Re-visioning the Eye of God: On the Disciplinary Society’s Will to Omniscience


In his interrogation of disciplinary society in Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault comments on the common Western belief that, “Every detail is important since, in the sight of God, no immensity is greater than a detail” (Foucault, 1977, 140). This notion of the eye of God, the eye that can see all, as particularly concerned with minutiae is central to the development of Western culture and social practice. As Foucault reveals throughout his explication, this will to omniscience is attempted through the discipline of the masses by both physical and psychological division and categorization. However, these means by which Western disciplinary society seeks to possess the eye of God inherently prevents it from seeing all. Rather, Emerson’s concept of the transparent eye provides a more useful blueprint for how man may not only obtain the eye of God, but how he may ultimately become it.

While this essay sadly lacks the scope to properly examine the ways in which the literal and symbolic sun figures into the Western conception of the eye of God, a brief mention seems necessary given the ubiquity of associations between the sun, God, and vision. The preoccupation with these symbols suggests that the Western approach to possessing the eye of God both consciously and unconsciously emulates the sun’s manner of revealing the world: its light reveals distinctions between objects, visually defining each object’s particular form and identity. However, the sun’s light is unable to shine upon everything, suggesting that the sun’s illuminating vision might not truly illuminate all. The West, however, seems to find great merit in this method of achieving omniscience, as will be seen in its imitating means of achieving the same ends.

Before delving more deeply into the matter of how Western society seeks to possess the eye of God, it will prove useful to begin with the question of “why?” Why is it that an entire society strives towards omniscience? The answer lies deeply rooted in our most basic survival instincts: man fears the unknown. As creatures thrust into a hostile environment, early man’s best chance at survival was to make sense of his surroundings and act accordingly. Although times and circumstances may have changed, man is still the intensely curious being that he was in infancy, constantly desirous of knowledge to help make sense of the world. When large groups of men that share these concerns come together the ensuing results are “all the spiritual shelters [that] man puts between himself and the uncertain cosmic weather” (Mumford, 1926, 151). From the Western perspective, it is through these structures that man might see all and ultimately establish dominion over Earth and the chaos that seemingly reigns. The will to omniscience, then, is not merely about seeing all, but about what that perfect sight enables: power. By developing the perfect eye, that which sees all without been seen itself, man strives for omnipotence as well as omniscience, seeking to stretch his influence into the realm of the gods.

This will to omniscience, however, is not that of any particular individual, or even any single institution. As an innately human attribute, this characteristic will doubtlessly manifest itself in the ethos of a culture when a large number of men congregate. In the 1997 film Cube, the character Worth proclaims that the construction of the cube, which serves as a grandly conceived metaphor for society, is not driven by anyone or anything in particular. Rather, “there is no conspiracy. Nobody is in charge…[there is only] infinite human stupidity” (The Cube, 1997). In what follows, I shall explore the cube of Western disciplinary society. While “infinite human stupidity” may be too harsh of a condemnation, this explication seeks to prove that the methods by which the West has sought omniscience are misguided and inherently flawed.

The primary means by which the West has sought to obtain omniscience is through the discipline of the masses, converting unpredictable individuals into normalized, docile subjects. Foucault defines discipline as, “that vast system … comprising the functions of surveillance, normalization, and control and … punishment” (Foucault, 1980, 121). In examining the various institutions to which these disciplinary tactics are extended, including schools, hospitals, barracks, and prisons, it becomes clear that the defining mechanism by which individuals are subjected to discipline is through division, separation, and punishment, occurring on in both the physical and psychological domains. On a material level, this is accomplished through the physical partitioning of individuals, producing a system designed to monitor behavior on an individual level.  Through this act, institutions acquire the ability “to be able at each moment to supervise the conduct of each individual, to assess it, to judge it…It was a procedure, therefore, aimed at knowing, mastering and using” (Foucault, 1977, 143). By physically dispersing people throughout space, it becomes easier to monitor man individually, creating a tremendously efficient analytic system. Additionally, these physical acts of division serve to instill a sense of psychological separation as well. By isolating man from his peers, he is made acutely aware of his individuality and the concrete corporeal boundaries that separate his Self from the world beyond.

