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The Death of the Tyrant:
Autonomous Power Structures in the Post-modern Era

"At the bottom, despite the differences in epochs and objectives, the representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy. In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king."
Michel Foucault, (History 88-89)

With all the injustices in the world today, how strong the temptation is to channel all of our frustration and righteous indignation at someone, to thrust an accusatory finger at our parsimonious boss, or local politician, or whoever attracts our ire. While there are small-town big fish who may directly and consciously bully us, does this traditional monarchial or oligarchic conception of power scale upward to institutions that affect society itself? That is, do far-reaching agencies—what is often sneeringly referred to as "the system"—really consciously oppress? With the growing concern over increases in anorexia, teen violence, and deviant behavior, such questions are not trivial because their answers just might show us a mode for social reform. But however alluring it may be to answer "yes," to scapegoat Cosmo Girl, video game companies, or MTV as the driving force behind society's ills, no longer are there despots who deliberately rule over the populace. The nature of power has changed; on the large scale it is disindividualized and autonomous: a lumbering, headless giant. 1

Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish describes the advent of new forms of corporal regulation as a reflection of the changing essence of power. With the arrival of the plague in the late seventeenth century, the old binary division of society ceded to what Foucault deems "individualizing distributions" (Foucault 198). That is, where before there was a clear social division—where "deviants" such as lepers were ostracized—the plague blurred social distinction because anyone was susceptible: "bodies mingled without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoned their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized" (Foucault 197). No longer was it feasible to pariah only those obviously on the bottom of the social ladder because anyone could become abnormal, and what was abnormal was dangerous. Consequently, power was forced to change so that it could monitor everyone. During the plague, all townspeople were confined to their houses on pain of death, and scrutinized

at every point...the slightest movements supervised, all events recorded...each individual constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead...." (Foucault 197)

Power shifted unmistakably to a mechanism which "multiplied, articulated, and subdivided itself" (Foucault 198)—pervasive and in intimate contact with each person. It was not fleeting but self-reproducing; the plague had necessitated its continuing function because society now needed to take measures to ensure that "abnormal" individuals could be handled. The modern extension of this power is Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a disciplinary building whose design quarantines each individual alone in a cell and limits his vision to just the central observation tower. The individual "is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication.... Visibility is a trap" (Foucault 200). While the Panopticon is metaphorical, it "must not be understood as a dream building, [but as] the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form" (Foucault 205), power efficiently enforced by the conveyed threat of omniscience. No longer did the ruler need to exercise power continuously, as in the days of the plague where syndics constantly patrolled every cell and reported to intendants, who reported to magistrates. The observer in the Panopticon was the only person needed, the all-seeing eye. But is this really the epitome of the tyrant's reign, as it first may seem?

Counterintuitively, the Panopticon further automated power, stripping it from any one person. Since prisoners were not directly administered, they themselves became the bearers of their regulation. "A real subjection [was] born mechanically from a fictitious relation" (Foucault 202) between an individual and his supervisor. The latter need only establish codes of conduct, and the prisoner would be inclined to obey meekly because he feared that he was always being observed. Consequently, "any individual, taken almost at random, [could] operate the machine" (Foucault 202) because the structure itself became the ultimate enforcer. Even if the watchtower were completely abandoned, it would continue to function because the unknowing inmates would still regulate themselves. The tyrant became superfluous and his motives inconsequential, and the Panopticon became "in fact a figure of political technology that [could] be detached from any specific use" (Foucault 205) and applied to all. Panoptic structures may be found not only in prisons, but also in schools and factories, which all resemble each other both physically and in their methods of examining and categorizing individuals (Foucault 228).

