Synopsis of Class: February 27, 2001

Today, I asked to what extent our own society is actually that different from Nazi Germany. Students pointed out various ways that Nazi power structures are still inherent in our own society:

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:

As Foucault makes clear in his later article, "The Subject and Power," however, power in fact resides in the individual. Herein lies the real nexus of power, something that is easily forgotten in the face of society's new machines of control. After all, our bureaucracies are, in fact, made to function by the efforts of individual agents and, so, these individuals always have the "power" to undo the system. I gave Schindler as a good example of the power of one individual even in the most repressive of systems. I also pointed out how in, for example, Denmark, Bulgaria, or Italy the same fascist race laws failed to be implemented in the same way, once again because of the efforts (the refusals) of countless individuals. I suggested, then, that power qua power is not inherently evil. One could even argue that the power we exert on each other on a day-to-day basis is precisely the guarantee of our freedom. Each "hello" and "how are you?" is, in fact, a reaffirmation of this important deference to the rights of the other. (As I suggest in my article, that may be why it was so important for Nazism to impose a "heil Hitler" into quotidian interactions with others, as if one thereby stated that one acknowledged an other only through the state.) It is also true that "machines of power" like bureaucracies or stock markets can have positive effects since they can help to get things done. Nonetheless, a danger always adheres to such "machines" given their tendency to abstract themselves from individual needs or individual responsibility, as in Adolf Eichmann's case.

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