Posts Tagged ‘Foucault’

This post is a culmination of thoughts I’ve been having for a reasonable period of time now – more or less since my first pregnancy over three years ago.  It is not an academic essay, and is based in my own personal reflection.  However, I will refer to theory and statistics to illustrate my point.

I often hear young, local women personalities, and even my close women friends, complaining about the “societal pressure” they feel to commit to having children one day.  This I find entirely baffling.  I never considered this to be a pressure put upon me at any point in my life, certainly not through public schooling, peer pressure, media exposure or even family.  Media images of lean, sexy, capable career women flooded my consciousness throughout my entire teenagehood.  I grew up thinking that that is simply what a woman is, and what a woman should be.  Motherhood was something that wasn’t even part of that picture – that comes later, right, when you’re like, 40?  When you no longer look hot and intimidating in a pencil skirt and designer blazer?  I understand that my experience is not necessarily connected to that of anyone else; but I witness my millenial social group acting in ways that certainly do not imply a sense of external pressure regarding having children.  Generally they are in no hurry to pin down a career path (and nor should they be), no hurry to save any money unless aiming to put down a house deposit or travel, no hurry to nab a rich banker and get married ASAP.  They spend money on brunch, clothing, theatre performances, concerts, makeup, and an ever-expanding array of ‘things’.  This existence is their entire world, which is to say that they usually have intellectual pursuits which they envision themselves contributing through one day, for their own career satisfaction; may be involved in a media project which involves their own voices contributing to larger issues (like blogs!); but, almost categorically, are not involved in service or community initiatives purely because selfless submission to societal benefit is a value that still exists among our generation.  So where is this perceived pressure coming from?  Parents?  Probably not at the age of 23 or 24.  I’ll reiterate that I don’t want to discredit this feeling without anyone identifying to me how exactly this pressure manifests. But I do consider it within my rights to develop a theory based on my own observation.

In my teenage years, I was not family-oriented in the slightest.  It certainly wasn’t cool in my rather ephemeral social group.  We were liberated, risk-taking young women who felt that the nuclear family was a prison that the religious girls were destined to be relegated to, while the rest of us would go on to enjoy the finer things in life, like salaries and complete self-absorption.  I engaged in a good deal of risky behaviour.  I believe I was outspoken at times about motherhood and children, and how injurious both were to the female identity and society in general. I did not have any siblings or a close extended family, and had never changed a baby in my life before I had my own at 21.

When I discussed my pregnancy with acquaintances and workmates, I quickly learned that when they had claimed they were ‘pro-choice’ in earlier conversations, they really meant they were ‘pro-abortion’.  In the sense that when confronted with an actual pregnant person of their own age who didn’t fit the pity-worthy state-house upbringing mold, they became angry and aggressive. This, I’ll add, was a problem exclusively encountered with women – men, even when younger than me, had nothing but support or indifference to dish out.  Young women would stare, be silent, snap at me. I found this very sinister to begin with and stopped discussing my pregnancy.  I was, many times, casually asked, “So, have you decided what to do yet?” even when I was several months into the pregnancy. “Yes. I’m carrying on with my pregnancy.” Obviously.

In 99% of cases in which I said this to another female millenial, it was as if I’d leaped into the Parliamentary Chamber and announced that I’d be tabling a bill to propose an annual neo-Nazi holiday.  Before any actual verbal responses, I’d witness facial expressions morph from incomprehension, to shock, to fear and suspicion.  I wasn’t supposed to say that, clearly.  I came across as a generally capable, university-enrolled white girl who was a little too like them for comfort. It simply did not compute that their stereotypical image of the young pregnant mother was not what was standing in front of them, and this apparently made them feel out of control and afraid. Then I would be met with some choice remarks, actual examples of which I’ll list:

“What method of contraception were you using?  Remind me to never use it.”

“Are you serious?  Why didn’t you have an abortion? I would!” (Loudly in public)

“You’re just going to be another statistic.”

