September 19, 2007

panoptic musings

To what extent do modern forms of surveillance exhibit panoptic effects? Within our own lifetimes, we have witnessed the introduction, adoption, and now widespread use of video and digital surveillance cameras. Do surveillance cameras provide the panoptic effect that Foucault identified was a result of certain forms of disciplinary architecture? In the panopticon, individuals were physically and visually separated from one another, but were constantly visible by an unseen seer. The panopticon disrupted the normal see/being seen dyad. Individuals within the panoption are aware that they may always be seen, even if they themselves cannot see who is looking at them. This was the genus of the panopticon's design.

The design of the panopticon conveys
power and serves as a disciplinary
mechanism. Those within the
panopticon are always visible, can
always be seen, every action may be
observed, and there is no privacyfrom the unseen looker. Even though
they cannot see who sees them, individuals are fully aware of theirvisibility. You better be good, cause "they're watching."

Foucault stated that the major effect of the panopticon was to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the functinoing of power (p. 201).

Do modern forms of public surveillance induce panoptic effects?

Digital and video surveillance is everywhere - in stores, on campus, on public roads and streets, in parking lots, in restaurants, at home... it is not uncommon to see many digital and video cameras during the course of a regular day. My apartment complex has its surveillance system broadcast to all its residents on television cable channel 87. There are over a dozen cameras in and around my aparment residence, and, if i am interested, i can watch any one of them while laying on my couch sipping whiskey. Driving around my neighborhood, I notice cameras on almost every streetlight. My favorite bar has at least 3 visible cameras. On campus, I notice cameras outside buildings, and as I enter, I see more. I grab some lunch and sit down, and as I pray to God that my professor may grant me grace, I see another camera above my head.

Our lives are saturated with the presence of digital and video surveillance cameras.

Here is a portion of a surveillance camera map of downtown Philadelphia near univeristy city. An undergraduate class at the University of Pennsylvania documented over 500 cameras in thier neighborhood! They gave up trying to continue documentation: they couldn't keep up.

Does the presence of such a great density of surveillance cameras assure the automatic functioning of power that Foucault stated was a major effect of the panopticon? Surveillance cameras indicate the obviousness of our visibility. Cameras are for LOOKING, WATCHING, OBSERVING. We can't see who's looking at us. We are in a disrupted dyad of seeing/being seen. We know we are visible, yet we are not able to see our observer.

Has the obviousness of our visibility affected our behavior? In my own life, I have largely stopped noticing the cameras; they have largely become invisible. I pass them, paying little attention. They are so prevalent, they have become camoflaged; they have become installed in the urban landscape.

Perhaps there is something not compatable with public surveillance and Foucault's addressed panoptic effects. In the panopticon, individuals are enclosed, partitioned, segmented, and distributed, often into spaces that are small and easily manageable. Originally it was essential to panoptic power that individuals be separated from each other. Public surveillance fails to display this form. Surveillance cameras often observe open spaces, large spaces with many people. Perhaps panoptic effects can be generalizeable, or even extended - certainly as Spitzack demonstrates, all that is required for panoptic effects is that the individual internalize the its logic, and if this happens, we can exibit separation, even from our own selves, regardless of where we are.

September 16, 2007

Panoptic Images

I really like the second image Dan posted, but not probably for the obvious reason.

The image shows the ideal subject of the panoptic prison: a prisoner, penitent, on his knees, examining his own soul in solitude. He has internalized, to his very core, the panoptic gaze, the I/eye that watches from the center but is itself unwatched. He watches himself inwardly just as he is watched (from the center and by you and I) from the outside.

It is eloquent in this way. But what I find interesting is the way the viewer is positioned. The view which we are offered - of the penitent prisoner, of the central tower where the I/eye of power hides - is a view that cannot exist. There is no position behind the prisoner from which to see his conformity with the processes of subjection at work within and without.

This position is fictional, but where does it place us within the scene?

I think even though we are behind him, we are the penitent. Or better, we are witnesses, called by the image to testify to the efficacy of panoptic power - whether we like it or not.

So, what other images can people find that shed some light on contemporary panopticism?


Just so you all have an idea of what this structure would look like, see the posted photos. The blue-print like sketch is from Jeremy Bentham, the building's creator. Keep these images in mind for this weeks readings.