System of Obedience

Contributed by Dana Bolton Student of the moving image at university of south Carolina
December 05, 2014
boltondt's picture

 

It would be fair to say, in my opinion, that from an early age, we are all taught the cliché that “there is a time and place for everything.” Although this seems like relatively meaningful advice when we’re children and unable to control our behavior, this habit of being aware of what is expected of us in every area we occupy seeps into our entire lives.  What does this all matter? I hope within this essay, to dissect the idea that we have trained certain patterns within ourselves to blend in, through the use of specific behavior in our everyday lives that force us to be obedient to what is expected of us within our personal sites or locations. Through this, I will use examples of locations in Columbia, South Carolina, with visual images in the beginning for those who are not familiar with the site.

            My research consisted of note taking and observing Columbia, SC on November 24th, 2014 and that of the readings I have been provided by Heidi Rae Cooley. I am working off my definitions of public as being a place where all information is open to the general surrounding masses, and private as a place where one is protected from scrutiny of watchful eyes.

Main Street Building Meters of Columbia Columbia SignMeters of Columbia

 

Through my observations, there were two distinctive groups of people; the loquacious and the reserved.  Now, ask yourself, what opinions do you have on the level of obedience a docile soul has compared to one who speaks freely and loudly? Who is more likely to follow orders, and who to cause trouble? The obvious answer is that the quiet individual is more obedient, while the talkative souls are your troublemakers. But perhaps, they both possess the same amount of obedience and trouble but are merely reacting to their environments, and in doing so, trying to gain the least amount of attention, even when their actions are seemingly opposed to this focus.

            There are two distinct examples to compare here. First, the group of separate tables dining during lunch on Main Street. This is our loud bunch. As we approached the patio at an unnamed restaurant, there were over five groups (2 or more people) audibly speaking through their meals. As our group of over ten passed, though some looked, the volume of their seemingly private conversations never faltered or shied away from our attendance to what they were saying, but naturally raised within our impeding earshot. Some of the highlights of what I recorded were women bantering about their husband’s inattention, one man complaining about a mutual coworker (presumably their boss) and that boss’ habit of requesting work in an unattainable timeslot.

            The reserved group was one I was a part of. We were tasked with walking down Main Street between the times of 2:20 PM and 3:35 PM, while observing and noting activity. While what should have struck me was what I observed, what was chilling was my group’s behavior. We stayed within a close proximity of one another, and fell behind our Professor, who we’ll call “H”. H became an authority figure we deferred to for the majority of our actions. While the group generally followed street signs and directions, she openly defied them. When at one point she Jaywalked, we all were outright impressed, hinting that secretly we wanted to be the trendsetters in our group. She was the first to walk up to windows and stare at office workers or touch street-level cameras. While most of us at least once defied the norms that were presented to us, it was nearly always after H had done it first. The general atmosphere of our group was quiet, with H, especially at the beginning, leading the conversation. Even after we began to speak, it was in short bursts, with a quiet volume, as if to not bring attention to ourselves. This, of course, is preposterous, seeing as the average person we saw was in a group of two or by themselves, and we were over ten people deep. The most jarring revelation was the general discomfort I felt within myself and perhaps my group mates. The more we defied, the less I open I felt, as if I was afraid to be out of the group.

            Now, these two separate examples seem to be mutually distinct from similarities. But in fact, I would argue their reasoning for their behavior was stemming from a habitual need that is mutually shared. The need to blend. These two groups had one general quality, they both were mimicking and reacting to what was either perceived as acceptable or expected from them and their peers. This is shown with my discomfort with speaking. Everyone else was being quiet for many reasons. We were on a school trip, in place of consumption but also a business center of Columbia, where we obviously were not a part of or employed within. We were doing what we had been taught was socially acceptable for the situation. We were obedient.

            The obedience of the other [loud] group was that of reverse logic. They were loud and open because of, again, their surroundings. The location is one in our culture where we consider it private, although it is public. This particular restaurant was truly open, being nestled outside of a building where anyone can see and hear them. There was no visible discomfort like that which I experienced, but the world expected different from this group. If the woman complaining of her husband knew she was being listened to, would she have acted the same? It is doubtful. But we are taught that in confines of our tables, we are safe from scrutiny. These habits are engrained within us.