This construction of a strengthened egotism is furthered through the institutional hierarchization of individuals. Particularly in the educational and military spheres, a strong emphasis is put on classifying individuals for competency and adherence to normalcy and rewarding them for such behavior. By being psychologically separated from his peers through this hierarchization, man develops a sense of isolation not only from his material environment, but from his companions in whom he might have previously found fellow feeling as well. Additionally, a reward system conditions people to happily and blindly abide by social norms, creating what is frequently referred to as the herd mentality. This encouragement of adherence to the norm is also supported through the division of time. By making individuals highly aware of time through the use of timetables that segment out the day, rhythm to activities and regulation of cycles of repetition can be established in man. These psychological mechanisms ultimately produce a population that is normalized not only within particular disciplinary institutions, but in all aspects of society.

This normalization of society is key to the Western conception of the requirements to obtain omniscience. By establishing the normate, individuals that fit the mold are easily identified and understood, whereas those that defy normalcy starkly stand out, creating an incredibly efficient information gathering system. The chaos of natural man and his motions are mitigated through the institution of order, both on a material and a mental level. Furthermore,

“it was a question both of making the slightest departures from correct behavior subject to punishment, and of giving a punitive function to the apparently indifferent elements of the disciplinary apparatus; each subject find himself caught in a punishable, punishing universality” (Foucault, 1977, 178).

By normalizing what is acceptable, the disciplinary society is then able to easily spot any abnormalities and, consequently, determine what new information must be treated. As with the initial act of segmentation, this disciplinary behavior is evident through both physical and psychological punishment. In regards to taking physical disciplinary measures, the United States’ foreign policy serves as a remarkable exemplar of defining a norm to which others are expected to abide and punishing those who stray from that norm. Although this specific type of behavior is hardly evident in the acts of all Western nations, the United States stands as a particularly useful example due to its crystallization and cherishing of so many central Western values. Bacevich notes that the U.S. sought to establish an international system founded on the ideals of democratic capitalism, “with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms” (Bacevich, 2002, 3). This is achieved by means of what the U.S. Military has coined “full spectrum dominance” (Joint Vision 2020, 6). By segmenting and identifying the various fields in which threats may rise (land, air, sea, space, and one might now add ‘information’), the military can declare complete dominance over all of them, further displaying its will to omniscience. By exerting its power in each of these domains, the U.S. is capable of regulating any deviations from the normalized system of democratic capitalism.

In addition to such cases of outright discipline of abnormality, punishment takes place on a far more subtle level in our daily social arena. Stigmatization and the attraction of stares are particularly evident ways in which this form of discipline manifests in daily life. Thomson believes that, “human stigmata function as social dirt” (Thomson, 1997, 33), which serves as a way of identifying deviations from the normate. The deviants then receive the stares of those who consider themselves to be normal, inflicting social punishment and highlighting the staree’s individual status. Additionally, Thomson comments that, “Stigmatization…reinforces [the dominant group’s] idealized self-description as neutral, normal, legitimate, and identifiable by denigrating the characteristics of less powerful groups or those considered alien” (Thomson, 1997, 31). Through the stare, the world is sharply dichotomized into normal and abnormal. Significantly, one will be hard pressed to define the normate without considering the abnormal, leading Thomson to the conclusion that the normate is no more than a complex of oppositions in which “the margin constitutes the center” (Thomson, 1997, 5). This dichotomization of normal and abnormal is not merely an act of classifying people, objects, and events, but of dividing and ordering thought itself.

