Panopticon’s on You

Of course, I couldn’t stay away from discussing the Panopticon. The following explanations of its characteristics make it particularly disquieting: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 1) and “The Panopticon is a machine for disassociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (Foucault 2). For me, however, the most interesting characteristic is that it “is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogenous effects of power” (Foucault 2) because it can be used by anyone for any motivation or purpose. I found myself paying special attention to the parts of Chapter 10 in Reade’s novel in which there was some description of how efforts were being made to automate and dehumanize the prisoners. The vizor that obscured all features of the face but the chin and eyes (98), the walk down the corridor that made it so apparent that outwardly Robinson looked like every other inmate (103) and the insistence on cleanliness in cells (101-2) are some examples of the emphasis on conformation. Subtler examples can be found in the way that parts of the prison resemble each other: “With the exception of its halls and corridors, the building is almost entirely divided into an immense number of the small apartments noticed above” (99) and “On reaching the chapel he found, to his dismay, that the chapel was as cellular as any other part of the prison; it was an agglomeration of one hundred sentry-boxes” (103). The efforts to break Robinson specifically, including confining him in darkness, not giving him anything to do, and calling him by a number probably would have been punishment enough; coupled with the prospect of being observed throughout all his tasks heightens the distress [Reade spends some time explaining how it would not have done for Robinson to claim that he had turned the crank on the machine if he hadn’t; “though no mortal oversaw the thief at his task, the eye of science was in that cell and watched every stroke and her inexorable finger marked it down” (110)].

My question for this week seems a little frivolous to me, but one I want to ask anyway: Given that Robinson does exhibit some insolence in the way he speaks to Evans and the under-turnkey (102), as well as the way he speaks up for what he wants when he tells the governor that without some work to do he would go out of his mind (105), how would it have played out for him to use the Panopticon effect for his own social experiment? That is, what if he were to employ some of the same exhibitionism so prevalent in the reality TV of our times, to manipulate his watchers? Reade even says of Robinson that “Solitary, tortured and degraded, he had still found one whom he could annoy a little bit,” (147) and it is this spark, or the presence of spiritedness within him, that I feel would make him suitable for such behavior.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *