Sweating it out in my un-air-conditioned apartment, during an overheated New York summer, I recently received an email from my friend Jo, of a sort that thousands of people around the world must have been receiving at the same time. She was alerting me to the latest YouTube phenomenon video. I mean, of course, the prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, in the Philippines, restaging Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. In twelve days (so far) this video has been viewed over two and a half million times and is on track to become one of the most viewed YouTube videos ever.

The email from Jo also contained a question that probably did not appear in many other emails on this topic. She asked: “What would Michel have made of this?” Jo was referring to the seminal late twentieth century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who famously wrote about the history of prisons and their place in contemporary societies. (Foucault also wrote ground breaking work on other topics, such as sexuality, madness and psychiatry, the human sciences, and medical practice). Since I wrote my doctoral dissertation about Foucault’s work, it certainly made sense that I might have something to say about it.

My first reaction, however, was an honest sense of being completely dumbfounded. The vision of over a thousand prisoners precisely re-choreographing Jackson’s “Thriller” dance, in their orange jumpsuits and sandals, was just too odd. It seemed more like a mockery of prison decorum or like the accidental coming to life of a musical in the wrong place, than like a purposeful instance of punishment, justice, rehabilitation, or even vengeance.

Two minutes into the video, I got over my amazement and realized that in fact it all made sense, as far as Foucault goes. Thinking back over his theories of disciplinary society, it fit almost too well. Indeed, perhaps I was astonished at first, more because, as Freud says, what is uncanny is what is most familiar and therefore strangely hard to recognize.

And so the more I thought about the dance and about the appearance of the video on YouTube, the more I saw that it conformed quite exactly to Foucault’s theories about the social function of the prison. It was simply hard to believe that Foucault’s theories might be enacted in such a literal manner. Here we have in the prisoners’ dance, I realized, and in its appearance on YouTube, the model itself, as Foucault proposes in at least part of his work, for how all individuals become proper citizens, workers, students, family members, patients, and all the other roles we play in our contemporary life.

So I had my answer for Jo. What would Foucault make of this? He’s chuckling to himself in his grave and saying I told you so.

What we see in the video of the Filipino prisoners are thousands of people in identical clothing being marched around in a military like fashion. Apparently they are dancing, but in fact they are being taught discipline. The security consultant who came up with the idea freely acknowledges the disciplinary goal of the dance. This accords with Foucault’s contention that one of the crucial functions of the prison is to create “docile bodies.”

But more importantly, the dance is videotaped and posted on YouTube. This is done again by the security consultant who came up with the idea. The consequence of this is that, once the prisoners realize how popular the video has become, they feel compelled to better perfect their dance/discipline. Once again, it turns out that this accords with Foucault’s discussion of the impact of prisons in contemporary society. Prisons, according to Foucault, early on became sorts of panopticons (following a type of architecture invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century). The function of a panopticon is to make people feel they are being watched at all times. In turn, this feeling of being watched (for the Filipino prisoners potentially of the whole world watching) makes people take it upon themselves to better regulate their own conduct (literally for the Filipino prisoners to come in line with the dance). And so in the final instance, self-regulation turns out to be the mechanism by which external forces control the body.

This last point is probably the most crucial element of Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish, his deeply influential history of prisons. It is also a point more often than not misunderstood. Foucault does not argue that in our disciplinary society people are being controlled by the fact of other people watching (or videotaping, as the case may be). Rather he argues that we control ourselves by making ourselves feel watched. The sense of being watched comes from the individual and is an act of the individual on him or herself. In fact, according to Foucault, it is this very act of self-surveillance which is the means by which we become individuals at all in contemporary society–how we fit into the workplace, home, school, church, etc. Beginning in the 18th century and definitively by the 19th century, when this model of conduct was perfected in prisons and simultaneously expanded beyond their walls, and up to the present, we have been and remain a society of individuals formed in the act of making ourselves feel observed by others.

This is what is most fascinating about the “Thriller” video: the fact that it is placed on YouTube. It brings starkly into relief the underlying social dynamic bound in the fact that YouTube is precisely a place where people, more than anything else, post videos of themselves. And then they post videos of their friends and families, their most intimate relations. It is where collectively, and more and more, we are all subjecting ourselves to the idea of the disciplining gaze of others. We think we’re sharing, when we’re really conforming.

And once one begins to think about the Internet this way, there’s hardly any reason to stop at YouTube. For example, most forms of blogging make up even more powerful acts of forming oneself under the possible gaze of unknown others. How is it, after all, that the diary, a sort of text a person conventionally writes only for him or herself, a sort of text once symbolized by the lock that closes it, how is it that this sort of text has come instead to be published happily and willingly in the most public and global of forums ever devised? It is almost a complete inversion for the act of writing a diary, to turn into the act of writing a blog.

Dating, blogging, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, craigslist, discussion forums, webcams, more and more we are enacting every aspect of our personal lives under the gaze of potentially any other person in the world.

