Every breath you take

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched when you’re studying in the library?  

This is a question I’ve been asking a number of students lately as part of my research study- which has resulted in some interesting points for consideration.  It’s a question that often needs a bit of unpacking, because what I really mean when I ask this question is whether they experience Foucauldian concepts of surveillance as a result of the power structures related to the library and university, as a whole, including the formation of docile bodies with regard to hierarchies of social control and disciplinary powers.

Yes.  Him again. 


Image by Juan Nahuel Novelletto

If we start by looking at Foucault’s Discipline and punish: the birth of the prisonwe begin to understand how the education system is entwined with power and how it relates to the development of ‘docile bodies,’ surveillance, and  the ascent of social discipline by imagining how universities, considered disciplinary powers, have become political sources of compliance and utility, ‘making’ individuals through procedures of hierarchical observation, normalising judgement, and examination (Deacon, 2002, p.448).  In addition, the organisation of physical space and prescriptive control of time, as demonstrated through activities including supervision appointments and 24/7 access to libraries, further substantiate the power of universities to shape behaviour over a number of parameters and create docile bodies (Deacon, 2006, p.122; Foucault, 1991; Marshall, 1990, p.15).

The Foucauldian concept of docile bodies refers to the notion that the body is an object of target and power, which can be manipulated, shaped, and trained so that it obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces through disciplinary powers, such as the university (Foucault, 1991, p.136).  The constraining nature of a system producing a kind of Man-Machine will likely develop resistance over time (Foucault, 1991).  Therefore, in an attempt to reduce the risk of facing resistance from individuals seeking to challenge the perceived and/or real constraints imposed on them by disciplinary powers, universities assert a kind of control on bodies that produces not only an individual, but individuality consisting of an amalgam of qualities that render an individual distinct from others (Hoffman, 2014, p.27).  

Foucault proposed four individuality characteristics, including: cellular, organic, genetic, and combinatory in Discipline and punish.  If we think of cellular individuality as the spatial distribution and its influence on discipline, we can understand how the university library space provides an example of this characteristic.  Libraries, especially those only accessible to students at the university, and often requiring forms of keys or passes to enter into, are at once architectural, functional, and hierarchical (Foucault, 1991, p. 148).  These spaces separate those who are ‘allowed’ to learn from those who are not.  Quite often, within these spaces, students are further separated hierarchically where physical spaces accessible to post-graduates or academics only exist.  

Libraries are also spaces in which the coding and control of activities related to organic individuality are expressed.  Although the use of timetables is not particularly prevalent in library settings, students often demonstrate a sort of anatomo-chronological schema of behaviour whilst using the library space (Foucault, 1991, p.152).  There are certain activities and behaviours deemed appropriate to engage in within library spaces, including acts of whispering, gestures associated with thinking, reading, or analysis, and bodily postures related to how students sit on furniture and spread materials out across desks and table space.  On a larger scale, the activity of studying in the library is occurring within an overarching timetable students establish as part of how they spend their time during academic terms.  

It is the accumulation of time as a student that best describes how genetic individuality is materialised.  The disciplinary time spent within university that is gradually imposed on students through pedagogical practice whereby specialised time spent on training and learning is detached from personal or social time (Foucault, 1991, p.159).  It is in this time, where mastery is achieved, that stages are separated by examinations and exercises of increased difficulty, and progress is determined through the achievement of repetitive, routine, and graduated practices.  Within the context of my study, the library provides a space in which students spend portions of their accumulated time at university preparing for examinations and creating work that will contribute to demonstrating their mastery of a subject.  

Finally, through combinatory individuality, the student is constructed into a machine whose effect will be maximised  by the concerted articulation of the elementary parts (his/her gained skills, abilities, and knowledge) of which it is composed (Foucault, 1991, p.164).  Within library spaces, students have the opportunity to combine all characteristic elements of individuality, often manifested through institutionalised systems of internalised policing, and apply them in future environments and situations (Nikolaeva, 2013).  

In addition to the four characteristics of individuality, the Foucauldian concept of surveillance is important with regard to discussing how power and control are exerted on students within university library settings.  It is through surveillance that we see how students are induced in a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of university power within library environments.  If we consider Foucault’s account of Bentham’s panopticon, architecturally described as::

an annular building at the periphery, with a tower in the center, pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other.  All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in the central tower and to shut up in each cell a…schoolboy.  The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognise immediately. (Foucault, 1991, p.200-201)

Bentham’s plan of the Panopticon, 1843, public domain image

we see how the library serves as a kind of Panopticon in which, depending on the space and availability of seating, students, especially those at elite universities, become acutely aware of their visibility to others, and therefore begin to exercise behaviours of self-restriction and confinement, such as surrounding themselves with numerous books and notes or never be seen viewing material on their personal devices or laptops that could be considered non-academic or distracting to study.  

Due to the assumption that all persons entering the space will likely be affiliated with the institution, whether as fellow students, academics, or stakeholders, and therefore considered symbolic representations of the university’s reputation, image, and expectations (‘supervisors’ in the central tower), students studying within the elite university library continually experience the invisible function of power through perceived observation.  These perceptions of surveillance therefore serve as a means of normalising what behaviour is deemed acceptable within the library, as they are centred around the concept of an inspecting gaze, a gaze which ‘each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, thus exercising surveillance over, and against, himself’ (Foucault, 1980, p.155). 

So when I think about how students feel like they are being watched in the library- and almost all of them, so far, have confirmed that they do, I also think about how the library and institution itself play a large role in perpetuating these feelings.  However, I don’t consider the influence to be a negative one- especially when that power helps drive student participation and engagement with their course of study.  Then again, maybe I’ve gone mad with power, sitting alone in a central watch tower, seen by all, and yet, seen by none.

Bentham, J. (1843) Plan of the Panopticon. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon.jpg (Accessed 6 April 2016).
Deacon, R. (2002) ‘Truth, power, and pedagogy: Michel Foucault on the rise of the disciplines’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 34(4), pp. 435-458.
Deacon, R. (2006) ‘From confinement to attachment: Michel Foucault on the rise of the school’, The European Legacy, 11(2), pp.121-138.
doi: 10.1080/10848770600587896.
Foucault, M. (1980) Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, edited by Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester Press.
Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. London: Penguin.
Hoffman, M. (2014) Foucault and power: the influence of political engagement on theories of power. London: Bloomsbury.
Marshall, J.D. (1990) ‘Foucault and educational research’ in Ball, S.J. (ed.) Foucault and education: discipline and knowledge. London: Routledge, pp. 11-28.
Nikolaeva, N. (2013) Foucault: docile bodies. Available at: https://prezi.com/kcgpmuzmlyo-/foucault-docile-bodies/ (Accessed 14 April 2016).
Novelletto, J.N. (2009) Foucault. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/juanonymous/3410962676 (Accessed 15 April 2016).



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