The work of Michel Foucault sees modern penal technology its ann expression of power that operates through and is motivated by a dry instrumental reason. This article draws upon Durkheim and Bakhtin to advance a radically alternative approach. It is suggested that such technology is invested with sacred and profane symbolism and is understood via emotionally charged, dramatically compelling narrative frames. Tensions between official and unauthorized discourses can be understood through a center/periphery model of culture. In an extended case study of the guillotine, it is shown dial the apparatus was initially legitimated as an expression of a sacred revolutionary code. Such a discourse was subsequently destabilized by popular medical debates that raised the specter of pain after decapitation. While inconclusive, these new motifs mobilized Gothic and grotesque themes that confronted the rationalist aesthetics of the guillotine. A situation of Bakhtinian hetoroglossia eventuated. Uncertainty, the uncanny and fable entered a discursive field of increasing complexity.