Panopticon Part II; the academic tussle

Yesterday, I wrote a brief piece about Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and Foucault’s interpretation of the Panopticon as a physical representation of a social ‘power machine’ where the watched and the waters are equally prisoners.

Foucault, writing in the ’70s, introduced the Panopticon, and even Jeremy Bentham for that matter, to a wider audience through his critique and analysis of the design. Writing about deep social and psychological assumptions and ideas that the Panopticon inaugurated and embodied, Foucault’s work attracted the ire of Bentham scholars, intent on rescuing Bentham’s reputation and refuting the idea of the Panopticon as the ultimate Big Brother facility.

We have tumbled head long into a ongoing, venerable, and surprisingly bitter academic feud: the “analytic philosophy vs. continental philosophy” debate.

And strait-away, there is a problem. ‘Analytic’ is a methodological term, while ‘continental’ is a geographical or breakfast buffet term. This should put our mental radars on full alert: this like comparing “sailboats”  to “Russian boats” ; the categories are mix-mached and can’t really be compared equally. The reason is that the phrase “analytic philosophy vs. continental philosophy” belongs to analytic philosophy, which is generally associated with the English speaking world. It is wrong, and inaccurate to think of these philosophies in geographic terms (I admit there is some profit to thinking of them in linguistic terms though).

At heart, there this is a culture clash, as much of a philosophic one. Analytic philosophy defends from English philosophers like Bentham, Locke, and Hume. It is concerned with the scientific method; and follows the process of hypothesis-test-analysis-repeat. This is a strength. But there are some serious drawbacks, and in practical terms, analytic philosophy finds itself limited to assistant/handmaiden work for the hard sciences and technology. It tends to prefer questions like: “How does consciousness work?”

To an analytic philosopher, ‘continental’ philosophy reeks of foreign sounding names like “Nietzsche” or “Foucault”, ranting Germans, babbling Frenchmen, sweaty, moody, gesturing Italians, and  pagan-like Russians with bloodshot eyes who smell of onions and vodka. This is the philosophic tradition which talks about “Ubermench” or “the world-spirit in history” or “dialectical materialism”. An analytic philosopher asks of the ‘continental’ philosopher: “How can you test or prove your hypothesis? What actual proof do you have? How can you explain or gurentee that you are not talking nonsense?” These are good questions, nearly damning questions, in fact.

The ‘continental’ philosopher, who would never call himself a ‘continental’ philosopher, rarely thinks about or considerers analytic philosophy. In response to the charges of the analytic philosopher, the ‘continental’ philosopher would probably respond like this: “Analytic philosophy, implicitly makes several huge metaphysical assumptions, assumptions about metaphysical questions that are by no means closed or answered.” A ‘continental’ philosopher finds the work of the analytic philosopher boring. But even worse, and nearly damning, is that analytic philosophy has effectively abandoned tackling the big questions of human existence, and in every day terms, is socially and politically naive. ‘Continental’ philosophy asks: “How should humanity be organized for maximum freedom?” In this sense, you might even call them a bit utopian.

Foucault, as you have probably guessed, works in the ‘continental’ tradition. This tradition often speaks in metaphorical, even esoteric terms, the reason being is that they often work well beyond the real physically verifiable facts, and in the realm of deep human psychology. This tradition also places value on writing in terms of a valued canon of philosophers; one describes one’s philosophy in terms or in response to or in critique of a venerable predecessor.

So to return, finally, to the Panopticon, Foucault’s analysis of it takes place at a level, not in physical or textual facts, but a realm of psychology, and complex human interaction and sociology. Analytic, or maybe ‘anglo-saxon’ writers look at Bentham, and look at Bentham’s Panopticon and are baffled as to Foucault’s analysis, which they feel, is taking liberties and making grandiose assumptions, to say the least. For the analytic tradition, the Panopticon represents a architectural advance for clinical institutes; for the continental philosopher, a microcosm for human society.



It seems appropriate in light of the NSA’s illegal PRISIM program, online data-mining, and myself currently living in a country with the highest density of CCTV surveillance cameras, an generally living in a society where privacy has disappeared, to write a little bit about the Panopticon, its influence in contemporary society, as well as some illuminating remarks and the problems and differences between what has been called ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy.

Roughly 200 years ago, an English thinker, Jeremy Bentham (famous for utilitarianism and desiring to be stuffed and preserved after his death), designed a physical structure which could be used for prisons, hospitals, or psychiatric health wards. The basic architectural concept is a raised tower, similar to a lighthouse, surrounded by a circular structure, where each room has a window, or empty space on its inner and outer wall. He called it the Panopticon: the ‘all-seeing’. You can see the idea in practice below, at Presidio Prison, built 1926-28, in Cuba.