            The levels of obedience are best meshed with considering what they hoped to accomplish. If the direct need is to not stand out, what is required of the individuals? In my case, I was hoping to be unnoticed by other pedestrians. So I clammed up and mimicked most of my group. I fit inside the physical constraints of the group, spoke rarely, when I was sure I would not be making a “stupid” remark, and generally kept to myself. How is this any different than what the restaurant patrons were doing? Ignoring the obvious fact that if I had acted that way, it would be different, the motivation is very similar to that of which the patrons participated. They stuck to their physical spaces (tables), spoke when was expected, and acted as everyone around them had.

            I am saying this to argue that we are an obedient culture without considering ourselves one. That is not to say this entrance into all aspects of our life of obedience can only hinder or help. Rather, it is both. No matter the outcome, obedience is a major determiner in our demeanor. And when we stick out, we do so in a society that is constantly being our overseer (Panopticism). We walk through everyday life barely noticing everyone around us (Wise 167) because everyone around us is acting just like us.

            But when something stands out, we are captivated. As is with H jaywalking, we cannot focus on anything else. During one point of our field trip, we stood across the street from a woman berating someone on the other end of her telephone. I watched my classmates’ shock that someone would do this so publicly. While she seemed unconcerned with anything but telling off who she was speaking with, we felt her lack of embarrassment. The embarrassment we all would assumingly feel if we were in her position. We judged her. But on what? Did we know if she was justified in her actions? Had we never yelled at anyone? Chances are not. But what we did in that moment was project the expectations placed upon ourselves unto this woman.

            This is how this obedience “machine” works. It cages us (Panopticism 205).It places expectations from an authority. It pounds and pounds the ideas into an entire population’s brain, and lets us free. From that point, we practice this craft. We watch others and perfect the art of gauging a situation and tailoring our actions to what seems appropriate. When a peer acts differently, we react differently. Whether that be simply noticing one another or reporting that person to another authority figure, we keep a system of checks and balances going. And if enough of our peers act one way, we change our entire course of thinking and acting to suit the situation. But in this moment, the general majority never acts first. Instead, we yearn for someone who chooses to be different, see if anyone else will follow, and choose accordingly to our comfort and risk-factor levels. But we perpetuate this system of obedience by constantly changing adjustments to our expectations, and shunning those who live on or outside of the fringe.

This obedience system is masterful. It directly involves using all aspects of our living, and shapes how populations act and react. Perhaps we choose to ignore it ( Slobogin 81). Or maybe we are just a product of a “cruel, ingenious cage” (Panopticism 205). Whatever the reason may be, the issue of obedience is not really a question, but rather, a question we can choose to ignore and accept, or choose to tinker with.

 

Work Cited

Burnitz, Carl. 2014. Surveillance Field Trip, Columbia, SC.

Foucault, Michel. Panopticism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

Slobogin, Christopher, Public Privacy: Camera Surveillance of Public Places And The Right to        Anonymity. Mississippi Law  Journal, Vol. 72, 2002

 

Wise, Macgregor. "Attention and Assemblage in the Clickable World." N.p.: n.p., n.d. 159-72. Print.

Columbia Sign
Main Street Building
Meters of Columbia

Comments

Burnitz's picture
Response from
Carl Burnitz

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

First off, nicely written article, I enjoyed it. Thanks for citing me! I appreciate it.

What I found most interesting was the loud group who talked about their husbands in relation to us on the streets being quiet, listening. I think it's funny that we can so quickly be comfortable with a public space and talk about certain things so audibility. It made me question, how did these social norms start? Why do we feel inclined to act certain ways, or feel certain things? 

boltondt's picture
Response from
Dana Bolton

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

Carl,

I have similar questions about origin. While writing this, I felt like I was discovering something original, but then it dawned on me that this is nothing new it. It is a system that has been in place for a long time, with minor tweaks integrated to suit the contemporary. If you look at literature, Shakespeare had certain stock characters ( such as the fool) that hint at what an audience should assume about their characters. These assumptions are all based in judgements made by, who knows. It is the same case with general sterotypes. They bring with them opinions one has already made in order to better understand what they are supposed to convey. This alone shows me a historic system where one is expected to scrutinize its surroundings.

Ryan Brower's picture
Response from
Ryan Brower

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

I would agree with what Austin was saying about how our group was standing out by 'reacting to others reactions' and wanted to say that I don't feel that our group was intentionally trying to blend in at all. Aside from the obvious examples of Professor Cooley going against the social norms I feel that our mere prescense there was enough to keep us from going unnoticed; over a dozen college students in the market district in the middle of the day is not a common sight, especially when you add that several of us had cameras and clipboards, taking photos and writing notes on almost everything we saw. One particular time comes to mind; when we entered the Arcade, there was a man working at a desk on the other side of a glass windown and as soon as we entered he didn't look away, he actually looked very confused, probably because most of the restaurants in the building were closed, and we looked so out of place. Do you think that this helped our experiment, going as a group? Or could we have learned a lot more about public obedience taking a walk alone, where we would be much more likely to fall into this 'machine' ourselves?

boltondt's picture
Response from
Dana Bolton

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

Preface. When i wrote this, I was in no way assuming the readers were thinking I was speaking for our group, but rather only for myself. I found my own reactions were the only ones I could speak definitively on. I made assumptions about our entire group from these reactions and what I observed.

