Link to a review and preview of Theorizing surveillance: the panopticon and beyond.
Detailed article about panopticism.
Giddens, A. (1995). Surveillance and the capitalist state. In A contemporary critique of historical materialism, 2nd Edn. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Giddens defines surveillance as two connected processes of accumulation of information and of the supervision of the activities of subordinates in a collective. He believes that information gathering is a prime generator of power.
Human beings are knowledgable agents acting within “unacknowledged conditions” and “unintended consequences” of their actions (p. 171).
Whilst he recognises that Foucault connected the abolition of the violence of the spectacle with the rise of capitalism, he maintains that Foucault’s connection between the factory and the prison were too close to be sustained. Rather, he notes that workplaces are not, as with prisons, “total institutions” (a phrase he credits to the work of Goffman) in which resistance may develop. As a result Foucault’s “docile bodies” become not so docile after all and become knowledgeable agents. (p. 173)
He notes that the freedom of labour in capitalist systems are really just a sham and create the exploitation of workers through more subtle means, but he points out that the rise of “mere bourgeois freedoms” have lead to the development of genuine gains in judicial reforms allowing and encouraging the formation of organised labour movements which have challenged the hegemony of capitalism.
Giddens maintains that Foucault’s ideas about the sequestration of prisoners become more a comment about the parts of capitalist society that commodify, regulate, and smooth time, removing from our day-to-day lives those aspects which are directly connected to the ebb and flow of nature. (p. 173)
Despite his criticism of Foucault, Giddens recognises the importance of surveillance to studies of capitalism. He observes that “classical social theory” – and by that I assume he refers to Marxism – did not recognise the threat to personal liberties from systems of surveillance. (p. 174)
Finally he points to what he sees as the oppressive potential for a combining of a Taylorist supervision of workers with an information collection mechanisms that result in anonymous “technical control” (p. 176).
Elmer, G. (2003). A diagram of panoptic surveillance. New media and society, 5(2), 231-247. Retrieved June 7, 2008, from SAGE Publications database.
Not proof-read, read generously.
The development of a theory of panoptic surveillance is often hampered by an overly literal interpretation of the panopticon.
Criticisms of panopticism are made in three broad categories:
- The shifting of architectures of surveillance from “carceral enclosure” to databases which plays to debates about invasions of personal privacy.
- Questioning of the “automatic disciplinary effect of panopticism” and argues that people voluntarily participate in their own surveillance through exchanging private information about themselves for reward. These critiques miss the automatic nature of information collection on the web and the inability for opt-out.
- Through new media technologies the panopticon is now a synopticon where the many watch the few. This critique relies on an understanding that panoptic power comes from corporeal observation whereas it is derived from the architecture of light which is suggestive of surveillance
Each of these critiques are useful in further developing the concept of the panopticon but each is limited by their “heuristic points of departure” (p. 233).
Elmer sets out to explicate the diagrammatic aspects of panoptic surveillance and to explain the continuous way consumers and their data selves are integrated into the collection of personal information processes.
The panopticon relies on the hegemony of light and vision as central to the development of Foucault’s thesis of self-discipline and governance. The all seeing gaze is both marked and masked, visible yet invisible, by the architecture and arrangement of light. Thus, those subject to this unseen gaze assume its presence and modify their behaviour.
The panopticon is a “system of light and language” (p. 234) where the collection of information is foundational and essential to the operation of a system of classification and individuation. Deleuze in Postsripts points to this matter.
Foucault’s theories of surveillance maintain a lingering reliance on a spatial dimension but it is equally important to note the data gathering aspects of the system which, in effect, begin before a person’s incarceration within the confines of the panopticon. The customers were already classified and separated before their violent enclosure. Foucault was concerned with a generalisable system of power rather than the development of a specific architecture; but how might his system be imagined in the face of highly mobile modern subjects.
Elmer notes Foucault’s development of theories of power through reference to the confessional which exposed inner-most secret self and which went unquestioned as a means for the assertion of power.
Criticisms of panopticism critique the technology rather than the technique (p. 235).
Roger Clarke (Information technolgy and dataveillance, 1998) proposes that surveillance is enabled and augmented by technologies but he does not address the specific moments of data gathering. At the data gathering moment the process of collection of information and surveillance is automated in a way reminiscent of the panopticon.
