Thursday, December 6, 2007

Observation and Individualization in Part 3, Chapter 2: The Means of Correct Training

I am interested in exploring Foucault's ideas of observation and individualization as explained on pages 170-177 and 189-194 of the text. I will do this by correlating the concepts with their real-life applications and testing the theories in that way.

The key term in this discussion is "individualization.", which is based on the Random House Unabridged dictionary, defines individualization as: make individual or distinctive; give an individual or distinctive character to. mention, indicate, or consider individually; specify; particularize.
These definitions, to me, are vastly different in terms of practical function. Certainly observation, normative judgements, and evaluation perform the later function of considering people individually in order to specify and particularize. I am not entirely convinced, however, that these forms of discipline give an individual and distinctive character to people. I will explore my opinion of these definitions throughout this abstract.


Foucault writes at the bottom of page 170, "...the techniques which make it possible to see induce effects of power [...] eyes that must see without being seen". This is the theory behind video cameras to guard against shoplifting, cameras at intersections for law enforcement purposes, and even the idea of God as omniscient--all of these forces have a tranquilizing effect on behavior. However, in the work environment I see a different force at play. I believe many work places today are built "to permit an internal, articulated and detailed control --to render visible those who are inside it [...]to provide a hold on their conduct" (172). What is interesting to me is that power relations are set up based not on who can see but who can't be seen. For example, my father's company "Hawkins Real Estate Development Co." recently moved into a new building in BoDo. The office is in the same wharehouse district that house The Big Easy and other establishments. Since there are so few windows, the company decided to build internal walls of glass in order to allow natural light to shine throughout the building from the few windows. So everybody now has offices made of glass, including my dad, who is the CFO, and his coworker, the company president. However, the company owner and his son and two sons-in-law are the only employees who have offices with walls. So a power hierarchy has been set up based on who still has the freedom FROM observation rather than the freedom to observe. The same is true in the high school I student teach at and in the modern language department. Both the principal at MVHS and the MLL director are the only ones on the staff who have offices without hallway windows.

Foucault says that observation serves towards the "progressive objectification and ever more subtle partitioning of individual behavior" (173). This is certainly true for me. For example, I hate to have my office door open in the MLL department because I can't work as effectively, and it is not because of noise disturbance. It is because with my door open, I am constantly conscious of the possibility of being observed, so I sit straighter (and less comfortably!), worry about my apparent level of productivity (in case my boss walks by) and just generally find it difficult to focus and concentrate. The possibility of being observed definitely alters my behavior to an extent.

It is interesting, too, to think of the role of observation in the digital world. Social networking sites such as facebook, myspace, linkedin, and others all have differing levels of privacy controls and methods of observation. I prefer facebook because I have some control over who I am being observed by. It took me months to finally accept friend requests from professional colleagues because allowing them to "observe me" (view my profile) necessarily changed some of my behavior and activity on the site. Diane also seems to be exploring the function of observation or lack thereof in the digital world through the analysis of anonymous discussion boards.

Another interesting quote: "The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned" (173). This idea instantly made me think of the Christian concept of God. If one believes this to be a religious construct, it is apparent that the idea of observation as an instrument of control has been around for centuries. If one believes in God as a reality, His omnisience is obviously a strong disciplinary force.

Foucault writes that "examination also introduces individuality into the field of documentation"(189). At first I think he is talking about the second definition of individualization--procedures that specify and particularize. He says examination places people in a field of surveillance that "situates them in a network of writing; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them" (189). This is true of most types of examination--school grades, medical records, income reports and tax statements, criminal records and more. However, Foucault goes on to say that "[Evaluation] was the problem of the teaching establishments, where one had to define the aptitude of each individual, situate his level and his abilities, and indicate the possible use that might be made of them" (189). This is evaluation that truly has an individualizing effect--that makes a person individual or distinctive. The only place this could be said to be happening in education today is possible in Special Ed where students meet with a team of educators and professionals to determine their abilities and needs and create and IEP (Individual Education Plan). Special Ed is inundated with paperwork designed to both categorize and support the individual needs of students. It may be one of the last frontiers of Evaluation as Individualization.

Foucault talks of two correlative possibilities of evaluation, first, "the constitution of the individual as a describable, analysable object, not in order to reduce him to 'specific' features, as did the naturalists in relation to living beings, but in order to maintain him in his individual features, in his particular evolution, in his own aptitudes or abilities, under the gaze of a permanent corpus of knowledge" (190). This I see as the mission of Special Education--to support students in their exceptionalities. The majority of students, however, fall under the second possibility of evaluation: "The constitution of a comparative system that made possible the measurement of overall phenomena, the description of groups, the characterization of collective facts, the calculation of the gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given 'population'"(190). This is the modern system of school evaluation, or grading, as we know it. I don't think this lends towards creating individual and distinctive identities, except for broad categorical identities based on where one fall in the evaluative categorizations. (Ex. an "A" student--a good, conscientious, or smart student). There are correlations in the workplace, in religion, and in our social lives as well.

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