Before explaining his background, Foucault was a 20th century philosopher and historian who spent most of his career heavily criticizing the power of the modern bourgeois. This included not only the capital but as well as including its laws, police, prisons and even doctors, anyone who wields power. His main goal was to figure out how the power worked in favor of the bourgeois and the reverse to a Marxist modern state. Specifically, focusing on how surveillance is a tool used by the bourgeois and is used to able constrict the proletariat, or working class. While Foucault has many theories of interest, the primary focus will be on his theory of Surveillance – Society and Punishment.
In his childhood Michel Foucault, was originally born as Paul-Micheal Foucault in 1926 on the outskirts of western France, Poitiers. Both his father Paul-Andre Foucault, and mother Anne Foucault came from a lineage of surgeons and medical practices. Likewise, both his parents had medical professions. During his studies Michel Foucault proved to excel in philosophy and decided to purse it as his as future academic career. However, given his lineage his father, had wished for Micheal Foucault to pursue a medical career instead. While Micheal remained close to his mother, a strain had formed between father and son, possibly causing ‘Paul’ to be dropped. Although Faoucault came from such a privilege backgrounds he would later come to resent everything the privilege and its classes would stand for.
In Foucault’s case with genealogy, he accounts for the constitution of the knowledge’s, discourses, domains of objects, and so on, without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in a relation to the field of events or runs its empty sameness throughout the course of history (Foucault 306). Genealogy or the otherwise known as ‘history of the present’, is the historical techniques in which one questions the emergence of philosophical and social beliefs and looking beyond the discourse to the conditions of their possibility.
In Foucault’s book Discipline and Punishment (Foucault 1975), it explores the evolution of power since the middle ages and argued that the modern powers (laws and police) look kind at first but, aren’t kind at all. This is in comparison to the middle ages, where punishments for committing crimes would be publicly displaced had often were gruesome, often including torture. However, because these forms of public executions or torture the public would often feel sympathy towards the criminals and begin shaming the executioners. Once, this occurred the public began rioting against the very powers that were protecting them. Now in a modern prison system, the punishment towards criminals are kept away from the eyes of the public. Thus, Foucault believed that these modern systems were more barbaric then the middle ages, without seeing the punishment one cannot possibly resist the power of that state.
Now after viewing how Foucault viewed crime and punishment, he developed a theory on how a modern society can ensure control over its citizens. Rather than enforcing punishment psychically as in the middle ages, modern times and shifted towards punishing convicts psychologically instead. With this, Foucault created a new form of prison system that originated with British social reformer, Jeremy Bentham it was called Panopticon. In this prison system jail cells would organize in a circular pattern with the cells around the eternal walls, with a singular watch tower in center of the cells. In this hypothetical prison, the theory was the inmates assume that were being constantly monitored and would behave accordingly. Even if the watchtower had little to no guards the threat and possibility of being constantly watched would prompt inmates to behave as if they were in fact being watched. In a modern example, the closest correlation would be CCTV and traffic cameras. When driving no one would dare to speed or run a red light or commit forms of felony. The overlooking surveillance individual in society would automatically feel compelled to behave accordingly all time with out fail or fear facing the consequences.
However, in Foucault’s theory the surveillance isn’t there to prevent crime, rather it is implemented to protect the people in power and their assets. When labor became increasingly plentiful, unemployed and driven to crime and rebellion, the houses of correction became even more punitive, while labor in the houses of correction was limited to intimidating and useless tasks so that no one would enter them voluntarily. The overall effect was to teach free labor the discipline of the factory outside and inside the factory in such a manner that factory discipline in prisons and workhouses – whatever, and usually due to, the practices of enlightened penology. Thus, the employed and the unemployed learned their respective disciplines. Thereafter, we might say that in the bourgeois social order the prison, the factory and the school, like the army, are places where the system can project its conception of the disciplinary society in the reformed criminal, the good worker, student, loyal committed citizen (O’Nell 51-52). For example, when typically the terms of society and punishment come up, one’s natural mindset leads to crime. In any society cases of crime is inevitable and only increases as these society’s continuing to grow and develop, increasing the numbers of that society. As the members increase, food, resources, and income will deplete causing some members of society to act out. In the acts of crimes occurring, it could lead to revolts and possible lose of power to the bourgeois. To prevent such acts from ever occurring, laws and discipline were set up in order keep the working class or proletariat in line and continue following the bourgeois without question.
Foucault’s theory on surveillance could be applied to today’s modern context, though media and society, more specifically through online shopping. As consumers make purchases, request catalogues, return goods for servicing and repair, or simply browse for desirable commodities and services, their transactions are duly noted, stored, cross referenced, and often tracked or mapped (Elmer 231). As the usage, of online media and consumerism has been steadily increasing and new users are constantly added to these websites, profiles, and apps, thus causing the need for online protection to increase. Society is constantly in the presence of online context and its usage can could be easily traced. For example, many carry this surveillance system on their person, i.e iphones, and are constantly being monitored without direct awareness of the fact they are being constantly monitored. While some may argue the signage of user agreements often details its consumers the usages of ‘cookies’.
In addition to these ‘cookies’, while consumer surveillance often ends up exposing our private lives (transactions, demographics, etc.) to the world – hardly surprising given the porous state of computer security and privacy laws – its diagrammatic characteristics also call into question the increasingly intransigent (or disciplinary) technique of making aggregated past consumer behavior (consumer profiles) an instrumental blueprint for possible future consumer products and services, indeed the very functioning of digital media itself ( Elmer 245). For example, if an individual looks for a product on Google, the product or even brands often end up pooping up on other websites such as, Instagram and Facebook. Many have become accustomed to seeing favorite brands, food services, and products steadily appearing between friends and family’s posts. This is all due to the usage of surveillance of online media.
In conclusion, Foucault viewed surveillance as a hindrance to society and a step backwards from modern society. He believed that eventually constantly surveillance would create individuals in society to conform to one another and create the masses into identical forms. In media, it is often shown flowing this example, many influences or celebrities follow that same trends in order to achieve appraisement and ‘likes’ from the general public. Foucault is psychologist historian whose studies and theories could still be applied to modern society and be learned from the masses.
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