Growing up in the year 2015 in the United States has changed dramatically compared to only 15 years prior. For instance, the internet is much more prevalent and frequent in today’s American society. Pharmacies, medical facilities, and various offices have all integrated digital technology into their practices. In some ways, this new integration has been helpful and effective for such a fast-paced society. However, in many other ways, there have been negative outcomes. Since the early industrial era, modern life has been concerned about the consequences. But now, as a postmodern society, it is even more so. An emphasis has been placed on quantity over quality, which has permeated the fabrics of contemporary culture. Likewise, there is a strict notion of categories, of either-or and no in-betweens, whereas people are diverse and vary over a range that is not in neat boxes. Michel Foucault’s Panopticon, Judith Butler’s gender performativity, and Herbert Marcuse’s dialectical thinking are three concepts that can be used to analyze contemporary society in urban neighborhoods, educational settings, and lifestyles.
Panopticism, as defined by Foucault, can be applied to urban neighborhoods dominated by minorities. The Panopticon is an architectural design that controls prisoners by controlling their space. The prisoners arranged in such a design are kept under watch by the central tower but cannot see who is watching them. Foucault indicates that this panoptic design can be used for any population within society, such as prisoners, schoolchildren, and hospital patients. It seems that in contemporary society, entire neighborhoods are under surveillance, specifically the ones that have a high percentage of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities living there.
In my neighborhood in particular, police officers do not dress in uniform attire; they wear casual clothes for the purpose of being undercover. They hide behind gates, inside cars, and are stationed in locations where they cannot be seen but can spring out and write a ticket just in time. I’ve heard several firsthand accounts of teenagers doubling up at a subway turnstile. The teenagers claimed they didn’t see any police officers, but right when they thought they’d successfully passed through the turnstile without anyone noticing, a pair of police officers appear and hand out $100 fines to each of them.
Foucault’s concept of panopticism is also relevant to the way U.S. government agencies operate. Alongside the surveillance through security cameras, tapping phones and social media accounts, and so forth, there would be data collection and record files of the population. An example of this would be the NSA, which stands for National Security Agency, a U.S. government intelligence agency that has been cyber-spying and tracking not only the American population but populations across the globe. Part of this is that the population knows the NSA exists, but there’s a veil that allows the NSA to see everyone without being transparent themselves. In this way, the NSA’s activities are kept secret, and despite various whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, no one really knows exactly what is going on. People only speculate among themselves. For instance, my father, whose native language is Arabic, used to speak to his brothers over the phone about politics and the news they heard about the Middle East. However, after the NSA’s spying was confirmed, my father was very careful with what he said, how he said it, and the ratio of Arabic to English words, in case there was a misinterpretation. In addition, he would be very upset if someone posted a photo of him on any website. Nor would he allow anyone to record his voice. He constantly reminds me to be careful with what I say on the internet because anything can be deemed suspicious and used against me, even if I didn’t mean it that way.
Likewise, an extension to the “random” backpack check would be Stop and Frisk as a policy that infringes on privacy rights and can be argued are unconstitutional. Black and Latino males are stopped on the street at a much higher rate than whites, and most are innocent to begin with. Though in this case, there isn’t such a direct control of space, that’s the point; that power is manifested in disguised ways that no one would expect. In a more abstract sense, urban neighborhoods tend to be geographically segregated by race and class. Stop and Frisk based on racial profiling is a form of forced intrusive surveillance of entire communities. Living with the “you could be next” feeling is torment, and it’s enough for people to live in fear as a result of being criminalized. I can imagine that after so many incidents of police violence towards black males, many families are now extra careful with where their male teenagers go, in fear that the same thing would happen to their own son, husband, or brother.
A second example of the U.S. government demonstrating Foucault’s idea of Panopticon would be how the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) operates. The DHS has a program called ICE which stands for Immigration Custom Enforcement. ICE had collaborated with Department of Corrections and New York Police Department so that the information these three departments have of people collected of people living in NYC will be circulated and shared. Undocumented immigrants are now at even greater risk for deportation. When deportations occur, families are torn apart and there is constant fear of “who will be next”. Many immigrants avoid authority for this reason, but now even more so is the increased fear that any violation, even a misdemeanor, will enter a person into the collaboration system and can be easily set up for deportation. Similarly, the detention centers in which undocumented immigrants are forced to stay, are given shackles to wear on their ankles that contain GPS to track where the person goes. Detention centers are not prisons by law, but operate in a very similar manner, and further exemplify the panopticon.
Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity can be used to analyze my experience at the daycare where I’ve worked the past few summers. This daycare is a Jewish home-based daycare for children ages one to three and is mixed male and female. According to Jewish tradition, male children get their first haircut at age three, while female children may have short curly hair. Children under the age of three tend to have an androgynous physical appearance, and depending on how their parents dress them, they may also have gender neutral clothing styles.
