Time Outs to Doing Time: Manifest vs. Latent Role of Discipline


In today’s world, both solitary confinement in the prison system and time outs in the household seem to be natural human behavior.  We think of them as the obvious and humane way to discipline wrong behavior.  However, Foucault exposes that commanding someone’s time as a form of punishment is in fact a fairly recent development.  Before the eighteenth century punishment was purely corporal.  Through describing the transition from corporal to prison-based punishment, Foucault reveals the power role that punishment truly plays, and the arbitrariness of  the development of prison-based punishment. Time-based punishments may manifest as humane and natural, but the latent reason that punishment transitioned from corporal to time-based was in fact to increase the power of the bourgeois. Individual, household punishment by parents towards children transitioned to imitate state punishment.


Time-outs are methods of disciplining children that came about as an alternative to physically punishing children, similar to how the public execution gave way to imprisonment. (Siegel, Time http://time.com/3404701/discipline-time-out-is-not-good/) This Time article writes that the objective of giving disobedient children time-out is to change behavior and build skills. However, according to the Time article, time-out is actually detrimental to children and does not accomplish its goals as a disciplinary method. The writers believe that the primary experiences that a child comprehends during time-out are isolation and rejection, and that what children need most during their times of distress are connections. There seem to be many ways in which the Time article’s description of time-out contains similarities Foucault’s description of discipline; the manifest objective of the Time’s time-out is to change the child’s behavior and build their skills but the latent effects are the subjection of the child to isolation and rejection.


On the other end of the disciplinary spectrum, the effectiveness of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure is frequently called into question. Prisoners that pose a threat themselves and others at facilities such as Pelican Bay are often forced into solitary confinement for periods ranging anywhere from weeks to decades (Goode, NYT https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/04/health/solitary-confinement-mental-illness.html?_r=0). The manifest quality of solitary confinement is isolation; it is inherently secretive and those subjected to these measures are invisible. The latent component of solitary confinement, however, seems to be the stabilization of the prison society by means of heightened criminalization. Like the highly politicized actions of the working class during the French Revolution, most of the inmates have been placed in solitary because of gang affiliated actions, a form of quasi-political action. In both the French Revolution and the conditions of solitary confinement, the latent repercussions of political action is the depoliticization and stabilization of the surrounding society via discipline. According to Foucault, compelling disciplinary power “is exercised through its invisibility…in discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen.” (187) To inmates within the prison, it is clear that the wardens are responsible for exercising their disciplinary power. Those subjected, however, become forgotten; they are not seen and therefore cannot behave as an example to their peers. Assuming Foucault’s argument is sound, how can we justify this disciplinary measure as an effective means of exerting power on the greater population of the prison?


With a Foucauldian understanding of the power dynamics that one might witness, both in the punishment of a child in time out and the solitary confinement of inmates, another important piece of information we should take note of is what ties these two disciplinary methods together. In other words, according to Foucault, why are they similarly effective despite apparent differences between these two different groups of people? To understand this, we should understand the grand similarity between them: the delinquent as a class. What appears manifest to us, or an average onlooker, is that the petulant child or the inmate who is sent to solitary confinement are in some way making themselves deviant from the “norm” or what is expected of them. We use punishment as a method to isolate them – to teach them that what they have done is not what is expected of them by placing in a separate physical space apart from other members of the group – such as one might see in a classroom setting or, of course, in a prison. However, “the penalty of detention seems to fabricate an enclosed, separated and useful illegality” (278). We assume that because the delinquent has misbehaved, he has created himself in the form of the delinquent. However, what we might not see with such ease is that the creation of the delinquent as a class is actually for the benefit of the person who may exercise power. In the case of both the petulant child and the inmate who is sent to solitary these separations from what is normal are both used to the advantage of power – to reinforce the power structure that is already at work by creating the delinquent as an example. This is the interaction that is much less easily seen and understood than the simple creation of the delinquent through their own “poor” actions.


The latent use of the delinquent to increase the power of the upper class is mirrored in the parent’s use of the misbehaved child to reaffirm their power. In using temporal, solitary punishments, on the surface it looks as if the parent and the justice system are trying to correct the individual, therefore serving the individual. In reading these two articles, it is manifest that these punishments do not serve the delinquent by placing them on a path to follow the rules and enter a high class. Indeed, Foucault claims that “The ‘shameful’ class existed only to disappear..” (182)  Instead of serving the to reintroduce the delinquents into society, temporal punishment works to strengthen existing power dynamics, maintaining the delinquent as a delinquent to do that. In Foucault’s words, “The perpetual penalty that traverse all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchies, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes.” (183)  If we are hoping to use punishment to reinstate the criminal into society and to build good behavior in the child, what method of punishment might serve that purpose? Clearly this goal still involves a hierarchical system (of classes and parental control), however the delinquent stops functioning as an example, and instead joins her class in its specific purpose in society. If the goal instead is to build a classless society, what systems of state and household punishment should be used to facilitate this transition? Does Foucault’s ideal of the classless society extend to child-parent relationships? Is it possible for anybody (Foucault included) within a system of classes, to imagine this classless society? Does making manifest the latent purpose of temporal punishment bring us any closer to the classless society?



3 thoughts on “Time Outs to Doing Time: Manifest vs. Latent Role of Discipline

  1. I liked this article. Even thought the comparison between the prison system and parenting systems is not complex to explain, I think you used it well to explain the manifest and latent in Foucault. I also think that you explained your theme well. I could tell what it was and what you were doing with it. I am curious about if the creation of the “shameful” class as a power tactic relates to fearing the unknown? Because you talk about how people who are put in solitary confinement and taken away and disappear from society and that it doesn’t seem like it directly influences the other prisoners. I was just wondering how people’s fear of being put in solitary confinement, or fear of being in a shameful class that they don’t even see, plays into this. As far as the question at the end of your article go, I do think that it will be necessary for punishment in child-parent relationships to change in order to change punishment in society. I think that how parents interact with children both mimic and affects in a circular sort of way how the children to grow up to respond to society. If you teach your children that time-outs are effective punishment, then solitary confinement seems more normal. If you teach your children that spanking is not effective punishment, then corporal punishment seems even worse.


  2. I think this post is a great connection between Foucault and a concept (the time out) that many of us probably experienced during our childhood. Reading this post, I started thinking about Foucault’s dissection of why the torture spectacle became a less common punishment. Like a parent spanking their child, the king’s torture ritual is a display of their power, but it also frames the punisher as violent and has the potential to prompt a similarly violent reaction. The time out positions the parent as an observer rather than a violent punisher, and makes the power in that punishment more latent.


  3. I really liked this analysis, and I think Foucault would kind of agree that the time out is one normalizing behavior that condones and prepares society for solitary confinement. I think that this is an interesting extension on the education system as well. By disciplined training at home, one begins to accept society’s organization because it defines the way in which the family structure is another institution. I think that this can seem disturbing as child rearing and family life are natural, but the way that families are normalized, that’s why we have countless parenting books and classes. I agree, that this definitely is a time based normalization procedure, I think it is one that seems also inherently tied to space and observation as well. When you deny a person space, it shows them that they are of a lower class and are constantly reminded of their ‘criminal’ status. Also, children and prisoners alike a constantly observed within this system as well, it feels as if one is solitary confinement or a time out would have a heightened sense of awareness of their crime. I think this is a ‘normalizing’ procedure that indeed perpetuates the delinquent class within an institution and on a societal wide scale.


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