Living Everywhere in a Carceral Surveillance State

By Bert Olivier

If you live in a Chinese city, or even in London, you are probably so used to surveillance cameras all around you – on lamp posts, the corners of buildings, and so on – that you would hardly bat an eyelid. Yet what contemporary city-denizens take for granted was not always the case, and most people would be surprised to know that surveillance has a long history, and was linked to modes of punishment from early on.

The thinker who brought us the history of punishment, linked with surveillance, was Michel Foucault, who died prematurely in 1984, and whose thesis of ‘panopticism’ I referred to in an earlier post. His work is an inexhaustible source of insight regarding the way in which one enters into a relationship with history – something that is not self-evident, but requires careful consideration of the contingent, usually unpredictable factors which have contributed to the present state of affairs. This insight also opens the way for a critique of current social practices, which may otherwise seem self-justifying and necessary. 

Foucault’s writings on enlightenment suggest that there is a fundamental difference between ‘enlightenment’ in the Kantian sense, which emphasised the universal moment of scientific and philosophical knowledge, and ‘enlightenment’ in the sense of a philosophy of the contemporary present, which would do justice to both the (Kantian) universal as well as what is contingent and particular, which is not subject to historical laws, deterministically conceived.

In his essay, What is enlightenment? (in The Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow, P., New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 32-50), Foucault argues that Kant’s emphasis on the universal should be amplified by Baudelaire’s characterisation of the modern in terms of a tension between being and becoming (or the universal and the particular), in this way finding the ‘eternal’ (or enduringly valuable) in the transitory, historically contingent moment. For Baudelaire, this amounts to a species of self-invention.

Foucault, however, maintains that such self-invention would enable one to turn Kant’s critique into one that is pertinent for the present time, by inquiring what there is, in what we have been taught to accept as being necessary and universal, which we no longer are, or want to be, thus practising a kind of ‘transgressive’ enlightenment. This, I would like to show, is highly germane to the time in which we find ourselves, and by scrutinising the history that has brought us to our fraught present, we should be in a better position to identify what it is that we no longer want to be.

The obvious question is therefore, what specific contingent practices of the present would have to be transgressed, and how could this be done? This is where the French thinker’s work on punishment and surveillance becomes important insofar as it is applicable to the present time. Specifically, I am thinking of Foucault’s first lengthy ‘genealogical’ study, aimed at exposing historically effective power relations (as opposed to the earlier ‘archaeological’ studies, which uncovered historically shaping discourses), Discipline and PunishThe Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995) – although the later volumes on the ‘history of sexuality’ are relevant in a different way.

Discipline and Punish may be summarised by stating that it affords one scrutiny of contemporary punitive and other social practices that reduce human beings to disciplined, docile bodies, while the The History of Sexuality – Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), demonstrates how ‘bio-political’ control is exercised over individuals and populations through ‘bio-power.’

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In Discipline and Punish Foucault is interested in the distinctively modern form of (punitive) social control which, unlike the premodern form, is not designed to frighten citizens into submission. The latter was achieved by making a public spectacle of the punishment of criminals, for example through the gory business of drawing and quartering (Foucault 1995, pp. 3-6).

Instead, modern control requires many, varied micro-mechanisms for disciplining citizens, such as ‘the gentle way of punishment’ – prison-incarceration, which was put into practice surprisingly quickly, with its meticulously calculated categories of morally efficient and socially useful penalties, as a generalised punishment for a diversity of crimes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe (Foucault 1995, pp. 115-117). It also included the ‘instrumental coding of the body,’ for example the discipline of rifle-training (Foucault 1995, p. 153), as well as the ‘analytic’ of learning to read according to different stages (Foucault 1995, pp. 159-160), teaching children a form of uniform ‘penmanship’ (Foucault 1995, p. 176), and organizing available space in hospitals in an increasingly ‘efficient’ manner.

The paradigmatic instance of disciplining was undoubtedly the ‘panoptical’ surveillance of prisoners in prisons designed, according to Jeremy Bentham’s 19th-century model, to yield maximum visibility of inmates in their cells (Foucault 1995, pp. 200-201).

