Disciplinary Libraries: at the Centre of My Panoptic Existence

April 18, 2012

In Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault provides a historic account of the prison and the general principles of disciplinary society. Whilst reading, my sense of free will is slowly decapitated and my mind is left hanging with his closing rhetoric question ‘is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’ (p. 228). I cannot escape the feeling that Foucault deliberately paints a wary picture of society as a more general and less intense version of the penitentiary. The question springs to mind; is there a somewhat contrived (yet perhaps not entirely irrelevant) comparison of the prison to a public library?

The walls of Bentham’s Panoptic prison form the punishment as the ‘cell confronts the convict with himself’ ( p. 239) and provides the ideal condition for observing and altering of human behavior. This is a seductive proposition for an architect’s study of affect and effect, but it seize to be as the elegant diagram of the Panopticon soon explodes into society in the general principle of panoptic-ism.

As disciplinary institutions are dispersed throughout society to assure the order of human multiplicities the panoptic agenda begin to portray modern civilisation as a guileful penitentiary without escape or date for release. Although the prison differs from other civic institution in that it assumes responsibility for all aspects of an individual, it is clear that each institution form a central watchtower that plays an instrumental role in tuning the collective mass. Thus, we coexist in a disciplinary society of what Foucault describes as ‘enclosed disciplines, a sort of social quarantine to generalized mechanism of panopticism’ (p. 216). This presumption renders us inmates of a socio-political civilization, tuned for the best individual use… as if orchestrated into equilibrium for an efficient multiplicity… but who is the conductor of our collective tune?

Is it a wrongful accusation to assume that with its own set of disciplinary mechanisms of power the public library serves the same panoptic agenda? The public library is a meeting place for people and ideas, and arguably a strong force in the reform of society. It is a common public space and a mainstay for an egalitarian society that ensures everyone the individual and equal opportunity to develop knowledge, personal and civic skills. How could the library possibly negate the fine lines of freedom of speech, press and consumption of information as somebody decides on the contents of its collection and reviews lists of borrowed items?

Conceiving the library as a panoptic machine for the discipline of the public mind is indeed a formidable thought. I still whish to think of myself as the watchdog in the observation tower at the centre of the cells that compose my existence.

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