Defending the indefensible – II

22 02 2010

Some notes on the body and power

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

“Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

This is how Michel Foucault opens his work, Discipline and Punish. Again, those who want to go more profoundly into the subject can go do their own research. The main point of these observations was to deconstruct the modern perception of treating the body as a sacrosanct locus of individual rights. For Foucault, power did not cease inflicting pain on the body because of some abstract concept of being “civilized”, but more because other forms of control were deemed more effective and less susceptible to causing sympathy towards the criminal.
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