Bentham imagined that the best way to keep prisoners in line was with an all-seeing and potentially-punishing eye. It wasn’t that the prisoner was always being watched. It was that he might be watched that forced him to conform. One single guard with a giant gun could imprison hundreds of criminals if they just never knew when he was watching.
Foucault saw culture no differently. Within discourses of power, people conform just in case others are watching, reporting, and punishing. When we’re afraid of getting caught, we discipline ourselves to submit. Employees wash their hands, teenagers wear stylish clothes, drivers obey the speed limit not because it’s healthy, comfortable, or safe but because they might get caught if they don’t. Think 1984.
What Foucault was describing perfectly was the ubiquitous ideology of ungrace. He’s right. We’re caught in a discursive prison that forces us to comply. It squeezes us into its mold.
Friedrich Nietzsche, that end-of-modernity Modern who intellectually sired Foucault, agreed. He proposed a solution: take over. You be the guy with the gun and imprison that guard. Might makes right after all.
Foucault, that proto-postmodern, imagined similar take-overs. He did shrug off the whole idea of actual cultural change. Go ahead and get the gun and imprison the guard. But just remember that you’re still both stuck in that dank prison in the end. Touché.
Jacques Derrida, the actual postmodern (if there is such a thing), took the next logical step by scoffing at any sort of takeover. “Why bother?” after all. You can imagine in Nietzsche’s revolution, Foucault might be participating half-heartedly while Derrida is sleeping off a hangover in his cell.
In the years I’ve discussed the Panopticon with my students, my conclusions have rung hollow. I usually end with an unsatisfying “but God is sovereign even in the Panopticon.” That response leaves the Christian stuck in his ideological prison cell, looking outside at the stars, perhaps, but still leaving prison of ungrace intact.
Phil Yancy’s description of the Poles resisting communism, however, got me thinking. How does Grace act in a Panopticon? How does Grace respond in ungrace? Does she escape and go frolick outside the prison hoping that someone will see her down there and join her? Does she shine a light on the guard tower to show that it’s not that scary? I think, Grace would just walk outside the cell and start talking to those imprisoned around her. Maybe she’d bring the guard donuts and coffee. She might get punished, sure, but she’d assume that death is no worse than being imprisoned in this way.
For the believer immersed in God’s grace, neither Nietzsche, Foucault, nor Derrida can be our model. We can’t take over, join other take-overs (while snarkily critiquing them), or passive-aggressively deconstruct them. Nor can we sit alone and dream of life outside the prison. As J. I. Packer says, we must “trust God, and get going.” We must act in a way the discourses of power can’t foresee. We must love our enemies, turn the other cheek, heap coals of kindness on their head.