How NSA Surveillance is NOT Like Foucault (but our reactions are)

With the revelations that the NSA has the capability to monitor most any kind of electronic communication, one of the memes that’s been flying around the intertubes is that this shows how we live in something like a comprehensive surveillance state, just like the French historian Michel Foucault wrote about in his book Discipline and Punish. (Interestingly enough, the book is #1 in Amazon’s modern political philosophy category…hmmm….)  Foucault’s book is ostensibly a history of criminal punishment in the West, but its real object is to illuminate (via that history) the nature of political rule from the late middle ages to our contemporary liberal world.  And more to the point, Foucault means to disabuse us of the idea that our “free” society is anything free at all.  Instead, he tries to show that we live in a deeply disciplinary society, where technologies of observation and manipulation cajole us into a sort of conformist docility.

The most arresting image of the book is the “panopticon,” a design for a prison first offered by the utilitarian philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham.  In Bentham’s design, a prison would be built so that the cells would be in a circle open to a central tower, from which guards would at any moment be able to see everything in any of the cells.  The prisoners, therefore, would be under constant threat of surveillance and could therefore be “reformed.”  To Foucault’s mind, the panopticon represented the essence of the liberal society. 

It’s easy to see why we might then jump from the NSA’s Prism program to Foucault.  But here’s what makes Foucault’s argument interesting and not just some obstruse forerunner of the “X Files” (or any other conspiracy minded move/tv show).  One of the panopticon’s key features was that the tower where the guards resided was mirrored so that the prisoners could not tell if they were actually under observation at any particular moment.  In fact, they need not be under observation at all for the tower to do its job.  Foucault’s view was that our liberal society was indeed one of deep disciplining, but it was not the case that there was a “them” that was doing the disciplining.  Rather, we all are caught up and participate in our mutual disciplining.  We are, to Foucault’s mind, our own oppressors in that we impose a kind of “normalization” on one another.

What the NSA=Foucault folks suppose is that Foucault had in mind a social order in which some small elite, armed with technologies and power, would herd the rest of us into docile compliance.  Foucault’s argument was actually much more worrisome: that all of us, armed with the ordinary technologies of communication and observation, would herd ourselves into docile submission.  So the NSA program (whatever its merits and demerits) isn’t Foucaldian.  Rather, I would argue, it is our reactions – where commentators assume their expected positions, offer ritualized expressions of support or outrage, and punish (via dialogue) those who range outside the bounds of “proper” discourse – that reminds me of Foucault. 

Now, whether he’s right at all or not is a whole different matter….


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