Monday, July 24, 2006


A recent pair of posts by Dana Polan and Mark Andrejevic on FLOW touch on an issue of supreme importance to scholars of the media. Polan's article in Flow 4(7) dealt with an episode of The West Wing that featured a shot of Foucault's 'Society Must Be Defended'. Polan riffed on this a bit, describing how this kind of name-drop tv works to appeal to a creative class. But Polan reserves his best point for the end, when he addresses the situation of the media theorist attempting to incorporate Foucault in descriptions of how the media operate. Says Polan, "one fundamental problem is that Discipline and Punish is about citizens being looked at while television is about them looking: how to get from one to the other?" This strikes me as exactly right. The point is not that Foucault is worthless to the media theorist. The point is that application of Foucault's ideas to media theory is probably best done through use of a theoretical pirouette, whereby we move from 'being looked at' to 'looking'.

Polan makes his point artfully. But I don't think he's the first to make that point. John B. Thompson's "The Media and Modernity" makes a similar--if less Foucault-friendly--point. Thompson opines that
"If Foucault had considered the role of communication media more carefully, he might have seen that they establish a relation between power and visibility which is quite different from that implict in the model of the Panopticon...[T]hanks to the media, it is primarily those who exercise power, rather than those over whome power is exercised, who are subjected to a certain kind of visibility."

I think the word 'primarily' is debatable here, but the general point is most consistent with Polan's musings. We watch tv, read, the paper, surf around on the Web, and we see stuff. Since the advent of print (if not before), culture has operated very much through this kind of visibility (broadly defined), which differs in some important ways from Panopticism.

The thing is, this understanding of the limits of the direct applicability of Panopticism to media processes often takes the act of consuming the media as a one-way flow. Along comes Mark Andrejevic in FLOW 4(8), who reminds us that commercial surveillance is and has been a major part of the mass communication. Andrejevic voices his argument as a rejection of some tendencies in cultural studies. As he puts it,
"Cultural studies of TV have spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about the messages: the programmers and advertising with which broadcasters saturate the airwaves. They have spent much less time on what remains of central concern to media producers: the flow of information in the opposite direction."

Of course, this touches on the kind of audience surveillance that was the topic of my previous post regarding TiVo. Andrejevic tells us that commercial broadcasting involves a "two-way flow", as we viewers emit information about our own viewing habits. He describes the Portable People Meter that Arbitron has developed for measuring audiences with a truly impressive level of detail. Basic point here: If you didn't think Panopticism was relevant to media studies, these Portable People Meters will convince you that it is. Think we're not being disciplined through our own oft-unnoticed visibility? Well, you're kind of wrong.

The thing is, I still walk away unsatisfied. I think it makes sense to apply the idea of Panopticism to the increasingly involved process whereby audiences are monitored and measured. But the Thompson/Polan dissatisfaction with this--the fact that visibility operates in ways that Foucault didn't quite get, and that the media are a big part of this--seems entirely right. Media visibility plays a crucial--and still under-theorized--role in contemporary culture. It is through being watched that power can become legitimated, naturalized. And I'd sure like to hear more about this part of the equation.