Foucault distinguishes three chief disciplinary mechanisms, all of which contribute to shaping individuals into economically productive, but politically impotent, entities – if this sounds familiar, given the apathy of most citizens in contemporary democracies, it should be clear what the history behind present levels of political passivity, if not impotence, has been. These mechanisms are ‘hierarchical observation,’ ‘normalising judgment,’ and the ‘examination’ (in which the first two are combined). Together, they comprise the backbone of a ‘panoptical’ society, named after Bentham’s optimal-surveillance prison, or ‘Panopticon.’ Such ‘panopticism,’

Foucault demonstrates in this book, has become pervasive in modern society through the micro-operation of mechanisms such as those alluded to above. In passing one should note that modern panopticism – guided by the regulative ideal of complete transparency or visibility of all citizens – could be understood as a secular version of the Christian (as well as other religions’) belief that no one can escape the ‘all-seeing eye of God.’

The disciplinary techniques by which people have been constructed have the effect of producing ‘docile bodies’ across a broad social spectrum, according to Foucault. ‘A body is docile,’ says Foucault (1995, p. 136), ‘that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved.’ Although this could have been the aim in previous eras, the ‘techniques’ that comprised this modern ‘project of docility’ included new elements (Foucault 1995, pp. 136-137), such as the ‘scale of the control’ (which concentrated on individual bodies instead of the collective), the ‘object of control,’ (the ‘efficiency of movements;’ the ‘economy,’) and ‘the modality’ (an ‘uninterrupted, constant coercion’ through supervision, exercise, and surveillance).

It is not difficult to think of contemporary counterparts of these techniques, such as the manner in which one is subjected to standing in queues at modern airports, waiting to go through security before one can board one’s flight, and having to submit to the procedures of removing items from your pockets and all the rest of it – today’s equivalents of the micro-techniques which produce ‘docile bodies.’

The three mechanisms of discipline referred to above are largely self-explanatory, but a few clarifying remarks would not be amiss. The first, ‘hierarchical observation,’ is ‘a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power’ (Foucault 1995, pp. 170-171). Foucault names several instances of the ‘observatories’ that were the spatial embodiments of ‘hierarchical observation,’ and were constructed in the course of what he calls the ‘classical age’ (approximately from 1650 to 1800 in Europe): the military camp as ‘almost ideal model’ – ‘…the diagram of a power that acts by means of general visibility,’ ‘…hospitals, asylums, prisons, schools’ (1995, p. 171), and ‘workshops and factories’ (1995, p. 174). Normatively speaking, what these had in common was that the ‘…perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly’ (1995, p. 173).

Other kinds of hierarchical observation – with its connotation of higher versus lower – marked by its accompanying effect of control, by turning people into docile bodies, are not hard to find. Teachers and lecturers are familiar with the sloping way in which rows of seating are arranged in schools and universities, where optimally lit classrooms and lecture halls with large windows facilitate the visibility and learning of, as well as discipline among students. Counterparts of this may readily be found in factories and hospitals.

Docile bodies are also produced by ‘normalizing judgment’ (Foucault 1995, pp. 177-184), which involves the ‘power of the norm.’ ‘Like surveillance and with it,’ Foucault remarks (1995, p.184), ‘normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age.’

While previously individuals were judged according to the moral value of their actions, today they are placed on a differentiating scale which ranks them in relation to everyone else, usually in terms of criteria that can be quantified. One finds it everywhere, and not only in schools and universities. Restaurants, airlines, car rental companies, hotels, and educational institutions are all subjected to ranking, establishing a ‘norm’ by which they are judged. Moreover, these social practices do not tolerate difference – everyone should conform to the same standards.

The examination as disciplinary practice of reducing bodies to docility is familiar to everyone (Foucault 1995, pp. 184-194). In fact, the introduction of the examination made possible the connection of knowledge of individuals with a specific exercise of power. According to Foucault (1995, p. 187), the ‘examination transformed the economy of visibility into the exercise of power.’ He points to the ironic reversal, namely that premodern power was visible, while the subjects of power were largely invisible, compared to modern, disciplinary power, which operates through its invisibility, while simultaneously imposing a mandatory visibility on disciplinary (that is, disciplined) subjects (1995, p. 187). I need not remind readers of the degree to which this has been intensified post-COVID, but through technological means that even Foucault could not have anticipated.

