Foucault begins the book by contrasting two forms of penalty: the violent and chaotic public torture of Robert-François Damiens
, who was convicted of attempted regicide in the mid-18th century, and the highly regimented daily schedule for inmates from an early 19th century prison. These examples provide a picture of just how profound the change in western penal systems were after less than a century. Foucault wants the reader to consider what led to these changes. How did western culture shift so radically?
To answer this question, he begins by examining public torture itself. He argues that the public spectacle of torture was a theatrical forum that served several intended and unintended purposes for society. The intended purposes were:
- Reflecting the violence of the original crime onto the convict's body for all to see.
- Enacting the revenge upon the convict's body, which the sovereign seeks for having been injured by the crime. Foucault argues that the law was considered an extension of the sovereign's body, and so the revenge must take the form of harming the convict's body.
Some unintended consequences were:
- Providing a forum for the convict's body to become a focus of sympathy and admiration.
- Creating a site of conflict between the masses and the sovereign at the convict's body. Foucault notes that public executions often led to riots in support of the prisoner.
Thus, he argues, the public execution was ultimately an ineffective use of the body, qualified as non-economical. As well, it was applied non-uniformly and haphazardly. Hence, its political cost was too high. It was the antithesis of the more modern concerns of the state: order and generalization.[/list]