Son of “Panopticism”

I’ve been using Michel Foucault in first-year writing courses since I began teaching, and I’m not alone. There have been portions of Discipline and Punish in Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading for as long as I can remember. I may be misremembering, but I recall Foucault’s first section, “The Body of the Condemned,” in editions from the 90s. Recently, it has been “Panopticism.” Beyond this, I remember using “The Discourse on Language” for honors FYC sections at Rutgers and portions of the History of Sexuality with a writing course linked to a content course on literature and sexuality. In that latter class, we read Nancy Friday’s collections of sexual fantasies through a Foucauldian lens. Part of my assignment read as follows: “From a Foucauldian perspective, then, Nancy Friday’s project of collecting and publishing ‘unexpurgated’ sexual fantasies (and our project of analyzing them) can be seen as a small part of this ‘incitement to discourse,’ an act which is as regulatory as it is liberatory. How does this change or re-direct your understanding of Friday’s project? How does Friday enter into the matrices of power?” Oh, the 90s.

Foucault is often taught for his difficulty—there can be no easy summary of his work—and for his unexpected insights that can seem to be reversing the polarities of all we hold dear. A cliché in the academy perhaps, the “Foucauldian reading” of a workplace or school experience can still stir undergraduates from their mid-semester slumber. With its exploration of the dark wisdom of institutions, “Panopticism” is redolent of the academic cool once associated with theory and, I’m told by some, now only an archaeological trace. Regardless of one’s perspective on theory in 2012, it is a fact that some of the most dedicated writing teachers still use Foucault as a key component of their courses. “Panopticism” remains one of the most popular course texts at our university.

My interest, here, is in asking why other theorists or other “difficult texts” have not garnered as much attention. Or, better yet, I ask if we might find other such texts, perhaps ones written more recently than forty years ago. What “heavy” theory or difficult texts are you using in your courses? One I’ve explored is Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” which reminds us that Foucault’s “disciplinary society” does not refer to our time. Deleuze’s projections of a post-disciplinary world in which institutions are in constant reform (think schools, government, the family, etc.), might make us long for the relative stability of the prisoner’s life. Deleuze argues that “just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school.” This emphasis on fluid, unstable competition becomes a key formulation for Evan Watkins, who in his 2008 book, Class Degrees, traces the gradual replacement of vocational training at community colleges with an “against all odds” ethos of continual demonstrations of one’s merit. The panopticism, which performed a kind of securing of the subject within articulated boundaries, has morphed into the society of control, which never quite settles the question of where we stand.