of the prisoner hierarchy were the Lageralteste “who determined in no small measure the degree of harshness of the internal camp regime” (Gutman 157). The Blockalteste held the most power within the camp and were in charge of the prison barrack administration. The Capos‚ who were oftentimes common criminals‚ ran the work regiments. In order to keep their privileged positions‚ the Capos were expected to brutally discipline inmates for the slightest infraction (168).

The Lager‚ as a disciplined and analyzed “society‚” bears its own resemblance to Foucault’s description of the plague-stricken town. Like the Lager‚ the plague-stricken town is designed with strict spatial partitioning and particular job designations for specific individuals; it “is a segmented‚ immobile‚ frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And‚ if he moves‚ he does so at the risk of his life‚ contagion‚ or punishment” (Foucault 195). In the quarantined town‚ the Crows responsibilities are similar to both the Leichenkommando and the Sonderkommando in that their responsibility lay with the dead. They carry the sick‚ bury the dead‚ and they will eventually be left to die. The Crows are “people of little substance...who do many vile and abject offices.” The intendant‚ who supervises the syndics (whose job it is to guard the streets)‚ “visits the quarter in his charge‚ to inquire whether the syndics have carried out their tasks” (196). The intendants exist in the plague-free world but are responsible for the registration of all the inhabitants in the town under inspection. “The surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration...the registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized” (196). The syndic performs an early version of a roll call – all inhabitants of each house must stand at the window as he calls their names; if someone is absent‚ he must know why. In certain respects‚ the syndic’s role in the hierarchy of command is similar to the Capo’s in the Lager in that he functions as the link between the outside‚ unencumbered world and the inside‚ confined quarter.Foucault asserts that there is a ‘political dream’ tied up with the plague based on the complete‚ omniscient functioning of a hierarchy of power: “the assignment to each individual of his ‘true’ name‚ his ‘true’ place‚ his ‘true’ body‚ his ‘true’ disease” (197). The culmination of this political dream finds its home in the Lager. The Lager is the modern‚ artificial version of a fabricated plague-stricken town.

One of the fundamental differences between the similarities found in the Lager and plague-stricken town and the similarities between the ghetto and leper colony is that the former were mixtures that were‚ through a system of absolute‚ totalitarian control‚ disciplined and organized. The latter were masses of indistinct bodies that were isolated and excluded from the rest of society. As Foucault notes‚ the leper “was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate” (198). It is ironic that Foucault refers to the plague-stricken town as “the utopia of the perfectly governed city.”The word utopia was originally conceived by Thomas Moore as a perfectly egalitarian society in which there was no hierarchy. The plague-stricken town in its job specialization and government supervision provided a blueprint for the absolute monarchies that would sweep across Europe in the impending future. In the 20th century‚ the quarantined town with its plague regulations also acted as a precedent for totalitarian rule.

It was in the plague-stricken towns that the gates were locked exclusively from the outside. The gates in the medieval ghettos‚ however‚ took on a paradoxical function: to keep the Jews in‚ but also to keep the Christians out. The ghettos‚ in effect‚ provided an opportunity for the Jews to involuntarily and voluntarily segregate from society. An irreversible pattern was established in which the Jews were seen as distinct entities in European society.

An examination of how certain groups of people were separated begs the question of why they were separated at all. In the leper colonies and the plague-stricken towns‚ the answer seems clear. The crime was one of contagion. A discussion of why the Jews were interned and separated must lead toward a more in-depth analysis of perceptions of crime‚ which will be discussed in the following section on Crime vs. “Crime.” In effect‚ Jewish “blood” was perceived as a contagion; as Giorgio Agamben notes: “In the Nazi Reich‚ the 1933 legislation on the ‘protection of the hereditary health of the German people’...are distinguished from those of non-Aryan descent” (Remnants of Auschwitz [RA] 84).

Before embarking on a discussion of how certain aspects of the Lager modality can be applied to Foucault’s power theories in DP‚ an explanation as to why it should be applied is necessary. Foucault chooses certain examples from history to make his points regarding the history of penality exercised over various crimes. These examples stretch from practiced State-sanctioned torture and punishment to the theoretical power structure of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. In this examination‚ he chooses not to include a discussion of the Jews (or French Algerians of which will be touched on later in this paper) – a group of people who have been treated like criminals at different times throughout history. As Foucault pays particular attention to excluded and isolated groups such as lepers and plague victims‚ it is somewhat ironic that the Jews have been omitted from his study entirely. What can be gained by integrating such a discussion into his analysis? How can Foucault’s study of DP help us to better understand the phases of punishments Jews faced historically‚ culminating in the Judeocide?

It is the intention of this paper to both expand Foucault’s discourse to include‚ in particular‚ how European Jews experienced the types of disciplinary mechanisms described in DP while also exposing loopholes in Foucault’s historiography when considering not only Jewish history but also Algerian under French colonial rule. A Frenchman relying exclusively on French historical documents to construct his thesis‚ Foucault makes an even grandeur statement about evolutionary disciplinary systems which he sees as pervading virtually all aspects of modern civilization. In relying exclusively of these documents‚ he has created an artificial‚ conceptual lens for his study.
Thus‚ this paper has two aims: 1. to apply Foucault’s theories of disciplinary systems to real-life European Jewish history‚ which thus acts to enrich our understanding of this particular group’s own experiences under punitive powers; 2. to reconsider Foucault’s framework for DP‚ a framework that is problematized when examined from the receiving (rather than the exercising) end of discipline‚ punishment‚ and torture. That said‚ the inspiration for this paper could not have been conceived without Foucault’s unique understanding of disciplinary structures to begin with. While scholarship owes a great deal to Foucault‚ this paper draws out the inherent problems in attempting to think about crime and punishment from a historical perspective‚ as ‘the disciplines’ have not been‚ as Foucault claims‚ an evolutionary process.

II. Crime vs. “Crime”

In his historical analysis of crime and punishment in Europe‚ Foucault observes that by the 18th century‚ the citizen was presumed to have accepted the laws of society‚ thereby accepting what constituted a crime and who was a criminal. Furthermore‚ since a criminal was inherently part of society‚ he accepted his own crime and punishment. “Thus a formidable right to punish is established‚ since the offender becomes the common enemy...How could society not have an absolute right over him? How could it not demand...his elimination?” (90).

Foucault traces the evolution of crime from the 17th to the 18th century. He observes that criminal acts shifted from crimes of violence to offenses against property (75). He focuses on “the shift from the criminality of blood to a criminality of fraud” (77)‚ but does not take into account perceived crimes; the criminality of Being. An analysis of the social perception of crime is crucial to understanding the continued demonization of certain groups including the Jews which intensified during the Crusades and culminated in the Lager. By focusing on the criminal act without considering perceptions of crime or perceived criminals‚ Foucault functions as a neutral observer of material (rather than conceptual) offenses. DP contends that crime has always been treated as something that occurs when one acts outside the rule of law; the criminal is an individual who has done something in one way or another to someone else. Although observing that the type of criminal act has changed‚ Foucault does not explore how the public understanding of that ‘something‚’ the criminal act‚ has evolved and expanded over time to include the vaguely conceived potential for crime as being a crime in and of itself. By not taking into account how the concept of the rule of law has been arbitrarily applied to certain groups‚ Foucault’s analysis remains tied exclusively to one notion of criminality. This understanding is situated in the discernable realm of legal transgressions. Yet‚ in examining crime exclusively from the position of tangible acts‚ a whole other body of criminalization is bypassed. It seems clear that this overlooked aspect of criminality fell outside Foucault’s historiography‚ yet by including such a discussion‚ a richer‚ more fully realized interpretation of crime and subsequent punishments is gained.