Further, the examination ‘also introduces individuality into the field of documentation,’ through archiving, by which individuals are placed within ‘a network of writing,’ a veritable ‘mass of documents that capture and fix them’ (Foucault 1995, p. 189). As a mechanism of disciplinary power, examination, ‘surrounded by all its documentary techniques, makes each individual a ‘case’’ (1995, p. 191). One therefore cannot exaggerate the way the examination has contributed to moving ‘ordinary individuality,’ which used to be in the darkness of imperceptibility, into the light of visibility that goes hand in hand with disciplinary control, turning an individual into an ‘effect and object of power’ (1995, p. 192), that is, into a ‘docile body.’

Neither is Foucault blind to the fact that many social-scientific disciplines, such as psychology, are implicated in this, contrary to what one might expect. This is evident where he observes, a propos the examination (1995, pp. 226-227):

…the examination has remained extremely close to the disciplinary power that shaped it. It has always been and still is an intrinsic element of the disciplines. Of course it seems to have undergone a speculative purification by integrating itself with such sciences as psychology and psychiatry. And, in effect, its appearance in the form of tests, interviews, interrogations and consultations is apparently in order to rectify the mechanisms of discipline: educational psychology is supposed to correct the rigours of the school, just as the medical or psychiatric interview is supposed to rectify the effects of the discipline of work. But we must not be misled; these techniques merely refer individuals from one disciplinary authority to another, and they reproduce, in a concentrated or formalized form, the schema of power-knowledge proper to each discipline…

The result? Today’s societies are ubiquitously carceral (prison-like), where the body is no longer seen as the prison of the soul or mind (as was believed since the time of the Pythagoreans through Christianity to the early modern period), but vice versa. The peculiar discovery of the modern era was therefore that, by ‘working’ on individuals’ minds their bodies can be much more effectively controlled than the other way around. The present era appears to have perfected this dubious process, to the detriment of the people who are subjected to it.

Foucault points to a certain kind of architecture that emerged during the time he documented, which captures, metaphorically, the general societal function of the broad range of disciplinary techniques that has developed since then (Foucault 1995, p. 172):

A whole problematic then develops: that of an architecture that is no longer built simply to be seen (as with the ostentation of palaces), or to observe the external space (cf. the geometry of fortresses), but to permit an internal, articulated and detailed control – to render visible those who are inside it; in more general terms, an architecture that would operate to transform individuals: to act on those it shelters, to provide a hold on their conduct, to carry the effects of power right to them, to make it possible to know them, to alter them. Stones can make people docile and knowable.

In case one might suspect that Foucault’s intent was merely to document the disciplinary practices briefly outlined above, it would be a mistake – Foucault’s genealogy of the prison, or more accurately, of modes of imprisonment – was clearly motivated by critical considerations, given his interest in relative autonomy. This explains his characterisation of 20th-century society as thoroughly ‘carceral.’ In other words, the ‘disciplinary coercion’ referred to earlier, instead of being confined to military quarters, has become pervasive in the contemporary era. Small wonder that Foucault remarks sardonically, and with undisguised critical implications (1995, pp. 227-228):

Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

Today this process has developed much further, and may be shown to have become more sinister, to boot, as Foucault’s friend and colleague, Gilles Deleuze, has done. But it helps to take note of Foucault’s work in this regard, insofar as it shows that the present, sustained attempt at gaining total technological control of people globally, especially through pervasive surveillance – at the cost of their democratic freedoms – did not fall from thin air. It has been centuries in the making. And we no longer want to be the objects of such unwarranted control.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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Source: Brownstone Institute

Bert Olivier works at the Department of Philosophy, University of the Free State. Bert does research in Psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, ecological philosophy and the philosophy of technology, Literature, cinema, architecture and Aesthetics. His current project is ‘Understanding the subject in relation to the hegemony of neoliberalism.’

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