Skip to content

Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic


Power surrounds us always. It is coursing through the walls, the floor, the furniture. Power is in the air, and in every person we see. Power keeps the world going. Cars have to run, lights have to be lit, food kept cold or hot, missiles launched. From one source or another, humanity requires power. In much the same way, the power exerted upon a person by another person, or more appropriately, by the vague Other whom is usually unidentifiable, is equally, if not more necessary. This power is an opaque veil over the lives of humankind. It is such a part of the norm, that it isn’t really seen. Quietly, ever so quietly, the power is accepted, and the people take a submissive stance. Every person, of course, has the ability to deny that power, and to rule over themselves. French philosopher Michel Foucault best (and probably with the most tangible end) described what this power play actually looks like, and how it interacts with society. In a chapter of Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the Panopticon, a prison without bars or wire, a prison with no physical control, but a prison from which no one would ever dream escaping, and no one would ever dare misbehave. The prisoner has, at one point, a chance to not accept this power that the guard so silently exerts over him, but, worn down, he does accept the game that is power play. It is so in society as well. However, although Foucault’s Panopticon is a still an extremely relevant model for social constructs; it is a moot point when void of personal acceptance.

Foucault’s Panopticon is a duplicate of that of J. Bentham (Foucault 225). Bentham designed his Panopticon to further facilitate one person’s ability to reign over another. It is circular, at the edge of the building are cells; open with two windows, and in the center is a large tower. At the top of the tower resides the warden, a light behind him. This effect of this backlit authority is that the inhabitants of the cells can never tell for sure exactly where the warden is (Foucault 225). Is he looking at me? Can he see what I am doing? At first this simply causes paranoia. The word ‘simply’ is used because the ultimate end result of the panopticon is far worse than just being paranoid. After days, months, years, of worrying about being watched, the prisoner begins to accept his fate, and he alters his natural behavior to fit what he feels that backlit source of power and authority would desire.

The society that exists within the Panopticon is extremely and devastatingly different from the society of a free person. Everything that a person does, from the moment that person wakes up to the moment they go to sleep, and maybe even in their dreams, is the result of the power of that All-Seeing Eye looming in the light above the cells.

It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease, and his death, his well being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him (Foucault 223).

All of this from just watching? It does seem a bit extreme, but one must realize that it is not just the watchful Eye that causes the end result. Yes, the Eye initiates the paranoia and begins the behavior change, but in the end, it is the resulting actions of society that change the prisoner. Because of the inhabitation of the cell the prisoner has become something other than a human being. Its tormentor has labeled the human, the power behind that backlit authority tells ultimately decides what this human is. The human is ultimately disassociated from what it is to not only see and understand, but to be seen and understood (Foucault 228). Crazy or sane, intelligent or ignorant, criminal or innocent. This individualizes the control function and the coercive assignment causes the constant surveillance to be exercised by the prisoner personally, lest they fall out of the patterns of behavior that meet the labels, and fall victim to whatever vague nameless punishment the warden threatens them with.

The form of this model was destined to spread and become practice, but not in the most literal sense. Obviously, the physical panoptic prison did not catch on. However, the figurative Panopticon became very real. Foucault applies his analysis to the French bourgeoisie, and their suggestive power over the lowly proletariat (Foucault 221-225). This can be applied across the board to any hierarchical society. Europe made this extreme through colonization, by stripping down what a culture once was and rebuilding it from the top down into what was considered acceptable behavior.

One such colony was the nation of India. In 1818 there was an actual Panopticon prison built in Poona (Kaplan 85). This prison was only established after thorough investigation into local customs and behavior. Mountstuart Elphinstone’s report to the East India Company in 1819 outlined the general rejection of British ideology and rule by the deshis. He went on to note that upon attempting to establish European order he was met with more resistance, even though he was simply trying to make the people “less revolting to humanity” (Kaplan 86). The entire colonial project became an offshoot of that single Panopticon prison. Everywhere in India the British tried to tear down the once proud Indian society through use of first observation. When the British were watching, the deshis felt as though what they were doing was somehow wrong, amiss, inhuman. Next the countrymen began to actually question their own history and lifestyles. They joined the ranks of the British army, became educated in the west. The final straw of the Panopticon of colonial rule was when the deshis independently rejected their own culture and saw Europe as being more reasonable, logical, humane and refined.