For Bentham and his contemporaries, this representing a huge advance on ‘institutional’ architecture from what would have been common at his time, namely some jail cells or dungeons, which would have been cramped, unhealthy, and dark.  A number of prisons and ‘institutes’ have been designed with some of the principals of observation and surveillance in mind.

In the ’70s, a French philosopher, Foucault (pronounced Foo-ko, not Foo-callt) wrote Discipline and Punish, which investigated prisons and institutionalization, and the entire modern phenomenon and rhetoric of prisons. Foucault observes that the architecture of the Panopticon makes many deeply underlying assumptions about society, crime, re-habilitation, the idea of ‘gaze’, and the idea of public opinion. The Panopticon represents a microcosm of the larger society, and the views and assumptions deployed in the creation of the Panopticon reflect the ideas and views of the larger society. At this time in English society, public society or opinion, once established, was essentially infallible; the darkness, secrecy, un-seen and unknown was where crime and transgression happened (read: masterbation, homosexuality, etc). This was partially because they had a weak conception of media and the role of media in forming public opinion (the idea that the organizations, individuals, and institutions could have a material or anterior motive or bias was largely unrealized). Thus the idea of the ‘gaze’, especially of the public was held as a force of goodness and light. Someone who committed ‘crime’ did so away from the gaze of public opinion, so subjected the perpetrator to ongoing observation would force them to ‘behave’. In essence, under continual observation of the ‘gaze’, the watched or inmate ‘internalizes’ the rules of the public world.

The second, more subtle observation about the Panopticon that Foucault makes is that everyone in the facility – watchers and watched – can see each other at all times. At first blush, the ‘watcher’ in the central, authoritarian, tower has a nearly god-like power, yet can be seen by the inmates and the other ‘watchers’ in the circular structure as well. At first we are inclined to see a hierarchy of a central, authoritative observer, allied with a portion of watchers who circulate, and then the inmates at the bottom. But the reality seems to be closer of a machine where everyone watches everyone else. Foucault describes the Panopticon as a ‘power machine’ where everyone is ultimately a prisoner.

“Hold on,” you might say, “this is simply a sanitary, efficient structure for keeping the criminally insane; how can you possible derive this dystopian, Big Brother-ish reading of it; aren’t you taking it too far?” Well, not really. This analysis of the Panopticon takes places at a level of psychology, or metaphorical understanding if you like, based on deep cultural assumptions. It’s about reading into the surface facts a psychological, emotional reality.

We all have heard to the phrase “You have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong.” This is what the Panopticon implicitly implies. It is important to remind ourselves of the evil that lurks behind this logic. Two basic problems with this phrase. First of all, who defines what is good and what is bad, and under what legation and authority? In a world that seems to be ‘shades of grey’, does it makes sense to hold everyone to purest white? What does it mean when someone is interested in using some sort of coercion to make everyone behave ‘purest white’? Second, there is the vast importance of privacy for privacy’s sake. I’ll admit that the days of the solitary genius laboring alone seem to be over, but I would say that the deepest, most meaningful thoughts and feelings come often when alone. Privacy, is more than just a simple human right, but an important psychological and emotional need. I do not think being spied on makes me any safer, thanks for the effort, though, PRISM.

In a latter post, I will write about the reception of Foucault’s ideas on Bentham and the Panopticon and how this reveals some tensions and disputes in academic and wider culture.


Death by Stereotype

George Zimmerman is just a man.

And, as such, he is unimportant. He has been in the news again recently, appearing at gun shows, signing autographs, and as the Treyvon Martin shooting resurfaces again again, I think that we need to truly understand what the crime was here. Because more than the event itself, it is the ongoing response from conservatives in supporting Zimmerman in a show of ongoing support.

This is the real crime. And it has revealed something that (excuse my hyperbole) is truly evil in America. At the very least, it has revealed the deep stain of racism and a curious form of “closet-racsim” amongst conservatives that crosses age groups and genders.

Zimmerman is a wannabe. A paranoid, controlling wannabe, who, upon seeing a black male teenager walking down the street that he patrols as a vigilante (of the most useless, sordid kind: the lynch mobber), immediately saw this black male as an object; a stereotype, and this stereotype means that, for Zimmerman that night, Martin was a criminal, and therefore guilty until proven innocent (innocent on Zimmerman’s terms I might point out).

Even though a call to 911 told him to stop (because people are allowed to wear hoodies and walk down a street; this is not a suspicious activity), Zimmerman must have been caught up in the adrenaline and emotion of his own paranoia and desires and suspicions being confirmed and vindicated. So he shadows the black male criminal in his car.

