Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

'Surveillance and Cultural Panopticism': Situating Foucault in African Modernities

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

'Surveillance and Cultural Panopticism': Situating Foucault in African Modernities

Article excerpt

Abstract

In philosophical terms, the African encounter with Western modernity defines the context within which much of what unfolds in postcolonial Africa can be understood, including even its ethical and social problems. This work utilizes Foucault's theory of panopticism to reflect on the challenges of social control and harmony in contemporary African society. It establishes the link between panopticism and indigenous African cultures from the fact that indigenous societies deployed mechanisms of instituting social control and harmony similar to the phenomena of panoticism and the technologies of control that it symbolizes today. African metaphysical thought, its beliefs, and mythological paraphernalia played the important role of providing an overarching framework within which questions of social control, relations, ethics and even harmony with nature were defined and understood in the past. Modern institutions and technologies of surveillance, whilst crucial to social control, may need to be supported by re-strengthening indigenous interpretive and normative cultural frameworks that promoted elements of self-surveillance and responsible being in traditional communities.

Introduction

Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison' remains an important text for theorizing discourses of surveillance and social control in modern societies. The question of how indigenous African cultures that were without modern technologies of surveillance managed to institute control of the individual and achieve social order and harmony in society inspires much of this discussion. This work utilizes Foucault's theory of panopticism and juxtaposes it with African indigenous cultures in order to reflect on the challenges of social control and harmony confronting contemporary society in Africa. It establishes the link between panopticism and indigenous African cultures from the realization that indigenous societies deployed mechanisms of instituting social control and harmony similar to the phenomena of panoticism and the technologies of control that it symbolizes today. The work suggests that indigenous African culture, through its metaphysics, was vested with a considerable amount of panoptical power that helped to direct and regulate individual behavior and social relations. African metaphysical thought, its beliefs, and mythological paraphernalia played an important role by providing an overarching framework within which questions of social control, relations, ethics and even harmony with nature were defined and understood in the past. The work argues that the declining influence and power of the African cultural panopticon, particularly its buttressing metaphysics, can account for increasing problems of social control in Africa today. The work also suggests that modern institutions and their instruments of surveillance, which have literally usurped the panoptic power of indigenous cultures, may not succeed in providing solutions to problems of ethics and social control in Africa. The diminishing role of traditional regulatory mechanisms and the social ordering of space, together with conceptions of the self that promoted a community of self-surveillance through which practices of self-discipline and self-monitoring, were realized have impacted negatively on contemporary societies in Africa. Transformations witnessed in postcolonial Africa, whilst inevitable, have destabilized the normalizing role and power in traditional African culture. In other words, the normative and interpretive frameworks provided by traditional metaphysics have continued to decline. This work is divided into four sections. The first part is an analysis of the concept of African modernity central to our understanding of the contemporary social challenges in Africa. This is then followed by an examination of Foucault's idea of panoticism. The third section looks at the notions of surveillance and the gaze whilst the last part of this work is an attempt to appropriate the ideas of panopticism in our analysis of indigenous cultures and their significance to questions of self-surveillance and social control. …

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