In her comprehensive and now classic text The Origins of Totalitarianism (OT)‚ Hannah Arendt points out one of the great paradoxes in the relationship between criminality and statelessness in her discussion of the end of the Rights of Man. Stateless people living in France in the 1930s found themselves in a graver predicament having done nothing wrong than those who had committed criminal acts such as theft or burglary. A stateless person who committed a crime would be handled like every other criminal and consequently was offered some sort of protection by the law (286). Thus‚ Arendt reveals the catastrophic ironies innocent people faced (unless one can call forced homelessness a crime) when trying to make a living honestly. Before the stateless-innocent person had committed a crime‚ he was constantly under threat of deportation and internment; yet‚ after committing a crime‚ “he is no longer the scum of the earth but important enough to be informed of all the details of the law under which he will be tried. He has become a respectable person” (287). To project this idea into the not too distant historical future‚ obliterating innocent people became an easier task in Nazi Germany than killing criminals.

In the case of the treatment of the Jews‚ one cannot neatly trace the development of laws from Hammurabi’s Code to the Napoleonic Code. One cannot say that our laws have become more just‚ our punishments less savage‚ and reconcile the circumstances leading up to and following the Judeocide. The question of what constitutes a law-abiding citizen is rendered moot in our discussion of the Jews who were forced to function outside the bounds of citizenship. Arendt suggests that the removal of the juridical quality in Jews which placed them outside the protection of law represented the beginning of a domination process in which Jews were first categorized (criminalized) and then convicted in a rogue setting that imitated a penal institution but did not abide by an accepted penal code that had been formulated but never fully implemented by the Enlightenment concept of the Rights of Man (OT 447).

The perception or projection of such qualities as loyalty and honor which were necessary in feudal society and the post-Enlightenment constitutional expectation that all men are bound by codified laws and held responsible for their actions were withheld from the Jews and utterly suspended in the Lager – in the Lager‚ responsible and honorable actions would lead to certain death. The projection of the Jew as a potential criminal is fully realized in the Lager. In order to survive‚ prisoners were forced into criminal acts. The “lawbreaking” camp inmates can be compared to Foucault’s prison delinquent‚ who represented a “kernel of danger” (254)‚ whose potential for criminality was enhanced by the institution that criminalized him. For Foucault‚ turning prisoners into delinquents is depicted as an ironic twist. In the Lager‚ on the other hand‚ one can rightfully suspect that corrupting innocent persons was a deliberate part of the dehumanization process.

The fate of the Jews was not always dire. According to Arendt‚ a central development in perceiving special Jews in a new light came out of the 18th century humanistic concept which called for “new specimens of humanity” to engage with those “which could serve as an example of possible intimacy with all types of mankind” (OT 57). The Jews later along with homosexuals served as the perfect politically correct guests in the newly tolerant and inquisitive salons of Europe. The Jews were both pitied and objectified by salon society. Arendt notes that the new popularity of the Jews corresponded with a relaxation in ethical standards on the part of fin-de-siècle bored‚ wealthy Europeans. “They did not doubt that homosexuals were ‘criminals’ or that Jews were ‘traitors’; they only revised their attitude toward crime and treason” (81). This same fickleness in standards and obsessive attraction to the Jews would prove fatal to the Jews later on when the mobs‚ who were never allowed access to the exclusive salons and who continually cried out “Death to the Jews‚” eventually won out.

Ironically‚ the increased secularization and assimilation of Jews in Western Europe corresponded with the Jews no longer being identified by the religious classification of Judaism but by the vague social concept of ‘Jewishness.’ How did Jewishness turn into a vice and what were the implications of this designation? Arendt suggests that vice is a psychological quality enacted by a powerless perpetrator-victim (80). The question of human will and responsibility and the necessary judgment of crime cannot be applied because the perpetrator-victim is predestined to commit his act. The judicial pardoning of vice involved a certain kind of privilege which left the Jews vulnerable to the mobs gathering in Europe before and after World War I. Once the judicial understanding of certain kinds of criminality (Jewishness) became perceived as preordained‚ the conceptual leap from seeing the Jew as vice-ridden to vermin that had to be eradicated was not far.

Arendt seems to suggest that Jews were partially responsible for their precarious position in salon society because of their ambition and self-promotion. That the Jews were social climbers is irrelevant when one is reminded that the protection and rules of etiquette bound up in the social hierarchies of Europe were only open to “exceptional” Jews – and these protections quickly and irrevocably dissolved when attitudes changed. Arendt adjusts Hamlet’s dilemma for the Jews: “the question is not...‚ to be or not to be‚ but to belong or not to belong” (84). For Arendt‚ the Jews who managed to break through the glass ceiling came to represent for Christians the chosen race‚ those Jews who would later be suspected of black magic or some preternatural ability to take over the world.

One might suggest that the Lager does not appear in Foucault’s study because it fell outside of his conceptual realm of evolving disciplinary institutions. That the Lager falls outside of the historical‚ unspoken social contract between disciplinary institutions and the citizenry is evident. However‚ the Lager did happen‚ and a comparison of punishment systems within the framework of the Lager with Foucault’s analytical emphasis on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon helps us to gain a more nuanced understanding of the perfection of power in both spaces. For Foucault‚ the Panopticon represented a synthesis of the leper colony (with its institutionalized separation) and the plague-stricken town (with its sanctioned surveillance‚ fixed social stratification‚ and disciplinary mechanisms).

III. Panopticism vs. Lagerism

In “Panopticism‚” based on the theoretical‚ architectural penal-reformatory conceived by the Utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham‚ Foucault offers the following analysis of one of the Panopticon’s intended effects: “The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary” (201). Foucault stresses that the Panopticon must be understood “as the diagram of a mechanism of power is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use” (205). One must acknowledge that Bentham’s 19th century political dream-machine has in fact been put to use and its effects have been fully realized in the Lager. The automatic functioning of power in the Lager did not have to be continuous. The process of starving and abusing an individual was continuous and permanent without any reassertion of power. Likewise‚ a prisoner never knew for sure when he would receive a blow from the Capo and so was never at ease in his presence.

Primo Levi wrote extensively about the means of power and domination and its effect on the prisoner in the Lager in such seminal works as Survival in Auschwitz (SA) and The Drowned and the Saved (DS). Levi’s analysis of these effects came firsthand‚ as he was a survivor of Auschwitz. Where Foucault focuses his examination primarily from the position of power‚ Levi serves as a counter-tenor to Foucault in his personal understanding of the receiving side of power. In looking at Levi’s experiences in Auschwitz‚ this automatic functioning of power was lived out even after the Lager was abandoned by the SS‚ who were escaping the invading Red Army. Levi was one of only a few hundred prisoners who were left behind in the camp. It took Levi several days to feel psychologically safe enough to venture outside the camp even though it had already been abandoned (SA 165).