And then he steps out of the car and challenges the intruder.

If you are one of those people who claim that “because Martin was attacking Zimmerman, backing his head against the pavement, he was justified in protecting himself by shooting Martin (even though you would think an adult would be able to defend himself with his hands from a teenager)” this is where you need to pay attention and understand the actual situation.

Martin must have been aware of a car slowly following him down the street. He’s a 17 year old black man….and that stereotype is something that he is always conscious of, something that will be held against him, regardless of his personal actions. He must have been frightened, nervous, suspicious. He must have felt hunted, pursued, threatened. To me, this seems undeniable. So when Zimmerman stepped out of that car, armed, what would you have done?

Zimmerman created the situation out of his own racist, mall-cop variety racism. And I think that we have to admit to ourselves that Martin had no little chance of emerging from that encounter alive. Consider this a counter-factual proposition: what could Martin have done to have lived? Not attack Zimmerman? Run away? Said “Howdy, neighbor, just going for a stroll?”

This is the crux of the problem. The truth is that this was a confrontation with Zimmerman clearly as the aggressor. Zimmerman was baiting Martin, and effectively forcing him, out of pride or fear or both, into the stereotype as the black male as a inveterate suspicious criminal.

There was almost certainly a verbal altercation. We cannot know what was said, but it was not friendly, it was confrontational language, to say the very, very least. Anyway, we know that Martin attacked physically, and was shot for it. He was goaded by the situation; and because he reacted with a shred of self-respect, and in a manner suitable to self-defense, he fulfilled the stereotype as the black male as a criminal, thus effectively authorizing Zimmerman to shoot him.

To say to a man who is being followed down a street that you cannot stand your own ground, that you must be meek and submissive when people goad you, taunt you, and treat you like a criminal, is more than unfair and un-empathetic, it is racist.

Put your self in Martin’s situation. And do not dare to say “Oh, I would have been friendly and been, no sir, mister Zimmerman, sir, I am just walking home”. Zimmerman created a situation where Martin, even though he did not know it, had to choose between his dignity as a human being and his death.


Global History

Much in history is a matter of perspective, focus, and orientation. So many things are not wrong, but can be more right, or if seen at a different angle, become mere fragments of larger movements or fade away to insignificance altogether.

What if we step way back from history? Further than looking at the Crimea Crisis as rooted in the events of WWI and WWII; or even deep Russian history. Further than classifications like ‘modern’ ‘early modern’ ‘renaissance’ ‘middle ages’, ‘ancient’ and ‘pre-historic’. Or even say, Chinese History or European History.

Let’s look at global history, from say, 10,000 BC, to the present day. What do we see?

The first thing to notice is that the ‘subjects’ change. At the earliest time frame, of the past century or so, it’s highly political. The eras like the ‘renaissance’ designate more of a cultural or a society; a time period of a way of living in the world. Chinese history I mean to refer to civilizations themselves, based on massive geographic areas. The lesson to draw here is that politics, culture, civilization are all transient ‘place-holder’ terms that are always a bit arbitrary.

The more you look at a concept, the more weaknesses and flaws one can find in it. Simple dating for epochs or time periods, for example. When did the modern era start? That’s a good question? There seems to be good reasons to think that now, in 2014, things are quite different than in the years 1014. It really depends on what you find to be notable. But changes tend to be constant, and one can quickly identify any number of reasons for why the date for the start of modernity should be 1860 as opposed to 1793, etc. My personal favorite is whether the ‘postmodern’ era started after WWII or some time in the 70’s, or in 1990.

Obviously, any date is arbitrary, and will come with its own advantages and drawbacks. This is why ‘zooming out’ helps. We can look at human history as a sum totals. The French Revolution (1793) has been seen as many things. Can it be ultimately just that monarchy is simply just not sophisticated enough to manage a complex economy, civil society, politics, culture etc? And so we can imagine situations like the current US political climate as simple that a two party system is not sophisticated enough for our contemporary, increasingly global society.

But we can zoom back even further. Joseph Campbell, in his famous (yes, famous!) books on mythology posits the modern, scientific world as ‘male’ with the ‘female’, which was once supreme, as slowly returning. I think that this is most useful as a perspective that sheds light on how we live now today. And while maybe not wrong, it can certainly be more right. It is so vague and mythological an idea itself as to be useless.

What if we were to think in terms of thought processes? A thinker named Adorno talks about everyday human thinking and communication in terms of cognitive-instrumental (claims about the objective, natural world), the moral-practical (claims about the social world), and the aesthetic-expressive (our selves in our own little universe).

