On modelling interaction:
from diads to triads and from mutuality to assymetry

Playing with Foucault's panopticon

This is intended as an experiment in modeling what must be taken into account when analyzing any form of human "intercourse" (in the old Marxian usage as found in The German Ideology). I use this general term so as not to distinguish "conversational" from other forms of interaction (or the "said" from the "done"). I am concerned equally with telephone conversations, gifts or honor exchanges, doctor/patient and teacher/student interactions, both face to face and through intermediaries. I use the term "model" in a way inspired by LÚvi-Strauss's classic paper on "Social Structure" (1962 [1952]).

More specifically, I want to expand on Jakobson's models (1960) to take into account two related matters that are obscured in this model. First is the matter of what various kinds of American pragmatists from G.H. Mead (1934) to Arensberg (1972, 1981) have talked about as "the third" or "interpreter." For me this covers the activity of all the controlling actors that set the frame for the interaction, both a priori and a posteriori. "Meaning" in this perspective is not inherent in the text nor the orientations of the participants but rather in what is done with the text and participants by what happens after, wheter this is now controlled by the original participants or not. In LÚvi-Strauss's terms this is the moment when a single authored text turns into collective myth (1971: 560).

Neither G.H. Mead nor LÚvi-Strauss focus our attention on the fact that this emphasis on what happens next that may radically recast what the text might originally have meant, semantically or personally, must raise questions of assymetry, and thus possibly power, when the original canno reenter the conversation. Prototypically, Jakobson's models, like most models drawn from linguistics and even most sociolinguistics and early conversational analysis, assume that the fundamental situation to model is one where there is full reciprocity between the interlocutors in the primordial "I-THOU" relationship. The model must be redrawn if we drop this assumption and, on the contrary, assume fundamental assymetry with full reciprocity a very special case.

To recast this model and address the questions of power and hegemony that we cannot any more ignore, I am proceeding here through Foucault's original discussion of the panopticon (1978 [1975]). I am not however so much trying to understand what he was trying to do as working with what he brought forth for different purposes. Mostly, Foucault presents the panopticon as if it modeled interaction in only one kind of discourse (in my vocabulary "culture"), that of "discipline" that supposedly characterizes post 18th century modernity (in prisons, the army, hospitals, schools, etc.). The panopticon then is a model of a particular "epoch" (to eschew the term "culture" that would fit but might be distracting here). It is thus inappropriate to criticize it for not handling the full complexity of interaction.

I suspect however that many who refer to the panopticon do not take it as a historically bound phenomenon that arises out of certain conditions and could be ending in the whirlwind of postmodernity. Discussions of the panopticon are often wrapped up in broader discussion of "hegemony" that proceed through "habitus" (Bourdieu 1977 [1972]). They often refer back to Gramsci universalistic aphorism about "the leaders" and "the led" (). To the extent that we must incorprate assymetry in all human interaction, and not simply "modern" interaction, then we can start with the panopticon as one rough initial model. The processs of the assymetry may change from time to time, but assymetry will remain.

 

The panopticon, summarized, for current purposes

Most summarily, the panopticon is first of all a prison characterized by one form of relationship in which the warden watches the inmate in such a way that the inmate can never be sure that he is actually being watched at any one time. :

warden ---------------------> inmate

The model does not allow for reciprocity of any kind between the warden and the inmate. Nor does it allow for communication among the inmates. For Bentham, of course, the panopticon was a proposal, a plan or a utopia that would precisely disallow for reciprocity and communication. Foucault, in turn, takes this utopia as the ultimate modern plan for all institutions. If he deals at all with the evidence that no prisons were ever actually build that achieved full panoptical gaze, it seems to be as if this was only a technical problem that further tinkering with the actual (e.g. through video or other technologies) might resolve. If Foucault is right about Bentham, all prison architects and other efficiency experts, then the ultimate panopticon may still be in the future.

But the organization of the watchful gaze is not all that concerns Fourcault. He is concerned in what the warden does beyond watching. The panopticon is not simply about watching, it is about documenting aspects of the inmate's "body," thereby transforming him into an "individual." This is what Foucault refers to as "discipline" and characteristic of the modern epoch. This is an interesting approach to Euro-American individualism that goes beyond the usual work from de Tocqueville through Weber, Dumont or Bellah, by emphasizing the institutional (constitutive) work that must be involved to display persons ("bodies") as individuals and to act on them as individuals. It is very compatible with what McDermott and I tried to do in Successful Failure (1998).

In this perspective the prison is but one instance of the panopticon. In fact Bentham talks specifically that his proposal could be used for planning schools and pedagogies. Thus, I prefer to represent the panopticon as a particular form of relationship between an "examiner" and and "examined".

examiner ===============> examined

Note that I use the distinction emic/etic in the structural linguistic sense as expanded by such authors as Barthes, not in the sense borrowed from by Harris and others in anthropology. I have used the distinction in the curent sense in my American School Language (1983).

This way we can move from the prison to the school or the hospital in a somewhat less metaphorical manner. To formalize this somewhat, one might use a form of notation inspired by structural linguistics and use '/' to indicate "-emic" units and '[' to indicate particular instances:

/examiner/ ===============> /examined/

[teacher] ===============> [student]

[doctor] ===============> [patient]

[social worker] ===============> [client]

[warden] ===============> [inmate]

This then allows us to check the model again the great body of ethnographic work we now have about interactions between people who occupy these positions.

Eventually, I intend to generalize this further to take it out of the particular forms of classification of people and processes typical of Euro-American cultures. In general, all cultures must, in some way, identify (classify, interpret, "give meaning to") bodies and, in the process produce particular forms of assymetries that general models of communication must handle ().

