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L’héritage de Michel Foucault aux États-Unis. Épistémologies indisciplinées et sociohistoire des processus disciplinaires

Re-viewing Foucault: The Disciplinary Gaze in Harun Farocki’s I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, Lockup 360 and Fiona Tan’s Correction

Martine Beugnet

Résumés

Le panoptique, en tant que modèle savant et artistique, a-t-il définitivement perdu son actualité et sa pertinence ? S’agit-il désormais d’un simple raccourci, utilisé pour désigner l’étude et la représentation de relations pouvoir-savoir qui ont largement dépassé les réalités et les théorisations qu’il représentait, y compris l’analyse qu’en faisait Michel Foucault ? Cet article se propose de porter un regard neuf sur l’héritage de Surveiller et Punir. La naissance de la prison de Michel Foucault à travers l’analyse d’œuvres documentaires, artistiques ou commerciales ayant pour thème le système carcéral américain. Dans les images qui nous sont présentées, le constat d’échec du modèle « idéal » évoqué par Foucault en référence au régime panoptique et la dénonciation de la mise en place d’un système de pur contrôle débouchent sur un questionnement des formes d’engagement du spectateur à l’heure des images opérationnelles.

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  • 1 Gary T. Marx observes that although there has been regular scholarly and media interest in the topi (...)

1The banalization of electronic and digital surveillance, from the end of the twentieth century onwards, has led to an increased interest in the articulation of visual technologies and the orchestration of power.1 In the scholarly field, in the arts, as well as in the entertainment sector, one of the effects of the “continuing flood of attention” (Marx xxvii) to technology-based and systemic surveillance that ensued was the renewed prominence granted to the theoretical framework developed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, originally published in French in 1975, including his reading of Jeremy Bentham’s architectural model (Ball et al.; Lyon, 2011). The structural similarities between surveillance systems using visual technology and the Panopticon made the parallel inevitable: the faceless gaze of the guard in Bentham’s watchtower found its natural extension in the disembodied gaze of the surveillance camera. In turn however, as computational media gradually ushered in a more diffuse and globalized system of information and data collecting, scholars became increasingly dissatisfied with the classic theoretical paradigm. The Panopticon, many observed, was not only inadequate to account for the new surveillance and disciplining regimes, it was also becoming formulaic, “over-extended to domains where it seems ill-suited” (Haggerty 23), “overused as an icon of the modern security state, and outmoded as a model for power relations” (Ravetto 31; see also Wood 245-64).

  • 2 With reference to the title and argument of Kevin Haggerty’s article, where the author stresses the (...)
  • 3 While the fertile encounter between Foucault’s writing, new media, and surveillance studies has log (...)

2However, if “tearing down the walls2 proves an attractive and productive proposition in theoretical terms, actual prison walls, concrete masonry topped with barbed wire, remain. Envisaged as a historically situated study,3 Foucault’s initial analysis retains continuing pertinence (including through the outdatedness of some of its features) in the face of the persistence and evolution of the established regime of punishment through incarceration.

  • 4 Depending on whether the population of county and city jails as well as state and federal prisons i (...)

3Foucault acknowledged the obsolescence of the current prison system, yet doubted that a substitute could be found. Invented at the end of the eighteenth century, the prison had endured for over 200 years “in spite of the countless criticism that has been levelled against it” (1993 22). By and large, in the Western world, the penal system still relies on managerial and logistic schemes that align with the historical model studied by Foucault, reinforced by automatization and the deployment of modern technologies of vision. From an American vantage point, against the backdrop of a penitentiary system that houses the largest population of inmates in the world, the relevance of the legacy of Discipline and Punish remains undisputable. Though numbers have been slightly on the decline since 2017, the United States nevertheless has, by far, the highest per-capita incarceration rate internationally.4 And while prisons were built on a massive scale from the 1980s right to the 2000s, Bentham’s architectural design still features on many American penitentiary sites, alongside the standard concrete blocks interspersed with watchtowers.

  • 5 Foucault’s analysis proved particularly apt in the context of the 2008 financial crisis: the “new” (...)
  • 6 The TV series Orange Is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan in 2013, is probably the best-known e (...)

4Crucially, American prisons have also become a substantial private economic sector. Though this particular development was not directly anticipated by Foucault, it aligns with his analysis of the prison as part of a general socio-economic logic (1993 27). The prison, Foucault argued, was never merely a space of experimentation, where strategies of regulation and disciplining were tried out, then disseminated through the rest of the social body and its institutions. It was also a necessary cog in the founding of industrial capitalism: by designating and consigning delinquency within the walls of the prison, the enterprising classes ensured the docility and productivity of the working masses (26). Nearly twenty years after the initial publication of Discipline and Punish, however, Foucault understood that this particular function of the penal system had been marginalized: not only could the working masses be disciplined through other means, but in the context of advanced capitalism, the delinquency that mattered now belonged to the financial sphere; it was not found in the prison anymore (27-28).5 While today’s penitentiary system has become inseparable from an illegal, yet endemic economy of drug trafficking, the privatization of the carceral system and the state and federal governments’ growing reliance on private facilities suggest that other forms of assimilation into the legal economy have been taking place (Gotsch and Basti). Furthermore, tourism (Wilson et al.) and entertainment6 have become additional, lucrative forms of exploitation of the American prison.

  • 7 Foucault describes the emergence of “biopolitics” as a shift, in the nineteenth century, from the e (...)

