Panopticism, Still

After what seems like a stupidly long time to get there, I finally reached the end of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I’m talking not only about the duration of this particular go-round of reading, but also about the fact that I got through 1.3 masters degrees and a Ph.D., all of which reveled in philosophy, ethics, cultural studies, anthropology, and religion, without having been publicly shamed for carrying that big fat knowledge-lacuna around with me.

Photo: Hans Weingartz, Wikimedia Commons

Feeling less now like a fraud, and also generally happy to have imbibed the primary source about which so much discussion has circled ever since its publication, what I can’t get out of my head right now is the author’s account of Mettray, a sort of 19th-century juvie near Tours. Devoid of walls, the reformatory, according to Foucault’s account, was the epitome of discipline’s* ability to rule without recourse to traditional forms of overt violence or to the typical prison. My favorite of its facets? The phrase written out on the wall of each boy’s cell: “God sees you.” These days, its presence might seem like something out of Jack Handey’s excellent “Deep Thoughts,” or the product of a bumbling bureaucrat, the protagonist of an outsized satire. And I’m sure your average 19th-century kid not prone to buy into the system would probably have had a nice chuckle at the transformative intent of the message as well.

What I’m finding less funny is how we can see contemporary use of big data and tracking as part of discipline’s creation and use of new knowledges in shaping and maintaining the Normal. Some might also be prone at the moment to substitute “the NSA” for “God” in that phrase of yore– and it might be even more interesting to speculate about how said agency and those that depend upon and interact with it might have more, and more insidious, ways of corralling so-called (potential) delinquents into the Normal than does any assertion about divine displeasure. What may be a more interesting thought experiment would be to imagine employing Mettray’s warning message as the basis for a new interior design pattern for the NSA and for those in league with it. I’m guessing none of the targets, though, would see the humor or the irony in that move– and, as proven by Google’s own legendary appeal to its employees to refrain from evil, you eventually stop seeing what’s right in front of your face, much less thinking or caring about the demands it makes or the action it requires.

Was Foucault happy to have revealed the ways in which society often controls its own? I can’t offer any thoughts on that question. But my guess is, he knew it would be relevant long after his rock star status was transferred to the next aspirant on the historical-philosophical scene.

*Foucault, of course, has something particular in mind when he talks about discipline/the disciplines– very generally, a mechanism for achieving docility (adherence to the norm) and maximum productivity, which has at its disposal and continues to produce new forms of measurement, documentation, observation, and so forth. Examples? Medicine, education, criminology,…

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