Foucault and the Classroom Panopticon

Prof. Kim attempts to thwart digital distraction by limiting the use of such devices in his class at the York University’s Schulich School of Business.  The professor has his students sign two contracts.  The first is not to use technologically adversely and the second is to alert him if they find another student is breaking the first.  “There’s not an ounce of scientific evidence that students can actually multitask” (Brown 2012).

Prof. Kim’s classroom seems to mimic Betham’s panopticon.  The panopticon was designed with a larger outer circle to hold the prisioners and a smaller inner circle where the guards would be stationed.  The circular architure allowed for the inmates to be viewable at all times, without the inmates themselves being able to discern when they were being viewed.  This also lead into efficiency, as Professor Larsen explains, two guards can observe hundreds of inmates (personal communication November 9 2012).  Foucault insinuates that Betham laid down the “principal that power should be visible and unverifiable” (Pavlich 144).   Like the panoptican, Prof. Kim’s students are now the guards.  “Perpetual gaze…[creates] constant self-awareness…[the observed become] complacent in their own surveillance (Pavlich 144).  Meaning that they become used to being observed and curtail the perceived deviant behaviour.  For example, a college classroom.  Laptop/cell-phone usage is on display to others around the user.  By incorporating the classmates as guards, he has effectively created multiple panopticons throughout the classroom ironically run by the inmates. Which is quite ingenious.

He is retraining their behavior by offering by dangling a carrot in front of them.  An illusion of a reward.  A retelling of rule.  Like the food pyramid of yesteryear.  The wording of the pyramid suggest a simple, straight-forward answer to being overweight, assorted illness, etc.  Healthy doesn’t take much work, all you need is 5 servings of fruits and veggies.  Snitching doesn’t require much effort.  It’s for the embetterment of your scholastic career.

In 1757 Damiens tried to a assassinate King Louis XV (15th) by stabbing him.  The punishment for this transgression, he was sentence to torture and executed.  It was orringally supposed to last less then an hour but it carried on for several hours.  The tortures used hot pinchers to peel the flesh from his skin and pour hot oil and other noxious heated fluids.  The offending hand was to be burnt with oil and sulphur.  But in actuality it barely scorched his hand.  Four horses were used to draw his limbs for quartering.  But because of the horses inexperience two more were added to the team.  Several attempts where made to detach the limbs while Damiens was still alive (personal communication November 9, 2012).  The point here is the ceremony created in this draconian display.  A sovereign is vastly outnumbered by their subjects.  They use ceremony of the execution to show the majesty of the sovereign.  To make an example of the person.  If you go against my rules, this is the punishment you will suffer.  Earlier executions where a community event.  Children where brought and food was sold.  There were stories of people arriving hours before hand to obtain prime viewing spots.

In conclusion, Prof. Kim created a panoptic-esque in his classroom by proffering broad rewards, rephrased to make them more appealing and ‘sensible’ to the student.  Constant observation is believed to make the observed self-control their own behavior after a fashion, because they did not know when they were not being observed.  Though this type of constant surveillance is linked to several mental disorders, that once release would make it almost impossible to reenter society.  Damiens was held as an example for those who dare to trespass against their rulers wishes.  The ceremony is almost more important then the crime.

Reference

Brown, L. (2012, November 2). York University prof enlists student snitches to battle digital distraction. Toronto Star [Toronto].  Retrieved November 10, 2012 from http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/education/article/1282225–york-university-prof-enlists-student-snitches-to-battle-digital-distraction.

Pavlich, G. (2011). Michel Foucault:The Power of Law and Society. In Law & society redefined (pp. 136-151). Don Mills, Ont: Oxford University Press.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Foucault and the Classroom Panopticon

  1. You note that “By incorporating the classmates as guards, he has effectively created multiple panopticons throughout the classroom ironically run by the inmates. Which is quite ingenious.”
    This is a great summary of the dynamic in the classroom. Good work!
    You also note that “He is retraining their behavior by offering by dangling a carrot in front of them.  An illusion of a reward.  A retelling of rule.  Like the food pyramid of yesteryear.  The wording of the pyramid suggest a simple, straight-forward answer to being overweight, assorted illness, etc.  Healthy doesn’t take much work, all you need is 5 servings of fruits and veggies.  Snitching doesn’t require much effort.  It’s for the embetterment of your scholastic career.”
    This, I think, is conflating disciplinary power and governmentality. Whereas the classroom surveillance regime corresponds to disciplinary power (hierarchical observation, normalizing judgements, micro-rewards and punishments), the food guide is an example of governmentality. It is based on ‘the conduct of conduct’ – responsibilizing populations (as opposed to individuals) for the management and optimization of their own vitality. These techniques of power can, of course, overlap in a given mechanism.
    I am not sure about the relationship between disciplinary power and the case of Damiens the regicide that you are pointing to. Could you elaborate? Note that Foucault uses the execution of Damiens as a case study in the operation of sovereign power.