(Node your homework)
The Death of the Tyrant:
Autonomous Power Structures in the Post-modern Era
"At the bottom, despite the differences in epochs and
objectives, the representation of power has remained under the spell of
monarchy. In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the
head of the king."
— Michel Foucault, (History 88-89)
With all the injustices in the world today, how strong the
temptation is to channel all of our frustration and righteous indignation at
someone, to thrust an accusatory finger at our parsimonious boss, or local
politician, or whoever attracts our ire. While there are small-town big fish
who may directly and consciously bully us, does this traditional monarchial or
oligarchic conception of power scale upward to institutions that affect society
itself? That is, do far-reaching agencies—what is often sneeringly
referred to as "the system"—really consciously oppress? With the
growing concern over increases in anorexia, teen violence, and
deviant behavior, such questions are not trivial because their
answers just might show us a mode for social reform. But however alluring it
may be to answer "yes," to scapegoat Cosmo Girl, video game companies, or MTV as the driving force behind
society's ills, no longer are there despots who deliberately rule over the
populace. The nature of power has changed; on the large scale it is
disindividualized and autonomous: a lumbering, headless giant.
Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish
describes the advent of new forms of corporal regulation
as a reflection of the changing essence of power. With the arrival of the plague in the late seventeenth century, the old binary division
of society ceded to what Foucault deems "individualizing distributions"
(Foucault 198). That is, where before there was a clear social
division—where "deviants" such as lepers were ostracized—the
plague blurred social distinction because anyone was susceptible: "bodies
mingled without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoned their statutory
identity and the figure under which they had been recognized" (Foucault 197).
No longer was it feasible to pariah only those obviously on the bottom of the
social ladder because anyone could become abnormal, and what was abnormal was
dangerous. Consequently, power was forced to change so that it could monitor
everyone. During the plague, all townspeople were confined to their houses on
pain of death, and scrutinized
at every point...the slightest movements supervised, all
events recorded...each individual constantly located, examined and distributed
among the living beings, the sick and the dead...." (Foucault 197)
Power shifted unmistakably to a mechanism which "multiplied,
articulated, and subdivided itself" (Foucault 198)—pervasive and in
intimate contact with each person. It was not fleeting but self-reproducing;
the plague had necessitated its continuing function because society now needed
to take measures to ensure that "abnormal" individuals could be handled. The
modern extension of this power is Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a
disciplinary building whose design quarantines each individual alone in a cell
and limits his vision to just the central observation tower. The individual
"is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject
of communication.... Visibility is a trap" (Foucault 200). While the
Panopticon is metaphorical, it "must not be understood as a dream building,
[but as] the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form"
(Foucault 205), power efficiently enforced by the conveyed threat of
omniscience. No longer did the ruler need to exercise power continuously, as
in the days of the plague where syndics constantly patrolled every cell and
reported to intendants, who reported to magistrates. The observer in the
Panopticon was the only person needed, the all-seeing eye. But is this really
the epitome of the tyrant's reign, as it first may seem?
Counterintuitively, the Panopticon further automated power,
stripping it from any one person. Since prisoners were not directly
administered, they themselves became the bearers of their regulation. "A real
subjection [was] born mechanically from a fictitious relation"
(Foucault 202) between an individual and his supervisor. The latter need only
establish codes of conduct, and the prisoner would be inclined to obey meekly
because he feared that he was always being observed. Consequently, "any
individual, taken almost at random, [could] operate the machine"
(Foucault 202) because the structure itself became the ultimate enforcer. Even
if the watchtower were completely abandoned, it would continue to function
because the unknowing inmates would still regulate themselves. The tyrant
became superfluous and his motives inconsequential, and the Panopticon became
"in fact a figure of political technology that [could] be detached from
any specific use" (Foucault 205) and applied to all. Panoptic structures may
be found not only in prisons, but also in schools and factories, which all
resemble each other both physically and in their methods of examining and
categorizing individuals (Foucault 228).
In each of these cases, though, the effects of the
Panopticon are localized in a relatively small area: school, prison, workplace.
