Deep Thoughts: the Panopticon as a metaphor for power in our society
The Panoptic Transition
By Joshua Kane/21C Magazine
It would not be fair to say that Jeremy Bentham invented the panoptic model of domination; it was always there. Bentham was merely the scribe; panopticism was his muse. According to the widely renowned postmodern social critic Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism must be understood as a general model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men... It is polyvalent in its applications.” Polyvalent indeed. Panopticism is, in fact, slowly subjugating the social world that we all call the 21st century.
Postmodern society, I will argue below, is collectively in the midst of a ‘Panoptic Transition’ driven by communications technologies that are, at once, empowering and homogenizing. In a dialectical feedback loop, these two paradoxical forces are unpredictably shaping society. Can this process be unraveled so that we may clearly see its consequences? As with all feedback loops, it is always best to start at the beginning. For what purpose then have these information technologies arisen? For what purposes shall they be used in the end? Answers to these questions and more are unfolding before us, in real time. And you my friend, are participating; whether you like it or not, you are in The Panopticon.
The panoptic model of domination materialized, as aforementioned, in the fecund imagination of Jeremy Bentham during his famed 18th century quest for economic and organizational efficiency. It was during the year 1785, while visiting his brother Samuel in Russia, that Bentham stumbled upon his very own personal Holy Grail – The Panopticon. Czarina Catherine the Great had solicited the architects of her day to create for her a structural model of the perfect prison. Bentham, already a known utilitarian at 36 years of age, studiously applied himself to the task. The outcome was an ingenious prison wherein subjects could be monitored at anytime, but could never see whether they were being monitored.
The Panopticon is a structure wherein the watched cannot see the watchers, but know they are being watched: At the periphery an annular building, at the center a tower. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive cells in the periphery. But this light creates a veil placed over surveillance, for the light that illuminates each cell also blinds each prisoner to the presence of guards, or the lack thereof, as it may be. Each cell then becomes a stage for an unknowable audience; each prisoner alone, individualized, at once performing for no one and everyone; each guard capable of seeing each cell and all prisoners at once at their will. Thus creating an economy in surveillance – one doesn’t need many guards in a panotpicon and they don’t need to always be there or always be aware – the actors (or prisoners as it were) will perform the same whether someone is watching or not, for they do not know whether someone is watching or not.
Hence, by the use of irregularly mete out punishments, prisoners learn to police themselves. The punishments need not be deserved or just, for ideally, the prisoner cannot visually see another prisoner and any communication is entirely mediated and processed through the central guard tower. The prisoner can of course ‘rat’ on a near inmate from whose cell the sound of wrongdoing he may (or may not) have heard. However the prisoners cannot collude and expect to get away with it for lengthy time periods; the watchers will watch eventually. And at all times prisoner ears are present, ready to notify the guards of any real or imagined wrongdoings, so that they may be spared punishment in the future.
In a general sense then, for surveillance to be panoptic, it must be both visible and unverifiable: “Visible – the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable – the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at in any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” The panoptic prisoner is seen, but cannot see; the panoptic prisoner is the object of information, but never an independent subject in communication.
For Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon was the perfect schema of utilitarian domination – a place where power was invisible, and yet everywhere present. Surely the Czarina would be impressed. But Czarina Catherine the Great was less modern than she might have thought. She immediately discarded Bentham’s Panoptic Prison as impractical and overly complex; its economizing effects were lost on her Majesty. Bentham himself too was perhaps less modern than he may have thought. That is to say, Jeremy Bentham was unwittingly postmodern. For modernism was not the epoch in which panoptic forms of organization widely captured the public imagination. In fact, even Bentham’s Herculean efforts could not bring the panoptic prison from conception to materialization during modernity – working models were continually plagued by pesky technological difficulties in backlighting. Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, and alas, interest in the idea of unverifiable surveillance waned and faded.
Until the 1970s, that is, when Michel Foucault, famed postmodern social critic, proclaimed the Panopticon a paradigmatic conceptual catch all for successful late twentieth century organizational forms of domination. The Panopticon, he argued, had seeped into the cracks of modern capitalist society, eventually subverting it, reconstructing it, bending it to its will, until the panoptic paradigm (unverifiable surveillance) was conceptually, if not structurally, everywhere present.
