Reading: Discipline and Punish

Michel Foucault

While Discipline and Punish isn’t actually on the reading list for my PG Cert, I returned to it recently as part of my research for something else and as I read it occurred that it would be a useful text to summarise and reflect on briefly in terms of teaching and the classroom. Michel Foucault’s writing on power, health and sexuality has been profoundly influential in the social sciences and arts, to the paradoxic extent that the ideas of thinker whose career was largely predicated on critiquing how modes of thought are made possible, become entrenched, and close down the possibility for other forms of thought, has become, frankly, deeply entrenched themselves. Discipline and Punish is probably one of his best-known texts, in part because it’s relative accessibility but also because of its implications for how we view the modern world, in particular many of its pastoral practices, from incarceration, to healthcare, to schooling.

In the book Foucault charts the evolution of disciplinary practices from the early modern to modern eras. He begins with the very physical and public coercion of the early modern state (opening the book with an excruciating account of the last execution to occur in France for the crime of attempted regicide) before leaping forward to more modern and comparatively humane methods of treatment and punishment following the French revolution. What is significant in this is Foucault’s assertion that what initially appears to be a progressive evolution in the way discipline is created is actually the exchange of one means of oppression for another. Where previously control was exerted through physical restraint and overt violence, he suggests in the modern era these restraints are increasingly internalised instead, with the mere threat of punishment (now carried out away from public view) being enough in many cases to enforce normative or ‘proper’ behaviour in targeted groups like criminal and the mentally ill. Alongside the direct incarceration of marginalised groups, behaviour is incalculated into mainstream populations as well through similar but even more covert means, resulting in a new discipline of biopower, the micromanagement of living things.

This tendency becomes evident in the new architecture of the modern state, in factories, hospitals and of course schools, and is most clearly exemplified for Foucault in Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon or ‘inspection house’. This was conceived by Bentham as a prison building which would create in its occupants the sensation that could be under scrutiny at any time, and thereby enforcing inner restraint. Bentham’s idea was never realised in his lifetime, and Foucault’s re-employment of it (as he later acknowledged) was somewhat idealistic in terms of the mechanics of how such a building would work in practice, but his articulation of panopticonism has been influential on a wide range of fields from photography theory to surveillance studies. Despite the emergence of a school of post-panoptic thinking in surveillance studies, the legacy of the Panopticon persists ironically even in an era when increasingly automated surveillance technologies make the reality of total observation as practical as the illusion of it, an example if one were needed of Foucault’s relative unassailability as a thinker even after time and change have started to erode the applicability of some of his ideas.

Still the model of the Panopticon remains relevant in many spheres, not least as one to consider in relation to the spatial arrangements of the classroom. In their layouts schools and universities typically still invariably follow an arrangement which dates back to Bentham’s era (and earlier), of a teacher speaking with or without visual prompts in front of rows of forward facing students. This model affords visibility of the teacher to the students, but also inversely creates a panoptic effect that makes it easy for the teacher to see all activity in the room (something students frequently seem unaware of until they occupy the position of the teacher). Besides the benefits of this arrangement for students to observe and teachers to survey, this structure would also seem to create an innate hierarchy or distance between on the one hand the teacher or lecturer and the medium of information (projection, whiteboard, demonstration) and on the other the students who are receiving the information. Viewed in light of Freire’s ideas about the importance of unity between students and staff, the effect of this hierarchy or distance is interesting to consider.

What Foucault’s ideas also push me to ask is what happens when the traditional spatial characteristics of the classroom are altered and experimented with. There are interesting precedents for this in other structures with similar semi-panoptic qualities, for example in a small number of churches, as in Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, pews face inward along the aisle not towards the front, with parishioners facing parishioners thereby creating a very different dynamic to other churches which face the altar and priest. A very different example, following the Second World War the court room at Nuremberg was extensively remodelled in anticipation of the war crimes trials that would take place there. As part of the process the judges seat at the front of the court was moved to make space for a large screen on which would be projected evidence of the crimes of those on trial. These examples and the different dynamics they achieved were the result of accident as much as design, but along with Foucault’s ideas about space and power they lead me to wonder what results might be achieved by altering the space of the classroom. How does it change the relationships between participants, and engagement with ideas, when teachers for example speak from the back rather than the front, or when students face each other?

Another final question for me to consider is how all of this relates to the non-space of online teaching, where students and teachers are brought together in a dematerialised virtual classroom, in my case the Blackboard platform, while simultaneously occupying disparate real world spaces, often separated by thousands of miles. This type of teaching experience clearly evaporates some of the dynamics and hierarchies of the physical class room’s layout and architecture, but to what extent does it replace old divisions and hierarchies with new ones? Do questions of international geography and network neutrality start to play greater roles than question of local space arrangement, with issues of distance and borders introducing issues of latency and potentially also sensitivities in terms of what is shown and discussed that are quite different to those that might exist when a class occupy the same physical space? Again these are questions to which I don’t yet have any answers but would like to explore further.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer.

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