This evident dichotomization gets to the heart of why this type of disciplinary society might appear to be able to possess the eye of God, as well as why the attempt is doomed to fail. By dichotomizing thought into a series of opposing symbols (normal vs. abnormal, Self vs. not Self, etc.), individuals’ reality is strictly ordered, causing the world to appear quite clearly divided: “What is visible to us…is made so by the set of conventions with which we look at the world and by which we determine what is worthy of our attention” (Thomas, 1999, 119). While this selective vision is an innately human characteristic required to operate in a world of near infinite visual stimuli, the disciplinary society institutionalizes this natural instinct, segmenting reality to the maximally productive extent. Every object may be individually observed and disciplined if necessary. As individuals internalize this dichotomization of normal and abnormal, they become capable of identifying deviancy and punishing it through stares and social pressure. In this sense, the conditioned individual becomes a component in the larger eye of God, perpetually monitoring all.

However, as complete as this endeavor may seem, it overlooks one crucial aspect. By dividing up the whole and focusing on the individual pieces, one loses sight of both what lies in the interstices of the parts, as well as their gestalt. There is surely a vast amount of information to be gained from segmenting and normalizing society, but the attempt must ultimately be a failed one. By defining strict categories and encouraging physical and psychological adherence, one is only able to see what has been explicitly conditioned for observation. That which falls in between the cracks of the dichotomies disappears and goes unaccounted for by the eye that is supposed to see all. In speaking on the Parisian police department, Dupin, Poe’s famous detective, reflects that,

“He might see, perhaps, one or two points with unusual clearness, but in so doing he, necessarily, lost sight of the matter as a whole…and it is possible to make even Venus herself vanish from the firmament by a scrutiny too sustained, too concentrated, or too direct” (Poe, 1841).

This description serves not merely as a critique of the Parisian detectives, but also of the Western pursuit of omniscience. By excessively focusing on the divided minutiae, the will to omniscience will surely falter before it reaches its goal.

Speaking on this very method of approaching the world, Emerson remarks that, “Our servitude to particulars betrays into a hundred foolish expectations…It is a symbol of our modern aims and endeavors, of our condensation and acceleration of objects; -but nothing is gained” (Emerson, 1844). Society constantly comes up with new ways to redefine and reinvents its methods, yet the core ideology remains the same. Rather, one might take a page from the book of the Transcendentalists and consider alternate means by which the will to omniscience might be satiated. Instead of dividing up the world and separating oneself from the object of observation, Emerson suggests a radically different method of achieving the eye of God: “Standing on the bare ground…all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (Emerson, 1836). The crux of this ideological approach lies in Emerson’s claim, “I am nothing, I see all,” and what follows will be a dissection and explication of this core concept.

The origin of this idea of eliminating the ego in pursuit of absolute knowledge can hardly be attributed to the Transcendentalists. Whether through fana, moksha, kevala, or any other label given to the annihilation of the Self and absorption into the Ultimate, religious traditions around the world have pursued this goal for millennia. Whether through severe physical austerities, vast professions of faith and love, or any number of other techniques, practioners often claim experiences of abiding in the undercurrents of reality. These types of transcendence are commonly identified as ecstatic experiences in which intellectualism can only go so far and experience becomes the only guide. This, however, is not the only realm in which egotism may be released and sacrificed to the Absolute.

Emerson and the Transcendentalists pursued this task intellectually through the revaluation of symbols. Within Emerson’s statement, “I am nothing,” one finds the unraveling of all that has been so carefully constructed by disciplinary society: “his central doctrine is the virtue of this intellectual, or cultural, nakedness: the virtue of getting beyond the institution, the habit, the ritual…” (Mumford, 1926, 96). In doing so, the illusory boundaries and false order imposed by society are dissolved. By coming to terms with the thought that “I am nothing,” one also releases all of the thoughts, emotions, and conventions that are associated with the Self. Consequently, one becomes the transparent eyeball, inseparable from the object of observation: the whole of reality.

In this respect, Emerson’s transparent eyeball functions as the eye of God that Western society so fervently strives for. Through identification with and absorption into the whole, nothing can go unnoticed because the observer is united with everything. As the transparent eyeball, one not only sees the gestalt of reality, but the infinite layers of microcosms of the whole that lie within. The subtle relationships that lie between all things are made apparent, freed from the obscurity of meaningless divisions and dichotomies.

