Foucault & The Would-Be Drunk Drivers

This is a slightly modified version of a short essay I wrote for a class: Marxist and Post Marxist Approaches to Cultural Studies.

Discipline, Panopticism, and NHTSA’s “Invisible Cop”

To what extent can a thirty-second public service announcement (PSA) released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) marketing office reflect the modern state’s regulation of bodies and movement in time and space? Scenes from the NHTSA’s PSA can be interpreted through analytical devices derived from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, especially his principle of modern panopticism as diffuse and omnipresent. Interpretation of imagery through this Foucauldian analytical device illustrates aspects of social reality by putting “various political techniques of the body” in dialogue with one another (Foucault 1995:26). Generally speaking, the PSA does this through its empirical manifestation of diffuse panopticism and therefore its reflection of the carceral system in the “invisible cop[s]” and through the ominous vocalized threat of “certain capture.”

In his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault introduces analytical categories that deconstruct modern norms of delinquency and represent them as evolutive functions of the panoptic carceral system. Foucault appropriates Nietzsche’s genealogical (non-linear comparative) historiography to recast the modern prison in light of disjointed and disjunctured historical developments starting in the eighteenth century, inaugurated by the crisis of “popular illegality” (1995:273).

The public-trial/secret-prison of modernity is contrasted with the secret-trial/public-execution (spectacle) of antiquity. Within the panoptic schema, perhaps the most relevant analytical device is Foucault’s conceptualization of the transformations of the body: the procedures that order flesh in time and space and limit its expression of its self to a subject who becomes one of many “objects of knowledge” (1995:28). An example of this panoptic procedure outside of the prison (still functioning as a diffuse and omnipresent force) is governmentality expressed through national collection of biostatistics (i.e. the information found on a birth certificate or on a drivers license) (Foucault 2008:317). Foucault’s categories provide analytical devices to characterize systems of power-knowledge that would have otherwise remained unarticulated. His ultimate desire is to conduct a “history of the present,” to undertake a historical explanation for the systems and institutions that exist in the way that they do today (1995:31).

The systems of power-knowledge that Foucault brings into light indicate how “the production of knowledge is wedded to productive power” (Leitch 2010:1473). The demands of power on individuals in the last two hundred years have grown such that “increasingly narrow categories [that analyze, differentiate, identify, and administrate] people” become necessary to justify the existence of paradoxical binary discourses (e.g. sane/insane, drunk/sober) (2010:1473). The “discursive ordering and physical management [of bodies] wielded by power,” has the effect of legitimating and condemning the actions conducted within the categories it creates (2010:1473). For Foucault, “what was at issue was not whether the prison environment was too harsh or too aseptic, too primitive or too efficient, [rather] its very materiality as an instrument and vector of power.” Alarmingly, he said “it is [the] technology of power over the body that the technology of the ‘soul’…falls either to conceal or to compensate, for the simple reason that it is one of its tools” (1995:30). If in the medieval era, the state engaged in the subjectification of its territorial subjects only occasionally and by violent spectacle, then the modern state has become substantially more pervasive and has injected itself into virtually every sphere of lived experience, opting out of the use of the violent spectacle.

In 2011, the NHTSA released a thirty-second PSA that encouraged viewers not to drink and then drive at the risk of getting caught by police. The video is arranged in this way: first an inebriated woman and man walk past two “invisible cops,” and enter a vehicle. Next, their vehicle passes by a camouflaged police cruiser that materializes as its sirens go off. Then, the man and woman enter onto a highway and get pulled over by the police cruiser; they are subsequently investigated by a uniformed police officer and, finally, the police officer forces a breathalyzer into the man’s mouth while he places his hand on his gun belt. Toward the end of the video, an announcer says, “They’ll [the police] see you before you see them. Cops are cracking down on drinking and driving. Drive sober or get pulled over.”

