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29/1/2015

FoucaultandDebord

OntheflawsofMichelFoucault'sDisciplineandPunish
TheflawsofDisciplineandPunish,whichwaspublishedinFrancein1974,derivefromthefactthat
itsauthorclearlyseesGuyDebord'sTheSocietyoftheSpectacle,publishedinFrancein1967,as
competition,thatis,asaworkthatmustbediscredited,ratherthancommentedupon,supplementedor
corrected.GiventhenatureoftheFrenchintellectualscene,perhapsthisaspectofcompetitionwas
inevitable.Inanyevent,unlikeGuyDebord,whoalwaysmentionedbynamethosehewascriticizing
ordismissing,MichelFoucaultdoesn'tmentionDebordbynameinDisciplineandPunishinstead,he
attemptstoappropriateandalterthemeaningofwhatDebordcalled"thespectacle."[1]
ForFoucault,thespectacleisidenticalto"thespectacleofthescaffold"(thatis,publicexecutionin
the18thcentury)andso"thedisappearanceofpublicexecutionsmarksthereforethedeclineofthe
spectacle."Thetelescopingof"thespectacleofthescaffold"to"thespectacle"takesplaceagainand
againinDisciplineandPunish.Tocitejustoneexample:"themodernritualsofexecutionattestto
thisdoubleprocess:thedisappearanceofthespectacleandtheeliminationofpain."Accordingto
Foucault,modernsocialrelationsare"theexactreverseofthespectacle."Heinsiststhat"oursociety
isnotoneofspectacle,butofsurveillance,"eventhoughbothtermsrefertothesocialrealmofthe
visibleandneednotbemutuallyexclusive.ForFoucault,"thepowerofspectacle"declinedand
disappearedwiththereplacementofemperorsandkingsby"disciplines"and"machines."Heinsists
that"WearemuchlessGreeksthanwebelieve.Weareneitherintheamphitheatre,noronthestage,
butinthepanopticmachine,investedbyitseffectsofpower,whichwebringtoourselvessincewe
arepartofitsmechanism."
Asmanyofourreaderswillalreadyknow,thepanopticonwasoriginallyacircularprisondesignedby
JeremyBenthamintheearly19thcentury.Itsdistinctivefeaturewasacentrallylocatedwatcher's
booth,fromwhichawardencouldseeintoeachandeverycell.ItissignificantthatFoucaultsaysthat,
priortohisownwork,
panopticismhasreceivedlittleattention.Itisregardedasnotmuchmorethanabizarre
littleutopia,aperversedream[...]Thereweremanyreasonswhyitreceivedlittlepraise
themostobviousisthatthediscoursestowhichitgaveriserarelyacquired,exceptinthe
academicclassifications,thestatusofsciencesbuttherealreasonisnodoubtthatthe
powerthatitoperatesandwhichitaugmentsisadirect,physicalpowerthatmenexercise
upononeanother.Aningloriousculminationhadanoriginthatcouldonlybegrudgingly
acknowledged.
Andso,bydiscoveringandpopularizingtherelevanceofpanopticismtomodernsociety,Foucault
hopestodisplaceDebordandhispresumablyoverratedoroverexposedtheoryofthespectacle.
But,unlikeDebord,Foucaultisn'treallycommittedtohisbuzzword.NotewellthatFoucaultdoesn't
traceBentham'spanopticontoits"ingloriousculmination"inGeorgeOrwell'sfamousnovelNineteen
EightyFour,whichunaccountablygoescompletelywithoutmentioninDisciplineandPunish.Nor
doesFoucaultmentionthefactthat,thoughtheywerefrequentlybuiltinthe1830s,panopticalprisons
weren'toftenbuiltthereafter,despitetheirmuchpraisedutility.Ironically,itisFoucaulthimselfwho
providesthereasonsfortherejectionofpanopticalprisons.Ontheonehand,thepositionofthe
centralizedwatchercaneasilybeabused:"[I]tdoesnotmatterwhatmotiveanimateshim:the
curiosityoftheindiscreet,themaliceofachild,thethirstforknowledgeofaphilospherwhowishes
tovisitthismuseumofhumannature,ortheperversityofthosewhotakepleasureinspyingand
