on foucault, panopticism, institutional cognition.

Before we start, some cultural commentary fitting in with our theme: Panopticon. New album by Isis.
(Aside: there's a strange sort of mentality that enters into any kind of medium. I enjoy 'file-sharing.' It's combines the subtle pleasures of fishing, interspersed with tiny two-minute rewards of new music, and then, finally, you rearrange all your files into the proper order to get- voila! -the album as it was meant to be heard. You can then have a sit-down, and wonder if you're going to buy it later on. Meat and Potatoes III will probably be on file-sharing.)
A little about Isis: they are usually compared to Neurosis. It's dreamy, textural metal. They have eight-minute songs that start off hard, some indecipherable yelling, then they slow down, the keyboardist throws in some sounds, they build up, build up, build up, more yelling, crunching riffs, song's over. It's very good. Some would say formulaic.
I've just laid out the formula for all 7 songs on this new album. Except the guy sings instead of yells. It's still indecipherable, though.
Each album has a concept. Their last one was 'Oceanic', and they pulled it off in a spectacular manner. All it takes to nail a watery concept album is some samples of waves, a well-crafted segue, some whale-call guitars here and there. The Panopticon, as a political concept, is much harder. Especially when Isis is not known for their lyrics or singing. Their album is probably 60 minutes long, and there is singing in about a fifth of that time.
Then again, Isis albums take a long time to digest. So far it's outstanding-- heavy and anguished, really very organic. I'm just saying that Panopticism as a concept and Isis as a creative collective are maybe a little too incompatible to create a great album with a coherent concept. If I was going to write a Panopticon concept album, it wouldn't be very organic. It would be claustrophobic, samples of klaxons, samples of people giving instructions, y'know, maybe industrial music. It's awesome that they liked the book, though.

Panopticism is beginning to catch popular attention, at least in small circles. This is a very good thing; probably overdue, since it a social structure that has begun to accelerate in these dark times. A few examples: the surveillance cameras that operate on street corners and the 460 Terabyte database that Wal-mart has on its customers. Neither of these things are explicitly operated in the pursuit of evil, per se. It could be said that both devices are there for strictly benevolent purposes. What kind of maniac is going to stand up at a town meeting to oppose these street corner cameras, when they could very well prevent the rape of your sister or daughter? Who's going to be so criminal as to oppose Wal-mart when they protect themselves from credit fraud, by knowing the credit rating of an individual who's applying for a Wal-mart Big Fucking Savings card?

Let's understand what Foucault was talking about when he dug up Bentham's model for the ultimate prison. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault is telling the story of European "society"'s re-organization from the Dark Ages to the present, observed through the change in methods of punishment. Basically, in a society, you need to use coercion to intensify the productive power of your population. That productive power can then be used to wage war or enrich certain segments of the population. Foucault described the model in which this coercion is carried out today. The model is easy to find, if you know what to look for-- it operates in hospitals, in schools, on the factory floor. It is based on the prison.

The 'condemned', as Foucault calls us, are organized in a manner where their actions and behaviour are easily observed. Orderly rows and columns with sight lines are ideal. Performance and character can easily be noted and recorded. Performance is graded and compared with those around you. A 'norm' is established; a threshold of acceptability. If this threshold is crossed, an examination can be carried out to 'fix' this anomaly.

The mass of people are graded and arranged by their performance. Ranks and rewards are established. Soon it is unheard of if the lower and higher ranks are seen eating at the same tables. (which of course are arranged in straight orderly rows. Even here it is important to be watched. ) The students whose performance is lacking are made to repeat and repeat the action that they perform unacceptably. Their motions are broken down into machine-like rhythms and drilled into them: part punishment, part training. If they are in a classroom, they are made to answer the teacher's questions aloud, so that everyone can snicker. If they are in a workshop, everyone will know who is lagging behind and making them miss quota. At night the higher-ranking boys whip them with wet towels, fuck them in the showers when the lights are off and the eyes have gone to bed. This is the orderly society.
The emergence of this new, disciplined society appeared with the onset of the enlightenment. It is a product of science. The 'reforming' of the prison system was an attempt to apply the novelty of scientific enquiry and Pavlovian conditioning to the 'misguided souls' and vagrants. Behaviours are broken down into a quantified value, and that value is compared to the average. The question is no longer if you have broken a law, but if you stray too far from the 'norm.' People watch you on the subway when you sing to yourself and say aloud that you must remember to pick up radishes at the grocery store. You have any number of Disorders. You cannot manage your affairs. You are a drain on public resources. The videotapes are shown at your hearing. You are singing in the street. The doctors note this in your file and check the appropriate box on their forms. They send you to a hospital for drugs and television and scheduled scream therapy.

