Synopsis of Class: April 1, 1999

I first asked to what extent the warnings about society implicit in 1984 might actually still apply to our own culture, Students pointed out various ways that Orwell's dystopia is inherent within certain historical and present-day facts:

I then went over a major change that has occurred in our own culture in our understanding of power and social control; that is, the transition from what Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish calls a culture of spectacle to a carceral culture. Whereas, in the former, punishment is effected on the body in public displays of torture, dismemberment, and obliteration, in the latter punishment and discipline become internalized and directed to the constitution and, when necessary, rehabilitation of social subjects. I also discussed some of the ways that Bentham's theories about penal reform have affected such disparate social formations as the university classroom (constructed on the panoptic model; see right), urban planning (the grid vs. the central piazza), and factory organization. I also discussed some of the inherent benefits and also dangers of the present system and suggested that the current popular fascination with conspiracy-theory narratives (the X-Files being a prominent example) may be a symptom of our inherent fears about certain aspects of our carceral system of social control. (The importance of anonymous denunciations in the Nazi Gestapo system was discussed as an example of when the carceral system goes too far.) Various examples of carceral control in our own society were cited, particularly the fact the the U.S. has the largest per capita number of prisons of any other nation in the world; new uses of video surveillance by traffic police; the camera-and-mirror form of surveillance in most drugstores; the ease by which one's movements can be tracked in our contemporary culture (ATMs, cameras, credit cards, etc.).

Finally, I pointed out some of the effects of this new model of organization:

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