Observation in Foucault


Much of Foucault’s  repressive hypethesis deals with analyzing it’s effects and thus the  discourse and documentation of experience that followed. There are countless examples such as the Libertine  documentation of sexual experiences, the concept of the confessional, as well as the documentatons of trauma and mental illness (the theories of trauma) that would lend explanation to  criminal behavior. The Libertine documentation of sexuality as well as the heightened  discourse thereof was the end result of the attempt at repression of sexuality in society. Confession and self regulation took on a greater role, influencing the construction of institutions and correctional facilities.  Mental institutions were created in  order for doctors of the time to be have the opportunity to record data. There is a distinct pattern  in these events; each response is triggered by the knowledge that one is being observed.

Imposing censorship on sexaulity in Victorain times,  for example, caused for increased discourse. This shows several very interesting societal responses: on one hand there is secrecy, one is strictly discouraged from engaging in sexual activity. The discourse resulting from this kind of censorship shows that those participating have accepted the idea that engaging in this activity is not socially acceptable, however the documentation of it is the reaction to the idea that even the most intimate activity can be examined.  Presentation of one’s sexual experience was done in a matter that would be a reserved, contextual manner – even today one many are not comfortable with blatantly discussing sexuality. Thus one can say that those in that conversation must walk a fine line between self regulation and the observation of their peers. How will one be seen when this sensitive topic comes up? The speaker must worry about  the gaze of both his peers and the norm to ‘watch oneself.’

It’s interesting to note that in this specific situation there are three forms of observers;  the speaker, those conversing, and the relation of the speaker’s lucid experience versus it’s validity in the observer that has been instilled in the speaker himself.  At an early age children are watched and taught self discipline when it comes to certain innapropriate behaviors. In the Victorian ages schools were separated for girls and boys and set up in a way that would give children the feeling that they are observed. Thus the combination of the parents  and institutions  controlling the children’s activity results in the creation of the child being an observer of himself. Thus this shows that there are two observers in the relationship: the school  and the child. The child abides the rules and behaves appropriately and the adult in authority is observing the child’s behavior. As the child grows and becomes more independent he gradually internalizes the gaze of that adult. The important factor in the process is that there is no escape from the gaze – it is either imposed by society or imposed by self regulation.

Similarly, with the construction of the panopticon the prisoners themselves had no escape from the gaze of the warden. Over time the gaze of authority was internalized by the prisoners because of the layout in which the prisoner knew that he was being observed but could not see the warden. Thus the gaze becomes inescapable as it is internalized by the prisoners.  Therefore in this relationship the creation of the interal observer and internal self observation is revealed. Thus there is the relationship of the unseen all seeing authority, the prisoner seeking that is, literally looking for the person in authority and, finding none, creating a representation of this authority in himself.

These are examples of the implied relationship that Foucault’s writing has a strong emphasis on. Foucault’s repressive hypothesis criticized the workings of an inescapable, ever vigilant system which  constantly observes  its subjects to such a degree that they have no choice but to internalize the gaze and become forever self regulating.

Personally, the most frightening example is the documentation of new psychological theories and mental imbalances versus the self monitoring response of the individual. With the emerging amount of studies and discovery of new mental illness one can’t help but wonder if psychologists are creating these terms in order to administer various techniques/cures that would make eccentric and unique individuals, [or those that have not fully internalized the self regulating system] who could potentially challenge the system, complacent.  The latent form of power that is involved in diagnosing certian problems and imbalances heavily encourage the individual at self examination of one’s actions and behavior in context of the vigilant, authoritative system. Thus, when the idiosyncratic actions of an individual who is excluded and labelled by society is examined in context of a society obsessed with self medication and supposed normalcy. [This is by no means to delegitimize the seriuosness of actual mental illness; this is simply to point out the situation in which individuals can be coerced by over self regulation into worries about their behavior after laternt forms of power taken over.]


3 Responses to “Observation in Foucault”

  1. givenarnold Says:

    Regarding your paragraph on the treatment of mental illness… A good example of this is Attention Deficit Disorder. As we have stated once before in our class, people can be diagnosed with ADD simply for having high energy. It is indeed scary that parents can feed their children medication in order to “normalize” what could simply be typical child behavior. Moreover, after being diagnosed with ADD, accepting medication is complying to normalcy and admitting that there is something inherently wrong with oneself, which works well with the concept of power you are mentioning. Although we should acknowledge the importance of sever cases of ADD, I certainly feel the general populace is abusing the medication. I really enjoyed your example of psychological illness in regards to self-regulation.

  2. akolot Says:

    I agree – ADD, interestingly enough more prevalent in our country than many others. The mental health awareness in the US has increased over the last decade when the quality of health care [in terms of personal care, nurse/patient contact, compassion, etc] curiously has been slowly depleted. It’s an interesting example of how people follow the system by knowledge of the systematic diagnoses of illnesses such as anxiety/ADD and the acceptance of the “self regulation”/self medication. The self medication allows for the cycle to continue because it forces pharmacists and psychologists to readjust the definition of illness as well as the heatlhy norm in order to cater to a broader group of people for profit.

  3. evanritter Says:

    I really like what you have to say about the coercive nature of medical diagnoses, and agree that the extent doctors can go to to “normalize” an individual is terrifying. On the issue of ADD specifically, here is a link to some data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/prevalence.html#current
    The graphs on the site illustrate the raw growth of the prevalence of ADD in the United States from 2003-2011 (the data collection is done every four years so the next data set will be released in 2015). The graphs here show a clear (unsurprising) positive trend in the number of cases of ADD for every state in the US.
    An important thing that I feel we mustn’t lose sight of is this: all illnesses, or shall we say, variances in human health, are a product of some kind of medical regulation. When does this practice of regulation become destructive and negative toward society?

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