5Exemplary in terms of economic integration, the American penal system is also representative of the ways in which the prison enforces the racial divides that extend beyond its walls. In this context, Foucault’s theorizations on “biopower,” echoed in Achille Mbembe’s concept of “necropolitics,” remain topical and valuable. Early on, Foucault pointed at the ways in which racial categories have been instrumentalized so as to combine an old disciplining regime, aimed at the individual and the individual body, with the management of larger groups, through the regulation of life itself—forms of “biopolitics”7 that are explicitly or implicitly documented in the works discussed below.

  • 8 Film and TV series have generated a wealth of analysis from a variety of fields including TV studie (...)
  • 9 Boillat and Guido’s edited collection is exemplary in its attention to, and critical account of, th (...)

6In what follows, I look at the ways in which issues that were central to Foucault’s thinking are reflected and transformed in documentary creative practices, both artistic and mainstream, that take the American prison system as their topic. Recent fictional treatments of incarceration have attracted a lot of scholarly attention,8 overshadowing documentary approaches and the specific issues they raise, while also privileging narrative examinations over the critical analysis of “penal optics”—the combination of panoptic gaze, power, and voyeurism (Brown 155).9 The works I discuss not only interrogate the ways in which power relations are produced, relayed, and regulated by technologies of vision, but foreground the spectator’s involvement in their structures of seeing.

7The virtual reality program Lockup 360 (MSNBC, 2015), and the video installation works I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (Harun Farocki, 2000) and Correction (Fiona Tan, 2004) belong to regimes of imaging that may be deemed irreconcilable and non-comparable. Yet all three revisit the panoptic model in ways that resonate with and question Foucault’s account of the prison in the context of today’s paradoxical culture of surveillance and invisibilization.

8I start with a discussion of Farocki’s video installation, a seminal piece that has prompted comparisons with Foucault’s writing, including by the artist himself (Farocki, 2004a 292; see also Paiva). Rather than focus on those dimensions of his work that resonate with Foucault’s initial theorization, however, I explore the ways in which the artist, while pointing at the failure of the ideal system once described in Discipline and Punish, shows the terrifying transformation of the current prison regime into forms of necropolitics, through the reduction of human life to “bare life” (Agamben).

I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts

  • 10 In particular, the work features video footage from the 1980s, obtained thanks to the attorney of f (...)

9I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (two-channel video installation re-edited to single-channel video, color, sound, 25 minutes, 2000) uses footage from the Californian high security prison of Corcoran, analyzed and compared to other images through a split screen presentation and a series of intertitles. Primarily based on images shot by surveillance cameras,10 the installation stresses the fusion of panopticism and technologized vision that effectively reinforces the omniscience of the surveilling gaze. Hidden in the video control rooms, the guards are invisible observers in a space where “visibility is a trap” (Foucault, 1995 200). While the circulation between the various, segregated areas that constitute the prison is precisely controlled through a system of airlocks, the carceral architecture, devoid of any vegetation or lines of flight, allows for exhaustive spatial video coverage. Even in the parlor, the inmates’ interaction with their visitors is closely monitored, their every gesture recorded and analyzed in complete denial of any form of privacy (the inmates know the rules: by exchanging intimate gestures of affection, desire, or love, they risk immediate expulsion from the meeting room).

  • 11 The title of Farocki’s work, derived from Ingrid Bergman’s exclamation upon discovering the working (...)

10Through the installation’s dual screen presentation however, Farocki compares these surveillance images, reminiscent of a classic panoptic regime, with footage from more “advanced” tracking devices. Indoor and outdoor yard views shot on video are thus paralleled with images produced by tracking systems used in prison as well as supermarkets, where surveillance becomes “operative”: guards are replaced with machines, and moving bodies are monitored and visualized as abstract symbols—dots or circles. In the vein of Foucault’s analysis in Discipline and Punish, the installation thus stresses the coextensive development of technologized models of surveillance from environments overtly dedicated to punishment such as prisons, to everyday spaces—most specifically, spaces emblematic of our contemporary consumer society.11 It also points to the emergence, thanks to the development of electronic and digital surveillance technologies, of a different regime of images (Farocki, 2004b 16). As noted by Christa Blümlinger, the conjunction of the analog and electronic or digital image produces a “virtual analog” (341): low-definition video footage is often difficult to “read,” arguably requiring the eye of an expert or a machine to be deciphered, just as certain computed images require decoding. In Farocki’s work, such images prefigure the emergence of what he called “operative images” (2004b 17): purely functional images, produced by machines, and meant to be read and analyzed by machines. In the installation, these abstract modes of representation, stressing the denial of the inmates’ humanity through the erasure of the corporeal, are juxtaposed with footage that shows the continuing, deathly exposure of the prisoners’ flesh and blood bodies.

  • 12 The intertitles indicate that a law was finally passed (in 1989) rendering such shootings illegal. (...)