As for if we had gone as a group or alone, it is hard to say. Many of us fed off others observations, so that's helpful. But alone we certainly could have blended more, but the mere idea of blending wasn't what everyone's thesis revolved around either.But even in a  group that sticks out, isn't there a way to blend within that as well?

boltondt's picture
Response from
Dana Bolton

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

I think there are two seperate ways to consider this [a]"craft." In one sense, it is something we all shape and get extremely skilled at reinforcing. While "crafting" this idea, I was brought back to Foucault in "Panopticism" and his insight on how the Panopticon was constructed and worked.  There is certainly a plurality to our individual roles within this system of obedience when trying to draw similarities to the Panopticon. We are not only in our own cells, but we also serve administrative roles within it. On the cellular level, we are subjected to society's expectation of how one should behave, and we are obedient in order to appease this. We all serve as the "central tower" within the system as well. This another Foucault inspiration; his idea that the overseer is interchangeable. We are consistently placing judgement on everyone surrounding us in a number of ways and reporting on it through a multiplicity of avenues; talking to our friends or parents about who did what, complaining to our coworkers about a rude customer, complimenting a stranger on their shoes, etc.

I think that is where the first sense of the word craft really compelled me to label it as such. We place judgements on so many levels, probably every level of our lives. And that's the genius of the system. It is taught to us, and we implement it into every aspect of our lives. From clothing, weight, attitude, intelligence, beauty, I am hard pressed to find some aspect of my life that I don't critique. And when one gets to that point, where is there room to question its effectiveness if it has infiltrated so much? That's the skillful construction I am speaking of. The system where we place judgement value on all, and expect others to fulfill or face being shunned in one form or another.

I grappled with the idea of why we are regularily enthusiastic to fulfill this expectation. Is it simply because we are in constant fear of being judged by one another, or on some other level do we recognize that it is in our (society as a whole) best interest to further this system? I don't believe there is a black and white answer. Do I recognize its usefullness, absolutely. But its so far engrained within myself, I could not tell you my own motivations for why I choose to eat lighter portions in public. Is it because I truly want to be skinny, or am I afraid of thought of as obese. It is all convoluted, and perhaps it works better that way.

As for the second meaning of the word, I am also using "craft" to subtly hint at the obedience system's deceitfulness. As I have mentioned, I see the positive aspects of it. We are obedient, and we do not get questioned by the police, or scolded by our mothers, or what ever scenario you can spin on it. The world keeps on spinning. But the way it is presented to our society is what makes it deceitful. It does not spell out the effect it has on us. Obedience is presented to us as a set of musts instead of a set of shoulds. And from this we shape our entire consciousness based on this discrepancy in our understanding. We grow into these beings who are alienated from true human interaction, without all of the expectations we place on ourselves and everyone else, because we are too busy ensuring we meet every expectation placed upon us. This sham is another form that the deciet takes. Our projection of who we are is shaped by what we consider obedient, and hinders others from seeing who we truly are. This is the tragedy of obedience.

DarrylUSC 2015's picture
Response from
Darryl Burkett

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

Do you think obedience plays a part in what we do everyday? Is obedience a form of discipline? Why?

boltondt's picture
Response from
Dana Bolton

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

I think I covered the first part of your questions in other responses in terms of obedience being a part of everyday life. I would expand that idea with this. After reading numerous responses on this essay, I looked for some scholarly support of my argument. Foucault mentions;

".Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection" (Discipline and Power 187 - 191)

At first glance, it may be hard to notice in one's life the disciplinary effect obedience has. But the invisibilty this system works with, is what empowers it. It seeps quietly into our lives and subjects us to it just as quietly.

As for obedience being a discplinary result, I would say so. The obedience is a result of the power of discpline imposed on us. We may look at it from a number of perspectives; we are protecting ourselves from scrutiny or we're trying to be "good", but this may not be the case if we did not feel the influence of discipline in our every action.

boltondt's picture
Response from
Dana Bolton

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

That's something I hadn't considered, the idea of standing out by trying to not stand out. It poses a tricky consideration. I focused most this report on extraverted responses, and my obvious discomfort with projecting my own. While I would concede, that in this case, my own actions do stick out, I would have to also pose that, would they have if I hadn't have written a report on them? I guess it boils down to, what do you consider blending in and standing out? And are they mutually excluded from being a part of one another? 

