Issue 7, Volume 17
‘Induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’ (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 201).
You awake without an alarm. The day feels like it’s just begun, but the irrepressible march of time cares not how you feel. You check your phone. A never-ending stream of incomprehensible information about a pandemic. Your mobile phone, which has been a source of comfort for so many years, is again espousing an endless mire of nihilistic news.
But life goes on. You have commitments and aspirations. These commitments and aspirations are all relative to those around you. Amongst the chaos, the underlying realisation that we exist in a bubble begins to surface.
It need not be so. Undoubtedly, our achievements in life are a reflection of others. We measure our own success against our neighbour’s. Failure and success start to feel like absolutes. Yet when we are left to our own devices, without constant visible comparison, these ideas start to dissipate.
The French Philosopher Michel Foucault understood how constant visibility affects our psyche in his analysis of the Panopticon, a conceptual prison model designed by English social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The design places a ring of cells around a central guard tower, in which the prisoners are perpetually within view of the guards in the tower, but cannot see into the tower themselves. This leaves the prisoners uncertain as to whether or not they are being watched, and ultimately compels them to behave not through observation, but through the fear of observation.
Entering law school is akin to entering a fraternity where everyone is in competition with each other. The apprehension around that has a self-policing role. The connectedness of campus life demeans your ability to maintain secrecy around your actions and behaviours, analogous to the position of compelled behaviour modification in Bentham’s prison. Everyone monitors each other and therefore conforms to deindividualized, automated behaviours, with each person identifying as being in a state of absolute vulnerability. We are left feeling absolute states of elation or demoralisation in the aftermath of relative achievements.
The ability to see anything at any time is the prison cell here. Each avenue of the curriculum is inhabited by another student already and you tend to conform to the norm for fear of standing out and being incorrect – ergo inferior.
In moments of isolation, we would do well to remind ourselves not to fall into a social Panopticon. Through constant comparison we adopt the role of both the guard and the prisoner. There is great importance in realising that we exist in reflection of not just each other, but also of our past selves. Every passing moment is another chance to reflect and more importantly a chance to learn.
Chaos gives us the excuse to come to terms with ourselves and realise the relativity of failure in the journey of finding success at another juncture. The only thing preventing this realisation is the sort of hostile inter-personal comparison that eventually leaves us feeling inferior. Distancing ourselves from the social Panopticon is a good place to start.
Genco Ceylan is a first-year JD student.