The surveillant society, self discipline and social control

We live in a surveillant society. This is not something that is new. Governments have always wanted to keep people under surveillance because it is an effective means of social control. All governments, not just totalitarian ones, have an interest in social control. The difference today is the increasingly sophisticated means that are available to governments to keep people under surveillance.  And the most effective surveillance is that which forces you to modify your behaviour because you might, you just can’t be sure, you just might be being watched. The work of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, is illuminating on this topic.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is a chillingly prescient image of what has been called “panoptic surveillance”: “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover … he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” (The emphasis is this writer’s.)

Panoptic surveillance derives from Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison called the Panopticon, a circular shaped prison with a central observation tower. In the Panopticon prisoners would never know when, or if, they were being watched. Referring to this Michel Foucault said; “…in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” 

Orwell’s vision was chilling enough; however, when Foucault referred to Jeremy Bentham’s never realized prison design, to allow, inter alia, the efficient inspection and maximum surveillance of inmates, he was using it as a metaphor for the more widespread surveillant society. Far more chilling than mere surveillance is how surveillance leads to social control: far more insidious than mere social control is how panoptic surveillance leads to self-regulation.

Surveillance and control are linked. Foucault regarded his concept of governmentality as the conduct of conduct or self-government. Other writers have used the term “dressage” for the process that brings about self-government and normalization. Dressage involves disciplined behaviour, taming and performance. For Foucault, normalization is concerned with self-regulating subject. A Foucauldian neologism is “utility-docility”. The more pliable and compliant individuals are the more productive they are likely to be. (That’s a topic for another time.) Normalization is brought about by disciplinary power, which is a method of surveillance internalized by individuals who become their own overseers; that is, self-governed.

During the last fourteen years of his life, Foucault held the Chair in the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France, a Chair created especially for him. It was in the course of a series of lectures in 1978 and 1979 that Foucault addressed the notion of governmentality, another Foucauldian neologism for something that he also called ‘government rationality’. In essence, Foucault was examining how the behaviour of individuals could be observed, monitored and controlled. Foucault saw the starting point of governmentality lying in sixteenth century European doctrines of reason of state. In the nineteenth century, argues Foucault, a traditional form of domination, based on violent, public displays of punishment, was replaced by a disciplinary form of domination, based on surveillance.  

A comparison has been drawn between the panoptic metaphor and the omniscient Christian God and the Freudian super-ego. Another contrast is to be made with, what has been termed the Superpanopticon, computer surveillance in contemporary society. These are topics that will be pursued in further articles.

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