I’m going to stop now. What I have said is all pretty abstract and rather quickly sketched out. I think this topic is worth subsequent posts, where I will go into many of these points in more depth and less abstraction. I want to try to make plain the disciplinary medium we swim in and form ourselves out of every day. In the meantime, perhaps it is worthwhile returning to and keeping in mind my passing remark about Freud and the uncanny. Beware of what is most familiar. In our globalizing world, perhaps we do not need to be on guard so much against the encroaching interests of others (governments, corporations, terrorists), as we need to be on guard against the way we incorporate these interests as the things we take most for granted about ourselves.


Bugaboo New York

July 8, 2007

For the uninitiated, Bugaboo is a Dutch company specializing in the production of ergonomic baby strollers with modern designs. Their strollers are modular, highly modifiable, made from quality materials, and come in a white lightning streak of fashionable colors (the “denim collection” being the latest addition to the coveted line). You know a Bugaboo when you see one. It screams high concept like no other stroller.

If you want to get your baby into one of these babies, however, it’s going to set you back somewhere between $700 and a cool grand. And then there are the accessories: parasol, foot muff, sun canopy, snow wheels, cup holder. Only the best for little so-and-so.

To spot Bugaboo parents, with their Bugaboo babies, bugabooing about, you need only frequent the gentrified enclaves of America’s cities. The Bugaboo parents are strolling around in Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than a few certainly could be found in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, and then one or two no doubt down there in Austin or around the Plaza, in Kansas City.

In New York, it all goes to another level, however. In New York the Bugaboo is not merely a stylish possession, to be spied in the hands of the lucky few. It is a status symbol like few others, with mothers clambering over each other, trying to establish their rank in the baby-fashion world order. This clambering was all supposedly started, years back, by the appearance of a Frog model Bugaboo on “Sex and the City.” Subsequent to the rise of the Bugaboo to bourgeois cultural icon, of course, there’s been a bugabacklash. Even buga-highway-robbery.

Still none of this is very surprising for a city awash in money and status like New York. What actually makes me stop and scratch my head is the number of Bugaboos I see coming out of the vast blocks of public housing that cast outward toward the east river from my apartment building. Certainly the desire for status is understandable from anyone, anywhere in the socio-economic hierarchy. But if you’re living off of public assistance where do you get the money for a Bugaboo? Or are these underground Bugaboos? Craigslist Bugaboos? Miracle knock-offs from lands far away? Perhaps, but I have yet to have anyone try to sell me a Bugaboo on the subway, like a pirated DVD.

Nonetheless in New York, you see it all the time. And not just the latest and greatest stroller, in the hands of someone who is not otherwise playing the part of yuppie, but the coolest phones, the newest and slickest laptops, outrageously fashionable clothes, and every other high concept commercial item you can think of. In New York, yuppie affectations are somehow not always a yuppie thing. Youthful flare is not always a youth thing. And gaudy extravagance is not always a wealth thing.

I myself have developed a taste for shoes that it would never have crossed my mind to purchase when I lived in California. For example, I recently bought a pair of Japanese tennis shoes that aren’t, you know, real tennis shoes, but shoes that just look like tennis shoes, for, you know, when you’re going out. When I got them, it seemed like the most mundane and normal of acquisitions. It was not an attempt to stand out from the crowd. If anything, it was more of a semi-conscious gesture of fitting in. Yet all I have to do is leave New York in these shoes and suddenly I feel like a disco freak dressed for a night on the town, but somehow ending up in church instead. Only in New York could shoes like these seem banal.

So in New York, status symbols and desirable consumer items aren’t really the exclusive domain of a narrow class of people. They flow around more freely and somehow more pervasively. In large part, I suppose this is because fashionable items are so readily available here and often surprisingly cheap.

It helps certainly that Manhattan is in many ways just a giant shopping mall. There is not one Kenneth Cole store, but one for every neighborhood. A “vintage” clothing store doesn’t sell clothing from the 40s or even 70s, it sells last year’s best Chanel dress. There are stores for labels you’ve never heard of, heralding local niche fashion at outrageous prices, and then unloading piles of leftovers for next to nothing in “sample sales”; and I mean hundreds of stores like this. And it’s not unheard of to find a practically new stereo or art deco leather chair, piled up on the sidewalk in the garbage. Indeed when the myth is perpetuated that Manhattan has “everything,” so demonstrably untrue when applied to food or culture, it is nonetheless never more true than when applied to consumer items.

I find myself wanting to conclude from all this that New York probably has the most branded population of any place in the country (if not the world). It is a commercial culture in a profound and exhaustive way. This makes living here both an eye-opening exercise in what really makes the world economy tick and a sort of collective logo-fied delusion. It also shows the capitalist promise of choice for what it is: an inexorable movement towards sameness and expense, casting all people inevitably into the dark maw of the generic, while simultaneously pickpocketing them on the way down.

But don’t get me wrong, I like my shoes.