Elmer notes the work of Tim Mathiesen who proposes the idea of the synopticon which inverts or locates a parallel panopticon enabling the many to watch the few via the agency of mass media; and discipline arises in this process from a disciplining of our consciousness through the media message. Elmer develops an argument that TiVo can be understood synoptically noting the way the system learns, recommends and customises (other systems such as Kwikflix perform similarly). These recommendations, based as they are on aggregates of anonymous viewing patters, raise questions about how they may may be imagined within panopticism. Elmer argues for a redrawing of the panoptic diagram.
Such a rethinking was specifically considered by Deleuze in Postscript on societies of control in which he noted that we had already ceased to be members of societies of discipline and had now become modulated by and within societies of control. Signatures and numbers which marked individuality and place within a mass had given away to a code which denies or permitted access to information and locations.
Deleuze’s diagram describes a digitally languaged system of ever changing shape and size which described the decentralised movement and flow of information throughout a network.
Elmer mentions “simulation” a great deal in relation to technologies but I’m unsure if he means that technologies tend to simulate the corporeal flow. If anyone can help me understand this I’d appreciate the help.
Deleuze and Guattari introduce the possibility of mapping the continuity between light and language. Again, I’m not sure what this means. Help anyone?
In another work, Deleuze proffers the concept of the rhizome as a diagram which evokes a sense of the space between architectural drawing and built form.
One of the key claims of panopticism is its ability to function with little or no supervision as a mechanism for automatic and constant observation and data collection. (p. 243)
In the panoptic diagram consumers are both rewarded and punished for their behaviour. Rewarded with an all-too-familiar set of images and content that leads to the consumption of more of the same and punished with extra work when attempting to seek out the unfamiliar (p. 245).
I wrote a very brief post about post-panopticism recently but there’s substantial development of the concept on Beyond Modernity which is well worth a read. These critiques appear not to throw panopticism out but propose a development of the concept that variously recognise the effects of new technology and a more fuzzy/messy understanding of the workings of power and surveillance.
I’m keen to work up a critique of panopticism using Deleuze’s Rhizome.
Further to my earlier, and very brief post about Green’s A plague on the panopticon I’ll add a few more detailed notes here.
Green argues that Foucault’s concept of Panopticism is a defective metaphor that promotes misunderstandings about the way surveillance works in the real world. Green attests: “Despite Foucault’s claims to the contrary, surveillance is ultimately conceived as the handmaiden of dominant power” (p. 27). He argues that the panopticon as a metaphor does not sufficiently address the complexities of power and misses an opportunity to recognise the benefits (lowering crime, provision of customised products and services) that flow from surveillance.
Green proposes the rethinking of Foucault’s observations of the management of plagues and believes that a new and more fruitful way of understanding the workings – and the benefits – of surveillance is possible as a result. He opines that Foucault’s concept of Panopticism invokes a form of totalising power from which it is impossible to escape. For Green, a failing by Foucault of not delimiting who is in power and who has power creates a paradigm that is difficult to sustain. He wants to see – and here he relies on Gramsci – a restoration of human agency and an essential freedom of the individual from power.
He dismisses observations of the applicability of Panopticism as being overly dismissive of the downgrading of “liberty, ‘personhood’ and resistance” (p. 30) and points to a “legion” (p. 31) of problems with the concept. Citing both Giddens and Lyon he critiques panopticism as tending to the technological determinist and claims that the individuation central to the panopticon, far from destroying individuality, provides a way for the individual to break free from the “mass of autonomy” (p. 31).
Suggesting plague response as a relevant way to conceive of surveillance, Green notes the utility of the categorisation of healthy and sick people during a plague event, and points to the integration of surveillance within the fabric of community. He points to the messiness of the plague form of surveillance – people were able to hide in dark corners – and this enables a degree of access to individual resistance that he believes Foucault did not permit within the panopticon. Such a messy understanding of the effects of surveillance is far more contemporary he suggests in that it provides for a clearer understanding of the uneven manner of the deployment of surveillance.
He points to the inversion of surveillance through technologies such as digital cameras and video recorders that captured the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and astutely observes the way resistance movements such as the Chiapas, Zapatista Army, and other change advocates use technology to maintain surveillance over authority. Green believes such an inversion of surveillance was not contemplated in Foucault’s panopticon.