An important aspect of Bentham’s utilitarian reformatory policy focuses on economizing the exercise of power. The primary purpose of the Panopticon is to maximize its optical potential. Bentham sees the penitentiary as the ideal institution to achieve many purposes including surveillance and behavior modification. “In each of its applications‚ it makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power. It does this in several ways: because it can reduce the number of those who exercise it‚ while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised” (Foucault 206).

In Hitler’s Germany‚ the Lager and the Third Reich seemed to be functioning at economic cross purposes. The Third Reich‚ as a political movement‚ and the Lager‚ as adeath factory‚ both had as an end goal the elimination of the Jews. The notorious expediency of the Third Reich was not always manifest in the Lager. According to Arendt‚ the Lager existed for its own sake and became a means unto itself (OT 444). Thus‚ many of the labor activities carried out in the Lager‚ such as the moving of rocks back and forth between locations and the relentless digging of sand lacked usefulness and appeared to have as its only purpose the psychological and physical degradation of the inmates. Nevertheless‚ the SS concurrently sought out more efficient methods of extermination. At first‚ to keep costs down‚ prisoners were instructed to dig their own graves for the mobile killing unit‚ the Einsatzkommandos. However‚ this process proved inefficient and economically unsound. Fuel costs ruled out the continued use of mass carbon monoxide poisoning. Thus‚ a machine with more capacity and efficiency was created: the hydrocyanic acid gas chamber. To maximize efficiency‚ prisoners destined for the gas chamber were further starved‚ “thereby conserving the gas it would take to eradicate them” (Nomberg-Przytyk 57). At maximum efficiency the gas chamber killed up to 10‚000 people per day – with the drop of gas pellets.

While Foucault calls the Panopticon a “laboratory and machine to carry out experiments‚” (209) Levi calls the Lager “a gigantic biological and social experiment.” While the inmate in the Panopticon was intended to live in visual and auditory isolation‚ the ethnically and ‘linguistically’ mixed prison population of the Lager produced a similar‚ unanticipated effect on the individual. Levi recalls in SA‚ “every stranger is an enemy” (9) and reaffirms this notion in DS: “One entered [the camp] hoping at least for the solidarity of one’s companions in misfortune‚ but the hoped for allies‚ except in special cases‚ were not there; there were instead a thousand sealed off monads‚ and between them a desperate covert and continuous struggle” (38). All prisoners in the Lager lived highly controlled lives‚ which as Levi maintains‚ “is identical for all and inadequate to all needs” (SA 87).

The inherent surveillance mechanism of the prison arrangement not only affects the dynamic between prisoner and prisoner relationships‚ but the guard and the guarded as well. Foucault observes that the director and prison physician’s fate is entirely bound up with the fate of the inmates: “The incompetent physician who has allowed contagion to spread‚ the incompetent prison governor or workshop manager will be the first victims of an epidemic or a revolt” (204). Such intertwining of fate did‚ in fact‚ occur in the Lager. When an epidemic of spotted typhus broke out in Auschwitz in 1943‚ the Germans at first did not pay attention‚ but soon the SS contracted it (Nomberg-Przytyk 43).

In a series of subtle connections‚ Foucault establishes a correlation between the disciplinary power exercised over the leper colony and plague-stricken town with that of the panoptic establishment. For Foucault‚ “Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition” (201). One might consider how the Lager fits into this ‘new and improved’ power-structure alongside that of Bentham’s. In drawing on Foucault‚ it is also possible that the Lager‚ which simultaneously maximized and focalized power like no other realized disciplinary institution‚ also had roots in the earlier disciplinary mechanisms enacted in the leper colony‚ (the medieval ghetto)‚ and plague-stricken town. For Foucault:

The plague-stricken town‚ the panoptic establishment [add “and the Lager”] – the
differences are important. They mark‚ at a distance of a century and a half‚ [add “and
another century thereafter”] transformations of the disciplinary programme. In the first case‚ there is an exceptional situation: against an extraordinary evil‚ power is mobilized; it makes itself everywhere present and visible; it invents new mechanisms; it separates‚ it
immobilizes‚ it partitions; it constructs for a time what is both a counter-city and the
perfect society; it imposes an ideal functioning‚ but one that is reduced‚ in the final
analysis‚ like the evil that it combats‚ to a simple dualism of life and death: that which
moves brings death‚ and one kills that which moves. The Panopticon‚ on the other hand‚
must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power
relations in terms of the everyday life of men. [add “The functionings of the Lager‚
although instituted after the Panopticon blueprint‚ are a refined version of that found in the plague-stricken town. The Nazis’ “disciplinary programme” also worked against an ‘extraordinary evil‚’ a propagandized evil. The Lager’s operating mechanisms were like those of the plague-stricken town; the Lager’s similarities with the Panopticon were exclusively in the effects it produced”] (205).

Foucault observes that the Panopticon‚ a “dream building‚” is a “mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form” (205). Levi notes that the Lager was a microcosm of the totalitarian regime‚ its own “dream society.” Bentham envisioned being able to apply the Panopticon concept to a variety of purposes (workshop‚ education‚ prison reform‚ etc...). However‚ the ghetto and Lager were executed for a supreme purpose: to isolate and eradicate a specific group.

In choosing to focus on the Panopticon‚ Foucault inadvertently creates more questions than answers. Why choose to examine a hypothetical disciplinary power institution such as the Panopticon to understand how the exercise of power can manifest itself upon an individual or a group? The complexity of power within the Lager reveals itself as having all the characteristics of what Foucault sees as being an evolutionary progression in discipline. The Lager was able to simultaneously create effects of power on the prisoner similar to the intention of Bentham’s Panopticon while also enforcing a mixture into a fastidiously ordered ‘society’ in the same way that the plague-stricken town did. The plague-stricken town‚ “the perfectly governed city‚” like the Lager‚ is a city of death. Perhaps including a discussion of the Lager in Discipline and Punish was too obvious‚ too recent a source to turn to when drawing attention to surprising and even counter-intuitive examples of evolving disciplinary institutions – so obvious‚ that is was overlooked.

Foucault’s purpose in examining the Panopticon and its stated precursors is to set up his argument that there have been transformations in the networks of power and discipline which form “an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism’” throughout society (216). Panoptic power‚ Foucault argues‚ is a historic development which has‚ until now‚ received “little attention [because it] is a direct‚ physical power men exercise upon one another” (224-225).

Panoptic societies (a step-up from panoptic power) give the illusion of freedom because they are self-regulating and coerce individuals to discipline themselves (217). Such societies also have high levels of unseen surveillance mechanisms. Foucault’s trademark term Panopticism is similar to what I call Lagerism in that both are self-determining systems: power is exercised without the need to reassert itself. Arendt argues that the Lager is a microcosmic‚ perfected version of the totalitarian state. “Unlikely as it may sound‚ these camps are the true central institution of totalitarian organizational power” (OT 438). It might be just as unlikely to maintain that not only do panoptic societies exist but lageristic ones do‚ too. One of the prime tenets that separate Lagerism from Panopticism is that the former operates not only by controlling individual or group behavior but also by making populations superfluous. Governmental negligence of certain mass groups (e.g. the homeless‚ refugees‚ and victims of natural catastrophes and genocide) attest to a time when human life has become extraneous. In 1948‚ Arendt predicted that death factories would solve the “problem” of human superfluity. The Nazis: “set up those factories of annihilation which demonstrated the swiftest possible solution to the problem of superfluous human masses. There is no doubt that this solution will from now on occur to millions of people whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political‚ or social‚ or economic misery in a manner worthy of man” (“The Concentration Camps” 762). Paradoxically‚ human death factories have not become the solution to human superfluity as life can and has been eliminated by the exercise of aggressive non-action.