Figure 1: Still at 0:04

Figure 1: Still at 0:04

Figure one is a still from the video at 0:04, where the woman and man walk past the first of the two “invisible cops.” The horizontal white line placed above the policeman’s head is included for the purposes of situating the eye to see the woman and man as visually beneath the officer. The policeman in the center of the still, who is not visible to the man and woman based on the positioning of their eyes, illustrates the principle of panopticism as diffuse yet omnipresent. Why this is the case can be explained by the Benthamian panoptic schema. It contains a guard-tower maintained by arbitrarily assigned personnel who remain invisible to the inmates. The two angled lines starting from the forehead of the officer reveal the nature of the power differential between the officer and the man and woman. The still positions the officer in such a way that the man and woman are visually segregated to either side of the officer, resembling Bentham’s individualization principle of the cellblock. In this way, the image clarifies Foucault’s analytical device by visually manifesting the power of the modern state to order bodies. In actuality, the three people are on level ground. The placement of the camera angle produces an image that negotiates reality to convey an ideology reflecting power-knowledge through information-based governance, materially represented through the officer being above and invisible to the man and woman.

Figure 2: Still at 0:25

Figure 2: Still at 0:25

In figure two, a still from the video at 0:25, this negotiation of reality is dependent less on camera positioning and more on the actual ordering and positioning of bodies and their articles in space. This still provides rich visual resources for illustrating Foucault’s program inasmuch as it explains the modern panoptic schema. Consider this first piece of evidence in the still: the police officer is wearing a uniform. It conveys arbitrarily assigned societal gravitas and state authorization to manipulate the positioning and freedom of bodies. More than articles associated with the uniform, the golden badge on his shirt and the light he shines into the faces of the woman and man, indicated by white circles, form the totality of his uniform. The light in the officer’s hand illustrates Foucault’s concept of “backlighting,” which makes inmates visible in perpetuity (Foucault 1995:200). The placement of the three figures in the image is another piece of evidence: the height of the policeman relative to the height of the man and woman illustrate the panoptic schema more forcefully than in figure one. The angled line beginning in the center of the officer’s face descending into the vehicle to the back of the woman’s head is the material representation of carceral paralysis. The man and woman are essentially “stuck” in the car, unable to move or get out. In this way, the vehicle serves as a representative for the carceral apparatus of the cell. The officer shining his light into the “container” of the man and woman corresponds to an officer who would shine his light from the guard tower into prisoners’ cells.

In and of itself, figure two makes a completely panoptic reading of the video-text problematic. It should be noted that the event of being pulled over by a police officer for driving while drunk reflects a failure of the modern-state panoptic schema. Foucault argued that the effectiveness of the modern carceral system is its mentalité suggesting that punishment in general “and not [fear of] the horrifying spectacle of public punishment” should dissuade people from breaking the law (1995:8). The man and the woman did not “police” their behavior in light of the societal gaze and infracted the law, putting the lives of others at risk (1995:201). Additionally, the videos do not effectively convey Foucault’s new “political anatomy” where state-power is embedded and imbued through the “relations of discipline” (1995:208). The police, a generally repressive institution, should not have to “police,” and in this way figure two does not reflect Foucault’s modern panoptic schema. On the other hand, figure one reflects the notion of monitoring, and does reflect the modern panoptic schema.

The image-analysis presented above facilitates a concrete expression of Foucault’s analytic device of the modern-state panoptic schema as diffuse yet omnipresent. Bodily administration as a function of the carceral system is a phenomena that is made evident in figures one and two. The arbitrary authorization of individuals placed in various positions within an institutionalized project to create objects of knowledge has tangible consequences as evinced by the “imprisonment” of the woman and man in figure two. These consequences include an interruption of the patterning of existence and therefore an interruption of bodies in time and space. Foucault’s analysis of the panoptic force is represented by the invisible cops acting as extensions of the carceral system.


Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by A. Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the CollèGe De France, 1978-79. Basingstoke Englan; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Leitch, Vincent B. 2010. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Stable URL for NHTSA PSA: