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.