Penal Modernism Before Modernity
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Abolafia, Jacob Samuel
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CitationAbolafia, Jacob Samuel. 2019. Penal Modernism Before Modernity. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe prison is a political institution. It is even said to be one of the paradigmatic instruments of specifically modern forms of social and political control. The task of this dissertation is twofold. It aims to stress the way in which the prison, like the other institutions of political life, has been a subject of inquiry in the history of political thought. And it aims to show that this history is much longer than has hitherto been supposed to be the case. The existence of this broader story, it is suggested, may require us to reexamine some unquestioned assumptions about the distinction between modern and premodern political institutions.
The dissertation begins by considering the evidence for the regular use of penal incarceration before the modern era. The first chapters take up the evidence around imprisonment in 4th century Athens, canvassing both the literary and oratorical evidence, as well as the theoretical discussion of punishment in general, and incarceration in particular, in Plato. The fulcrum of this evidence is Plato’s imagined prison system in the Laws. The Laws, with its focus on the non-ideal and its attention to the minutiae of legislative design, provides both an influential account of custodial punishment as education, and an unnoticed theory of the tension between social change and political institutions.
The ancient texts examined in the first half of the dissertation would, on their own, be a useful comparative case study in the logic of incarceration. But the early instance of a theory of incarceration and the latter era of prison building are also connected by several historical-philosophical threads. The second part of the dissertation follows these threads into the modern period. The fourth chapter shows how Thomas More’s Utopia owes much of its theory of punishment, including the use of rehabilitation and its non-ideal approach to institutions, to Plato, and particularly to the Laws. More’s literary-philosophical method was, in its way, as influential as Plato’s, and his addition of labor to the custodial regime of the prison marked a turning point in modern punishment. The dissertation concludes with a re-examination of the most well-known modern theorist of incarceration, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his Panopticon prison. The chapter finds a fundamental contradiction in Bentham between the liberal (or democratic) principle of lesser intervention and the subtle, but persistent tendency in Bentham’s thought towards a comprehensive spectrum of education and punishment not unlike what was uncovered in More and Plato.
Before the prison became a complex, before incarceration captured the state itself, imprisonment was an idea, a set of principles for the design of political institutions. The classical agreement around the idealized mission of state punishment seems a far cry from today’s carceral state. But if Plato’s theory of rehabilitation and More’s account of labor as utilitarian reform do not reflect the contemporary practices of warehousing and incapacitation, they do reflect elements in the 18th century milieu traditionally identified with the “birth of the prison.” This dissertation will suggest that the real disjunct in the history of penal theory is not between Plato and More or More and Bentham, it is between Bentham and ourselves.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42029744
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