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Surveillance and Spectacle

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The individual must be controlled for the health and betterment of society , but how?

Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish: Panopticism” compares and contrasts two different kinds of power exertion on the individual in order to instil discipline and promote productivity. The first example of control is quarantine plague victims with strict procedures and surveillance enforced by top-down authority in order to minimize risk and keep order. This method of control was effective in small, easily policed village without advanced communication systems, but Foucault outlines a far more effective power structure for the modern world: the Panopticon tower.

Now this is where Foucault starts to scare me. He describes the tower as a type of prison cell where the inmate is viewable by his captor at all times, but he cannot see them. He is aware of his own visibility to authority, and at the same time to cut off from the source of authority and the rest of the inmate population.

“Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised (Foucault 75).”

Foucault argues that the very awareness of his visibility forces the inmate toward self governing behaviors. Power in this instance works internally with a limited amount of resources, making it highly effective. In fact, no one has to be watching the inmate. It’s the knowledge that there are always eyes watching that dictates his behavior.

Now why would this be scary? Well, let’s make an parallel to J.R.R Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The Dark Lord Sauron’s All-Seeing Eye was able to look across the Land of Morder and track the movement of the Ring. It was also able to exert power over minions of orcs to wage war against middle earth. It did this by being an ever-present authoritative power. The characters in the novel (as well as the reader) were in constant fear, always aware of The Eye’s gaze, even if it was not directly focused on the Ring.

Foucault’s Panopticon tower is also an architectural and optical system. It “…has a role of amplification; although it arranges power, although it is intended to make it more economic and more effective, it does so not for power itself, nor for the immediate salvation of a threatened society: its aim is to strengthen the social forces – to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply (Foucault 75).”

While Tolkein’s All-Seeing Eye amplified the power of evil, Foucault’s Panopticon amplifies power over society by continuously and subtly exerting power in all parts of human life; the power force always being present, even if the individual has no awareness of it.

So how does the power function without us knowing? By promoting institutionalized discipline, that’s how. The State creates institutions: military, economic, education that promote the health of society but also dictate the rules of society, forcing the individual to act within those rules. But it’s not discipline that is the apparatus of control, “it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology (Foucault, 75).”

In essence, the entire construct of our society is surveillance.

But wait, Foucault changes his perspective in his later lectures entitled “Studies in Governmentality”. He defines the Art of Governing as less of a single unseen, institutionalized power force than “a triangle,  sovereignty-discipline-government,  which  has as its  primary  target  the  population  and as its  essential mechanism the apparatuses of  security (Foucault).” He speaks of how government should be likened to the governing a ship, in charge of the interactions between crew, cargo, destination and functions all at once. This governing should also be driven by the needs and desires of the population, rather by the control force of the governing body.

The question becomes which one of these theories is accurate to modern governance in the digital age? If we refer back to “Blown to Bits” we are still in the middle of the internet explosion. Governments are unable to keep up with the complexities of governance on a global scale and formerly stable institutions are having to be redefined on the fly.  It feels to me as though we are in a new age of vigilantly justice.

Living in an uncharted terrain without institutions, regulations to enforce security and no defined power structure doesn’t seem consistant with  Foucault’s Art of Government. And although it is a world of constant surveillance like unto the Panopticon Tower, individuals now have the ability to disconnect from the network. The truth is that answer to governing in the digital age, is as yet unknown, but it may end in a virtual saloon brawl or a pistol draw at high noon.


Written by HiuHiMedia

February 2, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Politics

Tagged with , , ,

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