IV. Useful and Useless Punishment

In 1997‚ during a routine execution in a Florida prison‚ a condemned prisoner was burned alive on the electric chair. This event‚ as well as other ‘accidents‚’ sparked a national debate about humane and inhumane forms of punishment. Although the debate is presently focused on the viability of the death penalty as a form of useful punishment‚ the question remains: can a punishment be useful and humane?

The machinations surrounding the application of useful punishment has in part been directed to the simple objective that the punishment must meet the crime. A number of socio-political and ethical questions and inferences can be drawn from the use of this practical and possibly primitive standard. What is the end goal of the state in fitting the punishment to the crime? Crime prevention? A state sanctioned form of revenge? What is the culpability of a state or institution that uses its power-structure to deliberately allocate punishment to crime? What happens when the state is both the object and subject of criminal acts as in the case of the Nazi regime? Who steps in to dole out the punishment? An international body of justice? Is there a sovereign state in a moral position to cast the first stone? Is punishment‚ in fact‚ a form of crime? And finally‚ is there another entity besides a power structure that can assess the justice side of crime?

Foucault addresses the notion of useful and useless punishment in his discussion of the right to punish. According to Foucault‚ penalty has the potential to be without limits when the social body is in full agreement with its penal system. Consequently‚ “the malefactor exposed to a penalty that seems to be without bounds. It is a return to a terrible ‘super-power’” (90). With the consent of society‚ there is a further potential for a penal system to engage in ‘useless torments’ because they believe themselves to be working in “the name of sage.” This super-power brings with it the need for reform or moderation which is expressed as a “discourse of the heart” (91). By the 18th century‚ penal reform had begun to be tied up with concepts of ‘humanity.’ Foucault maintains‚ however‚ that this meshing of humane impulses with punishment had nothing really to do with the law’s attempt to treat all criminals humanely.

Despite the skepticism implied in the belief that “‘humanity’ is the respectable name given to this economic rationality and...meticulous calculations” (92) of penal institutions‚ Foucault seems to accept the possibility that penal reform‚ even masquerading as a trick‚ has occurred. Foucault also agrees to the terms of the argument defined by the power-structures he criticizes. He maintains that the penal reform/humanity movement is a clever way of getting society to believe it is self-improving and becoming more ethical. In accepting these terms‚ Foucault is critiquing an action that is in and of itself a mirage – a mirage that disintegrated with ease with the rise of the Third Reich over the waning Weimar Republic. In essence‚ Foucault has been tricked by the trick.

Foucault observes that the crime-punishment paradigm is constructed and put into effect once a citizen breaks his social contract. Furthermore‚ by committing the crime‚ the citizen has introduced a disorder into society. The application of punishment takes several forms: punishment is enacted to “prevent repetition” – “the influence of crime”; punishment stands as retaliation for the inherent traitorousness of the crime (93). “For it is from within society that he delivers his blows” (90). One might add that punishment is also enacted to reassert the domination of the state over criminality. Punishment becomes an exhibition of power. Foucault defends his analysis of crime by presenting the specter of the ‘ultimate crime‚’ a crime that is so extraordinary‚ a crime that could never again be repeated because of its horrendous and unique quality and‚ therefore‚ cannot have a useful punishment because there is no threat of it ever happening again‚ a crime which Foucault refers to as a “fable” (92).

The ultimate crime should be an ethical designation‚ not a subjective or semantic one. Western society has felt it necessary to construct a hierarchy of crimes – petty to horrendous – to reflect its Judeo-Christian understanding of sin. Recent history has disproved Foucault’s assumptions that “there is a scarcity of great crimes” (93) and the ultimate (last) crime can only remain unpunished because it cannot be repeated. Genocide meets the criteria of Foucault’s concept of ultimate crime‚ which he defines as being “at the very limit of possibility” (90).

According to Arendt‚ the Nazis successfully exploited people’s inability to absorb or comprehend what Foucault refers to as a “fable”: the ultimate crime. She quotes a Nazi document that states explicitly that the non-Nazi world would not be ready to believe the reports about the massacres of Jews (OT 437). Like Foucault‚ Arendt acknowledges the futility in punishing a crime of such magnitude. Her reasoning regarding the uselessness of retribution‚ however‚ is not that the crime could never happen again; on the contrary‚ the introduction of the crime makes it even more probable that it will be repeated: “whatever the punishment‚ once a specific crime has appeared for the first time‚ its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been” (Eichmann in Jerusalem [EJ] 273). If it does not act as a deterrent‚ then what purpose can penalty serve in the crime-punishment genocide paradigm? For Arendt‚ punishment is firstly an exercise to assert moral order and secondly a tool to redeem the victims of the offense (EJ 287). Nonetheless‚ incarceration and/or the death penalty are retributions that ring hollow in the face of the crime committed. The world has yet to develop an adequate response mechanism to mass‚ monstrous acts‚ and thus the Lager has spawned an unfortunate legacy.

Jean Amery‚ Holocaust writer-survivor‚ refers to Nazi terror and torture in the title of his formative text as: At the Mind’s Limit: Contemplation by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. The words in the book’s title themselves suggest that the truths of Auschwitz defy the mind’s ability to understand the incomprehensible. Thus‚ it is the Holocaust survivor (Amery) who warns humanity of the dangers in disbelieving the outrageous. Similarly‚ Agamben explains that the atrocities in the camps were so great‚ so beyond the human capacity to grasp that one could not comprehend what one saw. For Agamben‚ the Gorgon represents the impossibility of vision...what cannot be seen (53). That at the ‘bottom’ of the human being there is nothing other than an impossibility of seeing – this is the Gorgon‚ whose vision transforms the human being into a non-human. That precisely this inhuman impossibility of seeing is what calls and addresses the human‚ the apostrophe from which human beings cannot turn away – this and nothing else is testimony. The Gorgon and he who has seen her and the Muselmann and he who bears witness to him are one gaze; they are a single impossibility of seeing” (54).

In his analysis‚ Foucault finds it necessary to separate the concept of the ultimate crime (or that which defies understanding) from everyday offenses. However‚ the crimes committed in the Lager on a daily basis violated laws within the realm of the human capacity to comprehend. It is in the Lager that the merging of ultimate crime and daily crime took root.