In each of these cases, though, the effects of the Panopticon are localized in a relatively small area: school, prison, workplace. Could a panoptic structure span across all of society? Logistic problems notwithstanding, such an openly repressive regime, rigidly isolating each of its prisoners, would never last long because as William Godwin noted, "imperfect institutions...cannot long support themselves when they are generally disapproved of, and their efforts truly understood" (274).2 But perhaps most surprising, the Panopticon need not be a physical structure at all, nor enclose people in actual cages. Since the key to the Panopticon's effectiveness was the induced sense of permanent visibility, individuals who feel that they are being observed will regulate their behavior in accordance with "expectations," even if they are not physically bound behind bars. This self-regulation may even occur at the subconscious level. Codes of conduct, which are really panoptic structures, are euphemized as "laws" and "justice," and people will govern themselves subconsciously according to the specifics of the law because they "believe" in the abstract concept of Law. Louis Althusser elaborates:

The individual...participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which "depend" the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject....If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices "according to the correct principles." If he believes in Justice, he will submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign petitions, take part in demonstration.... (243)

People's subconscious "obedience" will ensure the very functioning of the system that ensnares them, regardless of whether any overseer even exists! Thus, a variant of the Panopticon could spread throughout society, its repressiveness concealed because of its subtle methods of enforcement. Foucault refers to this as the "swarming of disciplinary mechanisms:"

While, on the one hand, the disciplinary establishments increase, their mechanisms have a certain tendency to become "de-institutionalized," to emerge from the closed fortresses in which they once functioned and to circulate in a "free" state; the massive, compact disciplines are broken down into flexible methods of control, which may be transferred and adapted. (Foucault, Discipline 211)

The centralized locus of absolute authority has diffused across society, swarmed into the form of "norms"—social models of acceptable behavior. Institutions establish3 such norms, and they punish, convert, or ignore those who fall outside until there exists a majority with common values. This very homogeneity validates the authority of these agencies, and consequently reinforces the agencies themselves. The norms begin to seem natural, rather than the panoptic structures they really are. People start to regulate their behavior in conformity, and soon the norms are fully ingrained and adhered to, and seemingly innocuous—this is the birth and development of self-reinforcing, autonomous structures. Granted, this does not mean that no single individual can hold any power anymore. In his ability to rule over those around him, a power-crazed company CEO may be as much a tyrant as kings of the past. However, the difference is that no single person or even group of people can hope to rule over society at large in the modern era.

Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, details the growth of a norm that classifies sexuality and which originated during the Victorian era. What is called the "repressive hypothesis" claims that the frank and open sexuality of the seventeenth century was consciously repressed by the Victorian bourgeoisie in efforts to manipulate the common man. This sexual prudishness is supposedly still with us today, and the only way to free ourselves from its confines is to talk openly about our sexuality. However, Foucault argues that there was not actually any sexual silence during the Victorian era. Rather, there was an increase in the discourse on sexuality, only it was regulated to specific disciplines such as psychology. New norms developed and dichotomized sexuality into "normal" and "abnormal" behavior. In fact, a whole slew of medical terms was developed to classify sexual "deviancy:" zoophile, zooerast, auto-monosexualist, mixoscopophile, gynecomast, presbyophile, sexoesthetic invert, dyspareunist, and so on (Foucault, History 43). The importance of sexuality became exaggerated because of the increased discourse, elevating it from just a facet of personality to an all-important, definitive characteristic. Sexuality changed meaning and significance, mutated into a social construct. Thus, it became imperative to study it more—and thus, a self-reinforcing cycle of power and knowledge developed. Further, sexuality became a scientia sexualis—an object to be investigated scientifically and "objectively" (Foucault, History 58). This illusion of scientific objectivity solidified the norms that the investigation itself had introduced. Even the repressive hypothesis itself has become part of this self-reinforcing system because the more it is invoked, the more sexually repressed we will feel, and thus the greater the need we will have to invoke it; "the statement of oppression and the form of the sermon refer back to one another; they are mutually reinforcing" (Foucault, History 8). Thus, the iron confines of the Panopticon are actually malleable. These subtle panoptic structures are, in addition to sexual labels, mandatory drug tests in the workplace, neighborhood watch programs and, as Foucault describes, concerned schools delving into the lives of academic deviants and their families (Foucault, Discipline 211). Restrictions on "acceptable" behavior may seem so natural and so subtle that they don't appear confining, but they define society's morals and conduct by reinforcing these norms.

