One of the better known aspects Michel Foucault’s work is his genealogy of prisons in Discipline and Punish. Foucault opens with a description of the grizzly execution of a regicide in mid-eighteenth century Paris. This public execution illustrated for Foucault a society ordered by the public spectacle of torture. As Foucault tells the story, modern western societies gradually moved away from the practice of the spectacle to the practice of disciplinary surveillance.
Disciplinary surveillance was best illustrated by the ideal prison proposed by Jeremy Bentham. It was a panopticon. There was a station at the center of the prison where guards could see the prisoners but the prisoners could not see the guards. The idea was simple: the prisoners would stay in line because they had to assume that they were always being watched. No violence was necessary, the internalized gaze of the surveillance apparatus disciplined the behavior of the prisoner.
Foucault’s point in all of this was not simply to tell a story about the evolution of prisons but to comment on the nature of society. The prisons were a microcosm of a society that disciplined its members by the operations of surveillance.
The emergence of digital technology has, of course, only heightened the social consequences of surveillance. Never before has it been possible for a government (or corporation) to so precisely and pervasively surveil its citizens (or customers and/or employees). At every turn, we encounter increasingly sophisticated instruments of surveillance that track, monitor, document, and record, with or without our consent, a remarkable array of data about us.
So it would seem, then, that the trajectory outlined by Foucault continues apace, but I’m not sure this is the whole story.
The machinery of the spectacle was not the machinery of disciplinary surveillance. The rack was not the panopticon, or the actual techniques of surveillance and disciplines deployed in prisons, hospitals, schools, etc. Presently, however, the instruments of surveillance and the instruments of the spectacle are often identical.
Writing in 1954, well ahead of Foucault, Jacques Ellul warned about “the convergence on man of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques.” “The result,” he warned, “is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques.”
In his day, however, these complexes of techniques were still clunky: “the technical operations involved do not appear to fit well together,” Ellul acknowledged, “and only by means of a new technique of organization will it be possible to unite the different pieces into a whole.”
I’ve suggested recently that this new technique of organization has already appeared among us and, simply put, it is digital technology, which has made it possible to interlock and synthesize the whole array of existing techniques of surveillance and discipline while wildly improving their efficiency, scope, and power.
Digital technology has also made possible the convergence of the spectacle with the techniques of disciplinary surveillance. But we must acknowledge that the spectacle, too, has undergone a transformation. It is not merely a matter of public torture. Indeed, it has taken on an undeniably pleasurable quality. What remains the same and warrants the continued use of the word spectacle is the captivating and pervasive ocular extravagance of the phenomena in question.
In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” He also claims that in modern societies “all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” And, of course, that Debord can be supplemented with Baudrillard’s hyperreality. (I claim no deep expertise on the work of either theorist, but it seems to me that their need not be read as mutually exclusive.)
The idea is that many features of contemporary society come into focus when filtered through the convergence of the spectacle and disciplinary surveillance. I’m uncertain as to whether we should refer to the product of this convergence as spectacular surveillance or the disciplinary spectacle. Perhaps, neither. Perhaps what emerges, while sharing certain properties with both and reverse imaging others, is, on the whole, an entirely different reality. I’ll go with the society of the disciplinary spectacle for the time being.
In any case, I want to make clear that the key to this conjecture is the material fact of technological convergence made possible by digital technology. While this convergence manifests itself across a variety of artifacts and practices, it is the smartphone that may be the most apt image. It is through this device that the operations of the disciplinary spectacle most evidently come to bear on the human being. It is through this one device and the applications it supports that we experience the spectacle and that we most readily yield our data.
Consider what follows to be a set of provisional, in no way exhaustive theses regarding the consequences of this convergence of spectacle and surveillance.
- In the society of the disciplinary spectacle, the spectacle smuggles in the surveillance rendering it all the more effective as it loses any obviously authoritarian quality.
- In the society of the disciplinary spectacle, the spectacle, and hence the disciplinary surveillance, is participatory. It is, consequently, more deeply and effectively internalized than the panoptic gaze because we imagine ourselves not merely as consumers but as producers in our own right. We participate in generating the spectacle, and we are conditioned by same work.
- Insofar as it is the self that we are producing so that we might more fully participate in the spectacle, we experience a double alienation from world and from ourselves. Our efforts to heal this alienation within the context of the disciplinary spectacle only aggravates the condition and further feeds the machinery of surveillance. The quest for authenticity is the quicksand of the disciplinary spectacle.
- “The spectacle,” according to Debord, “is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.” In the society of the disciplinary spectacle, the discourse is no longer a monologue (we are no longer in the age of mass media), it becomes a cacophony of monologues sometimes bound by resurgent tribal associations. The discourse also becomes keenly aware of itself. The laudatory tone is replaced by agonistic irony.
- When the spectacle exists within the same infrastructure that sustains the disciplinary surveillance, the discipline takes on an anti-disciplinary aspect. It appears as release rather than restraint. We might say it reverses the relationship between ordinary time and carnival. Restraint becomes the safety valve. We temporarily go off the grid in order to come back to the spectacle energized to participate more fully.
- Debord again, emphasis mine: “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.” If we understand Debord to mean that we slide into the condition of appearing to have, in the society of the disciplinary spectacle we slide into the condition of appearing to be. The self becomes the commodity.
- Attention is the fuel of the machinery of the disciplinary spectacle. It is the fuel insomuch as the spectacle is powered by our desire for attention and the tools of disciplinary surveillance often function best when capturing our attention to feed their data collection.
- The spectacle devours reality. If there is not a distinction between the spectacle and reality, it is because reality can only appear as a function of the spectacle.
More so than usual, this post is an exercise in thinking out loud. Comments, push back, further elaborations welcome.
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