I Am My Own Dauphin

I am opposed to spanking. I would be more open to it if a child, once spanked, never misbehaved again, but I’m pretty sure that never happens. Not-spanking doesn’t mean you let children do everything they please, but it does mean you have to be more creative wherever an action requires a manufactured consequence. If little Timmy chops off a finger while playing with the door (a “natural” consequence) you told him not to play with, manufacturing additional punishment seems excessive — although an “I told you so” may prove irresistible.

Like those intrepid parents who don’t wish to hit their children to punish them, governments and societies invest great amounts of treasure, time, and/or energy into developing disciplinary techniques. French philosopher Michel Foucault offers his three cents in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison; of special interest (i.e., class assignment) is the chapter titled “Panopticism.”


The main idea is this: in the center is a tower where one person can watch the inhabitants of the surrounding cells. Conversely, the inhabitants are not always certain they are being watched, though they presumably always behave as though they are. This, of course, only works when those being watched care that they might be being watched.

In a previous post, I glossed over the Social Brain hypothesis and some of the (often irrational) behaviors we talking apes display when trying to keep one another in line. It’s no surprise that we need to be trained at an early age; the complexity of our societies (even on small scales) have a rather steep learning curve. Even the more shoddily trained among us take their understanding of social norms for granted (even if their understanding doesn’t match others’).

In another Foucault lecture titled “Governmentality“, he suggests that populations be dealt with as datum, as “an objective of governmental techniques” and “as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security” (p. 102). The idea that populations are data for statistic analysis would not be news for Malthusian economists or Game Theorists. The real problem is the persistence of individualism, especially within Western societies. It doesn’t gel with we the “special” that we’re all predictable numbers in someone’s calculator.

In “Governmentality”, Foucault highlights La Perrière’s notion that “a good ruler must have… dilgence” (p. 96). In “Panopticism”, he notes that disciplines should “bring into play the power relations.. as discreetly as possible… in the least expensive way possible” so that, with “minute technical inventions” they can “increase the useful size of multiplicities by decreasing the inconveniences of the power which… must control them” (p. 211).

In both instances, Foucault seems to be promoting the idea that societal harmony is enhanced by efficient discipline, a  technique facilitated by dealing with populations as economies (i.e., numbers). At the same time, he notes that “[t]he practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures” (p. 228).

My girlfriend has cats. They’re angels when we’re home and awake. Though we have only circumstantial evidence, it seems they become demons as soon as we leave or sleep. The key seems to be observation.

I’m comfortable with the notion that humans are about as well behaved (and lazy?) as cats. Keep an eye on us, and we behave. This falls in line with a species of talking ape that evolved within societies where Altruistic Punishment and social navigation drove the development of infinitely complex neurological structures. As Foucault points out, we are long past the small family-based communities submitting to authority based in paternal control.

This leaves us pondering a bigger issue: how does any single person or multiplicity justify its right to keep an eye on any other? In the case of cats, we get to keep an eye on them because we feed them. In the case of chimpanzees, an Alpha male literally beats opposing chimpanzees into submission. The problem of a human authority justifying itself is becoming a new, complicated mess. Just ask Hosni Mubarak.


Anti-government protesters celebrate inside Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo on Feb. 11. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

With the internet amplifying the voices of the governed above the din of the governors, who is really in charge? A government that fears its people is incapable of discipline. Without centralized authority, and with the help of the internet, should we grant ourselves the right to panopticize one another? Is this really progress, or has the internet set us back 7 million years?


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