Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Why filming police violence has done nothing to stop it
Ethan Zuckerman, MIT Technology Review
June 3, 2020

After years of police body cams and bystander cellphone video, it’s clear that evidentiary images on their own don’t bring about change. What’s missing is power.

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers was captured on video, not once but half a dozen times.


Much of what we think about surveillance comes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault examined the ideas of the English reformer Jeremy Bentham, who proposed a prison—the panopticon or Inspection-House—in which every cell was observable from a central watchtower. The possibility that someone might be watching, Bentham believed, would be enough to prevent bad behavior by prisoners. Foucault observed that this knowledge of being watched forces us to police ourselves; our act of disciplining ourselves as if we were always under observation, more than the threat of corporal punishment, is the primary mechanism of “political technology” and power in modern society.

It turns out that images matter, but so does power. Bentham’s panopticon works because the warden of the prison has the power to punish you if he witnesses your misbehavior. But Bentham’s other hope for the panopticon—that the behavior of the warden would be transparent and evaluated by all who saw him—has never come to pass. Over 10 years, from 2005 to 2014, only 48 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for use of lethal force, though more than 1,000 people a year are killed by police in the United States.

3 thoughts on “Why filming police violence has done nothing to stop it (2020)

  1. dmf says:

    yes we must end the myth of knowledge=power


    1. Clare O'Farrell says:

      Thanks dmf, Foucault’s analysis is far more complex than the equation surveillance exercises control of itself. Instead it needs complex techniques to make surveillance work as a technique of power. Perhaps what we are seeing here is a return to notions of the spectacle of power being exercised as a deterrent.


      1. dmf says:

        indeed, sometimes complex more often hierarchies of relatively simple techniques (as we see with policing, psychiatry, business-mngt) but certainly calls for analysis of actual practices and not just of formalized justifications/ideologies, yes deterrence by actually setting applied/structural limits (credit limits/scoring, hostile architectures,social mediated platforms like this one, etc) and also (as we see in China and all) by sowing uncertainty/ambiguity combined with brutality.


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