11Pointing out the alignment of the cameras’ gaze with that of the guards’ weapons, Farocki repeatedly contrasts the disembodied and deathly nature of the surveillance apparatus and tracking systems with the physical presence of the inmates, whose trained bodies are their only chance of survival. Farocki thus observes that in penitentiary facilities, the traditional disciplining through work (as described by Foucault) has been replaced by the treadmill: the men are continually working out, building up their bodies as a defense against the endemic violence they face (2004a 294). In the brutal footage of fights and killings, the prisoners are wearing little more than shorts; they have, the commentary stresses, nothing else but their body and the protection of the collective body of the gang. The devaluation of their right to exist is such that death itself becomes a non-event: in one sequence, after a guard firing from a surveillance booth kills a prisoner, the prone body is left unattended for almost ten minutes. Yet in the end, putting their lives at risk becomes the inmates’ only means of resistance: one intertitle underlines the confounding number of “incidents” and lethal shootings that took place in the prison while the use of firearms by the guards was still lawful.12

  • 13 Farocki points out that “[t]he State of California has removed the word ‘rehabilitation’ from its s (...)
  • 14 Farocki recounts how some of the gangs designate themselves with names like “Aryan Brotherhood” or (...)
  • 15 In Society Must Be Defended (originally published in 1997 as Il faut défendre la société), Foucault (...)

12As Foucault noted, the Panopticon was “the diagram of a power mechanism reduced to its ideal form” (1995 205). Central to Bentham’s project, and to a Panoptic regime of visibility that worked as a “trap,” was a process of internalization where the prospect of being watched at all times encouraged self-regulation (1995 200; see also Elmer 21-30). There is no place for disciplining-as-internalization13 in Farocki’s analysis: the prison regime is based on survival. Functioning as a “state of exception” (Foucault, 1993 24), the high security prison strips individuals of all rights, to the point of reducing their existence to “bare lives” (Agamben). In this context, control is exercised not only on the individual, but on the group or population (Foucault, 1997 242; 1976 183). Based on the men’s racial and geographic origins, the guards have discretionary powers over the life of the inmates, whom they can separate from their community or gang14 and throw into a hostile milieu instead. Hence in Farocki’s examination, the contemporary implementation of the carceral system aligns with forms of “necropolitics”: the exercise of a power that results in “the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead” (Mbembe 39).15

  • 16 At the same time as it points to the growing encroachment of operative images in surveillance and d (...)
  • 17 “The demand for entertainment has grown immeasurably since then. Even films critical of prisons aim (...)

13Yet the carceral environment described by Farocki exists within a democratic nation, the United States of America, and as Foucault noted, not only do we rely on the penal system, but we have difficulty imagining a world without prisons. Essential to Foucault’s theorization of the kind of power relations that develop within prisons, therefore, is the awareness that they cannot be envisaged in isolation, nor merely as the result a top-down process of regulation which we can criticize from the outside (1993 23). Because of the kind of spectatorial engagement they imply, film and video works throw into relief the issue of a diffuse system of regulation, and of the individual and collective participation in, and compliance with, a generalized regime of disciplining. While I Thought I Was seeing Convicts stresses the alignment of the guards’ gaze with that of the video cameras, simultaneously, as the footage is made part of an art installation, it is the spectators’ gaze that gets merged with that of the surveillance apparatus. No matter how horrifying it is to watch the scenes of fights during which men die, no matter how uncomfortable it is to look with the camera as it scrutinizes and exposes the intimate gestures the inmates exchange with visitors in the parlor, such spectatorial experience, taking place in the safe space of the museum or gallery, makes us aware of the troubling proximity between the critical and the voyeuristic—an awareness that is an intrinsic part of Farocki’s analytical framework. As the artist observed, although the invention of the prison initially led to the relegation of punishment as a public spectacle,16 contemporary entertainment and the prison have become inseparable bedfellows.17

Lockup 360

  • 18 It is important to differentiate between Head Mounted Display (HMD) and VR. The former is an indivi (...)
  • 19 Following Serge Daney’s distinction, reflexive works such as Tan’s and Farocki’s belong to the real (...)

14Within the documentary genre, Lockup 360 (MSNBC, 2015) arguably epitomizes such a trend. A mainstream program, advertised as VR and experienced through HMD,18 it stands at the opposite end of the spectrum of audiovisual production to Farocki’s and Tan’s work: whereas their installations belong to a critical trend of committed, ethical art, Lockup 360 overtly relies on sensationalism.19 To discuss such representations of the carceral environment side by side, however, brings into relief their helix-like development. Targeting a mass audience, the reality TV program engages with the dialectic of visibility and invisibility on a broader plane of visual culture. To consider the historical dimension that underpins Foucault’s paradigm, on the one hand, and the specificities of today’s “penal configurations within the spatialized contradictions of global neoliberal capitalism” (Brown 155), on the other, helps make sense of the co-occurrence of these different regimes of visuality. The result is a more nuanced than expected account of a type of images that simultaneously exploit and subvert the panoptic model.

  • 20 Foucault uses the term répartition, which entails both distribution and separation (2012 166).

15In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the body of the delinquent as an exemplary object, central in the establishment of a disciplining system based on corporeal control and normalizing. Foucault sees this system emerging as a deliberate scheme from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Starting with a systematic “partitioning”20 and the distribution of individuals into separate spaces, the method rests on exposing the individuals to a structure of surveillance designed to trigger the progressive internalization of acceptable modes of behavior (1995 143). The old, pre-classical model was that of the medieval dungeon, where bodies were plunged in darkness and forgotten. Of the three functions of the dungeon—to lock away, to deprive of light, and to hide—only the first—to imprison—was kept in the modern organization of the prison system. The new model would be that of the Panopticon, where the bodies to be disciplined are locked away, but kept in full view (1995 200).

  • 21 The establishment of large facilities in remote rural areas, however, sometimes generates the growt (...)
  • 22 It is one of Foucault’s core arguments that not only is deviancy” constitutive of the workings of (...)