Could a panoptic structure span across all of society? Logistic problems
notwithstanding, such an openly repressive regime, rigidly isolating each of
its prisoners, would never last long because as William Godwin noted,
"imperfect institutions...cannot long support themselves when they are
generally disapproved of, and their efforts truly understood"
(274).2 But perhaps most surprising, the Panopticon need not be a
physical structure at all, nor enclose people in actual cages. Since the key
to the Panopticon's effectiveness was the induced sense of permanent
visibility, individuals who feel that they are being observed will regulate
their behavior in accordance with "expectations," even if they are not
physically bound behind bars. This self-regulation may even occur at the
subconscious level. Codes of conduct, which are really panoptic structures,
are euphemized as "laws" and "justice," and people will govern themselves
subconsciously according to the specifics of the law because they "believe" in
the abstract concept of Law. Louis Althusser elaborates:
The individual...participates in certain regular practices
which are those of the ideological apparatus on which "depend" the ideas which
he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject....If he believes in
Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices
"according to the correct principles." If he believes in Justice, he will
submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when
they are violated, sign petitions, take part in demonstration.... (243)
People's subconscious "obedience" will ensure the very
functioning of the system that ensnares them, regardless of whether any
overseer even exists! Thus, a variant of the Panopticon could spread
throughout society, its repressiveness concealed because of its subtle methods
of enforcement. Foucault refers to this as the "swarming of disciplinary
While, on the one hand, the disciplinary establishments
increase, their mechanisms have a certain tendency to become
"de-institutionalized," to emerge from the closed fortresses in which they once
functioned and to circulate in a "free" state; the massive, compact disciplines
are broken down into flexible methods of control, which may be transferred and
adapted. (Foucault, Discipline 211)
The centralized locus of absolute authority has diffused
across society, swarmed into the form of "norms"—social models of
acceptable behavior. Institutions establish3 such norms, and they
punish, convert, or ignore those who fall outside until there exists a majority
with common values. This very homogeneity validates the authority of these
agencies, and consequently reinforces the agencies themselves. The norms begin
to seem natural, rather than the panoptic structures they really are. People
start to regulate their behavior in conformity, and soon the norms are fully
ingrained and adhered to, and seemingly innocuous—this is the birth and
development of self-reinforcing, autonomous structures. Granted, this does not
mean that no single individual can hold any power anymore. In his ability to
rule over those around him, a power-crazed company CEO may be as much a
tyrant as kings of the past. However, the difference is that no single person
or even group of people can hope to rule over society at large in the modern
Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1,
details the growth of a norm that classifies sexuality and which originated
during the Victorian era. What is called the "repressive hypothesis" claims
that the frank and open sexuality of the seventeenth century was consciously
repressed by the Victorian bourgeoisie in efforts to manipulate the common
man. This sexual prudishness is supposedly still with us today, and the only
way to free ourselves from its confines is to talk openly about our sexuality.
However, Foucault argues that there was not actually any sexual silence during
the Victorian era. Rather, there was an increase in the discourse on
sexuality, only it was regulated to specific disciplines such as psychology.
New norms developed and dichotomized sexuality into "normal" and "abnormal"
behavior. In fact, a whole slew of medical terms was developed to classify
sexual "deviancy:" zoophile, zooerast, auto-monosexualist,
mixoscopophile, gynecomast, presbyophile, sexoesthetic invert,
dyspareunist, and so on (Foucault, History 43). The importance of
sexuality became exaggerated because of the increased discourse, elevating it
from just a facet of personality to an all-important, definitive
characteristic. Sexuality changed meaning and significance, mutated into a
social construct. Thus, it became imperative to study it more—and thus,
a self-reinforcing cycle of power and knowledge developed. Further, sexuality
became a scientia sexualis—an object to be investigated scientifically
and "objectively" (Foucault, History 58). This illusion of scientific
objectivity solidified the norms that the investigation itself had introduced.
Even the repressive hypothesis itself has become part of this self-reinforcing
system because the more it is invoked, the more sexually repressed we will
feel, and thus the greater the need we will have to invoke it; "the statement
of oppression and the form of the sermon refer back to one another; they are
mutually reinforcing" (Foucault, History 8). Thus, the iron confines of
the Panopticon are actually malleable. These subtle panoptic structures are,
in addition to sexual labels, mandatory drug tests in the workplace,
neighborhood watch programs and, as Foucault describes, concerned schools
delving into the lives of academic deviants and their families (Foucault,
Discipline 211). Restrictions on "acceptable" behavior may seem so
natural and so subtle that they don't appear confining, but they define
society's morals and conduct by reinforcing these norms.
