Beyond the Panopticon:
Mass Imprisonment and the
Law, Culture and the Humanities
6 (3) 327–340 2010
In the 1970s and the 1980s, the role of the prison in modern society was seared into the imagination of the humanities by Michel Foucault’s treatment of the prison in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison; his genealogy of the modern “soul.” At a time when the social sciences had little to say about the nature of imprisonment as a specific historical practice (rather than a problem of social organization), the humanities helped define the prison as a contemporary problem.
During this era, ironically, a new model of imprisonment was arising, one based on the mass
imprisonment of whole demographic categories of the population rather than the disciplinary
investment of the deviant individual. The scale of imprisonment has arisen by more than five fold.
Unfortunately the humanities and cultural studies have been slow to reckon with the nature of
mass imprisonment. While a new wave of social science scholarship, partially inspired by the earlier work of the humanities, is engaging the topic, the absence of the humanities, especially their critical and normative edge, is significant.