Eight Theses Regarding the Society of the Disciplinary Spectacle

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. “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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.


9 thoughts on “Eight Theses Regarding the Society of the Disciplinary Spectacle

  1. To my knowledge,I don’t think I’ve ever seen these two frameworks deliberately explored as compatible, and it’s very interesting. Maybe it’s the moment we’re in (smartphone wonderland) but they suddenly seem made for each other, so you must be on to something.

    Your first four theses seem particularly related. I think it’s important to note how the center of power is now sundered, and functions more like a house of mirrors. Certainly, the runners of the big platforms have astounding leverage and profits, but for individuals, the effects may rearrange other social forces that loom far larger.

    As I see it, in the panopticon, compliance provided a way to soothe our anxiety, since a singular power had a monopoly on that anxiety. In the most basic social sense, we discipline ourselves because we know we may be watched, but more specifically because we know we may be watched in relation to others. Even more specifically, in relation to an infinite onslaught of representations – of our own past and potential future, of those of others, and of fantasies invented whole cloth. So the anxiety remains, but how is one to comply?

    For example, Goffman said every worker has two jobs: doing what you were hired for and looking like you’re doing what you were hired for. So, while disciplining oneself in the face of surveillance to behave like the ideal worker is one target, the pluralistic multiplication of spectacular representations of the idea worker is an infinite of moving targets.

    But it’s worse than that, because we’re all now not only observed but observer. The authoritarian impulse is democratically distributed. I watch my dogs at daycare on their little cam, but also how the employees are treating them. People watch their kids on home cams from work, as well as their sitters. They stalk spouses, customers and potential dates on facebook, spy on our house cleaners who wear their own body cams, and on and on. And I suspect a very great many of us would have considerable difficulty surrendering that power if asked, no matter how embarrassed we are to admit it, especially when it can feel like we’re doing it all unobserved ourselves. Is surveillance the new Prozac?

    This is why Google Glass failed, right? Not because it violated privacy, but because it couldn’t be USED privately. The first pair absolutely no one can spot you in will sell like hotcakes, I’d wager.


    I also think there’s a historical trajectory here. This my current view of it, in insufficient but still egregious brevity.

    A while back, I became convinced that the compartmentalization and/or fragmentation of self was the characteristic coping mechanism for the mass age. Plenty of people have written similar things, in various terminology. With modernity accelerating the production of new situations, offerings and roles, each with their own often contradictory demands on individuals, people responded by learning to live with a new incoherence, though not necessarily by conscious decision.

    No wonder that something like psychoanalysis should thrive under such conditions. Seeking to create narratives that could reconcile these partitioned contexts of self within the same consciousness was apparently an appealing goal for many people.

    In any case, this power of the situation to divide and conquer the individual has only continued to grow since. Today, art, technology, design, politics, marketing, and countless other human occupations all seem to have settled upon a single idea as their focus and activity: the experience. Everyone wants to create experiences, as totally as possible.

    The trouble is, just when psychologically informed, data-driven, hyper-compelling experiences machines are popping up everywhere, our old coping mechanism is failing. Flexibility and compartmentalization depend on walls to keep self-consciousness out. We can retrain our conscience and our identity, but we don’t have the same power over others. When data is shared, contexts bleed into each other. Any situation is now every situation, so individuals receive conflicting messages: we must surrender to our impulses, but we can never forget ourselves. That’s an unacceptable

    I think this is implicated the tribalism you mention in #4. Some people are coping with the uncertainty by simply picking a side (or a signifier) and leaving scorched earth everywhere else. There are plenty of other reactions, but I’ll wrap this up. One thing most of us rely on is the compensation of the convergent device (#7 and #8). Our attention is captured through distraction, but as you say, we seek refuge from where it might otherwise fall. Maybe an attenuated reality is what many have come to rely on.

    (I’m running with the kite here, so cut me a little slack- in all likelihood, someone has already discussed all this much more cogently)

    1. If “the authoritarian impulse is democratically distributed,” is it still an authoritarian impulse? I’m thinking here of how mundane the subject of so many viral images and anecdotes (‘memes’, in short) are on social media. It has allowed many people (the youth mainly, I suppose) to ‘spy’ on the minutiae of each other’s daily lives, on a massive, pervasive, and relentless scale not possible before digital technology. But I put ‘spy’ in quotes because of the intent: I don’t think achieving a sense of authoritarian control, or even voyeuristic pleasure, is the motivation for such activities. I suspect the intent mainly is simply to socialize, in the general, neutral sense. And because the generators of such mundane data (us) are aware, at least on a subconscious level, that it is a performance, then it is reasonable to think that most of us are not deliberately producing and disseminating harmful, incriminating data about our selves. (At least trying to; of course it remains the fact that we have been not fully aware of the extent of digital technology’s surveillance capabilities.)