‘The major effect of the Panopticon is to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So as to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary. That subjects be caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearers... Crowd and collectivity become replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of view of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; from the point of view of the inmates, by a sequestered and observed solitude... Axial visibility and lateral invisibility guarantee order. Dangerous plots are difficult to hatch, contagion in ideas is difficult to spread... The panopticon must not then be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form... it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use... Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used... In short, it arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint, to the function it invests, but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contact.” (201-206).
For Foucault, the failed architecture of the panoptic prison masked a much deeper truism of domination – control is most easily maintained if subjects police themselves. Unverifiable surveillance removes the locus of control from outside the subject (i.e. a human guard), and places it within the subject (i.e. the subject’s mind,) so that power (the ability to make others do what you would have them do) becomes automatic in its functioning. In the perfect panoptic schema the subject is hardly aware that they are responding to signals of their domination, as motivation seems to come from within.
Interestingly, Foucault put into words what business organizations had discovered long ago: the panoptic schema provides a tool of conceptual rather than material domination. The panopticon is not a building architecture per say. It is a state of awareness, a dimension in that it is a form that reality can take. No wonder then that little fanfare has accompanied our collective panoptic subjugation. Monitoring of the deviant, the expected road, did not provide the avenue by which panopticism entered into our systems of dominance. By what hidden avenue did panopticism rise then? Panopticism found its home in the crevice of the bloated late twentieth century western corporation teetering and tottering upon a sea of increased competition.
See, it was by no conscious design that corporations discovered the power of the panoptic schema. The panoptic corporation arose as an unintended consequence of the application of cold war inspired information technologies to the 1970s western Trans-National Corporate profit recession. Increased international competition in all sectors of mass industrial production had squeezed margins, forcing corporations to globalize. With the spread of production processes to the far reaches of the undeveloped world came another problem – how to integrate the disparate parts into a corporate whole? Cold war information technologies such as semiconductors, satellites, and laser communications were bent and evolved in order to serve this higher purpose. Information technologies enabling real time linkages between dispersed corporate databases emerged, thus allowing corporations to expand their geographical dispersion, revenue, flexibility, and profit.
It makes sense that the information technologies most panoptic would become the information technologies most successfully adapted to the corporate business model of organization. As Foucault makes clear, there is no higher form of capitalist domination than panopticism. No other schema can integrate disparate parts so seamlessly: At the center an informational ‘tower’ from which all the limbs of production (and their associated data and database history) can be accessed. At the periphery a wide array of subjects dispersed in a manner most economical based upon all of the usual missives that go into profit calculations. The subjects manning the limbs communicate through the intermediary servers of the informational guard tower; all direction is taken from there. All communication is monitored and stored. Log-in, log-out, and batch completion times are duly recorded. There is little if any independent communication between the subjects at the limbs, other than that which is sanctioned by the informational center. Independent transmissions create confusion, anxiety, inefficiency; they are frowned upon, if not punished.
The panoptic corporation, powered with software developed by the premiere panoptic juggernaut Microsoft, was a resounding success (see the late twentieth century transformation of GE or IBM for astounding bottom line proof). As the interlocking tentacles of this behemothic and yet lithe entity spread, the word globalization entered the national lexicon, and conceptions of austere modernism waned. Only to be replaced by what? Well that my friend is an open academic can of worms that I rather not eat from. I use the word postmodernism to simply indicate a state that is past modernity, as in different from it. Surely, the 21st century differs from the 20th. Being that the 20th century was the height of modernism, it is only natural that the 21st century be postmodern. In my mind, information technologies mark the break. Conceptions of postmodernity, ultramodernity, exponential modernity, what have you are predicated upon the seamless functioning of semiconductors and their associated digitalized processing power. The rise of information technologies marks the break between Modernity and Postmodernity. And in Postmodernity, the one-time whimsy of widely dispersed schemas of panoptic domination is becoming a reality.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the main protagonist, Winston Smith works for the government in the Ministry of Truth where his job is to filter news and history in the interests of his party, led by Big Brother, who is of course everywhere. In reality, Winston Smith works at CNN, or IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Skadden Arps, some university, or some other informationally oriented ‘service’ corporation. He too filters news and history in favor of his party, (typically the GOP, always something close) but not because he is overtly commanded to do so. You see, Winston is his own Big Brother. He filters news and history in the service of his party and his parties’ values not because he is explicitly coerced, but rather because he is seductively persuaded to do so. Winston’s values serve Winston’s comfort. And Winston has many friends – both male and female, both young and old. And they together inhabit a comfort zone. A comfort zone called the United States.