16Today, the paradox of the simultaneously hidden (from the outside) and hyper-visible body (inside) manifests itself with particular acuteness not only in the architectural structure of prisons, but in the contradictory evolution of their geographic and symbolic situation. In the past, in western cultures, for practical and emblematic reasons, prisons tended to be built close to, sometimes within, urban centers (Combessie). They were therefore both accessible and visible (the Bastille prison, though it held a mere handful of inmates at the time of its destruction, remains a potent example of the symbolic weight of such presence at the heart of the community). Nowadays, internment institutions are built away from urbanized areas and are often not easily accessible by public transport, as witnessed by the plight of inmates who are thus barred from regular family visits and advisory support (Huling).21 However, whilst geographical distance seemingly increases invisibility and apparently signals a return to the dungeon effect, recent cultural developments, facilitated by the technological evolutions in audio-vision and communication, signal a continuing, voyeuristic fascination for the delinquent body,22 as evidenced in contemporary mainstream entertainment.

  • 23 Lockup shows were produced for 25 years before the program was terminated in 2017.

17The result of a collaboration between the American cable television channel MSNBC and the virtual reality studio Ovrture, Lockup 360 belongs to the world of commercial mass entertainment. Part of a long-lasting television franchise23 that explores jail and prison facilities throughout the United States, Lockup 360 consists of 360-degree documentary footage produced in serial form for HMD (Head Mounted Display). The documentary programs are shot in the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center situated twenty miles from Sacramento. Launched in 2015, Lockup 360 invites viewers to virtually step inside a high security prison and experience life “as an inmate” without “leaving the safety and comfort of your own home” (Freedman and Frenchman). While, to benefit fully from the experience, the spectator must be equipped with an oculus head set, the interface is limited, merely giving access to 360-degree vision: rotating their heads, viewers can look sideways or behind. In augmented reality mode, inserts occasionally give the experiencer close-up vision on certain details. The virtual reality effect is thus restricted to the exploration of the depicted environment: the spectator can direct their gaze as well as progress through space, but cannot interact with the environment, especially as there is no synchronicity between their virtual presence and that of the inmates.

  • 24 As showed in the course of the program, some of its internal facilities include collective dormitor (...)

18The program’s trailer and introductory sequence show views of the surrounding area, complete with aerial shots, to stress the isolated, rural location of the prison. Although it is immediately clear that the architectural layout of the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center only partly matches the panoptic model of architecture,24 once inside, the prison in Lockup 360 focuses on specific features and effectively becomes a beginners’ guide to the Panopticon. The sequence combines images of the video surveillance and fully automated gate security systems with a description of 24-hour surveillance from single-manned watchtowers affording a 360-degree view of the compound. Stressing the combination of immersion and omniscience granted by the HMD, the program also intentionally foregrounds the connection between panoptic vision and its own apparatus.

19Modern visual technology is both a part of the prison’s internal organizational machinery, and a key means in the external circulation of its representations. Farocki’s work already pointed out the effect of this troubling connection: optic-based media share some of their technology (the camera, the lens) and apparatus (the subject/object divide and the deployment of the omniscient gaze) with the disciplining system it depicts. In visual media art as in popular entertainment, even a critical perspective is therefore already problematized by the nature of the mediation (Guido 132-134; Zimmer). There is, however, a specific affinity between VR systems and the Panopticon since, after all, the most basic affordance of VR is 360-degree vision. Yet in contrast with Bentham’s and Foucault’s association of panopticism with internment, descriptions of VR technology and practice tend to be couched in the terminology of “freedom” (Beugnet and Hibberd). Compared to older media, in particular film, VR is often described as opening a space for a freer viewer or “experiencer.” Cinema is defined by the rule of the frame and, as Pierre Sorlin points out, the English word “frame” has several related meanings, including the process of entrapping the innocent, making them look guilty (Sorlin). VR environments, by contrast, are described as frame-free spaces where the user exercises a degree of choice (Pinotti), the level of interfacing in VR being usually defined in terms of “degrees of freedom.” That freedom, of course, applies to the experiencer only and where they take the role of a surveilling power, so that VR becomes an efficient relay of visual control.

20In Lockup 360, however, the camera does not systematically align with the point of view of the surveillance cameras and guards, but also with the gaze of an unidentified bystander and that of an interlocutor in traditional documentary interviews with inmates. The experiencer therefore alternatively adopts the traditionally distant surveilling gaze and that of a nondescript, close observer. Furthermore, whereas in the “ideal” panoptic setup, never knowing when you are being watched is part of the process, here the inmates as well as the guards are aware of the TV cameras and (in contrast with the prison’s video surveillance) know when they are effectively being filmed: though invisible, the presence of the film crew is acknowledged and, in some cases, the guards and some of the inmates talk to camera. The principles of concealment and anonymity that typify Bentham’s system of surveillance only operate belatedly, therefore, as a form of displacement or ghosting, as the experiencer aligns their gaze with the camera operator’s and controls it through the interface, inhabiting their absent body as they would an avatar, to move through the compound. The alternation of points of view and address further complicates matters. As in the historical model analyzed by Foucault, the body of the delinquent is put on display, trapped by both the prison panoptic apparatus and that of the 360-degree documentary recording, and subjected to the disciplining system that it also exemplifies. At the same time, and in contrast with the multifaceted account offered in Farocki’ work (a commentary including factual data, questions, musings, diegetic sound, and voice-over observations by members of an NGO investigating conditions of incarceration), in Lockup 360 the voice-over commentary as well as the guards’ explanations are typically didactic: a would-be informative account of the behavioral model and retribution system documented by the program, which also delivers a lesson to the general public.