When I look back on this attitude, it shocks me enough.  But I still hadn’t expected to encounter the amount of negativity I did, and do, as a millenial who is also a mother.  In my experience, it tends to be young, middle-class white females who like to talk about certain groups being “othered”.  Well, I’d like to share my experience of being “othered”.  I can’t count the times I’ve sat quietly at a social event while another person complains loudly about how children are all terrible and implied that all parents are self-centered autobots who only had children because of “societal pressure” and a penchant for eugenics.  I had an early childhood trainee (who is lovely, and meant no offense) ask me at kindergarten, “So did you always want to be a young mother, or did you have, like, aspirations?” The fact that I’m more highly qualified than she is wasn’t worth the awkwardness in bringing up. Multiple people have said to me “Oh, good for you!” with a patronising shoulder-pat when I tell them I’m studying.  I’ve seen more than one article circulating in my social media sphere in the last few weeks about how having children is the single most selfish and unethical thing you can do, because of – no joke – climate change.  How pregnancy is the ultimate cause behind both local and global poverty, as well as the subjugation of women, who apparently are unaware that their true liberation lies in hating children.  People discussing who the most annoying customers to deal with are, rolling their eyes and spitting, “mothers”.

This happens among acquaintances who are fully aware that my husband and I have a child, and another on the way.  There are only two possible explanations I can conceive (hah!) of for why they might say such hurtful and degrading things in our presence. Either, and this is more likely, they simply don’t remember this about us because they have an inherent bias, and are so absorbed in the yo-pro world that they don’t even know of the existence of the enormous world of hard-working and well-meaning parent culture.  Or, they tolerate us being parents but don’t expect to have to act considerately of the fact, rather like a group of inherently racist white people who suddenly gain a Chinese friend, and continue to make jokes about the Chinese because, hey, she’s not really one of them, she’s an exception.  I’m quite sure that the same people would scream blue murder if I rolled my eyes and hissed, “babykillers“.

This is the crux of my issue with the popularisation and bastardisation of critical theory.  I do not know why the mass indoctrination of our generation with critical theory has not been successful, in that it has not achieved the goals of ’70s and ’80s critical and feminist scholars who envisioned a kind of inclusive paradise founded on Foucauldian tenets.  One possibility is that, try as you might, you simply cannot teach certain people to be intuitively critical thinkers.  There seems to be a disparity among people on this front, in that while book-smarts are relatively commonplace, it is generally held that the ability to intellectually engage, and critically analyse, is rarer and worthy of more commendation, certainly academically.  Some scholars will study endlessly and still find that they cannot achieve the grades that this ability would afford them, at least without very carefully and mechanically imitating the process.  This could explain why we seem to have a vocal lobby, active particularly on social media, who hypocritically engage in dogma-setting, exclusion and silencing on the grounds of critical theory itself.  This is how millenial non-parents manage to propagate what amounts to hate speech while seemingly missing the irony.

I’m beginning to do a bit of lay-research around why this attitude exists, and what sectors of the generation it exists in.  It is pretty apparent among my acquaintances (very scientific, I know) that those who grew up in religious households, and are religious themselves, have quite a different attitude.  This makes sense, family values being popular in monotheistic belief systems.  I would like to put aside some time to do academic research on these attitudes among different kinds of youth, but my calendar is a bit full.  I suspect that the internet plays an enormous part in convincing those of a ‘vocal’ age that their attitudes are shared by what they perceive to be society at large, although of course it is actually a microcosm, an illusory ‘public’ created by the intersection or not of particular social networks online.  This conviction, following critical theory itself, may serve to reinforce and in fact strengthen the attitude concerned.  What is as clear as day to me is that those young  women I spoke to when pregnant, and the ones I speak to now who are flabbergasted to discover that I have a child, are experiencing a kind of fear in the face of that confronting information; perhaps the “societal pressure” they mention is in fact their own externalised fear and confusion about their identity as twenty-first century women.  I inconveniently present myself to them as a non-stereotypical, non-beneficiary, postgraduate student and mother under the age of 25.  Perhaps  the hostility is simply the projected fear that having children actually might be something worthwhile, and not entirely soul-destroying, and they haven’t factored it into their future in a  practical way.