The act of judging others by the standard of the norm harbors consequences. For instance, the feeling of constant surveillance from a society dominated by images of heterosexuality can force gay people into an uncomfortable position. They either must be open about their sexuality and risk being stigmatized as "abnormal" and possibly inferior, their sexual preference characterized as a curious oddity at best (or as wicked, disgusting, and depraved at worst) while "normal" heterosexual behavior is accepted as the default. Otherwise, they can adhere to the norm by repressing their sexuality and suffer loneliness and, again, feelings of inferiority.

The whole situation seems frustrating. Not only are there problematic repercussions stemming from societal norms, but no single person is to blame. Obvious figureheads like belligerent rap artists are just straw men, and to lash out against them would no more remedy the problem than cutting the head off a weed would faze it. To rail against such figures, "to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss" (Foucault, History 7) is futile because the real perpetrators are lifeless power structures, who galumph around stupidly but not harmlessly. While at first glance we might feel hopeless, there is no cause to throw up our hands in defeat and cast our lot with chance. Granted, we must realize that traditional ideas of revolution against someone and accompanying reform are now rendered fruitless. As writer Robert Pirsig remarks,

To tear down a factory or revolt against a government...because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is on effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. (102)

Change is still possible, only its mode has transformed from open rebellion to education. For instance, a sexual revolution in favor of integrating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered lifestyles into the norm exists today, and it progresses not by hanging homophobes but by attacking the very core of the problem through changing common conceptions of "alternate" sexual preferences.4 We are empowered to take responsibility into our own hands instead of "ceding power to social definitions that we individually no longer control" (Minow 562).


1 In subsequent paragraphs, I will highlight some of the landmarks in the developing autonomy of power (without claiming to give a comprehensive timeline). Then, I will focus on sexuality as a case in point, detailing how "innocuous" sexual norms are actually constrictive, autonomous power structures, and how they create a dilemma of difference. Finally, I will show how this has changed the mode for effective methods of revolution and reform.

2 The Panopticon is a "black box," and while its prisoners would not be aware of its mechanisms, they be more than aware of their imprisonment, thereby "truly [understanding]" the building's "efforts," and hence might eventually lash out. The Panopticon would be forced to invest considerable energy to smother these uprisings, thus losing the very efficiency it gained from enforcing by threat alone.

3 Whether the norm's original establishment was intentional is superfluous. Since the system autonomously perpetuates itself, the norm will gradually dissociate itself from the control of its creators, though it may or may not still fulfill their goals.

4 While individuals by themselves rarely can create mainstream beliefs, they certainly can work to reform the beliefs and norms of society. Some "fetishists" actually may have aims quite contrary to the stereotypical conception of brutal sadomasochism, "as if shiny surfaces of leather and latex represented [fetishism] in its entirety" (Levine 4). Photographer Steve Goedde, for instance, creates his work to show that "unconventional forms of eroticism [have the power] to provoke, amuse and enlighten both practitioners and observers. By unintentionally burlesquing society's received ideas about pleasure, power and propriety, sexual non-conformists illuminate not only their own fantasy worlds, but also the hidden dimension of perversity beneath the smooth surface of so-called normal life. In doing so, they offer us the rare opportunity to reconsider what we find attractive, beautiful, enigmatic or repellent" (Levine 4), and therefore to transcend societal norms.

Works Cited:

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1986. 238-250.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage, 1977.

---. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1976.

Levine, I.S. Preface. The Beauty of Fetish, Volume 2. By Steve Goedde. New York: Stemmle, 2001.

Minow, Martha. "The Dilemma of Difference." Academic Discourse. Ed. Gail Stygall. Mason, OH: Thomson, 2002. 559-595.

Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Quill, 1999.

Formatted for deadlemming by thyme, because deadlemming is a filthy, lazy bastard.