Foucault News

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

Brady, D.
The circulatory panopticon: Real names, rail infrastructure and Foucault’s realist turn
(2021) Political Geography, 90, art. no. 102463

DOI: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102463

This article examines the contemporary Chinese rail system as a circulatory panopticon: an apparatus that uses the “natural” movements of the population to render them legible and safe. The panoptic effect of rail space has emerged only recently. The Chinese state’s introduction of the “real-name system” has made a state-legible identity an inextricable part of everyday life, and recent transformations in ticketing and station entry have placed it at the center of mobility practices as well. Synthesizing Foucault’s apparatus of security with Karen Barad’s realist conception of the apparatus, this article examines how the more-than-human elements of the rail system realize a panoptic assemblage out of the movements of passengers. Based on participant observation and interview data, this article examines three key elements of the rail system: the national identity card, the ticket, and the station entrance. Drawing on Barad’s account of diffraction, I analyze how the particular material characteristics of these things both function to realize the circulatory panopticon and also to introduce novel discontinuities and fractures. This paper makes two contributions. First, it argues for a greater attention to the question of reality in Foucault’s thinking: just as the art of government increasingly recognizes and calibrates itself against ‘reality,’ Foucault’s analysis of governmentality becomes increasingly realist. Second, it shows how infrastructure is simultaneously a font of state power and a source of problems for the state—a contradiction deeply relevant in China today. © 2021 Elsevier Ltd

Author Keywords
China; Citizenship; Infrastructure; Mobility; Panopticon

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