Monday, October 26, 2015

Reverse panopticism or two wrongs don't make a right

When it comes to critical theory, few authors are more widely read than is Michel Foucault. Though Foucault himself consciously eschewed attempts to categorize his ideas as a part of a school of thought, usually postmodernism or one of its subdivisions, it's difficult to avoid such labeling, as Foucault impacted the view of so many thinkers who came after him and, indeed, coexisted with him.

One of his best known and most widely read works is Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. It is, in my opinion, both a brilliant work and a deeply flawed one. In it, Foucault examines the roots of the modern penitentiary system, and in so doing theorizes that the underlying structures of that system are reflective of a shifting power dynamic (almost everything Foucault writes is, at its core, about power) in society, from a more traditional and personal dynamic to a more modern and more anonymous one.

He makes his case by examining the specific constructions of prisons within France beginning in the 18th century as a means of supplanting things like torture and public ridicule as methods of punishments for transgressions against society (whether against codified laws or social mores). And to buttress that case, he looks at the intellectual development of ideas mostly within the new liberalism of 18th century England. This is, of course, the underlying flaw in the work: Foucault analyzes the specific developments of prisons within France with respect to intellectual trends within England. Having read this book years ago in graduate school, I have been and still am amazed at how few readers and would-be critics of Foucault have failed to note this problem. Perhaps this is because few of Foucault's critics are actually looking to criticize; most are looking to carve out a niche of Foucaultian thought to use as a basis for their own points of view.

So with that in mind, I'm going to carve out just such a niche.

One of the ideas that Foucault develops extensively in Discipline and Punish is that of "panopticism." The term is drawn from Jeremy Bentham's (part of the above mentioned liberals in 18th century England) vision of the ideal prison, a vision which he worked on and wrote about extensively for many years. Some of what he wrote was published in various forms and Bentham went as a far as commissioning an architect to create blueprints for the actual structure.

The key feature of Bentham's vision was it's surveillance aspect. In an age before video cameras and the like, Bentham created a structure that allowed the surveillance of every occupant from a central room via a system of mirrors. Thus one person could theoretically keep watch over hundreds of others.

Of course, Bentham understood that this one person could not simultaneously observe all of the others, But what Bentham understood very clearly—and what was of primary interest to Foucault—was that the observer didn't need this capability; the prisoners would be unable to know if they were being observed in a given moment, but they would know that this could be the case. Thus, it was the threat of observation and the fear this would engender that would lead to a level of control over the prison population. And Bentham saw a logical extension of his ideas to other arenas, to schools, hospitals, factories, and the like, anywhere that would benefit from this kind of surveillance for the purposes of safety, security, or even productivity.

No doubt, many who have never been exposed to these ideas are now saying to themselves "holy shit, that's exactly what is going on today!" And it's true, there is a real growth of panopticism in the current world, perhaps not coincidentally centered to some extent in England, in London proper, with its many thousands of surveillance cameras (estimates put the total number of surveillance cameras in London at around half a million). And of course, all of these cameras are not continuously monitored. Rather, they record events and can then be accessed later, if necessary. The point is for people to know that what they are doing might be seen by an unknown watcher and to thus condition their behavior.

But this isn't about London, alone. Things are not much different on this side of the Atlantic. One doesn't always know when one is under surveillance, either by the state or by a private interest (like in a store or bank). And the legal surveillance by private interests is, of course, usually accessible to the state as well, so it all amounts to the same thing with regard to the individual: a feeling that one could be under surveillance at any given moment.

And this kind of thing, this increase in a surveillance-based state, draws a great deal of criticism, especially among those with a non-statist point of view—libertarians, anarchists, and like—and even among those who accept a powerful central authority but are nonetheless uncomfortable with this kind of overt attempt at conditioning behavior (albeit under the guise of protecting the citizenry, more often than not). There is, however, another side to this coin...

Yesterday, Leonard Pitts Jr. (whom I read regularly, by the way) offered this brief but thoughtful piece about police accountability. He opens with a smart quote form Juvenal—"Who watches the watchmen?"—then goes on to discuss why body cams and dashboard cams for police officers are more than fair, given the many incidents of police misconduct that have been coming to light:
This is about accountability, something that has been absent from police interactions with the public for far too long. And where there is no accountability, justice is tenuous. The plain truth is, cameras are here to stay; this genie will not go back in the bottle. Police will not stop the watchers from watching.
Prior to the above conclusion, Pitts rightly points out how the police are able to surveil the citizenry, especially with regard traffic issues (red light cameras, cameras that check plates for outstanding warrants, etc.). Thus he argues that police have no room to complain if they too are being watched. That seems fair. And he similarly mocks the idea of a "YouTube effect" on the police that prevents them from doing their jobs.

He's probably right to mock the last, but maybe not for the reasons he is giving. Because this "YouTube effect" (the idea that officers don't want to end up on YouTube and get criticized for their actions), well it's actually the basis of panopticism, isn't it? It's the idea that potential surveillance is as good as actual surveillance, that such a potential will condition behavior. In this case, however, the idea is that officers won't do their jobs correctly, exactly contrary to what the supposed consequences should be.

Now, think about that. How can panopticism be an effective tool in one direction, but not in the other? In other words, how can it be good for the goose and not for the gander?

I submit that obviously it's not really good for the goose at all. It never has been. And thus it's also not good for the gander. Pitts' point of view—while completely fair in the moment in my opinion—takes the surveillance state as a given, as something that shouldn't be undone. And in that respect, he's terribly, terribly wrong. Genies may not like going back into their bottles, they may put up god-awful fights, but they can go back. And this one most definitely should. We don't need more cameras, we need fewer. And the place to start is with the ones controlled by the state.

Bentham's vision of a panopticon was not a product of a rising tide of liberal thought. It was a product of Bentham's desire to get paid. He saw the venture as a money-making one from the beginning. It was never really about safety or security, it was always about productivity, because Bentham saw his prison as a workhouse, as well. It was always about the discipline, never about the punish.

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