At this time however, let us stay here with Euro-America because of the wealth of descriptions available to us that detail what seems always to happen in the actual panopticons (schools, hospitals, etc.) that have been built over the past two centuries.

 

Assymetric mutualities in institutionalized interaction

In brief, I take this body of ethnographic work to have demonstrated that there is no instance where one cannot notice some feedback between the examiner and the examined. The feedback can take many forms depending on the exact setting, but it is not simply "noise" in the system. Or rather, depending on the focus, it is the evidence that the cultural model of individualization (the panopticon) is precisely a cultural model, that is one that abstracts interpretatively aspects of the actual or experential. If "culture" may be understood as a "system of exclusion" (to stay with Foucault), then the panopticon excludes (silences) the work of the /examined/. It is precisely this silence that the analyst must pierce if the goal is not simply to understand the cultural frame but rather to understand how it actually proceed in practice.

Thus we must rewrite the model to incorporate this feedback. The acknowledgement must not itseld erase the constructed assymetry. Culture is a fact:

examiner ===============> examined
<---------------------

To preserve the distinction textually, I distinguish between the authority of the examiner and the power of the examined:

AUTHORITY
examiner ===============> examined
<---------------------
POWER

The word 'authority' is apt here because it indexes well the extent of the examiner's action: it "authors" and it "authorizes" by manipulating the categories (it fixes the individual by giving him his qualities [failing student, sick person, etc.]) and meting the consequences ([remedial education, hospitalization, etc.]). The examined fights back ([resistance, non-compliance, etc.] ). In this fight, the examined can in fact sometimes redirect classifications or consequences either locally at the moment of interaction (see Rosa in McDermott's work, 1978), or less locally when patients actually do not take the medicine prescribed to them by doctors or other wise manipulate the medical establishment (see my work with Cotter on a woman in labor). One might even interpret much political work at national levels by disenfranchised groups as another instance of the exercizee of power against authority. In this perspective, the critical work of intellectuals belongs in the realm of power using some of the properties of the authority structure against--with possibly fateful consequences if in fact the authority structure reorganizes itself and coopt the act of power...

The overall model, however, cannot remain a diadic one. Foucault does not talk about the impossibility of achieving the panoptical utopia of fully cutting off relationship among those who are examined. And yet, it is only perhaps in the most extreme of high security prisons that such relationships can be broken. The model must thus open to the reality that the examined will also be constrained by their relationships, not only with those in the set of people under the authority of any examiner, but also by those other people with whom the examined interacter in other settings (this is where all evidence about the impact of "family" on education or medicine would be handled).

   
 
   
^
 
   
examined
^
^

 
  examiner
AUTHORITY
===============>
<---------------------
POWER
^
examined
^
^
 
   
^
^
examined
 
   
^
 
   
 

What Foucault does talk about briefly is relates to the position of the examiner. He states that "without a central point of inspection, surveillance ceases to be guaranteed, continuous and general; for it is impossible to have complete trust in the activity, zeal and intelligence of the warder who immediately supervises the cells" ([1975] 1978: 250). The issue of trust is interesting as such but the passage underlines something that must be incorporated within the model: the examiner does not control his own authority, it is given to him by those who have put it in the position. In summary I will refer to these as fully constitutive "accreditators" to index all the institutions that eventually make certain type of examiners "teachers" or "doctors" or "wardens."

   
 
  ACCREDITATOR
^
 
  V
V
V
examined
^
^

 
  V
examiner
AUTHORITY
===============>
<---------------------
POWER
^
examined
^
^
 
   
^
^
examined
 
   
^
 
   
 

Finally, of course, the model is fully recursive: in modern disciplined bureaucracies everyone is alternatively accreditator, examiner and examined. Any literal panopticon (e.g. any hospital ward, school or prison) is thus by a node within a set of both overarching and "underaching" institutions.

Doctors, for example, examine patients (thereby determining some of their unique qualities and further individualizing them) and prescribe consequence (medicine, surgery, regimens) but they only do so because of the set of institutions that constituted medicine as a separate disciplined, granted them their degrees, developed research into drugs and processes, and so on and so forth. Absent such accreditation a person has no authority. Conversely, doctors are always confronted to active patients who construct them, their diagnostics and prescription in ways that must remain unpredictable because the doctors cannot directly control the groups that may be most personally significant to the patient (family, peers, etc.), not to mention cross-cutting authorities from religion, the media or politics. All of these matters are precisely those that the social sciences of medicine must explore, from the moments when a 'body' (in Foucault's terms) gets drawn into the world of medicine (what I have sometimes written as the moment when one is "caught by a culture"). Whether this movement is voluntary or not (thoughtless or not) when is also drawn into the world of (non-)compliance that will involve, among other things, various forms of bricolage with the classifications and regimens. These, themselves, should not be reduced to psychological processes since any identification of a 'body' by a medical authority will become available material for all the groups (family, etc.) within which the patient operates. One can understand all evidence of bricolage by medical personel with the categories given to them by their own examiners because of the operation of similar processes (Strauss on nurses?).

Most of my work, as well as McDermott's and others, and schooling investigates similar situations when authoritative constitutions can be shown to be both overwhelmingly constraining and fully open to bricolage (see my re-analysis of "Rosa" in Chaper 8 of Successful Failure 1998).

 

In general

It would also be interesting to recast Sacks, Scheggloff and Jefferson's analysis of the "simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation" (1974) in terms of continuing shifting assymetries. How that would relate to Goodwin's (1981) convincing insistence that conversation is a continuous process is something to consider though the shifts might be understood as simultaneous shifts in authority/power. The type of recasting could address gift exchanges as first modeled by Mauss (1967 [1923-24]) and then recast by Bourdieu's demonstration of the interactional complexities of honor displays (1977 [1972]).

 

 

 

October 7, 2002