The obvious humanitarian lapses one can recognize in the brutal execution of Foucault’s French regicide find their physical and psychological parallels in the Lager. As part of a redemptive process‚ the French authorities found it necessary to execute the regicide in stages: the execution began with the removal of skin with pincers; boiling chemicals were then poured on the regicide’s open wounds. At each juncture‚ the regicide was given the opportunity to plead for forgiveness. “Pardon‚ my God! Pardon‚ Lord” (4). The process ended with the regicide “drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire” (3). One of these steps would have been sufficient to finish off the regicide. What parallels can be drawn from this earlier public display of extreme cruelty and the stages of execution prisoners were put through in the Lager? Does the French regicide execution meet the definition of torture? Foucault refers to the regicide execution as a penal style that pre-dates the judicial reform movements of the latter half of the 18th century. Yet‚ in the 20th century‚ death in the Lager was postponed or toyed with at the whim of the SS: with the roll call ‘selections‚’ the arbitrary beatings‚ the endless labor‚ and the slow starvation. The Lager represents a direct refutation of the argument that society has over the course of history lulled itself into believing that it is engaged in a process of humane application of punishment. The regicide execution and the Lager are separated merely chronologically but not psychologically.

Primo Levi’s writings on useful and useless violence at the hands of the Nazi Regime serve as primary sources of observation. Levi describes the Lager as a system of controlled anarchy. “Rationality ceases and the disciples have amply surpassed (and betrayed!) the teacher‚ precisely in the practice of useless cruelty” (DS 107). In evaluating a penal system’s efforts to achieve usefulness in its punishment‚ Levi attempts to use Nazi logic. Roll calls that sometimes lasted 24 hours‚ food deprivation‚ exhausting labor‚ and even death by gas of adults and children are deemed ‘useful’ if one accepts the Nazi scheme of things: “the presumed right of a superior people to subjugate or eliminate an inferior people” (115).

Levi asserts that “the twelve Hitlerian years shared their violence with many other historical space-times‚ but they were characterized by widespread useless violence‚ as an end in itself‚ with the sole purpose of inflicting pain‚ occasionally having a purpose‚ yet always redundant‚ always disproportionate to the purpose itself” (105-6). He adds that those years did not come down from an insane system but a hateful‚ logical one “unique in history” noting that “in the Third Reich‚ the best choice‚ the choice imposed from above‚ was the one that entailed the greatest affliction‚ the greatest waste‚ the greatest physical and moral suffering. [My italics.] The ‘enemy’ must not only die‚ he must die in torment” (120). This is the Nazi version of Utilitarianism.

For Levi‚ the spokesman for useful violence in the Nazi Regime was Stangl‚ the ex-commandant of Treblinka‚ who from his Dusseldorf prison justified the usefulness of humiliating prisoners in the Lager before they were killed. Stangl defended the degradation of the condemned as necessary to make the job easier for those who would be applying the punishment. Stangl’s justification of humiliation tactics suggests an even deeper psychological motive at play on the parts of the persecutors in the Lager. The need to ‘make the job easier‚’ Stangl unconsciously suggests‚ serves as a buffer to blame and shame. (Perhaps the use of such useless punishment was acted out of contempt for the condemned.) Here‚ Foucault’s historical analysis of shame is useful in understanding how punishment was enacted in the Lager.

How can we relate a discussion of useful and useless punishment to shame? Why is it important to discuss shame when discussing punishment? Foucault observes that by the beginning of the 19th century‚ “the gloomy festival of punishment was dying out” because the ceremony surrounding the public executions were “ceasing to be understood” and were seen as undesirable and equal if not worse than the crime itself (8-9). It appears that shame was manufactured as a public relations response to the public outcry against the public display of punishment. Once punishment was removed from public scrutiny‚ shame was both averted and strategically used by the penal system to justify its sanctioned use of violence. Punishment became “the most hidden part of the penal process” (9). The penal system‚ through its formal proceeding of trial‚ sentence‚ and inevitable condemnation‚ could avoid shame by keeping “its distance from the act‚ tending always to entrust it to others‚ under the seal of secrecy” (9-10). In the Lager‚ institutionalized secrecy was carried out by the secluded Sonderkommandos. One can argue that the existence of the Lager itself was the greatest secret of the Nazi regime. The physical placement of the death camps were positioned geographically so as to not be discovered. Heinrich Himmler’s speech at Poznan in 1943 acts as primary evidence to support the argument that the Nazis’ greatest secret was the extermination of the Jews. “We have never conversed about it among ourselves‚ never spoken about it...I’m talking about the ‘Jewish evacuation’: the extermination of the Jewish people.” In her own discussion of Nazi secrets‚ Arendt argues that “there was little in the SS that was not secret. The greatest secret was the practice of the concentration camp” (OT 435).

In order to understand the concept of shame in a political context one must scrutinize its operative components. An important protection against shame is the act of keeping secrets. Secrets protect shame from being exposed to the glare of direct light. Ashamed suggests shame brought to a state of private and public awareness. This aspect of shame‚ the shame of disclosure‚ further traumatizes the perpetrator or victim of shame because he might have to experience or simulate remorse. Shame also involves the manipulation of awareness and in the political realm requires altering the collective state of consciousness. This can be done through propaganda or through the sanctioned use of mind-altering substances which act as un-inhibitors.

How do we know the Nazis exhibited shame? The Nazi response to shame was both complex and subversive. The Nazis avoided shame by protecting their secrets: by using euphemistic language‚ by systematically destroying evidence such as records‚ crematoriums‚ and in a more subtle way‚ by arranging for a select group of prisoners to carry out the punishment that would trigger shame. The Sonderkommandos served as a buffer to the SS by working the crematoriums under the influence of limitless amounts of alcohol. Another objective of the Nazis was to alter the perception that the SS had of the Jews through a process of projection and scapegoating. The Capos‚ in their brutal treatment of Jewish prisoners‚ acted out part of this process. The withholding of food and hygiene was another effective way of physically dehumanizing‚ therefore‚ psychologically justifying the meting out of punishment.

In its economy and function‚ the gas chamber in the Lager represents an important milestone as an instrument of punishment. The Nazis‚ more consciously than any other regime in history‚ did their best to avoid shame and responsibility. As a defense against shame‚ the Nazis needed an ideal killing machine that would accomplish their task with the least amount of human intervention. For the Nazis‚ the gas chamber became aspace that was to absolve them of any crime. In effect‚ the gas chamber – and the Sonderkommandos who were forced to work them on penalty of death – allowed the Nazis to psychologically reposition themselves from that of perpetrator to that of spectator. The gas chamber is the technologically advanced‚ modern version of Foucault’s arguments surrounding the 17th century guillotine. At the same time‚ the death chamber exhibits an uncanny likeness to the medieval dungeon as both spaces were designed to keep secret acts of punishment/torture from the eyes of the world. The Nazis’ implementation of a peephole to the door that both sealed and concealed the chambers and gas vans further twisted their role as executor-voyeur in the ultimate crime.

