Foucault and the Carpool Lane

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I stared out the windshield at the gray, dismal sky, watching drops of rain bounce off the hood of my car, much like the silent tears waiting to fall from my own tired eyes. Looking at the clock, I saw that 10 minutes had passed. 10 minutes and I had only moved 20 yards. Letting out a long sigh, I wondered how much longer it would be before traffic began to flow again. Just as that thought was going through my head, I saw a flash outside the left window. A car. Then another. More cars kept zipping by me. Most had two or more people in the car. But some had one. One!

The nerve. The audacity. Who did those single drivers think they were, ignoring all the signs that clearly stated the carpool lane was for cars with two or more people? There was no doubt we were in the middle of prime carpool lane hours. These people didn’t care. They had someplace to be. Well, so did I. So, what kept me from jerking the steering wheel and pulling into the carpool lane?

Michel Foucault.

Did I just lose you? Really, this will all make sense if you read to the end. I know my brain goes to some pretty strange places at the most random times, especially when I’m tired and in the middle of a 3 hour, one-way commute. But you see, it is all very logical in my own train of thought. You just don’t have the benefit of being in my head. Well, that might actually be a good thing.

Where was I? Yes, Michel Foucault.

Foucault talked about the idea of the Panopticon as a metaphor for discipline within society. The Panopticon originated as an architectural design for places like prisons, mental hospitals, and other large “containment” buildings. Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of creating these structures where the “prisoners” could never be sure if they were being observed by a figure, located at the center of the building. Bentham theorized that if the occupants believed they were always being observed by someone, they would behave and follow the rules.

Foucault took the idea and applied it to societal rules and norms, theorizing that we behave a certain way if we believe we are being observed or that there are consequences to not following “rules.” We become responsible for the self-enforcement of laws and cultural expectations so that we can fit into society. Why don’t we fight with people in public spaces? Why do we obey traffic lights and signs? Why do we obey laws in general?

Because we have internalized the idea of the Panopticon. Sure, there are plenty of people who break laws and don’t observe the rules imposed by society. Is it that they never internalized the Panopticon or that they just don’t care? Did those drivers zipping past me worry about getting caught in the carpool lane when they weren’t really “allowed” to be there? Or were they more concerned about getting to where they needed to be, satisfying their own needs at the expense of the laws set in an attempt to bring order to society?

If you really think about it, the only thing keeping this entire world from breaking into complete chaos is the metaphorical Panopticon that we have all internalized. Some may not know that’s what it is. Some may never know. Some just may not care. There are flaws with this theory. Societal and cultural norms are always littered with prejudices that cause pain and suffering to others. That’s where free will comes into play, but I don’t want to merge philosophies today.

So, did I use the carpool lane when I wasn’t supposed to? No. As much as I wanted to get to work and get off the road, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I figured the moment I did, I’d find a CHP behind me and get a ticket. It just wasn’t worth $400.

Foucault would be proud.

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