I wonder if human history (that is written, recorded history) does not start with the growth of the cognitive-insturmental reasoning. The wheel. Writing. Soap. These are all examples of instrumental reasoning. Whereas our ideas and ability to talk and communicate ideas of moral and aesthetic value have eroded away, replaced by an overwhelming dependence on instrumental reasoning.

German Words

Today I want to restart the series of German words that are theoretical or are applicable to intellectual history. As human beings, we think in words, so of course, it is not to hard to see how language is, hopefully without too much exaggeration, ‘everything.’ The German language is ‘over built’ in that it can be accused of over-defining ideas, emotions, notions, even whimsy into heavy-duty concepts (but this may be my slang-y Washingtonian up-bring and anglo-saxon academic training kicking in). Anyway.

Today’s word is Gegenbegriffe(geh-gen-be-griff (so I guess how it would be these letters would be pronounced in english, now that I look at it). It means ‘polar opposites.’

Gegenbegriffe is a useful tool in analyzing political ideas or vocabularies. But it can work will in any sort of discourse or line of argument. It reminds me of the idea of the “counter-factual” in that, by testing alternative ways of thinking about the original idea, you gain a different perspective about it. Let’s say you are investigating the conventions and vocabulary of political legitimation (so for example: pot should be legal because that’s what the drug dealers would want), then to use the idea of Gegenbegriffe you would also study the connections and vocabulary of political illegitimation (pot should be illegal because it turns you into a hippy). Already, we’ve learned a little something about both the arguments, and the value systems being deployed to back up the arguments.

As Heidegger and Wittgenstein both figured out; language is a weapon and a tool.

The Ukraine Chessboard

The recent upheavals in Ukraine, the aggressive actions of Russia in the Crimea, and the odd, Cold-War recollection-ing standoff that smacks of West vs East of the second half of the last century needs some illumination.

Because I think the one thing that this isn’t, is a Cold War Crisis.

The temptation is too take the realist’s approach, which seeing this as naked aggression, calls for a military response; the idea of concrete ‘action’. But an analysis of the situation, places everyone in an awkward position.

There are economic, ethnic issues as well as old-fashioned power games. Russia since the end of the cold war, has constantly faced a ongoing loss-of-face. Once a great, Soviet Empire, Russian elites watch as former allies, friends, and dependents turn to the West. Russians have abandoned the  ideology, but see themselves as a Great Power, which implies and deserves client, subservient states (like Belarus). Ukraine’s sin is that even though it has been a part of Russia for so long, the western part desperately looks west to join the European Union.

Yanukovych, very much a pet of Putin’s, as we have seen recently, by being deposed by mass, quasi-revolutionary action, has forced Putin to show his hand. The new and weak pro-western government cannot fight Russia, and the only way for them to negotiate the removal of Russian forces will probably be a price so high (like partial partition, or the return of Yanukovych), that they will collapse, or be seen to have ‘sold-out’ or caved in. The Crimea represents, one must keep in mind the part of Ukraine most suited to tourism and wine cultivation.

Partition would, with a Crimean and Eastern Ukraine as a Russian tributary state, and Western Ukraine based on Kiev,  as a sort of Western-looking state would effectively strangle “both” countries.

Russia, as a main supplier to Western Europe of gas has a huge economic whip at its disposal, and politically, it seems willing to throw away any polishing of its image that might have been gained from the Sochi Olympics. Russian elites seem willing to pay the price in international prestige for retaining the Ukraine as a client state.

So what can the US do? So far, the situation reminds us of the Russo-Georgian War of 2004, I think, where the pro-western Georgia was almost stamped out by Russia as well (Georgian forces, fighting in Iraq as part of our coalition, where flown by US airplanes to Tbilisi, going right in to fighting the Russians). I regret that we were incapable of providing more concrete support to these fledgling pro-western governments.

I think that a show of real support to the Ukrainian government is in order. Not military direct military support, but a sense of active, political interest. Something along the lines of like an accelerated EU or NATO membership package. It would be a bluff, and I doubt that the US or EU governments have to ability or cleverness to pull of such a thing, but the Western world cannot continually afford to ignore these popular, democratic, (and if not always pro-western) revolutions. It might also be possible to effect some sort of economic punishment, like expelling Russia form as many international organizations as possible.

The Arab Spring, Syria, now the Ukraine. Regardless of the specifics, there are popular movements of national populations which seek to join the modern economic world. So far, our Western governments have been quite good at ignoring or neutralizing these movements, because the status-quo has been easier to maintain, putting of the problem for later instead of taking the lead and helping these popular movements fulfill their desires.