  • 25 Even though it relies on documentary footage, in its insistence on HDM technology and clichéd notio (...)
  • 26 The role of the prison is to hold “the person and his body as security […] breaking communications, (...)
  • 27 Depending on the rules that apply in the state where they are incarcerated, the inmates, having for (...)

21It is tempting to condemn the sensationalist, abusive entertainment logic seemingly exemplified by Lockup 360.25 The exploitation of situations of captivity for purposes of entertainment and profit appears doubly unethical, not merely because it targets individuals that have little choice or means to resist it, but because the body that is “put away” is locked up as the security or guarantee that the debt incurred by an individual is being duly paid to society.26 With the body simultaneously “put away” and “put on show,” the debt is being paid twofold.27

22Yet such media production also needs to be considered in their historical context, as part of the broader spatial organization of the contemporary prison system: as pointed out earlier, typical of today’s American penal geography, the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center was built in the middle of nowhere. Giving access to its high security facilities, the program thus offers an opportunity to look at images of a rarely seen reality.

23The positive effect of continued visibility has to be taken into account when assessing the objectives and impact of the program: in preventing certain individuals and situations from disappearing from our awareness as they disappear from our sight, the productions of a franchise such as Lockup arguably keep alive the debate on the conditions and meaning of internment. Talking about prison tourism, Michelle Brown points out that, although the kind of entertainment provided by mainstream attractions “may center upon the voyeurism of spectacle, [its] cultural uses and functions […] are nonetheless multiple.” Equally diverse, she adds, “are the penal subjects such encounters help to produce” (154). These penal subjects, she observes, might be shown as acquiescent or indifferent, but also resistant to the kind of narratives that are elaborated around them. For all its limitations, its sensationalist approach, as well as its rehearsed and rehashed narratives and situations, a program such as Lockup 360 not only offers some visibility to a part of the population whose existence the contemporary penal system tends to suppress with remarkable efficiency, but also produces alternative narratives, in particular in its portrayal of, and interviews with, the inmates who are the focus of each episode.

  • 28 Fredric Jameson’s initial consideration on the waning of affect” (Jameson) has been diversely revi (...)
  • 29 Rosi Braidotti warns against such temptation of the “metaphorization of others” (Braidotti 13).

24This does not make the use of VR less troubling, however. In contrast with the familiar critiques of visibility as a “trap,” positive accounts emphasize immersive technologies’ capacity to abolish distance. Discourses on empathy and immersion have thus become an integral part of critical approaches to biopolitics (Beugnet and Hibberd). Not only spatial and temporal divides are concerned here, but also inner distance. For instance, the empathy supposedly bred by the VR experience (the practice of VR is often described as “stepping in someone else’s shoes”) is meant to bring us close to individuals with whom we appear to have little in common, in material, cultural, and psychological terms (Beugnet and Hibberd). The pro and cons, uses and misuses of empathy in relation to contemporary art or entertainment that encompasses an ethical or societal dimension feed into a debate whose complexity I cannot engage with here.28 Suffice it to say that, contrasted with its modernist counterpart—critical distance—, empathy retains a rather suspicious, because vaguely “feminine,” aura. Yet, triggering empathy is arguably a useful means of eschewing the reduction of specific, concrete situations into mere allegories. In this view, and in the case of the prison, empathy may keep the experience and bodies of people who are or have been locked away from being turned into interchangeable metaphors of the global trend towards generalized surveillance and discipline.29

25At stake, therefore, is the way our viewing engagement is determined and mediated by the particular apparatus that conditions our encounter with the penal subject. Crucial is the manner in which such mediation may or may not reproduce the power relation established through the structure of the gaze (the possibility of a gazing back or countershot) and the holding of the body as a guarantee of the debt to society being paid, of the workings of retribution within the society. In Fiona Tan’s Correction, such questions are addressed through a video installation of what may be described as a form of reversed Panopticon.

Correction

26Tan’s Correction (six-channel video installation: six video projectors, six media players, six amplifiers, six hi-fi speakers, six rear projection screens each 145 cm x 110 cm, color, mono, 2004) presents three hundred portraits of prisoners and prison guards, men and women, filmed at correctional institutions in the United States. The video portraits are displayed on six flat-panel video screens, for twenty to fifty seconds each. The subjects are framed in medium- or full-portrait shot, close to their actual size. They look back at the camera and stand very still, to the point where you may at first think that these are photographic portraits—that is, until you register a slight tremor, the flutter of an eyelid, and realize that the subject of the portrait is breathing.

27This is a familiar strategy of “making strange” for Tan, who likes to use time and stillness as a means to explore what she calls “the twilight zone between film and photography” (qtd. in Gefter). The screens are hung slightly higher than the level of the visitor’s gaze, with the models staring down at him or her. The intermedial blurring also involves painting, the subjects’ confident pose a reminder of the classic style of official portraiture normally associated with the dominant social body. In contrast with the invasive, roaming gaze of the camera in Lockup 360, Tan’s work relies on the individual consent of each of the subjects portrayed.

  • 30 In Bentham’s initial model, the silhouettes of the prisoners are visible thanks to the light pourin (...)

