Thursday, June 17, 2010

From Discipline Blockade to Panopticon: Foucault and Good Night Gorilla

Peggy Rathmann's Good Night Gorilla is a parable in which zoo animals, led by a plucky gorilla named Gorilla, stage a bloodless revolt against their guard, Joe the zookeeper.  As Gorilla, having stolen the zookeeper's keys, liberates each animal from its cell, it becomes clear that this story has little to do with zoo animals, but rather examines ways in which power and discipline are woven into even the earliest stages of human life.

As Joe, the hapless zookeeper, makes his rounds and says goodnight to all the animals, Gorilla stays close on his heels, releasing all his comrades.  But it's not massacre they have on their minds (despite what Lion's chop-licking gaze at Joe's tender flesh might suggest) or even a chance to live in the wild.  These animals simply want to upgrade their accommodations and sleep in the zookeeper's bedroom with him and his wife.  In this way, the animals are very like human children who challenge the norms established by their parents and society, but whose rebellion is only in pursuit of innocuous ends.

And yet these animals live their lives behind bars.  As far as we know they have committed no criminal act.  The bars are only meant to prevent them from acting on their instincts to run away or to commit violence: their "criminal psychology," if you will.  

Aspects of Michele Foucault's theory of power-knowledge help shed light on the seeming paradoxes of Good Night Gorilla, simply by asking us to theorize power not as a negative, obstructionist force, but rather as one productive of knowledge.  Power is not necessarily hierarchical; it operates differently depending on the situation and the individuals who interact within that situation.  Thus, the animals do not necessarily want to rise up against their keepers as we have become used to assuming, but only tentatively challenge some elements of the power structure.  In addition, Foucault's theory of the role discipline and punishment plays in power relations provides a framework for understanding the remarkably positive outcome of the zoo animals' incarceration.  

Foucault posits that one of the underpinnings of modern Western culture is the "carceral society," in which the technologies of punishment (and of incarceration, more specifically) extend to society at large.  He refers to incarceration itself as the discipline blockade, and posits that of the technologies that originate within this blockade and radiate into public life,  constant surveillance is the most powerful deterrent to violating societal norms.  He uses the image of the Panopticon--Jeremy Bentham's design for the ultimate prison, in which cells are arranged around a central guard station that has visual access to every inmate at all times--as a metaphor for how institutionalized power controls society through surveillance, or even just the threat of it. 

The zoo in Good Night Gorilla is both a discipline blockade and a literal iteration of the Panopticon, as all of the animals are simultaneously caged and exposed to the gaze of the authorities and the visitors.  And thanks to the subversive Gorilla, the inmates are able to escape the discipline blockade.  So why don't the animals maul the zookeeper and flee for the forest?  It is both because of the figurative Panopticon, whose presence they have come to accept as ubiquitous and inescapable, and due to their comfort within the power structure.  They have no ill will toward Joe--in fact, they long only to be closer to him by sleeping in and around his bed.

And what of the incorrigible Gorilla, who, with his tiny accomplice the mouse (who travels freely between the zoo and society, and yet is an outsider in both places) repeats his crime even after the zookeeper has returned all the animals to their cages following the first escape attempt?  Foucault posits that recidivism does not indicate a failure of the penal system, but rather allows for the construction of a "criminal psychology" which supports the need for constant surveillance.  Had Gorilla stayed in his cage after the first incident, there would appear to be no need for the technologies of his incarceration extending beyond the walls of the zoo.

Similarly, a child who is becoming more independent may experience a gradual dissolution of the discipline blockade (switching from a crib to a bed, for example), but will always feel the effects of panopticism, whether in the form of parental scrutiny, electronic monitors, school, work, marriage, or virtually any other institution he or she interacts with.  And the child's recidivism, even if the crime is nothing more than trying to climb in bed with his or her parents, only proves that surveillance is necessary, since a child's instincts for mayhem, like an animal's, constitute a criminal psychology that must be tempered with discipline.    

Discipline Blockade



  1. Sarah Blair would heartily approve.

  2. Ah, yes. This was one of Riley's favorites, I think because she too, compared Rathman's panopticism to her own existence. At least, that's what she said to me at the time.

    I urge you to read Rathman's other tour de force, a gothic odyssey addressing issues of both abandonment and civil disobedience, entitled "The Day The Babies Crawled Away."

  3. For my daughter I have to ask, what does the omnipresent pink balloon represent? Pam

  4. Paul,
    If only I could finally win her approval...

    I'll check out the other title. Sounds heavy.

    Although the balloon is beyond the scope of my study, I would say that it represents the loss of innocence that comes with freedom. It's not a total loss though--it just becomes distant and difficult to perceive.

  5. Awesome Foucauldian analysis - and great pictures of the kids!

  6. Maybe you should teach two classes, but only if you teach all of them through kids' books.

    Also, in the lion picture, the guard looks particularly animal-like. Thoughts?

  7. @ mmeperpetua:
    I have a friend who has her PhD in English, specializing in Victorian children's literature. It's a really interesting field as it actually does the work that Beta Dad is doing here: outlines how children's books socialize and normalize their perspectives and identities. She is treated by our English department, of course, with all the respect you would expect: zero, accompanied by handsome adjunct pay. The tenure-track folks have actually laughed in her face about her field, as if a hard day's work is sitting behind her (nonexistent) desk reading the latest Clifford installment.

  8. Alexa and OTO,

    At least if I taught kids' books, there would be a greater likelihood the students would do the assigned reading. I probably will do some fables and drag out the Joseph Campbell.

    Children's lit is serious bizness! At least your friend didn't study something frivolous like women's lit.

  9. Hmm! Is Foucault saying prison is a intense form of society at large, from cots to marriage to ID cards?

  10. CL,
    I think Foucault would agree with that, but he would go even further, and say that the disciplinary or "carceral" aspects of society at large are actually based on prison practices, as opposed to prison being a distillation of society. Kind of a chicken and egg thing...

  11. God, how I enjoyed that! One could take it a step further and note that the power structures are internalised to such a degree (we're talking power=knowledge here) that the animals effectively are zoo keepers, their identities utterly structured by the internalisation of the ritual's the Zoo Keeper presides over. In this scenario, the Panopticon vanishes; to be utterly open to the gaze of the Panopticon is to be a Panopticon oneself, and from the perspective of the Panopticon, the Panopticon cannot, of course, exist. The only animal that would exist in terms of possessing an identity would be the animal who refused to leave an unlocked cage, consciously acknowledging the equivalency of the prison outside the bars to the prison within...

  12. Dadwhowrites--

    You just blew my mind.

  13. I'm glad somebody is making good use of their four year degree. This was a tour-de-force. Love to hear your thoughts on THE FOOT BOOK.

    Anyway, wife loves your blog; told me I could learn something.

    I think I just might.

  14. I am not everyone's favourite person to do meetings with, strangely enough.

  15. Liked how you sneaked the word "marriage" in there. Did your wife see that?

    Also, no mention of the balloon on every page (that we spent hours finding night after night) - symbolism there? Freedom? Innocence?

    Love all these. You are one talented man.


Don't hold back.


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