punishing."Ontheotherhand,theotheremployeesofthepanopticonmightobjecttotheirworking
conditions,andthuscause"laborproblems."Foucaultagain:
Inthiscentraltower,thedirectormayspyonalltheemployeesthathehasunderhis
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orders:nurses,doctors,foremen,teachers,wardenshewillbeabletojudgethem
continuously,altertheirbehavior,imposeuponthemthemethodshethinksbestandit
willevenbepossibletoobservethedirectorhimself.Aninspectorarrivingunexpectedly
atthecenterofthePanopticonwillbeabletojudgeataglance,withoutanythingbeing
concealedfromhim,howtheentireestablishmentisfunctioning.
Combinethetwoamaliciouschildorasadisticscopophiliacwatchingoverandcontrollingastaff
ofwelleducatedprofessionalsandyouhaveasystemthatjustwon'twork.
Eveniftheseproblemscouldbesolved,bothBenthamandFoucaultmakeserious,evenfatalmistakes
intheircalculationsconcerningtheeffectivenessofsurveillance.AccordingtoFoucault,"themajor
effectofthePanopticon"is"toinduceintheinmateastateofconsciousandpermanentvisibilitythat
assurestheautomaticfunctioningofpower,"whichcanbeaccomplishedbyarrangingthingssothat
"thesurveillanceispermanentinitseffects,evenifitisdiscontinuousinitsactionthattheperfection
ofpowershouldleadtorenderitsactualexerciseunnecessarythatthisarchitecturalapparatusshould
beamachineforcreatingandsustainingapowerrelationindependentofthepersonwhoexercisesit
inshort,thattheinmatesshouldbecaughtupinapowersituationofwhichtheyarethemselvesthe
bearers."Foucaultgoesontosay,
Inviewofthis,Benthamlaiddowntheprinciplethatpowershouldbevisibleand
unverifiable.Visible:theinmateswillconstantlyhavebeforehis[sic]eyesthetalloutline
ofthecentraltowerfromwhichheisspiedupon.Unverifiable:theinmatemustnever
knowwhetherheisbeinglookedatatanyonemomentbuthemustbesurethathemay
alwaysbeso.
AsIpointedoutinanessayonpokerfortheSurveillanceCameraPlayers,someenoughofthe
peoplewhoknoworsuspectthattheymightbewatchedconstantlydonotbecome"anxious,"donot
voluntarilycurtailorceasetheircriminalbehavior,donotget"caughtup"inthe"powersituation."
Instead,undeterred,theytreatthissituationlikeitwasagame,agameofpoker:theysuspecttheother
player(thewatcher)isbluffingortheyengageinbluffsoftheirown.Theyconstantlyexperiment:can
Igetawaywithit?whendidIgetawaywithit?canIgetawaywithitagain?And,ifnooneis
watching,theywilltrytogetawaywithitallthetime.Furthermore,eveniftheyareinfactbeing
watchedallthetime,somewillbecome"players,"thatis,willperformforthewatchers,andthus
demonstratethefactsthatbeingwatchedisn'tenoughandthat,if"BigBrother"trulywantstobea
tyrant,hewon'tbeabletodoiteasilyorcheaplyhewillhavetoexertforcehewillhavetogethis
handsdirty,evenbloody.
Butwhoreallyknowshowthewatcherwillplayhishand,oncehe'sbeenconfronted?Willherespond
likeachild,aphilosopherorasadist?Nooneknows,andthisisthefatalweaknessofthePanopticon.
IfitshouldturnoutthattheGreatWizard,"themanbehindthecurtain,"isexposedasafraudor
coward,thedamagedonetothe"perfection"ofthemachineillusionwouldbeirreparable.Noone
wouldeverbeafraidofhimagain.
BillNotBored,OctoberDecember2004.
Author'sfootnote:
[1]Notethat,thoughheisequallydismissiveofDebord'sconceptofspectacle,JeanBaudrillardhas
alwaystakenpainstomentiontheSituationistInternational,ofwhichDebordwasafounding
member.Cf.forexampleBaudrillard'sTheMirrorofProduction,publishedinFrancein1973.

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