28A deliberate reference to Bentham’s Panopticon, the screens are intended to be hung in hexagonal formation, with benches for the viewer at the center. The spectator may thus choose to stand or sit in the middle of the hexagon, in the position of the watchtower as it were. But watching while circling around the installation on the outside is also possible: the screens are two-sided, each video portrait can thus be viewed from the outer circle, both recalling and subverting Bentham’s vision of transparency.30 Ultimately, the configuration functions as a kind of subverted Panopticon: everywhere he or she stands, the spectator becomes the object of the portrayed subjects’ gazes, intensified through the illusion of co-presence created by the video image. While standing or walking in the central space created by the installation, the visitor cannot escape the convergent stare, a changing yet unwavering gaze that also follows the spectator who circles the installation from the outside.

  • 31 As Foucault observes, to condemn an individual to imprisonment is to quantify his or her punishment (...)

29Michael Fried defined the confrontational quality of such work as “facingness”—a form of theatricality in which the subject looks back and appears to be looking at the beholder (Fried, 1996 307; 2007 495-526). But contrary to painting and photography, the objects of Fried’s theorization, video is a time-based medium. Duration is key here, from the uncanny feeling born out of the realization that the still pictures are in fact live, to the impression of suspended time that the slow editing and stillness create. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault points out that the time of disciplining is also a time of postponement, of lives delayed or put on hold, where the freedom but also the rights of the subject are suspended (1995 269). In Correction, awareness of duration brings about the notion of the debt, of “doing time” inside.31 Yet the particular “live” facingness of the filmed portraits also creates the sense of a “demand”: the reversal of the Panopticon effect produces a reversal of the structure and expression of the debt. In Échographies de la télévision, Jacques Derrida, in conversation with Bernard Stiegler, points to one specific aspect of film’s classic play on presence and absence: he talks of an asymmetrical gaze, the gaze that the filmed subject once directed at the camera, which is now directed at the spectator. Co-presence being but an illusion in film, the observer cannot return this gaze and feels invested with a demand, a debt that is all the more powerfully felt that the demand remains silent, leaving the spectator with an indefinable sense that one might be responsible, somehow, for making good of a past or present injustice in the future (Derrida and Stiegler 137).

30Playing on speakers scattered in the room, audio recordings typical of the prison soundscape—ventilation fans, echoing human voices, doors slamming shut—unsettle one’s sense of bearing, adding a hidden depth and a haunting quality to the exhibition space. Low lighting and the floating of the suspended screens above ground contribute to the impression that the videos are gateways to a limbo-like place. The main ambiguity in Tan’s installation arguably rests on her reliance on the form of the tableau vivant—a theatrical pose where live beings adopt the lifeless appearance of objects. One of the first steps in the process of disciplining, Foucault observes, is the “constitution of tableaux vivants that transform the chaotic, useless or dangerous multitudes into ordered multiplicities” (1995 148). In Correction, the repetition, with minor variances, of the same format and postures seemingly turns the collection of portraits into a catalogue of types, a kind of physiognomist project. But there is no hierarchizing in Tan’s gallery of portraits, nor is there any sense of consistent grouping or categorizing: the portraits succeed one another, men and women, inmates and guards, in a variety of uniforms, with no indication of a particular order.

  • 32 For a discussion of Foucault’s elision of Bentham’s ultimate failure in implementing his proposed m (...)

31As with Farocki’s video installation, albeit in a very different way, the tableau vivant effect and the spectral quality of the space created by Tan’s installation bring to mind Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics. It takes hours to watch all of the video portraits included in Correction: in its scope, Tan’s work reflects the absurd waste generated by a system of mass imprisonment where millions of people are invisibilized, their lives literally put on hold. In an interview, the artist reminds us that her three hundred portraits represent a cross section of the vast population that peoples US jails (Gefter). As with the documentary footage of Farocki’s I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts and Lockup 360, watching Tan’s images one cannot help but notice the imbalance: “whiteness” is not the dominant feature here. Amongst the inmates especially, so-called minority groups, Hispanic and African American, are over-represented. In her critical analysis of Foucault’s interpretation of the Panopticon and its legacy in contemporary surveillance studies, Simone Browne points to a differential treatment, produced as part of a continuing history of oppression and discrimination that inflects the model towards forms of racialized surveillance and disciplining. Both operate through the prism of the “white gaze,” she argues, and are primarily directed at the black body (2015). Tan’s installation is clearly devised as a response to the asymmetry of the surveilling gaze, redoubled by the racial asymmetry pointed out by Browne. In reversing the panoptic effect, Tan locates the source of the gaze “back” with those who are usually subjected to its controlling power. In her discussion of African American spectatorship in the 1950s, bell hooks recalls that black people tended to cultivate “the habit of casting the gaze downward so as not to appear uppity. To look directly was an assertion of subjectivity, equality” (hooks 168). At the same time, the inequality produced “an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze” (116). Correction is not content with denunciating the particular form of necropolitics at work in the contemporary system of mass imprisonment, and to merely counterpoint, with an alternative mode of visualization, the perverse combination of invisibility and hyper-visibility on which its institutional organization rests. Instead of focalizing on the logic of subjection and internalization that the Panopticon entails, Tan’s work foregrounds resistance to it. As such, her work reaches out to a dimension that Foucault’s classic study, in spite of his own personal history of political engagement, largely failed to account for: the possibility to withstand.32

32To question not only the efficiency, but the inevitability of the disciplining machinery, however, is to be aware of its pervasiveness. In its simplicity, its strategic reversal of the panoptic gaze, Tan’s installation works as the forceful subversion of a power structure that is ingrained beyond the walls of the prison, in the very fabric of society. To Foucault, a mark of the aptness of the modern model of discipline and control was its acceptation as part of a social consensus: not only can we not see how to do without it, but it has colonized our imagination and our everyday life, permeating the very spaces where critical distance and the possibility of alternatives could be practiced.

