Part 1: The Thriller Video, Foucault, and Discipline in the New Media
July 29, 2007
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.