This society is built on one firm foundation: the strict control of information. The Panopticon is merely the architectural manifestation of this rule. You must be seen, you mustn't see. When people ramble on about fighting The Machine, that weird, paranoid look in their eye, don't turn away and call them kook. The Machine is the architecture of surveillance. When socialistic peace marchers carry unflattering puppets of Dubya and Dick Cheney, the rich bankers, the ruling class, etc. etc., the people laugh because they are operating in a mindset that is 150 years out of date. The enemy is no human. The incredible thing about the Panopticon is that anyone can operate the machine. Anyone can sit in the guard tower. Or nobody at all. It doesn't matter.
The great fight of our time is against the encroachment of the Discipline mechanism. Paranoid ramblings aside, civil society has some considerable leeway outside the structures of control. Not every place of business will time your washroom breaks and monitor your email. Most will enforce some surveillance, but not as much as they could get away with. The mental health system long ago emptied many of their cells, but only as a cost-cutting measure. But if there is something to be learned from what has happened in America as of late, it is that if authority has the means to incorporate some information into its Panoptic archive, it eventually will do so. If somewhere, there is a record of the books you sign out from the library, eventually somebody will convince themselves that they need to know this about you too. Look, capitalism expands to tap any natural resource that isn't claimed. To not do so, out of- what? a sense of fucking decency? -is utterly irrational. Authority will expand as far as it is allowed to go.

Foucault, writing as he was from the perspective of the 'condemned', the prisoner, was less interested in how the Panoptic model affects the centrality, the leadership. That's a very interesting topic as well. Where does the power flow after it enters the central tower? You've met security guards. Do they look like they are on the top of the corporate ladder? Remember, the genius of the Machine is that anyone can operate it. The security guard fills out a report every night and sends it to his boss. His performance is surveilled. His boss is asked to explain any divergence in the status quo. He is under surveillance. This continues up the corporate ladder; presently we are in the boardroom with the CEO and his board of directors. We are not at the top. The CEO is expected to do everything, anything, to make money for his stockholders. In fact the stockholders can sue that individual if he refuses to say, cut down a rainforest if that is what's required to maximize profits. Who are his stockholders? Hundreds, possibly thousands of people. Possibly the CEOs of other companies. Who in turn answer to stockholders of their own.

I would like to make two observations here. Authority was invented to maximize productivity. Its greatest flaw, however, is that it must lead somewhere. When you concentrate it into a cult of personality, ie. Kim Jong-Il or the royal families of medieval Europe, you create a dangerously unstable situation. Inbreeding causes genetic flaws. Stalin dies. Hitler goes insane. If there is a centre to that Panoptic circle, it becomes a pressure point. Authority, having achieved its goal of maximizing productivity, becomes interested in maintaining itself and staving off its mortality. Authority, after all, is a human construct and as such it is imperfect. There is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. Every society exists to eventually succumb to its own tensions and frictions.

In our society, there is no singular authority. After the CEO, the concentration of authority is safely dispersed, like a lightning rod thrust deep into the ground. Each 'powerful' human being is held in check by coercion. No (wo)man can wield authority without being subjugated him/herself. This is the lesson given by the fall of dictatorships and monarchies. The individual neuroses and insanities and ambitions of human beings can exacerbate stresses inside the machine enough to collapse it. A leader, paradoxically, must be the most disciplined of all.

Now what about, say, the American president Bush? Here's where it gets interesting. This one individual is probably the most surveilled prisoner of all. He is watched by millions of Americans, billions of people overall. Luckily our view of him is not an unmediated one. In fact it is mostly a stage show. Consider that if television didn't exist to show us footage of the Bush jogging to work, a president as incompetent as he simply couldn't hold office. The prisoner's gaze would be filled with descriptions of his many failures, rather than facile demonstrations of his 'character.'

His real stockholders, however, are not quite so easily fooled. Read editorials in the Wall Street Journal, and other elite periodicals, and you sense a grave concern. Bush is an anomaly. He may be pushing things too far. The vulnerabilities of the American economy and military are revealed under pressure. The schisms between segments of the American people are suddenly very large. He has pushed the limits of what one individual can do in what is supposed to be a largely custodial position. He's supposed to pose for the cameras, make speeches, don't fuck up. That's how Clinton became one of the most popular presidents of our time. Panopticons are insular structures designed to maintain a status quo. Whenever there is a stimulus, whether internal or external, there must be a response. An advantage of a Panoptic structure is that the long lines of accountability and hierarchy can absorb and distribute the force of a negative stimulus. Consider a scenario:

The media learns that several prisoners at a prison have been tortured and sexually humiliated. They have done so because the head of defense decided that interrogations might progress quicker is the prisoners were exposed to mild torture. (the head of defense can also 'misremember' if the president was briefed on this decision.) At the operational level, the abusers were told they could do 'whatever they wanted' with the prisoners. No official documents indicated that prisoners should be threatened with dogs, be stripped naked, etc. etc., only that they should do 'whatever is necessary' to extract the needed information. The guards are like the rapist boys in the shower-room; the eyes are closed, but the power of discipline works quietly on. Authority itself cannot be implicated; they are a 'few bad apples.'

