Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Subverting the Panoptic Structure

While on a recent visit to NYC for some archival digging, I took a day to visit parts of the city I wanted to see- chief among those parts was that glorious bookstore The Strand.  There I picked up a copy of Michel Foucault's '73-'74 lecture at the College de France titled Psychiatric Power, which proved to be a wonderful buy.  I've enjoyed reading Foucault's monographs on Sexuality, Madness, Discipline and Power, etc… but for me, the best place to explore Foucualt's imaginative thought process is in his lectures captured via tape recorder and transcribed for publication.  Psychiatric Power does not let down in this regard, as Foucault spends his twelve lectures investigating what would become the main topic of 'Discipline and Punish'- the role and configuration of disciplinary apparatuses.  His lectures on the topic are succinct and easy to engage, due mainly to the oral nature of their delivery.  I would easily recommend this volume for anyone attempting to grasp Foucault's larger themes of power and the disciplinary mechanisms created to channel power.

Photo by Nicolas Nova
Recently I've been using posts on this blog to investigate what I have termed the mobility potential of knowledge.  While reading Psychiatric Power it occurred to me that Bentham's panopticon and Foucault's use of it to explain the workings of disciplinary power might provide a good opportunity to map out the differences in operation and conception a panoptic mechanism would possess when examined under the framework I've tried to establish for the operation of mobility potentials.

Before diving into the differences each depiction portrays, it might be helpful to establish the baseline for how Bentham envisioned his Panopticon to function and how Foucault found in its operation the workings of a disciplinary apparatus of power.  (Quotes below come from Psychiatric Power)

Bentham designed the Panopticon to augment the power of the central observer through two means.  First, the panoptic design is a multiplier of power that provides 'herculean strength' to power circulating within the institution and to the individual who holds/directs power and, second, the panoptic design gives the center a means of obtaining 'mind over mind' power. This is accomplished by the individualizing nature of the panopticon, as it places the focus of the gaze, the body, on a singular subject. The result Foucault notes,
...means that in a system like this we are never dealing with a mass, with a group, or even, to tell the truth, with a multiplicity: we are only ever dealing with individuals.  ... All collective phenomena, all the phenomena of multiplicities, are thus completely abolished. (75)
Examples of 'collective phenomena' include distinction in workshops achieved by use of songs or strikes, collusion among prisoners, or acts of irritation/imitation found in the asylum.  As a result, "the whole network of group communication...will be brought to an end by the panoptic system."  Power thus becomes collective at the center, the beginning of the anonymous gaze, with the distribution of power always focused on the individuals, the bodies, located in their separate cells.  Foucault equates collective power held at the center as "...a sort of ribbon of power, a continuous, mobile and anonymous ribbon, which perpetually unwinds within the central tower.  ...(The Panoptic Mechanism) is an apparatus of both knowledge and power that individualizes on one side, and which, by individualizing, knows." (Both quotes from p. 78)

Returning to the illustrations above, we can now map out the operation of a panoptic mechanism using both disciplinary and mobility potential frameworks.  The disciplinary framework concerns itself, primarily, with the individualization of the subject in its cell.  The center's gaze penetrates the cell, able to give commands and directives but also capable of conducting observations that record the reaction of the cells to their individualized directives.  This 'feedback' of observation is reconciled in the center via the 'perpetually unwinding ribbon of power' which spurs the creation of new directives and commands.

Now let's examine the same panoptic mechanism through a mobility potential framework.  Because the panoptic mechanism facilitates the imposition of discipline it relies upon the transmission of primarily, perhaps exclusively, low mobility knowledge.  Foucault states that the rise of disciplinary mechanisms is closely tied to the growing use of documentary records to track a body, individually, through space, and the record keeping obsession possessed by many powers from the nineteenth century to present day attests to its enduring practice.  Documentary records, largely, do not transform through transmission or else they would lose their value in the larger practice of forming discipline.  

