First year TA graduate students are obsessed with teaching Michel Foucault’s theory of Panopticism from his book Discipline and Punish for reasons that I’ve never fully understood: even when I taught it myself, as a first year instructor. There’s just something about this chapter that seems really intellectual but still accessible. Or, there is a dimension to Foucault’s panopticon that seems inherently faulty and, because he is such a big deal in academic circles, instructors are drawn to its faults without knowing why.
Foucault didn’t birth the panopticon: Jeremy Bentham did. It is an incredibly Victorian concoction, like most creations of the (post post-)modern world. True, Foucault critiques it as a way of problematizing society, but his critique needs a critique. (I am not going to summarize his theory, but you can access a very clear description of it here.)
He overlooks what I think is the most important aspect of the spectacle: that the biggest fantasy of all (maybe ever) that humans harbor is the fantasy that someone is watching them.
Scopophila suggests that someone — a stranger — cares about what we’re doing, who we are. It is our ultimate fantasy. We take great pains to protect our “identities” because we believe that only an ass-hair lays between us and absolute identity theft. Because someone is always watching us. Maybe “Big Brother.”
Regardless, we want it. Even if we say we don’t.
The problem of the spectacle (of the gaze, of watching, of looking), is that no one is really looking. That’s the ultimate problem. It’s the underlying warrant that undoes Bentham’s and Foucault’s fantasy.
But, we want to be watched, don’t we? And then, we want to protect ourselves from our desire. Hide it. Deny it.
The stranger-gazer has the ability to gain knowledge about ourselves that we don’t know or won’t admit, or won’t readily expose.
And we despise these strangers.
I speak, of course, from experience.
Last time I was at acupuncture I laughingly told my acupuncturist that she had insight into my interior that I myself didn’t have — as a stranger. With acupuncture, she listens to the 12 pulses of my organs and is able to decipher my health, my blockages, my inhibitions, my fears.
She looks at my most personal spaces through a keyhole that only an outsider can access.
But, she will never tell me what she sees, what she knows.
Acupuncture is a realization of the human fantasy of internal panopticism.
It also suggests that such surveillance is potentially healthy. But Foucault wouldn’t want to hear that. And Bentham…forget it.
What about you?