The United States has become the informational guard tower in the globe’s panoptic schema of domination. Or rather, Corporate America has constructed a panoptic schema wherein the American state serves to legitimate the corporate informational filter that creates and recreates the material state that benefits Corporate America. The web of this corporately rooted panoptic schema is now reaching out across the entire nation, enveloping, persuading, seducing, atomizing, reconstructing, recombining and reassembling us all into a greater whole as never before. Within this greater whole, we are all Big Brother. We are all increasingly analyzing each other’s actions as we police ourselves with ever greater detail and precision.
Fortunately for Bill Gates, Microsoft succeeded in putting a computer on every desk in every home in the United States. But we should not forget that the computer remains today fundamentally a machine that was created for and by business. Not surprisingly then, as the computer has integrated itself into American culture the lines between business and pleasure have blurred. But if computer technology succeeded in the business world precisely because it enabled panoptic surveillance from an informational center, what will it wrought in the personal world?
A milieu wherein we all watch, govern, and monitor our actions in real time, while adjusting our actions continually in terms of an ever more integrated whole. That is what is new about 21st century America. It is not that we monitor our actions in real time; everyone has always done that to the best of their ability. It is that we are better at doing so, and as a result do so in terms of an ever larger and more coordinated whole. Visualize the postmodern highway – the speed, the precision, the trust in forethought, the annoyance and fatality that result from minor miscommunication. Understand the reality of a mother smacking a child in an anonymous mall parking lot, and then quickly being brought to account. Recall yourself at a computer commenting to a friend how each website you visit is recorded for posterity. Imagine the social spaces that the PATRIOT Act will summon forth. These realities are now possible thanks to the magic of the semiconductor. All semiconductor technologies have pushed us in the direction of panopticism because ‘panoptic corporations’ developed them. Our Panoptic Transition is simply the result of the flourishing of informational technologies to all spheres of personal and public life.
Perhaps it is too early to make bold sweeping statements in regards to postmodernism (ironically true scholarly ‘postmodernists’ never actually would or could). In a relative sense, postmodernism, what I, and some others, term informationalism, is only in its infancy. The postmodern move towards panopticism in private life – where everyone governs his or her personal and public actions as if they may be on display for all to see at any unexpected moment – might crumble and fade as quickly as Bentham’s architectural whimsy. But I think not. And I think not because our pop art tells us different. It tells us that panopticism is here to say.
A cursory review of the 21st century news reveals panoptic technologies operating in nearly every American city, in nearly every public and private place within those cities. There is neither need nor space here to recount the coordinating mechanisms that create the illusion of unverifiable surveillance in the United States. A more important question to the social critic then is whether the public mind state is changing as a result of this proliferation of panoptic surveillance?
Absolutely. How do I know? Reality television. That is how I know. The reality television phenomenon is a collective expression of our panoptic transition, and in being so offers a glimpse into the different potential futures that postmodernism can take. What is reality television then, and what makes it so appealing? Reality television occurs when Regular Joe People, like you or me, play themselves on TV. Of course this alone would be boring. So reality television consists of putting ordinary people into extraordinary and unexpected situations. Why is this interesting to others? I believe this is interesting to others because the watcher of reality television performs an immediate reflexivity in which the watcher becomes, in their own mind, the watched. The, watcher, now also the watched, then judges themselves and the others they are watching by the measures that govern their own personal self-worth. These assessments are then compared with the assessments of other watchers. Some consensus in opinion is formed. Much of the drama involved in reality television stems from the mass formation and revelation of this consensus. Through this process, the norms that govern the watching community are shone in stark light. They are then analyzed, examined, tailored, and as a result emerge strengthened.
Reality television has made one thing abundantly clear: We want to see ourselves. Is this so that we may better know ourselves? Probably. Theoretically, the worst thing that can happen to a prisoner in a panoptic prison is to have all of the other prisoners turn on them. Then the guards would be hearing of your real and imagined exploits whether they were paying attention or not, thus insuring your continual punishment. The panoptic schema that is ensnaring the 21st century United States is different than a prison, and yet similar. As stated above, panopticism seeped into the cracks of capitalism not by way of corrections, but through a corporate desire to integrate processes over large geographical dispersions. Unverified surveillance was an unintended consequence of the need to document all business processes in real time. The surveillance technologies that are driving our panoptic transition are therefore largely integrative; they make it such that all subjects may monitor the actions of all or any one other subject at any particular time.