Emerson is adamant that this state as the transparent eyeball is achievable only beyond the societal sphere, where one is free to achieve a level of intellectual nakedness beyond that attainable within society. To this end, the poet ventures into nature and the liminality of the wilderness. It is within this liminal sphere on the margins of society that “a man casts off his years…and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth” (Emerson, 1836). This renewed youthfulness provides man with a fresh set of eyes to view the world, in which ingrained symbolic associations are deconstructed and everything appears new and numinous. Within the limen, man is free to shed his egotism and enter the eye of God.

This is not to say, however, that the liminality of nature is the only place in which the poet, the man who revalues symbols, does his work. While his encounter with the eye of God may not be so direct while within the confines of society, the figure of the poet finds a number of ways to develop sight beyond that of ordinary men. In its most literal sense, men like Emerson and Thoreau occupy the role of the poet. These poets recognize the inherently makeshift nature of our social institutions, seeking the liminality that exists within the social sphere, and liberating their fellow men from the aesthetic burden of the past. This sentiment is captured particularly well in Emerson’s claim: “I unsettle all things. No facts to me are sacred; none are profane” (Mumford, 1926, 105). Through this unsettling, the Emersonian poet seeks to free man’s mind from its conventions and help him see into the interstices, where much undiscovered knowledge lays to be uncovered.

Another form that the poet takes within society is that of the detective, as demonstrated by Poe’s fictional detective, Dupin. The narrator of The Murders in the Rue Morgue notes that he and Dupin lived in perfect seclusion in Paris, and that the detective was “enamored of the Night for her own sake” (Poe, 1841). Furthermore, Dupin has no association with the Parisian police department, conducting his investigations on his own terms. Before even being familiarized with his incredible ability of ratiocination, readers already begin to view Dupin as a figure of liminality, occupying the space to which most men think not to enter. Through his liminal nature, the detective knows that a complex case is not solved by meticulously observing all of its most apparent parts, but that “the necessary knowledge is that of what to observe” (Poe, 1841). This enables to detective to look beyond the simple facts of the case and the ordinary conclusions that would be drawn and to see into the true nature of the matter. He can see the answers in the areas where they might not ordinarily be found, catching glimpses through the eye of God.

Ultimately, the poet is a man that must operate independently, beyond the webs of significance that society has spun. While he may physically reside within society, his psyche remains free from the conventions that govern the normate. By this very fact, then, any large-scale attempt by Western society to obtain the eye of God is doomed to failure. Any institution or movement operating on a societal level must become entrenched within its own symbols by its very nature if it is to survive. Yet this entrenchment restricts its ability to see beyond its own paradigmatic conventions, limiting it to a sense of omniscience that is ultimately not omniscient at all. Rather, such attempts come face to face not with “the kindly, milk-fed absolute, in which all conflicts are reconciled and all contradictions united into a higher kind of knowledge…[but] the sheer brute energy of the universe, which challenges and checks the spirit of man” (Mumford, 1926).


Bacevich, A. (2002) American empire: The realities and consequences of U.S. diplomacy. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY. Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. & Gordon, C. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. New York, NY. Pantheon Books.

Mumford, L. (1926). The golden day: A study in American experience and Culture. New York, NY. Boni and Liveright.

Natali, V. (Producer). (1997). The cube. [Motion picture]. [With N. de Boer, M. Dean Wint, & D. Hewlett]. Canada: Cineplex-Odeon Films.

Office of Primary Responsibility. (2000). Joint vision 2020. Washington, DC.

Poe, E.A. (1836). Nature.

Poe, E. A. (1844). Essays: Second series. Selection is from the chapter Nature.

Thomas, R. (1999). Detective fiction and the rise of forensic science. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University Press.

Thomson, R. (1997). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York, NY. Columbia University Press.


3 responses »

  1. Pingback: The Religion of Inevitable Progress: Is our Progress Really Progress? « Questing for the Mindnut

    • I’ve been posting from out of the country with incredibly slow internet so it’s a serious effort to upload photos. I’ll do my best in the future though. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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