In 1975, Michel Foucault taught a seminar at Berkeley nominally about Emile Zola. However, Stephen Greenblatt, rock star of contemporary American literary criticism and frequent attendee of Foucault’s lectures, reminisces that Foucault rarely, if ever, mentioned Zola by name. Instead, he dealt with the evolving concepts of confession and penance in the medieval Catholic Church, “from a once-for-all, lifelong public status to a tariff system of penalties based upon the precise nature of the sin confessed, to a complex, sliding scale of penitential practices whose severity was determined by the sinner’s inward assent or resistance to the sin he or she had committed.” As the conception changed so too did the mechanism priests used to extract confessions from their parishioners. By the end of this development the Catholic Church started erecting “special confessional booths for privacy” and distributing “increasingly sophisticated manuals for confessors.” Foucault argued that this “pastoral technology” didn’t simply facilitate different modes of confession, but it shaped the way that laypeople viewed and even experienced their own sin.
Foucault’s central lesson that the way in which a person learns to interpret their life determines how they construct and participate in their life’s narrative(s) can be applied to Carolina’s mania for panels. It seems that every potentially controversial event on campus from hate crime hoaxes to the looming threat of Snoop Dogg visiting campus requires a hastily planned panel where the socially conscious meet to agree at each other in a round table format. A Foucaultian (sp?) reading of this tendency might argue that training ourselves to react to every public scandal as a panelable moment directs us to spontaneously respond to each event as if it were a panel topic. Having occasionally attended these panels as a freshman/sophomore, and then weening myself from the habit despite the frequent promise of free cookies and/or beverages, I can attest to the fact that in aiming for the lowest common denominator of inoffensive compromise, public panels of this sort at best arrive at vapidly agreeable but ultimately useless propositions, such as: “racism is bad,” “free speech is good,” “rape is bad,” “Led Zeppelin is good.” Thus, our obsession with panels will cause our thinking on undeniably meaningful issues to be restricted to such bland sentiments, eventually rendering our public discourse anemic and unable to actually solve the dilemmas facing our institution.