On the flaws of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish

The flaws of Discipline and Punish, which was published in France in 1974, derive from the fact that its author clearly sees Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, published in France in 1967, as competition, that is, as a work that must be discredited, rather than commented upon, supplemented or corrected. Given the nature of the French intellectual scene, perhaps this aspect of competition was inevitable. In any event, unlike Guy Debord, who always mentioned by name those he was criticizing or dismissing, Michel Foucault doesn't mention Debord by name in Discipline and Punish; instead, he attempts to appropriate and alter the meaning of what Debord called "the spectacle."[1]

For Foucault, the spectacle is identical to "the spectacle of the scaffold" (that is, public execution in the 18th century); and so "the disappearance of public executions marks therefore the decline of the spectacle." The telescoping of "the spectacle of the scaffold" to "the spectacle" takes place again and again in Discipline and Punish. To cite just one example: "the modern rituals of execution attest to this double process: the disappearance of the spectacle and the elimination of pain." According to Foucault, modern social relations are "the exact reverse of the spectacle." He insists that "our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance," even though both terms refer to the social realm of the visible and need not be mutually exclusive. For Foucault, "the power of spectacle" declined and disappeared with the replacement of emperors and kings by "disciplines" and "machines." He insists that "We are much less Greeks than we believe. We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism."

As many of our readers will already know, the panopticon was originally a circular prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in the early 19th century. Its distinctive feature was a centrally located watcher's booth, from which a warden could see into each and every cell. It is significant that Foucault says that, prior to his own work,

panopticism has received little attention. It is regarded as not much more than a bizarre little utopia, a perverse dream [...] There were many reasons why it received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could only be grudgingly acknowledged.

And so, by discovering and popularizing the relevance of panopticism to modern society, Foucault hopes to displace Debord and his presumably over-rated or over-exposed theory of the spectacle.

But, unlike Debord, Foucault isn't really committed to his buzzword. Note well that Foucault doesn't trace Bentham's panopticon to its "inglorious culmination" in George Orwell's famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which unaccountably goes completely without mention in Discipline and Punish. Nor does Foucault mention the fact that, though they were frequently built in the 1830s, panoptical prisons weren't often built thereafter, despite their much-praised utility. Ironically, it is Foucault himself who provides the reasons for the rejection of panoptical prisons. On the one hand, the position of the centralized watcher can easily be abused: "[I]t does not matter what motive animates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philospher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing." On the other hand, the other employees of the panopticon might object to their working conditions, and thus cause "labor problems." Foucault again:

In this central tower, the director may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders: nurses, doctors, foremen, teachers, wardens; he will be able to judge them continuously, alter their behavior, impose upon them the methods he thinks best; and it will even be possible to observe the director himself. An inspector arriving unexpectedly at the center of the Panopticon will be able to judge at a glance, without anything being concealed from him, how the entire establishment is functioning.

Combine the two -- a malicious child or a sadistic scopophiliac watching over and controlling a staff of well-educated professionals -- and you have a system that just won't work.

Even if these problems could be solved, both Bentham and Foucault make serious, even fatal mistakes in their calculations concerning the effectiveness of surveillance. According to Foucault, "the major effect of the Panopticon" is "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power," which can be accomplished by arranging things so that "the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should lead to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers." Foucault goes on to say,

In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmates will constantly have before his [sic] eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.

As I pointed out in an essay on poker for the Surveillance Camera Players, some -- enough -- of the people who know or suspect that they might be watched constantly do not become "anxious," do not voluntarily curtail or cease their criminal behavior, do not get "caught up" in the "power situation." Instead, undeterred, they treat this situation like it was a game, a game of poker: they suspect the other player (the watcher) is bluffing or they engage in bluffs of their own. They constantly experiment: can I get away with it? when did I get away with it? can I get away with it again? And, if no one is watching, they will try to get away with it all the time. Furthermore, even if they are in fact being watched all the time, some will become "players," that is, will perform for the watchers, and thus demonstrate the facts that being watched isn't enough and that, if "Big Brother" truly wants to be a tyrant, he won't be able to do it easily or cheaply; he will have to exert force; he will have to get his hands dirty, even bloody.

But who really knows how the watcher will play his hand, once he's been confronted? Will he respond like a child, a philosopher or a sadist? No one knows, and this is the fatal weakness of the Panopticon. If it should turn out that the Great Wizard, "the man behind the curtain," is exposed as a fraud or coward, the damage done to the "perfection" of the machine-illusion would be irreparable. No one would ever be afraid of him again.

Bill Not Bored, October-December 2004.
Author's footnote:

[1] Note that, though he is equally dismissive of Debord's concept of spectacle, Jean Baudrillard has always taken pains to mention the Situationist International, of which Debord was a founding member. Cf. for example Baudrillard's The Mirror of Production, published in France in 1973.

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