What I remember of sex education in my school certainly sent a message to us; pregnancy was worse than contracting HIV.  It was the ultimate disgrace and would ruin our lives.  We would be dole-bludging, pram-pushing zombies forevermore.  It is so true that not having useful conversations about healthy relationships, how to court, and when and why families are appropriate is detrimental to our young people.  You only hear in which context pregnancy and child-rearing are not societally appropriate.  It’s my belief that this has had a not inconsiderable effect on millenial values, at least among the non-religious.  My husband went to a Catholic boys’ school, and while they didn’t discuss contraception, they had a mandatory “Tots and Toddlers” class, which involved learning the basics of hands-on childcare and the importance of the role of men in families.  My husband remembers the class thoroughly enjoying this practical and playful lesson; he puts it down to Marist philosophy being infused into absolutely every aspect of his schooling.  Sure, there were a few young fathers that came out of that (excellent) school, as there were from many schools in Wellington.  But I’d be willing to bet there were very few absentee fathers.  Not to mention, of course, the fact that the link between teaching contraception and reduced teen pregnancy is dubious at best, considering the fact that New Zealand, which has a very liberal sex education curriculum, lags only behind the US in teen fertility rates among OECD countries.  It is statistically evident that the root cause of teen pregnancy is poverty and inequality, not education, and incidentally, that teen pregnancy (or pregnancy at any age) is not a cause of poverty.  While those in lower socioeconomic tiers are more likely to have teen pregnancies, teen mothers are likely to have the same future prospects as anyone from their socioeconomic cohort, even similar future salaries.  Clearly, pregnancy is not the evil we have been led to believe. Yet, I still heard a close friend comment recently that someone she knew was lucky to have had an abortion as a teenager because otherwise “she would’ve been stuck in [name of a somewhat dead-end town I can’t recall]”.

Are we simply a generation of nihilists?  I certainly come across a good deal of nihilistic justifications for discriminating against parents.  They generally relate to climate change, child sex offenders, terrorism, and the general belief that the world and people in general are hideous and, by extension, that we’d all be better off dead.  Thus, it’s unethical and selfish to have children.  Surely I don’t need to go into the immaturity of such a position.

Then, of course, you also come across the narcissistic explanations; “Parents are out to make ME as miserable as they are, cleaning up poo and vomit, and thus are engaged in a conspiracy to make me and all my friends parents too”.  This one has some interesting parallels with the ‘gay conspiracy’ theory that don’t go unnoticed by parents.  Another common one is “Parents view ME as a threat to social stability because I refuse to conform to their expectations.  Well, I won’t have kids out of spite”.

Rest assured, parents as a group do not spend a great deal of time thinking about non-parents, as a group, except when we are being made to feel like someone’s about to put us on a register.  The oft-cited “offensive” encouragement to have children is not intended to be a dig at their lifestyle or freedoms, and is not evidence of a conspiracy.  I don’t think it crosses their minds that it’s simply advice from someone who was once in their position, is now in a different position, and would like to let them know that they’ve found it much better on the other side.  Strangely, it is not criminally offensive when a successful lawyer tells you you should take an internship, or commit your entire life to your career.  It’s not inherently offensive when someone recommends that you go on an O.E. because it’ll change your entire outlook.  People tend to call this “advice”.  It is generally said out of a genuine wish to influence the happiness of a friend, rather than to be a complete tosser.  Being a parent, I’m afraid it is simply the truth that you cannot have any idea of the happiness (and hard work, and mess, and character improvement) that children bring if you aren’t one.  No, being an early childhood teacher is not close enough.  Neither is having a lot of little cousins.  It isn’t easy to explain why you can’t explain it, however, which generally leads to this being dismissed as condescending drivel.

Parenting immediately brings you outside of yourself, and you suddenly start to care a great deal about things that you have never even noticed before in your life.  The condition of neighborhood green spaces, playgrounds, libraries and pools.  The massive variety of quality in horrendously expensive fruit and vegetables.  The messages that suggestive brothel shopfronts send to young people on the streets.  All of these things affect millions of kids, who you must assume have parents who care as much about them as you do about yours.  Things that you previously settled for having an entirely idealistic position on, such as climate change, now become much more practical issues.  What is the best and most workable solution in actuality, and does it involve necessary compromise?  How do we begin to teach our children the values that will prepare them for being responsible, productive and compassionate custodians of the planet?  Can we implement this in schools?

So forgive me if I have no patience for other millenials telling me that I’m selfish and wasteful for having children.  I was under the impression that raising a family is a human right; and in fact, there is some excellent literature written by women from developing countries which expresses their offense at being told they cannot continue to reproduce because a corporate funding body in America has decided that pregnancy is the cause of global inequality.  They know what it is that causes inequality, and it isn’t “overpopulation”.  Development programme financiers, in particular the IMF, have been living  in fear of this knowledge being popularised.  See this article by Azizah al-Hibri, an originally Lebanese woman academic, for more on this:  https://www.wcl.american.edu/hrbrief/v2i1/alhibr21.htm

