The U.S Panopticon: The Gaze is Everywhere


By : Andre Lopes Massa

“The gaze is alert everywhere. This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead – all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. ” (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishpg. 195-196).

When Michel Foucault wrote about his theory of disciplinary power in 1975, not one soul could have envisioned that the very society described in Discipline and Punish would ever come to fruition as it has today. Power, Foucault said, was no longer exercised directly by a sovereign who could use the threat of legitimized state violence to coerce his subjects into doing something against his or her will but that power could now be exercised even without the presence of an armed guard. This is what Foucault termed the “disciplinary society”, a society where power is distributed among multiple institutions in the most decentralized and “disindividualistic” form possible. It is a society where every individual checks and regulates themselves to the point of “normalization” out of fear that the all seeing, all knowing gaze is constantly watching them, whispering in their ears that nothing is blind from the law. This is all done without the armed guard even lifting a finger. This is the disciplinary society, a society that Foucault brilliantly described using the model of the panopticon.

Upon visiting his brother Samuel in Kirchev in what was then the Russian Empire in 1786 (today modern Belarus), the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived  of what would become known as the panopticon. Bentham designed the panopticon to be a circular, 360-degree room about 100 feet in diameter. The walls of the cells  would be plated with one-sided mirrors and in the center of the prison would be a large tower in which the prison inspector would be able to observe each and every prisoner through light reflected back from the cell mirrors while at the same time preventing the prisoners occupying the circumference of the prison from ever knowing precisely when they were being watched.  Bentham described this process as “seeing without being seen” which “combined the apparent omnipresence of the inspector with the extreme facility of his real presence.” (Bentham, The Panopticon Writings, pg.30). Michel Foucault built his social theory of “disciplinary power” based on this “advantage” of the Panopticon by writing, “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. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary.” (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, pg.197). This is the effect of the panopticon; to create a sense of surveillance at all times so that the victims begin to discipline themselves out of fear that somewhere the inspector inside the panopticon tower is watching their every action, ready to punish the victim at the will. All of this is done without the use of one single armed policeman. This is the panopticon.

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the response of the U.S government has been to place each and every one of us in Foucault’s panopticon in the name of “national security”.  It began with the passage of the unconstitutional Patriot Act by Congress and President Bush in October 2001. Title II of the Patriot Act gave has given unprecedented jurisdiction to the FBI to intercept any kind of “oral and written electronic communication relating to terrorism” (Section 201) while the renewal  of FISA in 2011 has allowed the FBI to even place foreigners under the scope of the all seeing, all knowing gaze of the U.S panopticon. Recently, former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed to the Guardian in May 2013 the full extent of U.S mass surveillance. Snowden revealed more than 300 stories regarding NSA surveillance in which the NSA mandated  Verizon to turn over the phone records of millions of innocent Americans as well as the existence of PRISM, a program that allows for the NSA to access and collect personal information and data on billions of Americans from the databases of internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple. Even the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not safe from the all knowing, all seeing gaze of the U.S panopticon. President Obama, however, has defended these policies on the basis that it is based on the “need to keep the American people safe”. This is reality. We are living in perhaps the most oppressive disciplinary society of our time. We know that we are constantly being watched by the likes of the NSA and FBI, but we don’t know precisely when or where. All we know is that somewhere we are under the gaze of the U.S panopticon, and we begin to discipline ourselves to the point of total “normalization” because we fear that “Big Brother” is watching constantly and waiting to punish us to the fullest extent of the law. This is the U.S panopticon; the exercising of power through decentralized fear, forcing us to discipline ourselves. Under this all seeing, all knowing gaze, we only do good because we fear the police and the law, not because it is ethical or self-rewarding. This is the panopticon, discipline through fear of the all seeing, all knowing gaze of the tower.

It is clear that the expansion of the police state since 9/11 has thrust us all into the gaze of Foucault’s panopticon, so the question becomes how do we break the grip of fear the modern disciplinary society has on us? The answer is to smash the mirrors of the panopticon so that the tower may no longer be able to project its omniscient presence on us. By repealing the Patriot Act and abolishing the NSA, we can take down the the tower’s gaze and free ourselves from the U.S panopticon. Otherwise, a society disciplined solely on fear can only stand by and watch as it’s virtues whither away under the full force of biopolitical management.

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