The Social Prison In Which We Live

Sunday, November 4, 2018
Glendale, California


The Social Prison In Which We Live

Applying his unique historical perspective to studying how nations punish criminals, Michel Foucault believes “modern” prisons strive for three goals:

Surveillance, normalization, and examination.

They imprison their criminals, political enemies, or critics; they subject them to routines intended to normalize them (submit to cultural standards), and they inspect or examine them to ensure normalization is occurring.

As monarchies transitioned into other forms of government, archaic punishments like burning at the stake, drawing-and-quartering, or amputations became uncommon. Instead, governments gathered their citizens needing discipline into prisons where they observed them, forced them to behave “normally,” and monitored their progress towards normalcy.

Foucault’s ideas have frightening implications for the culture at large.

Here are a few examples:

You seek a Master’s degree in accounting. Along the way, the educational institution provides its curriculum (normalization), observes your progress along the way (surveillance), and requires you to complete certain tasks, like writing a thesis, to earn the degree (examination).

Or, consider the literal experience of an employee working at an Amazon fulfillment center. Managers monitor employees through tracking devices providing knowledge of employees’ whereabouts and productivity moment-by-moment. They set standards for normalcy—speed of work, number of units packed per hour, and packing efficiency. They then evaluate, at regular intervals, dispensing discipline or rewards as indicated.

In such external cases, the warden exists outside of the self taking form as the dean or the manager; the prisoner is the student or the employee.

Interestingly, and disturbingly, you submit yourself to these same three trends. You look in the mirror and observe, to your horror, you’ve gained weight. You go on a diet (a form of surveillance); you seek the weight gain to “look better” (normalization), and; you weigh yourself regularly (examination).

In such internal instances, you serve as both the warden and the prisoner. The warden-in-you monitors you, insists on conformity, and inspects your progress; the prisoner-in-you dutifully complies, usually suffering mightily as you restrict caloric intake to achieve the desired weight loss.

Passionate for maximizing freedom, I find these observations humbling, perhaps even frightening. It’s difficult to find a cultural experience free of these three trends.

Here are a few more random examples:

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and you seek entertainment. You survey your desires, applying a form of normalization which occurred long before you knew it. You decide between a watching a movie, taking a hike, or reading a novel.

Internally, you watch yourself (surveillance) to monitor your enjoyment. After consuming the entertainment, you reflect on how good it was (examination).

Externally, at the Monday morning water-cooler social period during your one-minute break at Amazon, your coworkers inquire about your Sunday afternoon (surveillance). They compare their own entertainment experiences with yours (normalization). They opine on the quality of your time (examination).

Most types of freedom-seeking begin with an evaluation:

Am I happy in my job?

Is this relationship right for me?

Do my recreational activities fulfill me?

These are excellent ways to begin the search for authenticity and freedom.

Heightened awareness of the ubiquitous nature of surveillance, normalization, and examination may help you progress further. It elicits additional, crucial questions:

Am I basing my desires on norms?

Are my desires secretly intended to obtain the approval of others (examination)?

Must I submit myself to close monitoring to ensure this is really me (surveillance)?

It’s tough to find a way out of these three imprisoning trends.

However, understanding and acknowledging them will assist you with any type of liberation.




Foucault, M. (1995 ). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. A. Sheridan. New York: Vintage.

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