Inside the Pennopticon

We just had an amazing class today, referred to as the “mega-week” by our instructor. Since he decided to cancel class last week in favor of a mid-term break, we had to cram many, many great and thought-provoking readings1 in a three-hour discussion. As our weekly ritual requires, I had to hand in a response paper by 10 am this morning, dealing with thoughts, questions and reactions to the readings. Usually, I love putting the paper together the night before class, after reviewing the readings and my annotations.2 Last night, however, I could not come up with any idea to formulate a response paper as I ordinarily would. Thus, I decided to frame my experiences in grad school so far using some of the concepts reiterated in the readings. It would probably be to your advantage to be familiar with the readings, and this piece might be a little messy since I wrote it late at night, but I hope it can give you an idea of my life and work anyhow.

I promised to take pictures of the Department weeks ago, but I have not been able to do so yet. You will have to use your own imagination before I will provide you with the visual evidence to make the following point clear: Although the windowless offices, arranged in a horseshoe around the stairway and toilets, do at best slightly resemble Bentham’s Panopticon, we do have modes of Foucaultian “permanent registration”—be it in having to go through the lounge to get to the bathrooms and into one’s office, or having our grad listserve emails read by faculty members. The similarities between graduate school and the Panopticon might seem a little bit forced, since we live in the 21st century, and graduate school is no prison with guards. Precisely for this reason, however, it sounds even more promising to unravel the disciplining mechanisms which make contemporary grad students work like they were continuously kept under surveillance, or like they worked towards heavenly salvation according to a Weberian Protestant ethic—even the most secularized of them, eager and urged to bond with their cohort, of course, and yet struggling individually, each in their own enclosed space.

Contrasting Foucault, however, the disciplining party in grad school is not necessarily visible, but always verified: in the form of an internalized watchtower. To strive for more and more efficiency seems to be entirely embedded in grad students’ identity; they aim at strengthening their social networks, increasing their paper production, and exposing themselves to the laws of economy—even if only in discussing job market perspectives and application standards over a few slices of pizza in the above-mentioned lounge. Graduate students slightly resemble usable machines in a state institution. There is a schedule, there are rituals, but no 24-hour timetable is necessary. They have internalized the mechanism of a simultaneously lighter and more effective force than being disciplined in a panoptical environment: self-discipline.

Porter seems to need more work to be adapted for graduate life: In choosing a grading range from A to A-, standardized evaluation of students at Penn is rendered meaningless, and seems to give way to a return to the pre-industrial stage where the qualitative preceded the quantitative. As we have been told by one of our Professors recently, grad students do not compete for grades, but for recommendation letters, and for personal investment of faculty members in their scholarly development. What could be a more personal and less objective measure? Luckily,3 however, the job market we are being briefed for will soon let the quantitative data dominate again, and Porter will be proven true.

During the tenure process at the latest, we will proceed to the modern virtues of counting and calculating—or rather to being assessed on these terms. Apparently, Porter knew exactly what tenure committees are like, and that they need quantitative data to cover their unfamiliarity with the discipline in question. They try to keep emotional distance which is inevitable in commodifying up-and-coming intellectuals: “Those whose authority is suspect … are much more likely to make their decisions by the numbers than are those who govern by divine or hereditary right” (28). And, yes, none of these committees claims to establish truth during tenure process, but objectivity. This is about self-protection, and handing over responsibility to techno-mathematical tools and standardized procedures. I agree with Porter.

If we consider Scott’s argument that the uniform citizen was created before measures were standardized, we can hardly hide behind scientific methods, or use them as justification of de-humanizing evaluation practice. At least nature and culture come more closely together when the world and its inhabitants are commodified as a whole. If we only try hard enough to modify material reality and our perception of it, if we further disenchant and remain disenchanted, we might finally be able to abandon Scott’s concern that simplifications can never represent reality. It would be so simple to have an exact map of a world that is completely entzaubert. (Deleuze and Guattari deny that this will ever be possible, bodies are “not reducible to (an) organism[s]” (24). Canguilhem revisited—and the world saved.)

Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “numbering number” (58) seems to resemble Foucault’s notion of dynamic power: It is no static entity, no unchanging state, but directive and relational. This is where we return to graduate school. Not that there were a lot talking about sexuality, but about another very intimate and bed-related topic: sleep. While Max Weber built his framework on Protestant belief, and Foucault put sexuality in the center of his account, I was wondering if talking about sleep, having sleep, or being prevented from sleeping could have a similar impact on communication, hierarchy, and power dynamics. Tiredness seems to be gendered at the Department, and there is a lot of psychiatrization of seemingly perverse sleeping behavior. Besides, the graduate subject experiences their desire to sleep context-dependently as either embarrassing or natural. Confessing too much or too little sleep is a ritual in grad school, and leads to being self-labeled or diagnosed as either lazy or unhealthy.

There is one more reason to investigate sleep and its connection to non-institutionalized dynamic force: Similarly to Arnold’s display of colonial bio-power, sleep deprivation is among grad students not only considered to be an effect of the academic power, but serves also as culminating point for resistance against hierarchies and oppressive systems. This is how grad students solidarize with each other, how they suffer together, and create a shared image of an enemy. In an enclosed part of the world, where young people do hardly anything besides reading, writing, talking, eating, and (sometimes) sleeping, it does not appear to be too ridiculous to ask for the impact of domains of life besides Foucaultian sexuality and Weberian religion, which could serve as grounds for growing work ethics, norms, and pathologies.

Graduate school does not only change sleeping habits, or intrude in students’ personal life and beliefs (e.g., I have to use googlemail, farewell privacy!), but also invades graduate students’ bodies physically: through enforcing university-wide immunization requirements. It is notable in this connection, that I am currently living in a country where people break the law in order to benefit from medical treatment after being imprisoned, because they simply cannot afford health care. Obviously, insurance and health systems in the USA in the 21st century allow only several state institutions to put their idea of so-called Western medicine and vaccination into effect. In spite of the tendency of grad students at Ivy League Universities to be white, this sounds a lot like Arnold’s India, where only the enclosed and disciplined could be treated according to British standards.

This is where my response paper ended, but I had many more thoughts: a comparison between Deleuze’s electric collar and my PennCard, for instance. This ID I have to swipe to get access to the Department after hours—and it did not work during the first weeks, because I had to be verified as an HSS student first. I was so glad that our Professor pointed out exactly this example when one of my fellow students spoke about Deleuze’s scary visions of the future. It is present. And, of course, surveillance is centralized as we can read daily right now; there is no chance to argue that away, as one of my beloved cohort mates suggested. This is another point I could not elaborate on in my paper, but which was stated during discussion in class, and which I have been thinking about since undergrad coursework. I should really broaden my work, so it can match my extensive interests one day. A little more work on history, philosophy and sociology of privacy and surveillance could help me understand better why so many people still use facebook, for example. (I really have to fix my GnuPG, so I can encrypt my email again.)

P.S. I love this program. And the Department.

1 Small, medium, or extensive excerpts from:
Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological;
James Scott, Seeing Like a State;
Ted Porter, “Objectivity as Standardization”;
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish;
Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies”;
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Treatise on Nomadology”;
Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol. 1 and 2;
Michel Foucault, “Governmentality”;
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”;
David Arnold, Colonizing the Body;
Ian Hacking, “Making up People.”
(You are allowed to be impressed!)

2 I love to write in Zone books! They just know what margins and paper a scholarly book needs.

3 To quote Thomas Gil: “Can you irony [sic]?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.