In “The Body of the Condemned‚” Foucault examines an essential aspect of penal reform: the need to remove executions from the domain of torture (which had become the source of blame and shame) and place this activity in the realm of punishment-law. Necessity required a quick‚ clean‚ killing machine. The guillotine was “the perfect vehicle [for reducing death] to a visible‚ but still instantaneous event. Contact between the law‚ or those who carry it out‚ and the body of the criminal‚ is reduced to a split second” (13). Foucault argues that guillotine executions began in public as a kind of spectacle but were eventually performed inside the prison‚ hidden from the general public (15). In the post-Industrial‚ purportedly reform-minded world‚ the gas chamber‚ insulated by the concentration camp‚ enacted under the guise of (totalitarian) ‘lawfulness‚’ aptly blurs the artificial distinction between crime and ‘useful’ punishment. As Levi notes‚ “useless cruelty is the exclusive appurtenance of the Third Reich” (DS 125). During the train ride to Auschwitz:

The convoy was stopped two or three times in the open countryside‚ the doors of the freight cars were opened‚ and the prisoners were allowed to get off – but not to walk away from the tracks or to go off on their own...the SS escort did not hide their amusement at the sight of men and women squatting wherever they could‚ on the platforms and in the middle of the tracks‚ and the German passengers openly expressed their disgust: people like this deserve their fate‚ just look how they behave. These are not Menschen‚ human beings‚ but animals; it’s clear as the light of day (111).

V. Punishment and Torture

There are no longer [tortures by]...which the condemned man would be broken on the wheel‚ then flogged until he fainted‚ then hung up with chains‚ then finally left to die slowly of hunger. There are no longer any of those executions in which the condemned man was dragged along on a hurdle (to prevent his head smashing against the cobble-stones)‚ in which his belly was opened up‚ his entrails quickly ripped out‚ so that he had time to see them‚ with his own eyes‚ being thrown on the fire; in which he was finally decapitated and his body quartered...[now there is] a whole new morality concerning the act of punishing (Foucault 12).

In the bunker there hung from the vaulted ceiling a chain that above ran into a roll. At its bottom end it bore a heavy‚ broadly curved iron hook. I was led to the instrument. The hook gripped into the shackle that held my hands together behind my back. Then I was raised with the chain until I hung about a meter over the floor...this cannot last long‚ even with people who have a strong physical constitution. As for me‚ I had to give up rather quickly. And now there was a crackling and splintering in my shoulders...The balls sprang from their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms‚ which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head (Amery 32).

It is extraordinary that Foucault’s analysis of torture and Jean Amery’s description of his own torture in the Breendonk prison at the hands of the Gestapo were written within the span of ten years. It is as if both men were experiencing different centuries. Torture‚ however‚ defies time itself and is difficult to analyze in a historical context.

Foucault rightly concludes that in France torture was eliminated as a method of punishment for crimes against the State. However‚ his insistence on developing his study of penality exclusively from French historical documents creates an artificial‚ conceptual framework for several reasons. Firstly‚ public displays of punishment in French colonial Algeria run counter to his historiography of shifting disciplinary techniques. French colonial power performed regular public guillotine executions until the late 1950s. In a recent interview‚ an Algerian guillotine executioner‚ Fernand Meyssonnier‚ describes executions he both witnessed and participated in‚ which sound remarkably different than Foucault’s guillotine‚ a guillotine in which “there is no physical confrontation; the executioner need be no more than a meticulous watchmaker” (13). Meysonnier recounts: “Was there blood? But of course! Yes‚ yes. Five‚ seven liters emptied out. It’s not the electric chair‚ eh‚ Jets of blood spray out three meters.” If the blade did not make a clean cut against the jaw line‚ he notes‚ the executioner would be required to either use the guillotine a second time or cut “the head off with a knife – a gory ending that no one liked.” Likewise‚ the Setif and Guelma massacres of Algerian civilian populations at the hands of the French military attest to an administrative brutality that Foucault claims no longer occurs. Secondly‚ the torture institutions which cropped up next door in Germany during Foucault’s adolescence‚ which nearly consumed Amery‚ might not have fit neatly into his timeline of torture. According to Foucault‚ the unabashedly ‘atrocious’ practice of punishment/torture was eventually replaced by more enlightened‚ humane forms of punishment. Amery does recognize the anomalous presence of the Nazi regime: “In most Western countries‚ torture was eliminated as an institution and method at the end of the 18th century” (22). Although these two important studies of torture represent different historical perspectives‚ both Foucault and Amery suggest that torture‚ both public and private‚ is a political ceremony “by which power is manifested”(Foucault 47). Torture‚ as an exercise of power‚ however‚ goes beyond the physical realm when examining the history of the Jews. Forced to live in cramped‚ dirty‚ and impoverished sectioned off parts of a city‚ required to pay exorbitant taxes‚ confronted with frequent and devastating fires‚ mandated to wear badges and distinctive clothing‚ humiliated on the streets‚ and not permitted to own land or work in certain professions – all make plain the psychological torture Jews endured for centuries in European society.

How were 18th century State-sanctioned physical torture and Gestapo torture different? In Foucault’s analysis‚ torture was part of a larger judicial process of obtaining truth and consisted of a ‘judicial game.’ “It occupied a strict place in a complex penal mechanism in which the procedure of an inquisitorial type was reinforced with elements of the accusatory system” (39). For the system to run smoothly and authentically‚ the prisoner must provide an “oral correlative” (confession) which represented the absolute form of evidence or proof of the criminal act. If the prisoner withstood the ordeal without providing a confession‚ then the charges were dropped. If a confession was elicited during the process of torture‚ then the prisoner‚ in effect‚ judged and condemned himself. With the Nazi regime‚ there was an opposite consequence for not revealing information. Amery describes how the Gestapo tortured its prisoners for information and if they did not confess‚ they would not only not be set free‚ but were sent to a concentration camp (26). In short‚ prisoners were doomed either way.

A crude irony exists in the 18th century version of torture/execution which took the form of a spectacle. The prisoner played a central role in the spectacle in part because the condemned was given the power to heighten the drama by asking for reprieves or adding to his confession with “new revelations.” The enthusiastic public expected and reveled in this new turn of events in the course of what would be an inevitable execution (Foucault 43). In the Lager‚ the role of the spectator became even more perverse because of several factors. The role of the public was played by other prisoners who were forced to take on the position of spectator by the SS‚ who
became the director and star player in the Nazi torture-execution drama. The SS would provide a long-winded diatribe as the condemned would stand by as a kind of prop. In the well known Lager story of the escaped prisoner‚ Mala‚ the SS became so mesmerized by their colleague’s speech‚ they failed to notice the condemned prisoner slit her own wrists. In another instance‚ a prisoner slipped his head into the noose before the SS began their predictable sermon.

Much has been written about torture and its uses: to extract information; to force a confession; to precede an execution; as a form of political provocation. Civilization has had a great deal of difficulty distinguishing punishment from torture. In “Generalized Punishment”Foucault credits the 18th century penal reform movement with identifying the “legitimate frontier of the power to punish” (74)‚ and thus imposing a separation between the legal need to correct (punish) and the sovereign desire for revenge (public execution/torture). This new ‘legal machinery’ advocated that 18th century punishment be dispensed with regard for the humanity of the criminal. In the Third Reich‚ history reverses itself and the characteristics of torture and punishment become intertwined and interchangeable. Both activities were innately moribund and involved tasks that were not organized to achieve particular goals. A prisoner digging mounds of sand or sustaining repeated blows would find himself locked in a universe without direction or meaningful consequence. Nazi punishment had no use and did not solve a ‘problem.’ Arendt suggests that Nazi torture maintained itself in a state of ‘total terror’ without adhering to any predictable goals such as defeating an opponent (OT 440). Like useless punishment‚ Gestapo terror existed for terror’s sake.

