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.
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.
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.