Again we witness the irony of ‘popular’ critical theory; your conception of feminism must include transgender women, women of all races, etc., but should not include mothers.  It should also include ‘Third World’ women only so far as they accept pre-approved values, including the legitimisation of abortion and conraception; because apparently, despite agency being so important to millenial “critical theorists” themselves, these women just don’t know what’s good for them.  The reason mothers are excluded appears to simply be because the largely millenial authors of such theories are not able to see or imagine life outside of their prescribed prism of existence; they are completely blind to the parenting community, which causes them to have inherent biases.  They have no idea that millions of mothers, and a growing amount of fathers, talk online, meet up, share their experiences in support groups, and move the earth to create enjoyable experiences for their children, every day across the world.  They have no idea that parents work themselves to the bone being concerned with what kind of citizens their children will become, for the benefit of everyone else.

In the case of abortion, the same lobby argues that men don’t deserve a similar right to choose whether the pregnancy goes ahead, or a right to legislate abortions, on some grounds which can be argued very legitimately.  But there is also the argument that the man doesn’t carry the foetus in his body.  From the perspective of a parent, this position seems bizarre.  It isn’t a simple issue of bodily autonomy, as anyone who cares for a child will know; I can barely remember my pregnancy in the light of the fantastic time I’ve had with my son. Some people definitely do have horrendous pregnancies, and I wouldn’t dream of minimising that; but I doubt they would even consider that as part of day-to-day assessment of whether their child-rearing has been worth it or not. I hear people talking about how pregnancy is a ‘dangerous medical condition’ and absolutely unbearable for a variety of reasons.  Never mind that many who hold this opinion have never been pregnant.  This is simply the only point of reference they have for discussing abortion, as they have no experience of actually raising a child, pregnancy is something they understand the biology of and the image that looms in their head when they talk about “parenting”. They’ll also discuss the many flaws of “parents today” and how to raise a child properly, but, you know, they aren’t going to have any, but if they did…this attitude gets very tiring when the same lobby is trying to argue that nobody outside of a certain group (generally women, because that’s the group they most identify with) is allowed to have an opinion on how that group does things, because others have no idea what their experience is like.

In the end, I don’t pretend to have any answers about this, and this post can only be a simple exercise in self-expression; my peer group will probably not be affected in any way by it, and nor should they be forced to consider issues of parenthood when they aren’t ready.  However, I can’t pretend that an aggressive attitude towards parents doesn’t become tiresome when I’m just scrolling through my social media feed or minding my own business at a social event.  I would love to see some discussion from anyone who agrees or disagrees, or just wants to let me know they have experienced the same things.  I employed some references for my statistical statements:

New Zealand’s teen pregancy rate: UNICEF, Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries. Innocenti report card 7. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2007

Teen pregnancy and poverty: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/png/ajhb/2004/00000028/00000004/art00008  (to name one source, but you can find a myriad using databases.)


Please comment if you have shared my experience!






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An essay I wrote for my 300-level Contemporary Political Theory course. As always, discussion or critique appreciated. This essay considers the relevance of Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon (borrowed from Jeremy Bentham) in modern surveillance; in other words, is it true that we are all kept in line by a fear of surveillance? I received A+ for this essay. Please don’t copy my work, an anvil could fall on your head.

The Irrelevance of Foucault’s Panopticism in Contemporary Surveillance
Vanessa Bramwell
200.315 Short Essay, 21/08/14

