Foucaultian Notion of Punishment
Of Science and Observation, Fact and Fiction: America’s Panopticon
Every generation has them: futuristic tales predicting oppressive governmental controls. When Foucault’s Discipline and Punish was translated into English in 1977, Hollywood was electrified by science fiction, reeling from the record breaking 775 million dollar Star Wars, which was closely followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the short-lived television series adaptation of William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run. Visions of the future: sometimes hopeful, sometimes apocalyptic. But always didactic: be careful of the choices you make today because you are molding society’s future. Existentialist philosophy at its best. Or, in some cases, its worst.
“’The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly’.” The crowd watches, mesmerized. Foucault’s description of punishment, drawn from historical documents, is brutal, but the torture continues: “Then the executioner…took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long…pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts” (3-4). The specially designed instruments served to distance the executioner from his work, yet allowed him to enact the torture efficiently. Machines of torture, designed for a specific purpose: discipline, pain, and punishment.
“How,” a modern reader wonders, “could a society ever stand by and watch, nay, applaud, that type of torture?”
When society goes awry, everyone looks where to place the blame
Riots have sprinkled the globe this year, starting in London’s poorer districts when people took to the streets four days in August to protest an incident of police brutality. The seed has spread, and Americans have picked up picket signs to protest financial malaise that haunts not just local or national politics, but global as well. And riots have spontaneously combusted several times within the past six weeks as the protests gain momentum. Violence of the people, by the people, and, many argue, for the people.
Before the French Revolution was fully underway, Jeremy Bentham suggested a design to control, to study, to analyze society. Foucault notes the similarities between Bentham’s panopticon and medieval response to the plague: ultimate control of every aspect of life for the benefit of the people. The panopticon, Foucault points out, was not just “to reform prisoners,” but “to treat patients…to instruct orphans…to supervise workers,” and “to put beggars and idlers to work” as well (203). A panacea cure for all plagues upon society. “It’s a case of ‘it’s easy once you’ve thought of it’ in a political sphere,” observes Foucault. He also observes the panopticon “arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint,” noting instead that the power “is so subtly present…as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contact” (206). Power controls from within rather than from without, thereby alluding detection of both observation and control. Riots, the uncontrolled and uncontrollable elements that Foucault points out led to the eventual elimination of torturous acts of governmental capital punishment, too, would be eliminated in Bentham’s panopticon. Observation, analysis, productivity: control.
Science fiction as a genre usually criticizes governmental control and often alludes to Marxist communism; what if, however, the control is not seated in politics, but in leisure?
Armchair politics and economics are easy: critics look back at history, analyze, predict. In society, the armchair quarterback is the most familiar figure of all, because nearly every American at one time or another has played the role. Football is, after all, one of America’s favorite pastimes. Recent articles point out the obvious, “College football is popular in the United States, drawing massive television audiences every Saturday in the late summer and autumn and filling huge stadiums.” Media allows the armchair quarterback to closely scrutinize every play, every emotional reaction of players, coaches, and members of the audience with close-up shots that would have fulfilled Bentham’s deepest fantasy. The article further points out that college football teams “generate millions of dollars in revenue and successful ones raise the profile of their universities,” noting that Penn State is one of the largest college stadiums in the country (Simpson and Scheyder).
“Police Warn Penn State Students To Stay Off Streets”
An entire society gathers to scrutinize, analyze and support their heroes, and the heroes are quick to fall, as Penn’s “winningest coach” Joe Paterno has lately learned.
The grand jury didn’t find him culpable, but the media and his university has. Armchair quarterbacks, university administrators and corporate sponsors, and even Paterno himself, scramble to assess who is to blame. Even the students aren’t sure; they rioted on Wednesday night after the university dismissed Paterno before he could coach what would have been his last home game of his forty-five year career. The pedestal from which he has fallen is massive, a program which generates over 72 million dollars a year for Penn State (Kim).
Nineteen-seventy-seven. Doom and gloom or hope?
In ’77, the year America was introduced to Foucault’s analysis of how society enacts Discipline and ekes out its punishment, the year Hollywood was concerned about society’s future, Paterno’s assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky started what would later become a two billion dollar non-profit organization to help young boys who were at risk learn the game of football (Simpson and Scheyder). He wanted to reform America’s disadvantaged youth, and society applauded his efforts for over thirty-four years.
Game day in the city. Football paraphernalia litters the streets, crowds reflect the colors of their teams. Across America, the scene of controlled power enacts itself every weekend from small town high schools culminating in Super Bowl Sunday. The game is big business, and everyone wants to have a piece of it, everyone supports those who do. “Walk it off,” we tell a sore child after a hard practice, never flinching or giving it a second thought when the coach slaps the child’s ass on his way onto the field. Perhaps next time we buy a sweatshirt, tell the local high school kid to “buck it up,” or even click on the link to find out the latest score, we will think again. After all, isn’t all of society to blame? As the mother of Victim Number One states, “You just can’t say no to Jerry…”
Digital Journal. “Mother of Alleged Sandusky Victim Says Son Afraid to Say ‘No.” Accessed 11 Nov 2011. http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/314255
Foucault, Michel. Discipline And Punish. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 200
Kim, Susanna. “Penn State Sponsors Anxiously Watch How Events Unfold At University.” ABC News. http://news.yahoo.com/penn-state-sponsors-anxiously-watch-events-unfold-university-202042163.html
“Police Warn Penn State Students To Stay Off Streets.” The Morning Call Accessed 11 Nov 2011. http://www.mcall.com/sports/newsletter/mc-sports-buzz-111111,0,2769988.story
Simpson, Ian and Ernest Scheyder. “Abuse Victim’s Mother Says Paterno Had to be Fired.” Accessed 11 Nov 2011. http://news.yahoo.com/penn-state-tries-pick-pieces-abuse-fallout-130010884.html