Green, S. (1999). A plague on the panopticon: surveillance and power in the global information economy. Information, Communication & Society, 2(1), 26-44. Retrieved June 7, 2008, from Informaworld database.
The following are my notes from reading:
Poster, M. (1995). Databases as discourse, or electronic interpellations. In The second media age (pp. 78-94). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Descartes famously states: “I think therefore I am”. By these few words he articulates a dividual, a binary human-thinking divided within. I am nothing – I don’t exist – without my thoughts. My thoughts precede my being. There are thoughts and there is an Other. The two is established; in Descartes and later by Kant in the Enlightenment. The human subject is born. Now that I am separated from my thoughts, I am also born into a world of objects separate from the I.
The subject is interpellated or “hailed” thus reconstituting themselves as a subject. The teacher, when calling on a student to answer a classroom question, presupposes the student as an “autonomous rational agent” and the student, in answering the question, must “stand into” this position firstly to answer the question and secondly in declaration of their being a student. “Linguistic interpellation” operates through the subject complying with the configuration of their subjectivity without question and reflection (p. 80). Such a configuration can be at the level of race, sexuality, class, age, gender and presupposes the individual as a subject. The process of interpellation is conducted at the level of language.
The interpellation of the subject is always incomplete. One interpellation does not deny the existence of another. For example, I could be interpellated (invited to act) as a student, a husband, a male, as straight; each of which I am free to reject but each of which appear in their formation as a certain conclusion, as if already answered by me, the subject, in the affirmative. In each instance of interpellation the subject is fixed and frozen into the state of subjectivity, an end, a conclusion; the finished product so to speak. How quickly we lose our childhood.
It is important to understand the post-structuralist relationship of language to the development of the subject which helps to us understand the nature of databases as discourse. Foucault employed the term discourse to counter those who claimed writing as being a reflection of a human subject; we can’t hear or read words and deduce from those words a consciousness. Rather discourse is an exterior totality in which a subject is dispersed and formed. Discourse is not the manifestation of the unfolding of a thinking subject but rather it is a totality of the discontinuous planes through which the subject is variously enunciated. In other words the subject is created through discourse rather than the creator of discourse. (The blogger as subject is often created through legal and capitalist discourses). Discourse and power become imbricated upon one another.
Our culture creates, through discourse, a subject as a rational, autonomous individual. Foucault managed to point to the problematic of the assumption of a preexistent rationality; rationality is historically constructed. According to Foucault there never was a founding, universal, or sovereign subject but rather the subject is produced through “practices of subjection, or in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation…” (p. 83). Discourse then has a power effect on “…the subject even in movements of “liberation”” (p. 84).
The power effect of discourse is to bring the subject into a position in relation to the structure of power so as to then apply and exert influence; and this is done in a way that disguises the constitution of the subject as a subject until after the subject becomes such.
The panopticon “…is not simply the guard in the tower but the entire discourse/practice that bears down on the prisoner, one that constitutes him or her as a criminal” (p. 85). The panopticon subjectifies and normalises.
A database is a discourse because it constitutes subjects. Poster proposes that databases produce subjects who are to a lesser or greater extent willing participants in their own surveillance. The combination of infrastructure and commerce combine to produce a far lighter and easier maintained panopticon – the super-panopticon – which is a never ceasing machinery of surveillance. The super-panopticon works beyond the reach of individual agency and makes a mockery of concepts of rational autonomy and social action. The super-panopticon interpellates the subject through the discourse of databases. The database produces subjects that are multiple and decentred and in contradistinction to the hegemonic concept of the subject as a rational, autonomous, centred agent.
Databases are the perfect “grids of specification” in that they divide and contrast, group and classify; and they constitute objects of which they speak. (Worth noting here that most blogging software is database driven; and the possible relationship to RSS feeds, feed readers and archives).
Unlike the panopticon where the subjects became interiorised, conscious and aware of their own self-determination through an awareness of the presence of surveillance, subjects produced through databases are dispersed and diverse and often unknown to their embodied counterpart. How can we resist the development of these subjects? Our bodies no longer provide a refuge against the incursion of the discourse of the database.