  • 33 For an investigation of the troubling similarities between museums and prison architecture, see Day

33Extensive video documentation of Tan’s installation was shot at the MAXXI museum in Rome, where she had a retrospective show in 2013. A typical product of the long-lasting modernist trend in museum architecture, the MAXXI is built as concrete shell pierced with large glass vistas: a combination of solidity and transparency.33 In line with the politics of urban regeneration, it is located in a distant suburb of the capital. Penetrating its main hall, the visitor faces a massive circular desk, in the middle of which stands a member of the museum staff who surveils the flow of entries and delivers tickets. As the documentary footage of the installation underlines, the presence of Tan’s images of the penitentiary space and its inhabitants in the customary designer look of the museal space, with its wealth of surveillance cameras monitoring the presence of the visitors, produces an unexpected mirroring effect, a crisscrossing of gazes that animates its reflecting, see-through surfaces.

Conclusion

34In spite of a sensationalism that relies on the spectator siding with the faceless omniscience of a VR gaze, Lockup 360’s documenting of the everyday and the space it opens for alternative narratives arguably expose the brutality of the system of mass incarceration. Both Farocki’s insistence on the deathly alignment of gaze and weapons and Tan’s reversal of the Panopticon directly interrogate our spectatorial status, challenging us to specific modes of critical empathy. In Farocki’s installation, the superimposition of two images on a single screen is a reminder of the constructed nature of vision and a denial of the illusory sense of certainty offered by the single point of view (Blümlinger 318). In Correction, the gaze back abolishes the Panopticon’s unilateral system of visibility. In both cases, the acknowledgement of the failure of the “ideal” system of surveillance and internalization described by Foucault turns the onus of the need for change on the spectator.

  • 34 On the classic concept of the poor image, see Steyerl.
  • 35 By “cellular” Foucault designates a power directed at a multitude yet worked on through the individ (...)

35In I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, Farocki points to the increasingly abstracting nature of control applied through electronic tracking systems that monitor the movements of individuals, while reducing their representation to a series of dots, just as the low-definition video images present them as faceless silhouettes. The material fragility of the medium, however (“poor” video images, smuggled out of the prison),34 conveys a sense of the vulnerability of the inmates’ existence—existences as easily erased as the images on the endlessly recycled surveillance videos. On the contrary, Correction relies on high-definition photography. The “cellular” logic of the disciplining power35 manifests itself in the very form of the work, the mass effect of the accumulation of videos counterpointed by the sequential framing that the portraiture instantiates. The slow pace of the montage however, works to foreground the singularity of the individual portrayed, and while prisoners and guards are similarly framed, the haptic qualities of the high-resolution images give each silhouette an eerily intense presence. If the architecture, temporality and soundscape of Tan’s installation initially imbue the encounter between the spectator and the videos with an ethereal quality, the subjects of Tan’s portraits are no ghosts. They gaze back with intent, they breathe and blink, and the duration of each of the video portraits allows us to take in the details—a wrinkle, a crumpled uniform, a tattoo, a bold or melancholy look, the shadow of a smile.

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Video and Television Works

FAROCKI, Harun. I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts. 2000. Two-channel video installation re-edited to single-channel video, color, sound, 25 minutes.

TAN, Fiona. Correction. 2004. Six-channel video installation (six video projectors, six media players, six amplifiers, six hifi speakers, six rear projection screens each 145 cm x 110 cm), color, mono.

Lockup 360. 2015. TV program and Virtual Reality application. MSNBC and Overture.

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Notes

1 Gary T. Marx observes that although there has been regular scholarly and media interest in the topic since the 1950s, this relatively modest engagement with the subject of surveillance has been replaced by a growing concern and widespread academic interest in the topic (xxvii). For an analytical survey of the history and recent developments in surveillance studies in relation to cinema and televisual production, see Boillat and Guido; Lyon, 2007; and the publications of the journal of the Surveillance Studies network, Surveillance and Society.

2 With reference to the title and argument of Kevin Haggerty’s article, where the author stresses the limitations created, in the field of surveillance studies, by the hegemony of the panoptic model, and the need to “tear down the walls,” as it were.

3 While the fertile encounter between Foucault’s writing, new media, and surveillance studies has logically fed into discussions of the contemporary surveilling gaze, the historical dimension that conditioned the thinker’s theoretical work is often overlooked in the process (Elmer 21-30).

4 Depending on whether the population of county and city jails as well as state and federal prisons is taken into account, it ranges between 1.5 and 2.2 million. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US prison population was 1,465,200 million at year-end 2018, and the population of jail inmates in the US was 745,000 at midyear 2017.

5 Foucault’s analysis proved particularly apt in the context of the 2008 financial crisis: the “new” delinquency, as he describes it, benefits from the systematic spread of “illegalism” (the integration, through exceptions made to the law, of illegal activity at the highest levels of trade and capitalist exchange), the roots of which can be found in the eighteenth century, but which has since become endemic.

6 The TV series Orange Is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan in 2013, is probably the best-known example of a trend that also involves the high-art end of cultural production, as evidenced by the recent work of artists Angela Fraser, Keith Calhoun, Chandra McCormick, Deana Lawson, and Ashley Hunt, amongst others.

