Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian, analyzes a novel kind of disciplinary power that was implemented in the 17th century to combat the plague, a new threat that was lethal, invisible, and highly contagious. The innovative approach not only isolated a town or village in which an outbreak had occurred, it also brought a group of people under intense scrutiny and segmentation, confining residents to their homes, placing sentinels at the corners of streets and intersections, and requiring regular review and registration of the position, condition, and identity of each individual under quarantine. For Foucault the model of the quarantine was a new “technology of power” that he called “discipline.”
A “mechanism of discipline” can be thought of as any “enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which uninterrupted links exist between the center and periphery.” The “architectural figure” of this disciplinary power is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a model prison built upon a simple concept with echoing and accelerating implications: a tower surrounded by a ring of cells. A sentinel stands in the central tower; the guard can observe each of the prisoners, but they can neither see the sentry nor one another; prisoners never know when or how they are being observed, but recognize at all times their own visibility and vulnerability: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”
What began as an effort to regulate and command certain “marginal” or “dangerous” segments of the population—victims of the plague, prisoners, the “insane”—becomes a technology used to normalize the population as a whole, adopted by all institutions with any interest whatsoever in management and control. “Is it surprising,” asks Foucault rhetorically, “that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” The Panopticon is the basic technology of power in our schools and our society.
Efforts to implement surveillance techniques and disciplinary power in schools have been going on for years, of course, but the process was dramatically accelerated in this country by two events: first, the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, which provoked widespread worry over a supposed trend of school violence, and second, the attacks of 9/11, which sparked a similar nationwide panic over “terrorism” and a drive, not just in schools but in every facet of American life, toward “security” of the “home-land.” Foucault’s emphasis on the origins of discipline during the plague is instructive because school violence, not to mention “terrorism,” is often figured as a metaphorical plague, something “contagious,” “invisible,” and “lethal.” Foucault reminds us that “Behind the disciplinary mechanism can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague . . . of people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.”
The prisoner in Foucault’s Panopticon is always “the object of information, never the subject of communication.” Most teachers challenge that: we want our students to become the subjects of communication, actors in their own dramas and writers of their own scripts, even as we ourselves resist being transformed into objects by the mechanisms of surveillance that so profoundly define modern educational institutions.