Bentham’s Panopticon, as described by Foucault, is redundant in the era of digital surveillance. Foucault asserts in his work Discipline and Punishment that this model would infiltrate the social body entirely. While the model had extended into many public and private institutions at the time of Foucault’s writing, the adaptation of this concept in response to globalisation has changed it into a method of control that should be considered fundamentally different. There are three principle deviations of the current model from the Foucauldian; its scope, its intention to mislead about who, in fact, is watching us, and – most significantly – the lack of imposed isolation. While the central idea of using surveillance as a means to discipline has remained, the increasing globalisation of, and by, technology has rendered these adaptations necessary. While the first two deviations serve to illustrate the fact that the current model is not panoptic, the latter can be investigated as a potential threat to the entire ethos of surveillance as a means of discipline.
The first deviation to consider is the sheer scope of contemporary surveillance. Foucault quotes Bentham as describing the Panopticon as “applicable to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection” . It seems to be a lack of insight on the part of Foucault to not investigate this important criterion. In his zeal to apply the model as a tool of critical theory, Foucault writes, “The Panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body” (Foucault 1977, p.207). This is a fundamental contradiction in theory that has been borne out in reality. The panoptic schema necessarily requires a physical location to function. Because of the scale of societies, the Panopticon cannot be effective as an abstract tool of oppression in its true form. Borders and land area make it impossible for any individual to view all the participants of digital communication simultaneously. The technocrats who inherited the evolved form of this model have attempted to utilise mass surveillance in the form of algorithms, and thus have opened themselves to the fallibility of their own tools. An algorithm is a poor substitute for a pair of eyes, as it can be easily misled once those being watched are aware of its presence. This is the heart of the deviation; in the panoptic model, the subject is aware of the watcher, but cannot avoid being seen due to physical confinement. Another crucial point of fallibility is that, clearly, an algorithm cannot possess intuition and thus can only locate threats already accounted and programmed for; it is incapable of identifying innovation.
The second deviation of digital surveillance from the panoptic model regards the identity of the watcher, and the purpose of their surveillance. The panoptic model requires the subject to know that they are – or rather, could be at any time – watched by a public servant. As an incarcerated person, they understand that this power relationship is legitimate; not just as criminals, but also as patients, schoolchildren or any other identity which has traditionally been understood to be under the jurisdiction of the state. In the case of contemporary mass surveillance, it is less frequently state governments doing the watching than financial corporations. Corporations seek to create a fictitious bipolar power relationship, in which the only actors are governments and subjects. Anonymity is the tool that allows them to act with impunity. The most powerful digital corporations hide behind unimposing logos, such as the lower-case ‘f’ of Facebook; these networks are presented as a social commons, in which free speech and individualism are championed. Data is mined from users and sold to investors, who lobby state governments. Governments themselves become active on social media. The public is thereby convinced that the only actors are civil society and government, and that these networks are simply the new public sphere. It can generally be accepted that some digital surveillance will be carried out by governments on the grounds of pre-emptive security; but while we are aware that corporations may be surveiling us, we are less likely to accept this as legitimate, and are not expressly made aware of our discipline. In this way, surveillance is no longer a bipolar relationship between ruler and subject, as it once was, and is not carried out only for the purpose of civic order.
The third and most significant deviation is the lack of imposed isolation in digital communication. Indeed, the technocrats responsible for developing digital surveillance had this intention. In making personal profiles, users are able to have their individualism buffered by the all-encompassing, normalising web of social media sites, and as such will foster the norm of being a digital citizen. This is an ingenious modification of the panoptic model, because it absorbs the potential for reactionary movements. As Foucault writes, “Like surveillance and with it, normalisation becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the Classical Age” (Foucault 1977, p.184). Subjects have the illusion that they are simultaneously more individualised and more connected than ever before, in an Arendtian ‘social space’. However, self-surveillance, the ultimate result of Foucault’s panopticism, can only be assured when no outside influences can spread. If any dissent should manage to arise, it is able to spread rapidly across borders, space and timezones. The power of the norm of digital consumer culture may be transcended by the ease with which contrary ideas can spread. While it could be argued that the recent Arab Spring revolutions were covertly fostered by Western or simply corporate forces, through the media of social networking, the fact remains that the ideas and sentiments of people escalated rapidly through communication and had extreme consequences in terms of power relations. This potential should frighten technocrats. The Occupy movement utilised social media, the very invention of its enemies, and is perhaps only a shadow of future dissent. While we remain floodlit, we are no longer isolated, and this is the seminal difference between digital surveillance and the panoptic model that Foucault identified as an inevitability. Surveillance is not sufficient to pre-empt dissent in a globalised world; it is no longer effective as a means of discipline.
While Foucault applied Bentham’s vision of the Panopticon as a critical social theory, he overlooked the inapplicability of the model on a macro scale. He can be partially forgiven for this, as he cannot have predicted the advent of digital technology, or perhaps the extent of globalisation in the twenty-first century. Surveillance has, though, as he predicted, infiltrated every possible social realm. Its purpose is generally corporate, and as such we are blinded to the true identity and purpose of our watchers. While digital citizens have had agency removed from their individualism through social media, it is also possible for them to manipulate this technology to revolutionary ends if the ideas are able to spread faster than any repercussions. The Panopticon is no longer applicable as a model of surveillance, even in micro realms such as the office, where employees are now more likely to surveiled through computer activity than cameras; a metaphor for, rather than an extension of, actual vision. Even the legacy of this model is at risk, as a means of discipline, in the digital era.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. Alan
Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

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