I also noticed that at this age, children tend to be much more fluid in their behavior, and over time, as they are taught what girls and boys ‘should’ be like, their understanding of their gender solidifies into a rigid role. For instance, one day at the daycare, the head counselor was teaching about the barber shop and the beauty parlor. She specifically set separate activities for boys to learn about the barber and for girls to put on nail polish and make necklaces as a way to learn about the beauty parlor. There was one boy who didn’t want to stick to his activity and wandered off to where the girls were putting on nail polish. He asked me if I could put orange nail polish on his fingers and I agreed, to which the head counselor got upset and feared how the parents may react.
A separate incident was when this one boy with a petit posture and whose hair was tied into a ponytail, would come into the daycare each day dressed in skinny jeans. In addition, he would bring his favorite toy from home-a colorful caterpillar with him, wherever he went and would not fall asleep at naptime without it. There were day care assistants who at the time would joke among themselves, saying things such as “Woah, he is so gay!” and “don’t his parents know how girly he is?” The daycare assistants would also try to hide his caterpillar and bring him cars and trucks to play with instead. They would also torment this young child about the way he speaks, telling him he sounds “too girly” and that’s not how boys should speak. Upon talking and playing with this boy, I learned that he does, in fact, enjoy playing with cars from time to time. But he also enjoys playing with Fisher-Price’s Little People dolls and listening to stories. These daycare assistants have not only confused the difference between sexuality and gender but also made a massive assumption that the gender binary of females being feminine and males being masculine is both natural and proper and anyone who doesn’t fit into that is wrong who needs to be corrected.
Using what Butler’s essay, gender expression is distinguished from gender performativity, to explain that gender is not an essence but rather it is socially situated. She says that gender is performative in the sense that gender is a series of repetitive acts. Gender is also not fixed nor stable, but fluid and changes in context. The day care assistants’ response to this child was not only wrong because “gay” isn’t a gender to begin with but they were also highly judgemental and lacked compassion, wisdom and respect. They had based their response and reactions an assumption that promotes heteronormativity.
The phrase that the daycare assistants had said is not the first time I’ve heard people calling each other “gay” and derogatory words associated with being gay such as “faggot”. I’ve seen this among boys playing sports, when I would play basketball in high school. Usually, a bunch of boys would complain about having girls on their team, as well as single out a boy and tell him he is “gay, ‘playing like a girl’, ‘throwing like a girl’. Furthermore, a group of boys would tend to single a boy in the group for being ‘too sensitive’ or somehow displaying ‘girliness’. Teenagers especially tend to feel the need to assert themselves as manly through sports, and that relates back to how gender is performative because boys have to keep up with showing how manly they are among their peers.
Herbert Marcuse’s concept of negative thinking and the importance of it, can be used to analyze the American public school system in contemporary culture. There is an increasing emphasis placed on standardized tests as a way to measure students’ progress, and that will influence how much funding their school receives. In other words, a school is either rewarded or punished based on students’ numerical test scores. A parallel trend are the budget cuts in the arts, including music, dance, lab science, physical education, and extracurricular activities. In addition, schools have decreased recess time in elementary and middle schools so that some schools have as little as ten minutes for recess and lunch combined. Even those schools that kept their non-academic subjects, have reduced the curriculum to teacher-directed activities and a desired learning outcome, because, simply put, there’s no time nor money dedicated to playful experimenting. Back at the daycare where I’ve worked, I remember the head counselor preparing arts and crafts activities that consisted of eighteen children sitting around a table, each one getting a white sheet of construction paper with red paint and pre cut blue rectangle. Then she would proceed to micromanage each piece so that every child could go home and show their parents that they made an American flag at their day camp. The purpose of the activity was to have a tangible product rather than a learning process.
Looking back at my own school experiences, most of my arts and crafts activities were done in a similar manner. Rarely did I and other students may relate, had time and space dedicated for creative or critical thinking. So often in high school, my teachers would apologize for having to interrupt the lively class discussion because we were off schedule in preparation for the NY state regents exams. School is a great space for learning and engaging in dialectical thinking, but paradoxically, many students’, teachers’ and parents’ experience with school is that it is a place for rigid structure, lack of autonomy which in turn kills passion, tireless stress and dumbed down learning. The textbook demonstrates this, because I found out that textbooks are not primary source, nor secondary source but a ternary source, and that in itself is problematic because students are so distant from reading and analyzing text.
After school, children may spend their time in a variety of ways, including schoolwork, after-school programs, or finding something to do at home-many of whom end up spending lots of hours in front of a screen. In contemporary culture, people are hyper-busy, yet at the same time live passive lifestyles, feeling unfulfilled, disengaged, and alienated without doing much thinking.
The spaces that promote negative thinking are also the spaces that foster imagination. The fantasy genre, in particular, allows the reader to criticize society while also inspiring and empowering the reader to effect change. Spaces where imagination flourishes tend to provide a better understanding of ambiguity and contradictions than rigid categories. Finally, bringing back the value of imagination offers the possibility to overcome intense control and for communities to come together rather than struggle in isolation.
Note on Dialectics by Herbert Marcuse
Panopticism (From Discipline and Punish) by Michel Foucault
Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and
Feminist Theory by Judith Butler