Perhaps it’s not surprising that Foucault, the “panopticon guy”, is characterized as a thinker of power, discipline, and punishment. But as Deleuze (1995) points out, Foucault also believed that we are increasingly moving away from being societies based on discipline to societies based on control. According to Deleuze’s reading of Foucault: “We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis).
Did Foucault prematurely announce the end of confinement? It sure looks like it when looking at the US, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. According to government statistics, the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, even while the crime rate continues to fall. By June 2004 there were 2.1 million people in US jails, or one in every 138 residents (ref, ref). Race has everything to do with this issue: “blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested… and 49 percent of those in prison… One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation in 1995.” (ref).
And that’s just at home. The US is also in the business of confining people abroad. According to the article American Gulag in Harper’s Sept. 2006 issue, 450 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo, approximately 13,000 in Iraq, 500 in Afghanistan, and an estimated 100 in secret CIA “black sites” around the world. They have not been formally charged, and have little legal recourse. In essence, they are guilty until the US decides they are innocent. While the man in charge of the facility “firmly believes” that there are no innocent men in Guantanamo, a report based on data from the Dept. of Defense indicates that 55% of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its allies (ref, ref). According to Harper’s, 98 Guantanamo detainees have died to date, it is safe to assume not from natural causes.
But it’s not simply the case that this society is a bit behind in the transition from discipline to control. It is actually advancing equally well on both fronts. In fact, increased control goes hand in hand with increased confinement because increased control means more precise ways of identifying those who fail to perform to society’s expectations. In a technocracy, control is surveillance: the continuous monitoring of public, private and work life, and the “intelligent” identification of any deviance. But while new control technologies afford more effective and efficient methods of management and surveillance, you still need an apparatus for controlling those who fall outside the established parameters. This group includes those who have failed in the educational system and therefore cannot productively contribute to the service economy, enemies of the state (preemptively defined), non-conforming minorities, etc. (I’m not suggesting there are no criminals in prison; I’m merely drawing some conclusions from trends in the makeup of the prison population). The trick is then to turn the confinement of these ‘burdens’ of society into a business opportunity by benefiting from their cheap labor or by privatizing the industry of confinement itself (think Halliburton).
I hinted above at the role of education as a control mechanism that helps differentiate the productive members of society from those who should be confined and disciplined. The fact that the same groups who are disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population are also those most likely to drop out of the educational system is not a coincidence (only about half of Black and Hispanic youth graduate with a high-school degree; ref). But for everyone else who succeeds, what does education look like? The answer is: continuous control. I was struck by Deleuze’s comments regarding the changing nature of education in a control society:
In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything… school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business. (1995, p. 179)
This definitely puts a sinister spin on ‘life-long’ learning. The constant student is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Thanks to distance education, e-learning and technologies such as the Learning Management System (LMS), education becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which —more importantly— can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ career of the individual. Thus, assessment-based education helps reconcile control and discipline in society by helping to effect, in the case of those who fail, a transition from controlled subject to disciplined object.
I want to go back briefly to Deleuze’s comment about control societies also operating through “instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis). It would make sense to assume that, in a crude way, control societies would want to control communication. But that is not the case. According to the standard technophile discourse, thanks to technology our societies enjoy an unprecedented freedom of speech and expression. Communication technologies with low operational cost and low barriers of entry (such as blogs) are praised for giving “everyone” a chance to express themselves. But Deleuze points out that “Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves… What we’re are plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements” (1995, p. 129). Deleuze is suggesting that there is a connection between control and an over-abundance of (meaningless) expression. More of this type of communication has not resulted in stronger social bonds, but in increased isolation: concurrent with advances in ICTs, the last U.S. census shows that 25% of the nation’s households (27.2 million) consist of just one person, compared to 10% in 1950 (ref).
This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ‘empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.
Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press.
Creative Commons photo credit: thost