The cells, upon receiving the transmitted low mobility knowledge, formulate their own reaction or interpretation, although this cannot be shared to the other cells due to the configuration of the panoptic mechanism. (Remember that 'collective phenomena' is what the Panopticon is designed to avoid)  Information produced by the cell, be it high or low mobility, is observed by the gaze of the center and brought into the center for interpretation.  In doing so, the center acts as a 'transition point' for the shifting of high mobility information into low mobility information, a place to reconcile the two and mitigate the disruptive effects their transition generally entails, creating new directives that are then transmitted, once again, to the individual cells.  The key difference in this understanding is that both the cells and the center engage in knowledge interpretation, yet the design of the panoptic mechanism means that only the center can act as the 'transition point'.

Now I would like to ask different questions that I think hold significance with events unfolding today.  Can the panoptic mechanism be subverted?  Are there instances in which the operation of this subverted mechanism could be demonstrated?  I would like to explore the idea that the panoptic mechanism can be subverted and that the prime example of such subversion is the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Below, I've sketched out what I think a subverted panoptic mechanism would look like. 

Here we have the exact same layout as the traditional panoptic mechanisms analyzed above, yet the flow and type of information is highly varied.  Some distinctions are immediately evident.  The center, instead of being solely based on a physical location, now embraces an augmented reality presence allowing both high and low mobility information to be transmitted and received by the center.  This is the first key distinction, as the meshing of the physical and the digital allow the panoptic mechanism to maintain its form even while its very function is subverted.  Because an augmented reality presence necessitates the use of high mobility knowledge potentials, the gaze the center normally possesses in a traditional panoptic mechanism becomes inverted.  Cells now gaze and penetrate the center, attempting to gain knowledge and 'individualize' in a function closely aligned with the traditional panoptic gaze.  The 'perpetually unwinding ribbon of power' is now shared by the center and cell alike, meaning that cells can now engage in the sort of collective phenomena prohibited in traditional panoptic mechanisms.  Now the 'transition point' function, the capacity to interchange high and low mobility knowledge with minimal disruptive asynchronous effects, resides in both the cell and the center.  This shift is the second key distinction of a subverted panoptic mechanism.

In some instances, the subverted panoptic mechanism can wield traditional panoptic powers- this is evident when Occupiers pose for pictures taken by tourists or when video or statements created by the center are transmitted to the cells.  What is interesting is that only in these expressions of 'weak panoptic power' (utilizing the physical structure of the panoptic mechanism) does the center actually gaze into the surrounding cells.  When engaging the cells in an augmented reality presence (as Nathan Jurgenson says, uniting the hashtag and the physical), this gaze is inverted and can no longer penetrate the surrounding cells.  By utilizing the panoptic mechanism in such subversion, the cells also acquire the two benefits outlined by Bentham and explained above- the 'herculean strength' of power multiplied and a means to obtain 'mind over mind' power- and while the effect of the first benefit is immediately apparent when viewing the outpouring of discussion, videos and photos associated with OWS, the second benefit, while very crucial, becomes diminished by simple fact of plurality.  Many cells aligned with the 'ribbon of power' mean that many interpretations are created, making the 'mind over mind' power generated by the subverted panoptic mechanism more suited to the question and analysis of hegemony.

It cannot be stressed enough that the essential characteristic of a subverted panoptic mechanism is the intermeshing of both the physical and the digital.  Absent the physical anchoring, the movement would still be transmitting and receiving information but it would do so outside of the (subverted) panoptic structure.  This, to me, is a key difference between a movement like Occupy Wall Street and a group like Anonymous.  There is a question now, with the general revocation of a physical space to occupy, if the OWS movement can continue or maintain the impact they have fostered so far.  While the loss of a physical location would prevent the movement from subverting the panoptic mechanism for their own uses, there is always the possibility that one of the cells will hold new ground and re-create the movement there.

This is just a very preliminary sketching out of ideas regarding the role of the panoptic mechanism under the framework of mobility potential.  I gladly welcome any comments from readers as to points I either glossed over or missed completely.  


  1. Hey Jeremy,

    This post and it’s panoptic title caught my eye because of the panopticon’s crucial role, acclaimed or not, in architectural history. Reading it tonight, I wanted to find an insightful architectural parallel that I could pinpoint, especially because of how interesting it is to view the OWS movement as a modern panoptic situation. The physical setting of occupiers, camping down, gazing up, yelling up from below while the guards go about their routines above. Above in their towers whose glass enclosures one would imagine as fishbowls, but have proven themselves to be one way mirrors.