The Iraq and Afghanistan adventures (in yet another terrible cost of those mindless conflicts) has made the US incapable of active leadership in these dangerous, peripheral parts of the world.

Putin, like many leaders before him, has understood the domestic political advantages of foreign adventurism. We have to give the Ukrainian government the backing it is going to need to outlast Russia in this political stalemate.



The 2nd Amendment and a reconstruction of original context

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The 2nd Amendment to the US constitution is generally and widely understood to be safeguard of personal liberties in the face of a faceless, Hobbesian government or State. This is interpreted in a literal sense, as in, fighting the government physically; the idea that a government should ‘fear its people.’ 

Much ink has been spilled over the the idea and meaning of  ‘well-regulated Militia’; efforts are repeatedly made to interpret it either in personal/individual terms, or in terms of gun-ownership being linked to formal, active membership in an militia. What the sentence is interpreted in this manner, it misses part of the original point and context of the sentence. 

The key is the phrase “being necessary to the security of a free State“. This phrase, coupled with the idea of a Militia of citizens signals that we are not in the realm of contemporary gun-ownership debate, but a much older, ancient even, debate about the best form of government and ways to perpetuate this ‘best form’; or keep it from corruption. 

In ancient Greece there developed a vocabulary around the debate of governmental form. Basically, there was monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, or their evil twins, tyranny, aristocracy, and mobocracy, respectively. There was a sense that there was a definite cycle; monarchy would slide over time into a tyranny, which would cause a disturbance, and the leading lights of the city-state would form an oligarchy, which would decline to an aristocracy, leading to a revolt of the people, but the established democracy would then slowly turn into mob rule, requiring the establishment of a monarch to restore order, thus completing the cycle. 

Obviously, the constitutional mix of the state can minimize this tendency, as can the virtue of the citizens and even Fortuna herself can help or hinder this process. In the ancient world, the classic matchup of Athens (as a democracy) and Sparta (as an oligarchy) was superseded by the run away success of the Roman Republic.

We must fast forward over a thousand years to the Renaissance, where, in the course of Empire, Papacy, and barbarian invasion, the classical city states of the Mediterranean world had been destroyed, but had partially returned in the northern Italian city-states, most famously, Florence and Venice. 

A series of Florentine writers and political thinkers (the best known being Machiavelli) wrote copiously about their city-states and the best form of government that each should have. These quasi-republican city states all faced a similar set of problems:  the ongoing conflict between the Pope and a series of German Holy Roman Emperors, which invited foreign invasion, and subterfuge from the Papacy, the constant rivalry between the city-states themselves, and the general wealth of the city-states which allowed them to hire mercenary forces known as ‘condottieri’. In a nutshell, the ancient debate over the best form of government was re-discovered, updated, and re-deyployed with urgency in the face of foreign invasion and internal strife engendered by a few leading families (Medici, Visconti) and the condottieri. 

Civic humanist writers, inspired and informed by the ancient writers like Cicero, Aristotle, Polybius, etc, had looked at the Athenian Empire and the Roman Empire and noted their great successful, but detected a ‘decline and fall’ in those empires, and sought a way to establish perfect republics in their own cities. 

They quickly hit upon the idea of citizen soldiers instead of mercenaries, (Roman Republic very much on the brain), which they referred to as a militia. So the citizens of the republic themselves would service as its soldiers, not hired thugs. 

The idea of the citizens bearing arms for the Renaissance thinkers went beyond weapon ownership on a personal level, or the citizen as backbone of the city-state’s army; it was crucial to the survival of the republic itself. 

The armed citizen becomes the ultimo ratio whereby the citizen exposes his life in the defense of the state and at the same time ensures that the decision to expose it cannot be taken without him. Arms makes a man a full citizen; exhorting the highest levels of virtue and aspiration and self-development. Thus, to abandon arms to mercenaries or professionals is to abandon the control of policy to those elite groups whom wealth confers political and social advantage. (Thanks to J.G.A. Pocock here) 

The American War of Independence, and the constitution where inspired by the experiance of the ancient and Renaissance republics and the rhetoric of these periods, and many historians see the American Revolution as the last expression of civic humanism in the old republican mode. Thus the 2nd Amendment reflects the Renaissance city-state political experience, not our contemporary experience with firearms. 

I think it is worth emphasizing the point arms were seen both as a guarantee against elite, un-civic-minded interest groups (who wanted to run the city-state to their own advantage), and as a guarantee of virtue in the citizen, the citizen as direct participant in the government. Arms inspires civic pride and achievement. 

If only today’s ‘arms bearers’ had a similar sense of civic duty.