The act of judging others by the standard of the norm
harbors consequences. For instance, the feeling of constant surveillance from
a society dominated by images of heterosexuality can force gay people into an
uncomfortable position. They either must be open about their sexuality and
risk being stigmatized as "abnormal" and possibly inferior, their sexual
preference characterized as a curious oddity at best (or as wicked, disgusting,
and depraved at worst) while "normal" heterosexual behavior is accepted as
the default. Otherwise, they can adhere to the norm by repressing their
sexuality and suffer loneliness and, again, feelings of inferiority.
The whole situation seems frustrating. Not only are there
problematic repercussions stemming from societal norms, but no single person is
to blame. Obvious figureheads like belligerent rap artists are just
straw men, and to lash out against them would no more remedy
the problem than cutting the head off a weed would faze it. To rail against
such figures, "to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and
promise bliss" (Foucault, History 7) is futile because the real
perpetrators are lifeless power structures, who galumph around stupidly but
not harmlessly. While at first glance we might feel hopeless, there is no
cause to throw up our hands in defeat and cast our lot with chance. Granted,
we must realize that traditional ideas of revolution against someone and
accompanying reform are now rendered fruitless. As writer Robert Pirsig
To tear down a factory or revolt against a
government...because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes;
and as long as the attack is on effects only, no change is possible. The true
system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought
itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality
which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce
another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the
systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact,
then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.
Change is still possible, only its mode has transformed from
open rebellion to education. For instance, a sexual revolution in favor of
integrating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered lifestyles into
the norm exists today, and it progresses not by hanging homophobes but by
attacking the very core of the problem through changing common conceptions of
"alternate" sexual preferences.4 We are empowered to take
responsibility into our own hands instead of "ceding power to social
definitions that we individually no longer control" (Minow 562).
1 In subsequent paragraphs, I will highlight some
of the landmarks in the developing autonomy of power (without claiming to give
a comprehensive timeline). Then, I will focus on sexuality as a case in point,
detailing how "innocuous" sexual norms are actually constrictive, autonomous
power structures, and how they create a dilemma of difference. Finally, I will
show how this has changed the mode for effective methods of revolution and
2 The Panopticon is a "black box," and while
its prisoners would not be aware of its mechanisms, they be more than aware of
their imprisonment, thereby "truly [understanding]" the building's
"efforts," and hence might eventually lash out. The Panopticon would be forced
to invest considerable energy to smother these uprisings, thus losing the very
efficiency it gained from enforcing by threat alone.
3 Whether the norm's original establishment was
intentional is superfluous. Since the system autonomously perpetuates itself,
the norm will gradually dissociate itself from the control of its creators,
though it may or may not still fulfill their goals.
4 While individuals by themselves rarely can
create mainstream beliefs, they certainly can work to reform the beliefs and
norms of society. Some "fetishists" actually may have aims quite contrary to
the stereotypical conception of brutal sadomasochism, "as if shiny surfaces
of leather and latex represented [fetishism] in its entirety" (Levine
4). Photographer Steve Goedde, for instance, creates his work to show that
"unconventional forms of eroticism [have the power] to provoke, amuse
and enlighten both practitioners and observers. By unintentionally
burlesquing society's received ideas about pleasure, power and
propriety, sexual non-conformists illuminate not only their own fantasy worlds,
but also the hidden dimension of perversity beneath the smooth surface of
so-called normal life. In doing so, they offer us the rare opportunity to
reconsider what we find attractive, beautiful, enigmatic or repellent" (Levine
4), and therefore to transcend societal norms.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses."
Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle.
Tallahassee, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1986. 238-250.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage,
---. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. New York: Vintage,
Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Baltimore,
MD: Penguin, 1976.
Levine, I.S. Preface. The Beauty of Fetish, Volume 2. By Steve
Goedde. New York: Stemmle, 2001.
Minow, Martha. "The Dilemma of Difference." Academic Discourse.
Ed. Gail Stygall. Mason, OH: Thomson, 2002. 559-595.
Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New
York: Quill, 1999.
Formatted for deadlemming by thyme, because
deadlemming is a filthy, lazy bastard.