In modern times a very unique form of Panoptic existence takes place. While in other examples were somewhat noisy and obvious forms of observation. Historically, the Panopticon had the ability to lead to revolution and rebellion. Now the All-Seeing Eye is truly all around us, not just in theory. Increasing observation plays a role in regulating the lives of all peoples (Amey). Not only do we accept this regulation, we gain entertainment from it, with the advent of reality television. Shows like The Real World and Big Brother allow the general populous to watch the private moments in the lives of complete strangers. This power of vision tells society what a human being is supposed to be, and what label goes with it (Amey).

However, in all the discussion of the evils of the authoritarian figure, how the warden oppresses and how the Eye is always watching, there is one constant that is rarely mentioned. Between the paranoid prisoner and the reconstructed and thoroughly labeled being there is a moment of choice. At some point the prisoner decides to succumb to the power that is reigning over him. There has to be some conscious moment where the human psyche cannot within stand anymore pressure, and the sweet relief of just giving in washes over that being. The power of the Eye becomes more real than oxygen, and more necessary to existence, and the institution begins to transform human boundaries (der Derian 295). One would hope for some synthesis between the reality of the world and the internal reality of the prisoner, but that is usually not the case. It is so (or not so, as it were) because the structure of the Panopticon within society exists as a critical activity. The authority behind the warden who resides behind the light is fixing the meaning of existence (der Derian 296). In that aforementioned moment of choice, the prisoner chooses to accept that definition of being.

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection (Foucault 230).

Why? Why not go the other way? Why not make the jump from paranoia to the sweet blissful release of insanity? At one point in history this choice would be so simple, but as soon as the ruling body, the authority, became institutionalized and the individual became marginalized against the whole, the choice was not only not simple, it was not our own choice to make. Oh, yes, at some level we are still individuals: “I like this, I don’t like this…” but this individualism still resides within the prison cell. Currently we choose the Panopticon to be a part of a controlled society. Individualism to the extreme that we exist without social constructs is the stuff of pure chaos. We choose to accept definitions placed upon us so that we may define others and exist within what is labeled as real human existence.

We have observed this inner struggle, the denial of the pre-Panoptic being, in some of the literature we have looked at during our studies this year. In Cliffor Geertz’s article Deep Play a village society is analyzed from the outside. It is noted that the majority of the village goes against law when they believe that no person is watching except their consorts (Geertz 276). Furthermore, power is built upon the fear of loosing in the cock ring. Power is within a more natural, animalistic realm, but it is controlled by the rules of a game and play none the less (Geertz 278).

In Bordo’s essay the image of the man and how it is accepted by society is discussed. Bordo hits upon an important point in the body of her essay. She notes that we still feel natural, uninhibited feelings, such as lust. As a human being, no labels, we want sex, we enjoy looking at a man who is so provocative, so natural, a man who exists outside what a man is supposed to be. However, we are also shamed. Back in the Panopticon we blush because, firstly, why would we be aroused by a man who doesn’t fit the definition of man, and secondly, sex is for the bedroom, it should exist elsewhere (Bordo 168-213).

It is obvious that, given the fact that we are our own subjects in the continuation of this power play, that the All-Seeing Eye is our own, that there has to be a way out of the cell. Foucault does not have or advocate for a solution. In our society we have to wonder if this power play is even a real problem. However, eventually individualism could become a moot point. In order to save ourselves we have to disengage the more technological systems that exert power over us, increasing our opportunity to choose our own definition of ourselves (Foucault 246). And by disentangling our social selves from our authoritative selves we can begin to make our world less like a circular prison, and more like a natural state (Foucault 249).

Works Cited

Amey, Michael. “Living Under the Bell Jar.” (2005).

Bordo, Susan. Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin\’s, 2005. 168-213

Clifford, Geertz. Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin\’s, 2005. 271-309.

Der Derian, James “The (S)Pace of International Relations.” International Studies Quarterly 34 (1990): 295-310. JStor. 7 May 2007.

Kaplan, Martha. “Panopticon in Poona.” Cultural Anthropology (1995). J Stor.

Foucault, Michel. Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. 219-254.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine


%d bloggers like this: