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.