Through a process of elimination‚ in his chapter on “Torture‚” Foucault traces the evolution of punishment from the body to the soul. “If the penalty in its most severe forms no longer addresses itself to the must be the soul” (16). One might speculate that those who have been on the receiving end of bodily torture would disagree with this argument. If we were to limit our discussion to France and the French treatment of Algerians‚ Foucault’s body-to-soul theory is further problematized. As a political and judicial policy‚ torture is difficult to examine in a historical context because it bares an uncomfortable consistency throughout human history‚ as torture has taken on an even more malevolent form. Rather than limit the discussion to conceptual frameworks such as ‘body to soul‚’ one might instead examine how torture has encompassed both the body and the soul‚ specifically under torture institutions such as the Third Reich.

Foucault suggests that punishment/public torture carefully eased its way out of juridical practice once the public‚ via the Enlightenment‚ began to view public torture and execution as an atrocity. “Punishment that was not in the least ashamed of being ‘atrocious’ was replaced by punishment that was to claim the honour of being ‘humane’...” (57). This public relations shift from physical punishment redirected itself to the soul. In post-Enlightenment Europe‚ the deprivation of liberty replaced pincers as a deterrent to crime. Thus‚ the political strategy of judicial retaliation as a crime preventative measure evolved into a judicial rehabilitation aimed at correction rather than expiation. The regicide of the 18th century becomes the pinstriped‚ chain-linked‚ maladjusted convict of the 19th century. This prototype would reappear in the Lager where the prisoner’s body and soul would be ‘expiated’ and eventually eliminated.

One can find a correlative to Foucault’s ‘body to soul’ theory in the types of crimes that occurred‚ the legal responses to those crimes‚ and the political backdrop with which these crimes took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. The shift from crimes against the body to crimes against property reflects the waning power of the monarchy and the increasing wealth and power of mercantile economies. As power institutions which had shifted from monarchical to parliamentary adjusted punishments to fit the crime‚ it became clear that public torture executions‚ the vivid‚ ceremonial reminders of the king’s wrath were no longer appropriate. In fact‚ they were bad for business.

In the Lager‚ which functioned in a time warp and introduced an extraordinary melding of historical regressions‚ legalistic manipulations‚ and socio-political mass exterminations‚ the genocide of the Jews represents State-sanctioned crimes aimed at both the body and property. The immediate confiscation of Jewish property‚ the extraction and collection of gold teeth‚ and the recent disclosures of forgotten Holocaust victims’ bank accounts in Switzerland along with deliberate starvation‚ arbitrary beatings‚ and planned executions attest to this dual violation.

In his essay on “Torture‚” Jean Amery’s description of his treatment by the Gestapo reveals the obliterating effects of physical torture. “Frail in the face of violence‚ yelling out in pain‚ awaiting no help‚ capable of no resistance‚ the tortured person is only a body‚ and nothing else beside that” (33). Amery also describes how physical torture renders the unimaginable indelibly real. “Whoever was tortured‚ stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him” (34). It is in Amery’s controlled recounting of his torture that we are able to see torture as a ‘border violation’ of both the body and the psyche-soul. More importantly‚ Amery teaches us that the distinction between physical and psychic pain quickly and irrevocably dissolves in the face of torture.

Perhaps the most fundamental shift in our understanding of punishment and torture has occurred in the absence of God. In the post-Nietzschean world so fittingly captured in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream‚”one can no longer hear the regicide beg pardon from God. In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot‚ the character Myshkin ponders with great poignancy the terror and fragility the accused must feel in confronting certain death. For Myshkin‚ punishment and torture intersect in this existential void: “Who cries for fear? I’d no idea that a grown man...could cry for fear...the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape‚ and there is no torture in the world more terrible...who can tell whether human nature is able to bear this without madness?” (19-20).

VI. Conclusion

One of Arendt’s chief concerns in writing OT was not only to consider how totalitarian power surfaced in the 20th century‚ but even more urgently‚ how to detect such elements in current and even future anti-political ideologies and organizations. Thus‚ OT can be understood more as a signpost or “field manual” (Young-Bruehl 35) than history book of totalitarian origins. In her 2006 study of Why Arendt Matters‚ Elizabeth Young-Bruehl takes up the challenge Arendt lays before us‚ noting how such elements have surfaced‚ paradoxically‚ in both terrorist cells scattered throughout the world and in the post 9/11 American political climate which has reacted to terrorism. In her overview of totalitarian themes‚ Young-Bruehl pays particular attention to the concern Arendt raises regarding “superfluous people” (74) – a point I would like to explore further here.

For Arendt‚ the “problem of superfluity” (188) originated in the 19th century with a surplus of European capital; this monetary excess found a profitable breeding ground in overseas colonies. She ironically notes that superfluous men who now held in their charge superfluous money were “initially motivated by...the most superfluous raw material on earth. Gold.” The irony doubled on itself as the colonizers began treating the colonized as they themselves had been treated – “as superfluous‚ transmitting‚ as it were‚ their trauma” (Young-Bruehl 75). This cyclical‚ abusive power-dynamic travelled to the colonies from Europe and returned to Europe under a more technologically sophisticated totalitarian machine. In the 20th century‚ the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany regarded their own people as inconsequential. The regular purges‚ arbitrary deportations‚ and mass starvations under Stalin are well known. Hitler once said: “Germany will either be a world power or will not be at all.” In short‚ the right to life no longer held true for any life.

In the 21st century‚ indifference to human life has become increasingly “normal” not only under oppressive regimes but also in democracies. Such blatant disregard for the lives of others is what I call Lagerism. Lagerism should be understood as an extension or tangential phenomena of totalitarianism or Panopticism. What Lagerism and Panopticism have in common is that both modalities do not need to physically exercise power in order to control or‚ in the case of Lagerism‚ dispose of “extraneous” individuals or “superfluous” mass groups. Although Arendt rightly argues that the Lager is at the core of totalitarian power‚ Nazi Germany‚ as a totalitarian regime‚ targeted specific groups as scapegoats in order to eventually destroy them. The Third Reich’s fanaticism to eradicate human life outweighed all other concerns. The Lager‚ as an entity unto itself‚ had unanticipated annihilating affects such as disease outbreaks which acted to effortlessly eradicate human life. Furthermore‚ human life lost its meaning in the camps as there were always new shipments of persons to take the place of those who had ceased to exist. Thus‚ Lagerism regards the lives and deaths of persons as negligible. In her essay “What is Freedom?” Arendt makes a similar observation about the status of human life in the modern world: “We have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity” (155).

In the United States‚ we see Lagerism in attitudes toward the homeless and the elderly. Homelessness is “their fault.” Similarly‚ the elderly are considered financially useless and‚ therefore‚ a burden to society. Ours is a brave new world of utilitarian-capitalism‚ which values economic “progress” over humanitarianism. Two recent natural disasters – Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar – teach us more about the destructive disregard governments have for its own citizens’ lives than the destructive forces of nature. In the former‚ local‚ state‚ and federal governmental preparation for the hurricane and subsequent relief efforts were at best mismanaged‚ at worst consciously disregarded. In the latter‚ international relief aid was blocked by the junta government who willfully caused starvation‚ disease‚ and consequently‚ death to its people. Totalitarianism is a (anti)political movement; Lagerism is an anti-humanitarian phenomenon that does not adhere to any particular political system.

