How far does “the man’s” hand stretch?

Foucault’s interpretation of the panopticon is very interesting to me, through the lens of the prison itself and what it means for society outside of that institution. The idea is that in a panopticon, prisoners cannot see anyone else but they can always be seen, and they do not know when they are being seen either. Thus, they will always have good behavior to stay out of trouble. Foucault theorizes that life outside of the panopticon functions similarly, that society is organized to monitor people at all times. This way, people are motivated to do what is good by society’s standards in order not to be punished. This social control is achieved through other institutions like schools, in which children are taught the rules and constantly watched to make sure they are followed.

Further, Foucault argued that because society wants everyone to be under control, people are encouraged to stay within at least one institution. This means that you are encouraged to go to school, have a job, or belong to some social organization. This way, everyone is being monitored in some way and everyone is held accountable to society’s rules. I find this to be interesting because it highlights why some life paths are looked down upon by society. For instance, students who take a gap year between high school and college to travel are looked down upon. From Foucault’s point of view, this is because they are not attached to a social institution to make sure they are conforming to the rules. Stay at home parents can also be judged, as they are not held accountable by anyone who is above them. In my own life, I have felt this judgement about some of my goals. I am considering joining the Peace Corps, and while there are many reasons society devalues that job, I can see how it is not valued because it is so off the grid. While PC volunteers are technically working for the organization and must follow many rules, they also have quite a lot of freedom, as they are in a remote place and are not regularly supervised. Additionally, I have always talked about hiking the entire Appalachian Trail someday. When I tell people that, they do not seem to understand why. “Why would you want to be out in the woods for three months?,” “How could you just leave your life to do that?” they ask. This is probably seen as a ridiculous dream because it takes you out of society to be free from regulation for your months on the trail, and it is very difficult for society to enforce its rules in that setting.

These life paths make people uncomfortable because we are so used to having to follow the rules all the time. Some people probably like that structure, knowing what is expected of them and what is the punishment. I, personally, am always afraid of breaking the law and getting in trouble, as I’m sure many people are, because you never know who will be watching. However, as we realize that rules are social, and try to understand the purpose of those that we have, perhaps we could understand that there is quite a blurry line between right and wrong, and where that line falls is determined by those in power. That’s part of the reason why I want to follow these “crazy” endeavors, so that I can gain some perspective on what it is like to be just a little bit outside of the hand of “the man.”


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