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Arizona, Sheriff Arpaio, Panopticism, & Neo-physiognomy

“My mug shot totally turned me against being photographed.”
-C.D. Wright, One Big Self (2007)

In an eye-opening article called “Securing Arizona: What Americans Can Learn From Their Rogue State” (Boston Review, March/April 2011), Tom Barry traces, among other things, “the state’s history of anti-immigrant animus and vigilantism.”  He recounts the story of Sheriff Harry Wheeler who, in 1917, deputized a posse of citizens to round up 1,200 suspected immigrants who were subsequently dumped, without food or water, in the middle of the New Mexico badlands.  Cochise ranchers Roger and Don Barnett continue this tradition as they patrol their 22,000-acre ranch “with night-vision goggles and assault rifles.”  According to Barry, “a trio of county sheriffs— [Joe] Arpaio in Maricopa County, Larry Dever in Cochise County, and Paul Babeu in Pinal County—have given critical law-enforcement credibility to border-security hawks who rely on popular anxiety to get elected.” 

"Protecting and Serving the Valley of the Sun Since 1893"

Sheriff Arpaio has recently been in the news again since the launch of his new and controversial website.  The so-called “America’s Toughest Sheriff” has created a webpage that features booking photos of pre-trial inmates.  “Numerous people are booked into our jails each day,” says the site, “Vote for the mug shot you like best then see if your choice makes mug shot of the day tomorrow! You can change your mind as often as you like but your final vote will be the only one cast. Tell us what you think!”  A kind of interactive version of the reality show COPS, Arpaio’s site trades upon a late-capitalist logic of consumer choice and feedback while consolidating the socio-economic differences between the “normal” voyeurs/voters and the othered and often mentally-ill populations which are the objects of both police control and public delectation and ridicule; this “public service” of visual entertainment and interactivity seems to tacitly justify the public resources spent on law enforcement and immigration control while it  mockingly labels detainees as social deviants and delinquents. 

Given the fact that Arpaio’s “Mug Shot of the Day” website is so exploitatively spectacular in its use of the Internet’s scopophilic machinery, one might be inclined to question and re-evaluate the epistemic shift that Michel Foucault famously described in his influential study Discipline and Punish.  In discussing 18th century public displays of torture and execution, Foucault says,

[b]y the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the gloomy festival of punishment was dying out…Punishment, then, will become the most hidden part of the penal process…it leaves the domain of more or less everyday perception and enters that of abstract consciousness; its effectiveness is seen as a resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity. [1] 

Sheriff Arpaio is at once extending the concept of punishment, which is usually associated with post-trial sentencing, to pre-trial inmates through the shaming capacities of his website as well as returning such punishment into the domain of “everyday perception” (the Internet, after all, constitutes for its users a digital or virtual “everyday” in its mediation of information and social relations).  In other words, Arpaio’s site is so popular (it attracted 135, 000 hits in its first four days of existence) precisely because of the “visible intensity” of its representations of social deviancy.  Yet rather than understanding Arizona’s new policing techniques as a simple regression from Foucault’s carceral and disciplinary culture to an antiquated culture of theatrical punishment and perverse festival, Maricopa County’s publicized mug shots might be more productively seen as an example of spectacle (in the Debordian sense) being mobilized for the sake of surveillance (in the Foucauldian sense). [2]  It is a way of enlisting and incorporating the entire community (through a populist appeal to vigilante justice) into a postmodern Panopticon; Arpaio said of his website, “I want people to turn to see if their neighbor’s been arrested.”  Foucault defined such a Panopticon as “a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.”  In this case, such supervision is abetted by both the voyeuristic consumption of images and the pseudo-democratic lure of free choice and individual preference (“Vote for the mug shot you like best then see if your choice makes mug shot of the day tomorrow”).  

According to Charles “Chick” Arnold, a lawyer and longtime advocate for the mentally ill, “While we might risk advancing (Arpaio’s) publicity component, I think it’s critical that we try to get in the way of this and stop this kind of exploitative behavior – because that’s exactly what it is.  What he’s doing seems to be to be exploiting people who have been defined in our state as vulnerable adults. That’s offensive.”  Arpaio’s site is also advancing a sensational neo-physiognomy in its implicit linking of facial features with criminality.  It is a bogus and dangerous social hermeneutics and, as Arnold says, we need to stop it.     


[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1991), pp. 8-9.

[2] Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which was published several years after Guy DeBord’s The Society of the Spectacle, memorably and underhandedly critiques DeBord’s master term: “Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance” (p. 217).  I understand “spectacle” and “surveillance” as not mutually exclusive but as different and sometimes intertwining modalities within a late-capitalist system.

2 thoughts on “Arizona, Sheriff Arpaio, Panopticism, & Neo-physiognomy

  1. “this “public service” of visual entertainment and interactivity seems to tacitly justify the public resources”

    We all want proof, right?

    Just this morning I was thinking about the old public burnings and hangings, then I thought about The Lottery, and Salem and rage. The internet seems a relatively easy way to carry out this gruesome business of “teaching” people a lesson, which I’m appalled at.

    The role of the Avenger is an interesting one. Fictional won’t do anymore. Though I think that’s why No Country for Old Men and Anton Chigurh caught on. A modern day, quasi Robin Hood. Superman is too 30’s or 40’s, too cute.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Greg. Sure, Superman is way too cute — in a completely different category.

    Here is more from Barry’s _Boston Review_ piece:

    “In 2009 a federal court found Roger Barnett guilty of a 2004 armed assault on a group of seven Mexican immigrants. For failing to prevent Barnett, a former county deputy, from holding unarmed Mexicans men at “gunpoint, yelling obscenities at them and kicking one of the women,” [Sheriff Larry] Dever himself was charged but not convicted in a suit organized by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.”

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