The government's goal is not to prevent such things from occurring again. The government's goal, like any normal organism, is to maintain its structure and to expel the poison of controversy.

The president is questioned. He knows nothing about it; asks the reporter to refer the question to head of correctional services. The media scrum with the head of correctional services. The bureaucrat says he is taking the matter very seriously. (This is the point of injury, not the actual injustice.) The bureaucrat phones the warden of the prison. The warden promises to sort the matter out before an inquiry is called. (If an inquiry is called, the shredding of documents will commence.) The Warden finds some underlings, demands to know what happened. The underlings bring up the files on their underlings, find the employees who are implicated in the specific photographs. The employees are fired and charged. We don't know the names of any others responsible. We only have some photographs. The minister of corrections forbids photography within the prison.

If there is an injury like 9/11, there must be a response. The response need not make sense. The trauma must be diverted from the leadership. If Bush hadn't settled on perpetual war, if he had sat still and called for healing, there would have been a mob outside the White House. Iraq wasn't about WMDs or even Oil so much as about the American Phallus wreaking vengeance for a paper cut.

That's not the half of it though. Inside the machine, every human is expendable, even if they happen to be the president. If the system itself is ever under threat, it will expel those tainted individuals. Imagine: Bush decides, in his second term, that he's really going to push the envelope. He orders the CIA to abduct him some Cuban boys and bring them to the Oval Office for his sexual gratification. When they start exhibiting symptoms of syphilis, he orders his agents to bury their bodies under the tulips in front of the White House.

The media finds out about these horrific crimes and impeachment hearings begin. (Actually, at this point, it probably would take something of this magnitude to get that fucker impeached. He's already broken every single other rule.) Bush is expelled like the gallstone that he is. The reporters, with forced gravity, express their hope that we can put this dark chapter behind us.

Now, I have to ask, what is the problem here? That someone ordered these horrific acts, or that there existed a political body to carry them out? And how? How could human beings take it upon themselves to carry out atrocities? Bush can be explained away as a biological dysfunction that somehow slipped under the radar. But the CIA agents? Under questioning, I think they would respond in typical Nuremburg fashion: We were just following orders. And there is the nature of Discipline.


At 10:02 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really nice chat.

Don't think to myself that authority was invented to maximize profit.

Maybe nearly so. But what profit? Whoever decided: it'll be a nice thing that Tom did this "with MY authority"; probably did it to extend his power.

It's a nice fit to think as if you could get back in time. Maybe some really small chief in a little village gave someone else a power to represent himself, the chief. Then if you where not obeing the sent man, you were not obeing the chief. And the sent man grew in power, maximizing the chiefs productivity, and if the effects of the sent man on the rest of the people went back to the chief, the chief would be getting productivity also from those effects in the lay men.

But the main idea of giving that command extension power is to make the chief bigger by giving someone else the holding of his powers. So it is closer to maximizing power, or power productivity, than maximizing productivity. The objectives of the power exercized can then be many.

If power then centers around one man, it will sure be instable beacause of the instability natural to men, sudden death or inevitable timely death. But the natural work arounds for this fatality are also quite natural, a family. A power family. Or a tribe, clan, or whatever. Simply more people.

I generally disagree with theories of unmanned power structures. True all you say about how the power structures try to be independant from individuals in the chain. Maybe also that by recircling the power lines with "modern" techniques, the power system is becoming more untouchable, but without big heads gaining big power profits THIS kind of centralized and then somewhat recircled power structures would not exist. For the people down in the "circle" would little by little bring the power loops very much closer to them.

The centralized loops with clear tops are mantained with constant tension. And you yourself mention it.

The fact that some new ways exist and bring about some kind of unhumanly machine behaviour, with unseen controlling men, must not excite your theory as to maximize this new behaviour you realize and eat the other realities.

And dont worry. If you see tension and lies it is that men are not dead yet.

Pablo from Spain

(please reply also to pablo2garcia@gmail.com)


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