Granted, this does not first appear as a schema of domination. A milieu wherein everyone is there by choice and has the same observational capabilities does not necessarily lend itself to power asymmetries. As a result, we have not seen a majority of Americans, shall we say, running for the door. However, recall the power of the informational guard tower in the panoptic schema of capitalist dominance. This is the headquarters where all potential action is reviewed before it occurs. This is the site where disparate parts become integrated into a seamless whole. It is the informational guard tower that determines what that whole is and does.
Clearly the American state, and its ever more associated and cuckolded mainstream media, is the informational guard tower in the globe’s emerging panoptic schema. This corporately governed ‘entity’ determines which information is legitimate, which information will be concentrated upon, and when. It determines how this information will be assimilated and understood, at both the grand and individual level. And it determines whether and what actions will, or will not be, taken as a result. By the very nature of panopticism, power at the center increases dramatically if the subjects in the schema are unaware that information is being strictly policed at the center. Even more so if subjects in the schema wrongly believe that they democratically control the personage of any potential informational guards. For this imbues the informational center with the ability to implement technologies and environments that serve to subjugate while convincing subjects that the technologies of their subjugation are motivated from within.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? I offer no answers, I merely point to an emerging situation: The proliferation of business technologies into the social world is causing American norms to conflict, coalesce, coordinate, and in turn strengthen. If Americans collectively decide which norms to coordinate and strengthen, then the Panoptic Transition may very well be a glorious thing. Problems will come however if Americans remain unaware that they are embarking upon a process of greater coordination and strengthening in norms. This naiveté opens the way for a more sinister path. A path governed by the same powerful entity that first developed and applied panoptic technologies – the corporate-capitalist state nexus.
Yes then there are two generally divergent paths confronting Americans today; i.e., two divergent paths that the Panoptic Transition can take (I would hazard to say that it is already too late to stop the transition itself). One leads to a milieu of acceptance. One leads to a milieu of judgment. Both paths are collectively expressed in reality television today. The first path is best represented by MTVs The Real World. The Real World, a truly unexpected and runaway hit, was the first consciously constructed reality entertainment enterprise. In being so, it serves to best express Americans first and initial realization of collective panopticism. The Real World has no contests. The show is undoubtedly most appealing when close-minded children emerge as open-minded non-judgmental adults. Acceptance drives entertainment in the Real World.
Nearly a decade after the Real World’s success, austere modernistic television networks finally caught on. Surprisingly, media arms of flexible postmodern corporations were slow to realize the cultural impact that the proliferation of business technologies into the personal sphere would have; slow to realize that reality television was an expression of rapidly changing American culture. Postmodern corporations did of course eventually realize, and when they did they were quick to act. Their actions changed the face of reality television.
Reality television on non-pay network TV is the consequence of the Real World gone through the corporate mill. In network reality television there is always an unseen power over and above the contestants (more visible in Fox’s ‘American Idol’, less in CBS’ ‘Big Brother’). The goal is to consistently please this unseen power. Failure to please the unseen power is sure to lead to dismissal. Nonetheless, the motivations for any one dismissal seemingly come from the subjects themselves. This effective illusion is created by information manipulation at the site of the unseen power. The norms of the game (the rules) are subject to changes at the whim of the unseen power, during the game even. Subjects are powerless to counteract changes in norms that occur at the center, and they therefore consent to the new rules, and play based upon the new options. Whereas the Real World brought us little in the way of power asymmetries, Survivor hails them, glorifies them, revels in them, and most importantly consents to them.
All reality television creates drama through dismissal. Thus conveying an emerging social reality: In an increasingly coordinated and integrated society, banishment is ever more frightening. Fear of personal banishment is driving the reality television phenomenon. The question we are collectively posing is this: By whose norms do we banish? This question has yet to be fully answered, but the answer is unfolding before us. Will American culture place itself on the re-invigorated path of acceptance, best exemplified by the popularity of MTV’s riotous and relatively counter culture ‘The Osbournes’? Or will the United States take the path of Survivor – a path leading to a milieu wherein the only norms that we judge by are those that survive the grist of the corporate mill. Watch the ratings in real-time, perhaps it will be possible to find some answers there.