Panopticons and Reality Television | Part II

Michel Foucault´s reflections on Jeremy Bentham´s Panopticon

By Rodrigo Toledo, on 13th Sep, 2013 19:15



Behind this mutation of the Panopticon there are two issues worth understanding: the physical modification on the architecture that embodies it and the change of use given to this model of control. The first is related to typological and technological developments, applied on architecture, that translated a modern obsession with light(ness)…an obsession with seeing, with transparency materializing a sense of honesty. A modern building is – or wants to be – an honest building. On the other hand, the Panopticon is no longer used for confinement; its architectural essence is used for government headquarters, office buildings and even private houses. Everyone is an inmate and everyone is a supervisor at the same time, modern society is a self-disciplinary society. The reduction of the mass makes possible the expansion of the use repertoire, the Panopticon then grows by getting rid of its body, by dematerializing itself.

Today we have cities under the constant gaze of video cameras; people are watched and recorded in metro stations, shopping malls, and in the streets. Video recordings are often used as evidence for adjudging responsibility of crimes committed. The presence of these cameras is almost unperceived, they are the city´s ever watching eyes. There are rooms with walls made of screens in which anonymous supervisors watch over citizens, zooming in and out and panning through every square centimeter of the city. However, these surveillance rooms are but a part of the structure that constructs this media Panopticon; their location is no longer relevant to the system like in Bentham´s layout...the cameras are the devices arranging the vigilant gaze. Architecture has been replaced by image. In La Société du Spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle), Guy Debord writes about how social interaction has been replaced by mere representation. It has become undeniable that our everyday lives are conditioned by the consumption of images in television, in movie theaters, computer screens and publicity banners. Behind this image-based machinery underlies a capitalist project that turns us all from citizens to spectators and consumers. Images are used today for conditioning mass behavior as well as constructing a collective sense of reality. In contemporary society, more than ever, image is power.

Today´s Panopticons are not buildings; they are information systems in which the gaze is no longer arranged by an architectural device but by a media apparatus that generates and manages pure image…pure power. This allows surveillance to reach farther, to move faster and even become a form of entertainment. Reality TV could be understood as a product derived from an aesthetic dimension of the Panopticon. An analogy can be drawn between this form of voluntary televised self-exposure and the one instituted during the plague; now instead of townspeople informing an officer about their current health state we have participants confessing their private emotions on camera and a society of spectators judging while being entertained. However, a substantial difference must be highlighted: control is not only being applied on the participants of the reality show…it is being imposed on the spectators at home as well. Reality is now reality TV, we are made to believe that the truth about life and about the world is as seen on television, somehow a simulation of life has substituted life itself.

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Australian cast of Big Brother Season 7


The evolution of the Panopticon as a model of power and control has been a process in which it has been transformed from a specific architectural construction to a complex political and technological system that perpetuates power by using image alone. From bricks to pixels. This immaterial condition is what allows discipline, surveillance and supervision to become a part of every aspect in human life today. From the dark dungeon to the self-exposing control system used during the plague in the seventeenth century. From Bentham´s design operating as a collection of specimens separated and constantly watched by an unseen guard to modern transparent buildings with glass facades unable to hide any form of bad behavior. From cities under the never sleeping eye of video surveillance to Big Brother TV shows in which people are “spied on” and voyeurism is turned into a form of entertainment designed to control consumers. The once robust body of control has become lighter; it has been perforated, undressed, dematerialized and mass produced…distributed to every corner of the city and every living room in a house. Architecture is no longer the embodiment of the Panopticon because the Panopticon is no longer corporeal. Today, the Panopticon is a ghost.