As for your second question, I think reacting to someone else instead of pursuing one's free will is a part of the obedience system. Mainly, because of my own motivations for doing so. I had no idea I was going to write this report, and any ideas for what I wanted to write on were overtaken by my "desire" to blend. I think motivations play a large role in gauging what level of obedience one has, and I was truly trying to be the best student I could during this trip on Main Street, for no conscious reason. That's where the system really dazzles me. I had no reason to fear I would be judged, and yet my new enviorment turned on a switch within myself in order to protect my image in society.

howardai's picture
Response from
Austin Howard

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

I was intrigued that a lot your observation of Obedience seemed to be a Call and Response interaction. While the people you engaged or watched interacted with society you seemed to react to their reactions. Does observing to not stand out make one stand out? Also, is reacting to indivudals rather than pursuing ones own free will a part of obedience?

Response from
Grace Miyaji

December 07, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

The way in which you went about describing two different gorups of people and their actions was informative; calling obedience a "machine" was also interesting. It is something I would have never considered, but nonetheless very insightful. It is interesting how when people are in situations where they feel comfortable, such as eating out, they don’t think twice about the conversations they are having or who may be listening. On the other hand, they would be less likely to have these conversations at work or a “less private” institution like a bank. .

cooleyh's picture
Response from
Heidi Rae Cooley

December 07, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

Might you say more about how "obedience" (or disciplinarity) is a "craft"? But also, might you think through your notion of "tinkering with" expectations of disciplinarity?

boltondt's picture
Response from
Dana Bolton

December 08, 2014

Re: System of Obedience

I think there are two seperate ways to consider this [a]"craft." In one sense, it is something we all shape and get extremely skilled at reinforcing. While "crafting" this idea, I was brought back to Foucault in "Panopticism" and his insight on how the Panopticon was constructed and worked.  There is certainly a plurality to our individual roles within this system of obedience when trying to draw similarities to the Panopticon. We are not only in our own cells, but we also serve administrative roles within it. On the cellular level, we are subjected to society's expectation of how one should behave, and we are obedient in order to appease this. We all serve as the "central tower" within the system as well. This another Foucault inspiration; his idea that the overseer is interchangeable. We are consistently placing judgement on everyone surrounding us in a number of ways and reporting on it through a multiplicity of avenues; talking to our friends or parents about who did what, complaining to our coworkers about a rude customer, complimenting a stranger on their shoes, etc.

I think that is where the first sense of the word craft really compelled me to label it as such. We place judgements on so many levels, probably every level of our lives. And that's the genius of the system. It is taught to us, and we implement it into every aspect of our lives. From clothing, weight, attitude, intelligence, beauty, I am hard pressed to find some aspect of my life that I don't critique. And when one gets to that point, where is there room to question its effectiveness if it has infiltrated so much? That's the skillful construction I am speaking of. The system where we place judgement value on all, and expect others to fulfill or face being shunned in one form or another.

I grappled with the idea of why we are regularily enthusiastic to fulfill this expectation. Is it simply because we are in constant fear of being judged by one another, or on some other level do we recognize that it is in our (society as a whole) best interest to further this system? I don't believe there is a black and white answer. Do I recognize its usefullness, absolutely. But its so far engrained within myself, I could not tell you my own motivations for why I choose to eat lighter portions in public. Is it because I truly want to be skinny, or am I afraid of thought of as obese. It is all convoluted, and perhaps it works better that way.

As for the second meaning of the word, I am also using "craft" to subtly hint at the obedience system's deceitfulness. As I have mentioned, I see the positive aspects of it. We are obedient, and we do not get questioned by the police, or scolded by our mothers, or what ever scenario you can spin on it. The world keeps on spinning. But the way it is presented to our society is what makes it deceitful. It does not spell out the effect it has on us. Obedience is presented to us as a set of musts instead of a set of shoulds. And from this we shape our entire consciousness based on this discrepancy in our understanding. We grow into these beings who are alienated from true human interaction, without all of the expectations we place on ourselves and everyone else, because we are too busy ensuring we meet every expectation placed upon us. This sham is another form that the deciet takes. Our projection of who we are is shaped by what we consider obedient, and hinders others from seeing who we truly are. This is the tragedy of obedience.