Julian Castronovo, Palantir’s Picture of Michel Foucault, or How to “Discipline and Punish” Brooklyn Rail, May 2021
The new all-seeing overlords have read the theory. There is a bewildering photograph in a recent New York Times Magazine article on the controversial and secretive tech company Palantir. The scene is this: four figures appear at the center of an unnatural vignette, lit as if by some secret source of light. They are gathered around a table, their attention directed towards the screen of a laptop. Each is smartly and casually dressed, all have kicked oﬀ their shoes in favor of just socks. The leftmost, standing figure is Alex Karp, Palantir’s CEO. The others, seated at the table, are his employees. Behind and slightly above this group there is, hanging on the oﬃce wall, a large framed portrait of a man with wire-framed glasses and a face like a skull. The subject of this portrait, more or less instantly recognizable as he is pictured here—left hand resting beneath his outsize head, ambivalent gaze seemingly directed out at us—is Michel Foucault.
There is an astonishing dissonance to such a choice in corporate wall art. Karp, who has built a company that by its own description enables “more eﬀective surveillance by the state of its adversaries” has hung up, ostensibly as a source of workplace inspiration, the face of the theorist who warned that visibility is a trap, that generalized surveillance is a mode of power that works not upon bodies but, as a political tactic, upon souls. Why would a privatized operation of seeing, created in order to “target terrorists and to keep soldiers safe” display, as if it were a motivational poster, this enduring (if somewhat equivocal) symbol of resistance to such forms of power?