Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Submitted for your viewing pleasure (and control), the Panopticon!

The Panopticon, the building Jeremy Bentham designed, is very much a reality in some of today’s prison buildings. The entire project of shedding light on the dark corners of the growing urban masses is a driving social concern of Bentham’s “discovery.” One remarkable feature of the design, Foucault points out, is than it can “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Discipline and Punish 201). Foucault’s “panopticism” looks beyond this specific architectural design to the workings of the surveillance (outside and inside) in all areas of society, and especially to the political and social objectives brought to prisons, hospitals, the military, and, important to us, I think, schools. “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals,” Foucault writes, “on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used” (Discipline 205). As teachers in the university, I think we walk into and participate in a panoptic arena, which is also gifted with a degree of remarkable control without anybody really watching anything--ironic and decidedly panoptic.

Foucault’s conversation with Jean-Pierre Barou and Michelle Perrot makes clear that the Panopticon represents the idea of the “technology of power” ("Eye of Power" 148). Teachers do have power, and some of it is subtle. Just wearing the teacher “hat” gives a certain amount of power, and (here is the connection to technology, finally!) technology can increase a teacher’s ability to “watch,” even if not much watching is actually done. The university and web based virtual “spaces” for prescribed activities (webct, eLearning, Blackboard, etc.) are partaking of the spatial concerns of panopticism. For example, working as a TA grader for a world civilization course with nearly 100 students, I was instructed to read only a fraction of what students were required to submit to the webct message board. The week chosen is arbitrary and sporadic, but just the possibility that someone might read and grade any one of them seems to work in getting students to do these postings. I felt bad that no one would read what they worked on, it seemed unfair, but so did the workload.

In my own classes, I usually require postings to eLearning boards, partly to induce students to do the readings, and mostly because I like to read them for what I can learn about all the texts’ effectiveness and other dynamics of the course. Do I feel like the unseen figure in the watchtower? Not exactly, but I think that technology can add increased surveillance and control that can be misused, or (not much better) a waste of time. Of course, not all digital technology need be subject to surveillance or floating on the web, so maybe there is nothing inherently panoptic about digital technology. Or is there? Think of the hard-drives, the spatial concerns, and the surveillance capabilities!

Finally, (if you are still with me dear reader), I could discuss the power of opinion in the onslaught of news blogs and opinion blogs and the rest. There are also the rating systems of websites like YouTube, that rate videos by number of viewers, who are also invited to rate the videos. Here the panoptic gaze does create a public opinion that both judges and arranges virtual space. But really, I just want to link you now to a YouTube video of Johnny Cash doing “The Mercy Seat”, which I think captures the panoptic gaze and might make the hair on your spine stand up. Take note of the backlighting of the panoptic prison cell

1 comment:

kristin said...

It's truly a pleasure to have your voice (and you, if you're separate from your voice) in class. I really like the examples you use in order to illuminate Foucault's understandings/questionings of the panopticon. The World Civ example is a great way to see some of the ways in which teachers employ panoptic uses of technology--and in some ways it totally makes good other ways it seems dishonest and unethical...I'm just not sure.

You say:
Of course, not all digital technology need be subject to surveillance or floating on the web, so maybe there is nothing inherently panoptic about digital technology. Or is there?

Good question--I guess in some ways it's all panoptic at least in structure. Maybe it just depends on how we decide to use it.

Thanks for the post, and thanks for the pics and the video :)