    I wanted to find that architectural parallel because I can’t think of many archetypal forms that have more directly impacted society and human life than the panopticon. A parallel has not immediately come to me, but I do have a comment or two.

    I love the optimistic nature of your post, but I would argue that the opposite is actually true, that the presense of augmented reality has not allowed the penetrating gaze to be reversed. You wrote that the “center is now viewable and the cells become opaque.” I see it as quite the opposite condition, though. It’s not only the occupiers that are now more viewable, but all of society, myself included. When we use facebook, twitter, blogs, etc, we make ourselves more and more transparent consumers. Cookies and targeted internet ads are probably the best example.

    The panopticon’s success as an instrument to impose society's paternal instinct over a benevolent populace comes through the idea that the cell tenant never knows when the watcher is watching. Bentham’s design created a situation where the prisoner never knows if he is being watched or not, through the vertical placement of the nest in section, and the horizontal placement of walls and lighting in plan. Therefore the tenant is always on his best behavior. Despite his physical, observable actions though, whatever is going on in his mind is his to keep and digest. There is a duality in what he displays to the observer vs. what is actually going on inside.

    I would say that the high mobility of information that is incessantly made voluntarily available to whatever the powers that be are, eliminate this game. The observer no longer has to wonder if the physical behavior of the occupiers is just a charade for some larger, well thought out plan. All of the thoughts are being made available and disseminated in real time, making the cells more and more transparent, and the towers more and more opaque. Perhaps this makes the collective phenomenon all the more avoidable.

    Sorry this is a bit longwinded and incoherent, but just a couple thoughts that jumped out at me. Thanks for the post, hope all is well,


  2. Connor,

    Thanks for your comments- they are much appreciated.

    Regarding consumers making cells more transparent and the tower more opaque- yes this point is true. Thanks to the tracking of our purchases, likes, even events we turn down in Facebook, the cells are becoming more observable everyday. Opening ourselves up to more people does make us more transparent- and certainly in an internet cookies type argument the center is more opaque than ever. However, as I discuss below, I believe giving the cells access to high mobility knowledge, in part and maybe to a large degree, mitigates the centers power to enforce disciplinary compliance. When you discuss the duality of displayed behavior vs. internal thoughts of the cells, I think this describes the optimal workings of a panoptic mechanism- yet when the center of the panoptic mechanism becomes a protest movement that embraces augmented reality anchored to a physical location, the panoptic mechanism that every protest embodies becomes subverted allowing the cells to engage in collective phenomena and sharing of both high/low mobility knowledge. This shift, from the cells to the center, has radical effects on the operation of traditional panoptic mechanisms.

    In a subverted panoptic mechanism, the 'game' presented by the duality of displayed behavior vs. internal thought becomes largely moot as the center loses the capacity to enforce a disciplinary regime. So long as the center remained the only point through which both high/low knowledge could transition it could enforce its discipline via the 'elevated' gaze of the central tower. In a subverted panoptic mechanism, the tower is largely flattened and on the level with the cells, and the capacity to enforce a singular disciplinary regime is greatly diminished.

    On high mobility eliminating the duality of displayed behavior vs. internal thought: while it is true that the center in many discussed panoptic mechanisms gain unparalleled access to the internal thoughts, the very speed and incredible potential to modify the circulating knowledge high mobility enables at least gives the cells an equal plane of power to interact with the center. The center is not endowed with vision of the future, or else it would not need to instill discipline, and whatever behavior it wishes to promote through its ceaseless gaze can be disrupted to a large degree in a system where the circulation of high mobility knowledge exists. In many ways the OWS movement makes the center towers of traditional panoptic mechanisms more observable, not less, as the disciplinary structure, upon finding a mass of bodies that are unclassifiable and not in submission to the disciplinary framework (they are engaging in collective phenomena) must reveal its hands and intentions in a rather clumsy way, that being the often violent clashes with the occupiers. I do not believe that a true panoptic mechanism (as in optimal enforcement of a disciplinary apparatus) can co-exist in a system that allows the cells to engage in dual high/low mobility knowledge circulation. Here we may disagree- but I readily admit to requiring further refinement of my argument before making a more serious case.

    No need to apologize for long-windedness, I often indulge in the habit myself.