Panopticism is a way of understanding power relations. From an amoral position‚ DP brings to our attention how ‘the disciplines’ permeate nearly all aspects of modern society – from prisons to schools to hospitals. It is not a book concerned with the ethics of punishment enacted on any one particular group. Rather‚ it reveals how disciplinary mechanisms such as those found in the plague-stricken town and the Panopticon have “crystallized” (Arendtian terminology) over time into what is now a more technologically advanced version of Panopticism.

“Homogeneous effects of power” (Foucault 202) could be found in the Panopticon. What if the Panopticon became a reality? Would its utilitarian or totalitarian potential have been realized? The presence of the Lager suggests the latter. The Lager stands as the great qualifier to any discussion of penal reform and progress. Is it possible to talk about historical movements such as penal reform and talk about the Lager? Does casting a cold eye on the Lager‚ confronting it head on‚ help civilization to reckon with its demons? I found it necessary to add the Lager to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison to examine its dangerous‚ enigmatic status because discipline‚ punishment‚ torture‚ and genocide are characteristic of our modern age.


Explored later in this essay‚ some of the prohibitions Jews experienced in medieval Europe included owning land‚ receiving marriage licenses‚ and partaking in multiple professions.

Foucault also makes note of a roll call in the plague-stricken town. “The surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration...the registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized” (196).

In an anecdotal footnote‚ Arendt illustrates how Jews represented the potentiality of crime. “General Cherevin of the Okhrana is asked‚ because the opposing party has hired a Jewish lawyer‚ to intervene in favor of a lady who is about to lose a lawsuit...‘the same night I ordered the arrest of this cursed Jew...after all‚ could I treat in the same manner friends and a dirty Jew who may be innocent today but who was guilty yesterday or will be guilty tomorrow?’” (OT 426).

According to Arendt‚ normal criminals did not belong in the Lager because their crimes would be dealt within a normal penal system. “Under no circumstances must the concentration camp become a calculable punishment for definite offenses” (OT 448). One must deduce that the criminals were placed in the Lager for a definite purpose: as Nazi henchmen.

In her chapter on “Totalitarianism in Power‚” Arendt observes that the Nazis’ attempt to obliterate the Jews carries this isolation and disintegration of solidarity into the historical future. “When no witnesses are left there can be no testimony” (OT 451).

London’s “Ring of Steel” and Manhattan’s plan to adopt a similar system of cameras and surveillance attest to a modern world that is increasingly becoming panoptic in organization.

The humanitarian disaster in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Burmese military junta’s deliberate attempts to stop humanitarian aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis support such paradigms of human superfluity.

“The execution was so gruesome that the Vatican condemned it as ‘barbaric‚’ and the electric chair itself is now under renewed scrutiny. ‘It was a burning alive‚ literally...flames erupted all across the top of his head’” (CNN‚ U.S. News).

The Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse and the “Situation of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay” as reported by The Commission on Human Rights both point to the oxymoronic notion of modern day “penal reform.”

Primo Levi speaks of a “genealogy of today’s violence that branches out precisely from the violence that was dominant in Hitler’s Germany” (The Drowned and the Saved 200). One can agree that the atom bombing of Japan‚ the “carpet” bombings of the Allies at the end of World War II‚ the Pol Pot Regime in Cambodia‚ the recent ‘ethnic cleansings’ in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia‚ and the present genocide in Darfur represent a loss of humanity even during periods of conflict or war.

The Auschwitz survivor calls the camp “another planet” (Gutman 152). One can rightly assume that death camp prisoners’ experiences defied all previous experiences known to mankind.

A fundamental difference existed between the torture-execution played out against the Jews and the regicide’s punishment. Though deemed a criminal‚ the regicide was recognized as a human being; the Nazis‚ on the other hand‚ never considered Jews to be human.

Hannah Arendt quotes Adolf Eichmann on the use of peepholes in gassing vans during his own post-war trial: “I only remember that a physician in white overalls told me to look through a hole into the truck while they were still in it. I refused to do that. I could not. I had to disappear” (EJ 88).

In her study of “Totalitarianism in Power‚” Hannah Arendt observes a similar policy of projection and scapegoating: “Expulsion of Jews carried an important portion of Nazism into other countries; by forcing Jews to leave the Reich passportless and penniless‚ the legend of the Wandering Jew was realized” (OT 415).

“Master of Guillotine.”

In The Story of Judaism‚ Bernard J. Bamberger attests to the “mental torture” Jews endured in the early ghetto days at the hands of their Christian counterparts (220). In A History of the Jews‚ Abram Leon Sachar calls the conditions of 16th century ghetto life “a torment” (252). The most devastating medieval fire in Germany took place in the Frankfurt ghetto‚ 1711 (Sachar 253). In the post-Enlightenment world‚ thoughts of torturing Jews were clearly articulated in the Henry Memorial – a memorial of the man who forged the evidence against Alfred Dreyfus: “Jews were to be torn to pieces like Marsyas in the Greek myth; Reinach ought to be boiled alive; Jews should be stewed in oil or pierced to death with needles; they should be ‘circumcised up to the neck’” In a newspaper article at the time of the Dreyfus Affair‚ the following words were recorded in a conversation among members of French high society: “A physician speaking to some friends of mine about Dreyfus‚ chanced remark‚ ‘I’d like to torture him.’ ‘And I wish‚’ rejoined one of the ladies‚ ‘that he were innocent. Then he’d suffer more.’” (OT 107). The Jew-hating Mob had already begun actions to realize the secret desires of the Anti-Drefysard camp – it was only a matter of time for such torture-fantasies to become full-blown reality in Nazi Germany.

Sara Nomberg-Przytyk‚ Auschwitz. (100-4).

During the Battle of Algiers‚ the French colonial powers regularly led inquisitorial torture sessions on members of the FLN.

Should it come as a surprise that many Holocaust survivors have committed suicide‚ ending the endless torture? Jean Amery took his own life in 1978 soon after completing his book‚ On Suicide‚ a Discourse on Voluntary Death. Primo Levi’s death in 1987 was deemed suicide by the coroner.

Works Cited

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Amery‚ Jean. At the Mind’s Limit: Contemplation by a Survivor on Auschwitz and itsRealities. Indian Press University‚ 1980. Trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld.

Arendt‚ Hannah. “The Concentration Camps.” Partisan Review 15 Part 2. July. 1948: 743-763.

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Bamberger‚ Bernard J. The Story of Judaism. New York: Schocken Publishing‚ 1970.

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Sachar‚ Abram Leon. A History of the Jews. New York: Knopf‚ 1967. 5th Edition.

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The Holocaust History Project. Heinrich Himmler’s Speech at Poznan (Posen)‚ Oct. 4‚ 1943. <>. Last Modified: April 27‚ 2008.

The Nazi Concentration Camps: Structure and Aims; The Image of the Prisoner; The Jews in the Camps. Proceedings of the Fourth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference – January 1980. Ed. Yisrael Gutman‚ Avital Saf. Yad Vashem Jerusalem: Daf-Chen Press‚ 1984.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Hannah Spector "Classification & Disciplinary Systems: The Birth of the Monster Prison". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available October 1, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2009, Published: September 9, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Hannah Spector