7 Foucault describes the emergence of “biopolitics” as a shift, in the nineteenth century, from the exercise of discipline and power on the individual body to the exercise of power on life itself: on humans as living entities and as “species” (Foucault, 1997 160; see also chapter 5, “Droit de mort et pouvoir sur la vie,” in Foucault, 1976 175-211).

8 Film and TV series have generated a wealth of analysis from a variety of fields including TV studies but also feminist studies, sociology and philosophy (Foss; Boillat and Guido).

9 Boillat and Guido’s edited collection is exemplary in its attention to, and critical account of, the aesthetics of surveillance in fiction cinema and series. For a historical contextualization, see Guido.

10 In particular, the work features video footage from the 1980s, obtained thanks to the attorney of families of inmates who died in prison (Farocki, 2004a 290).

11 The title of Farocki’s work, derived from Ingrid Bergman’s exclamation upon discovering the working conditions of factory workers in Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51 (1952), further emphasizes the ubiquity of the model.

12 The intertitles indicate that a law was finally passed (in 1989) rendering such shootings illegal. They were replaced with water cannons that project tear gas into the yards (cameras and cannon are attached to the same mobile support).

13 Farocki points out that “[t]he State of California has removed the word ‘rehabilitation’ from its statutes” (2004a 291).

14 Farocki recounts how some of the gangs designate themselves with names like “Aryan Brotherhood” or “Mexican Mafia” (2004a 294).

15 In Society Must Be Defended (originally published in 1997 as Il faut défendre la société), Foucault also stressed the connection between bio-power and racism (2003 170).

16 At the same time as it points to the growing encroachment of operative images in surveillance and disciplining systems, Farocki’s work shows the persistence of spectacles that have traditionally been associated with premodern forms of punishment. The commentary to the footage of the fights thus indicates not only how the wardens plan such violent, potentially deadly encounters, throwing inmates in the arena as if they were gladiators, but that it is known for the prison staff to bet on the outcome of the fights.

17 “The demand for entertainment has grown immeasurably since then. Even films critical of prisons aim at being entertaining. There are hardly any critical films that manage to do so without the accompanying fearful excitement of an execution” (Farocki, 2004a 291).

18 It is important to differentiate between Head Mounted Display (HMD) and VR. The former is an individual mode of display, the latter designates the experience of interacting in real time with a virtual environment.

19 Following Serge Daney’s distinction, reflexive works such as Tan’s and Farocki’s belong to the realm of the “image,” whereas reality TV programs are of the order of the “visual”: whereas the image, framed, mediated, points to its own constructedness, the “visual” presents itself as a naturalized, closed system that has no outer-field—a characteristic arguably reinforced by the 360-degree dimension of the VR environment (see also Blümlinger 314).

20 Foucault uses the term répartition, which entails both distribution and separation (2012 166).

21 The establishment of large facilities in remote rural areas, however, sometimes generates the growth of a local settlement around a community of prison workers.

22 It is one of Foucault’s core arguments that not only is deviancy” constitutive of the workings of power, but its actual production (in prisons in particular), followed by its disavowal and repression, serves to legitimate the exercise of power and the policing of the population at large (Foucault, 1976).

23 Lockup shows were produced for 25 years before the program was terminated in 2017.

24 As showed in the course of the program, some of its internal facilities include collective dormitories as well as individual cells.

25 Even though it relies on documentary footage, in its insistence on HDM technology and clichéd notions of immersion and surveillance, the program’s concept evokes the logic of the “visual” according to Daney: “I call ‘image,’ then, what still relies upon an experience of vision, and ‘visual’ the optical verification of a procedure of power, whatever this may be (technological, political, advertising, military)” (Daney 181).

26 The role of the prison is to hold “the person and his body as security […] breaking communications, suspending time” (Foucault, 1995 209).

27 Depending on the rules that apply in the state where they are incarcerated, the inmates, having forfeited their full citizen rights, may have lost rights on the circulation of their image and may well be unable to decide whether to appear in the program or not.

28 Fredric Jameson’s initial consideration on the waning of affect” (Jameson) has been diversely revisited in contemporary approaches to the question of empathy (Bourriaud; Bloom).

29 Rosi Braidotti warns against such temptation of the “metaphorization of others” (Braidotti 13).

30 In Bentham’s initial model, the silhouettes of the prisoners are visible thanks to the light pouring through the cells from the outside: in other words, the cells’ outer wall is meant to be made of glass, at least in part, so as to entrap the inmate’s silhouette in a shadow theatre effect.

31 As Foucault observes, to condemn an individual to imprisonment is to quantify his or her punishment in temporal terms, and subtract it from the convicted individual’s time.

32 For a discussion of Foucault’s elision of Bentham’s ultimate failure in implementing his proposed model, as well as the emergence of strategies of resistance to systemic surveillance and control, see Haggerty 34.

33 For an investigation of the troubling similarities between museums and prison architecture, see Day.

34 On the classic concept of the poor image, see Steyerl.

35 By “cellular” Foucault designates a power directed at a multitude yet worked on through the individual body and with a particular attention to detail (1995 149).

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Référence électronique

Martine Beugnet, « Re-viewing Foucault: The Disciplinary Gaze in Harun Farocki’s I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, Lockup 360 and Fiona Tan’s Correction »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 06 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/20268 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.20268

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Martine Beugnet

Université Paris Cité, LARCA

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