      My point is that, if the surveillance is massively mutual, and not entirely involuntary, then it cannot be anywhere near as harmful as the modern panopticon it’s being suggested here to be—I haven’t read Foucault though, so I don’t actually know if his writings about disciplinary surveillance systems address them in the benefit-harm dimension. I’m thinking in particular of how, in a way, the mundane content of social media can actually be soothing the anxiety of people by allowing us to also see the boredom and anxieties of so many other people, including, crucially, celebrities, the elite, people of fame and power, and thereby re-calibrate our own expectations of reality. There is a problem, nevertheless, in secondary effects: the soothing of anxiety can be so powerful and effective that it becomes, to use that common word, addictive, leading to the paralyzing ennui experienced by so many digital technology users.

      I hope that makes sense, and contributes something.

      1. First, sorry for the typos and confusing sentences – I tried to operate my brain too late at night.

        DJ, I think you’re fairly accurate in describing how it often feels to participate in social sharing, but I think the net result (no pun intended) isn’t always obvious or attributable to the intentions of the participants. No doubt plenty of what’s shared is trivial, though that’s tellingly subjective, but much is also quite personal.

        For most kids, messaging is now the default mode of communication, which means being paranoid in a truly novel way. No one knows who may see a message or when it might come to light again in the future. Even when talking to close friends, one is now potentially talking to anyone.

        Imagine a kid who craves what passes for a normal social life at school but who was unwilling to use any digital communication, and you’ll probably agree that voluntary use is a complicated matter. The pressure on our habits comes from the mere awareness of possible repercussion, and from the suggestion that, if we behave correctly, we can have the ecstasy of communication without the trade-off of social reprisal.

        When I say that the authoritarian impulse is democratically distributed, I mean that we each have individual interests that surveillance now empowers us to extend in order to discipline each other. Insofar as others are aware that we are monitoring them with regard to those interests, we put pressure on them. In some cases, the pressure applies even when they are unaware of our watching, so long as the surveillance provides a new opportunity to modify their behavior with punishment or reward. And I think the use of this is now popular and very under acknowledged, for the usual reasons.

        It’s similar with data brokers. Say I wanted to take responsibility for the implications of my purchasing and internet patterns. How can I begin to adopt a strategy that would optimize how they might appear in aggregate to my bank, my insurer, my employer, the government, and a myriad of other consequential parties now and in the future? I can’t, and to even attempt it would involve self-discipline to the point of insanity.

        Yet, while the truth is that it’s fairly easy, even preferable, for me to ignore this situation, that doesn’t at all mean I’m not pliable through punishments and rewards that their analytics recommend to steer me.

        1. Final thought: it’s probably this convergence that Michael is drawing attention to that makes it so difficult to unpack the effects of this phenomenon…it has a density that isn’t obvious, which I’m anxious to think more about.


    From: “L.M. Sacasas” Reply-To: “L.M. Sacasas” Date: Tuesday, June 26, 2018 at 9:45 PM To: Stephen Malagodi Subject: [New post] Eight Theses Regarding the Society of the Disciplinary Spectacle

    Michael Sacasas posted: “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 Fo”

  3. Great post. You’re onto something clever by combining the concepts of disciplinary power and the society of the spectacle, and my vote is for “the society of the disciplinary spectacle” as the new nomenclature, with “the SDS” for short.

    I’d like to see theses 3 and 6 developed further, as I feel there’s some conflict there over the value of authenticity, a virtue I hold in high regard. My intuition is that, in the SDS, there are now 2 kinds of authenticity: authenticity in being and authenticity in appearing to be. The former is the long-standing existentialist virtue I’m used to and the source of alienation you describe in thesis 3, and I argue that the latter is the one you describe in thesisI6 and is different in an important way. Stage personalities facilitated by social media (like podcasters, reporters, top YouTubers) have larger reach than ever before, allowing them to sustain an “authentic appearance” for far longer and for far more profit than previously possible. I argue that these appearances are increasingly hard to detect (i.e. increasingly authentic), are a threat to the exchange of truth, and (unlike the first type of authenticity) are not a source of alienation but rather encouraged and rewarded by the SDS.

    I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts on the topic. Thanks for writing on cool material.

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