Post Panopticon & Me

Teaching privacy and surveillance is a great reason to return to the theories that underpin everything, and I do enjoy introducing students to the history, function, and metaphor of the panopticon. While making myself rethink how it actually works.

The basic panopticon is nicely summarized by Jespersen et al in their 5-point list about the character of the panopticon in Surveillance, Persuasion, and Panopticon

  1. The observer is not visible from the position of the observed;
  2. The observed subject is kept conscious of being visible (which together with the principle immediately above in some cases makes it possible to omit the actual surveillance);
  3. Surveillance is made simple and straightforward. This means that most surveillance functions can be automated;
  4. Surveillance is depersonalized, because the observer’s identity is
    unimportant. The resulting anonymous character of power actually gives Panopticism a democratic dimension, since anybody can in principle perform the observation required;
  5. Panoptic surveillance can be very useful for research on human behaviour, since it due to its practice of observing people allows systematic collection of data on human life.

So last week I focused on privacy and surveillance in situations of “invisible” panopticons. Invisible panopticons could still be covered by point 2 above. In the panopticon we internalize the rules for fear of being watched, and ultimately punished for transgression. But I was trying to explain why there are situations of of self-surveillance where we could easily “misbehave” and nobody would punish us. A misbehavior that nobody cares about aside from maybe myself. If I binge cookies for dinner, drink wine for breakfast, watch trash tv, ignore my work etc nobody cares (unless its extreme) but I may punish myself. Where is the panopticon/power that controls my behavior.

In this case the panopticon (if we can claim there is one) is… my self image? We really have to contort Foucault’s ideas to make this fit under the panopticon. As he says in Discipline and Punish:

the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.

The power over ourselves in settings where there may be no real social harm if we were found out, is more about the conditioning and identities with which we conform. And our ability to act beyond them, to break free of the constraints of power represents the scope of agency we have.

To behave outside the norms that reside within me requires that I am aware of those norms and that I am comfortable to break those norms. That I recognize that there may be other actions I could be taking, and that I am comfortable enough to take them. So the way in which Butler argues that we are not determined by norms. We are determined by the repeated performance of norms. This is as Butler agues in the conclusion of Gender Troubles “…‘agency’, then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition.”

Human Surveillance & Agency

Therefore I am being surveilled by the idea of me. How that me would behave in any given situation is limited by my ability to see myself behave.

Surveillance in the Simulacrum Notes From a Lecture

This lecture was about the ways in which the Simulacrum is a model for surveillance. The idea was to present the ways in which surveillance can be seen as beginning with juridical power of classical liberalism. This is best illustrated by the ways in which the power of the monarch was all about the right to use power over life and death to enforce commands. An illustration of this can be seen in Bentham’s model prison. This classic surveillance was built into the architecture and focused on reducing the cost of surveillance of the prisoners. In Bentham’s prison the efficiency was maximized when the few could easily and efficiently monitor the many. The norms we live by create the prison. Foucault writes in Volume One of History of Sexuality:

Power was exercised mainly as a means of deduction, a subtraction mechanism, a right to appropriate a portion of the wealth, a tax of products, goods and services, labor and blood, levied on subjects… a right of seizure… it culminated in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it.

This is, of course, Foucault’s starting point when he sees the prison as a metaphor of control and power. In the panopticon it was the prisoner’s role to internalize their own surveillance and become their own guards. In the wider society this can be seen by the ways in which we all become our own guards as we have internalized the social rules around us.

In order to illustrate this, I used the art history in order to illustrate the shift from the single dominant explanatory model to the complexity of regulatory and surveillance models. I started with showing them Diego Velazquez’s Las Melinas from 1656. After describing what the image portrayed we spoke of the positioning of the artist, the royal couple, the courtiers, dwarves and dog. The meaning increased with the understanding of who everyone was. The next image was Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews

(1750) which portrayed the wealthy couple showing off their wealth. It reminds me of the boastful elements of social media. The next portrait was John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Sam Adams (1772). This shows Adams slightly disheveled, holding a petition and demanding change. His head is oddly sized to his body and its hardly a flattering portrait. The image captures the high point of his activism rather than his physical prowess and wealth.



A major technological development is the camera. Now that mechanical reproduction was possible the question of what could be done in art was open for experimentation. From this point we see the development of different styles from the expressionism of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), to the dadism of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism, and the pop art of Andy Warhol.

These forms of art are often criticized for being simple and hardly worthy of the praise and attention they receive. The goal was to explain the ways in which we have moved from the dominant explanations of the world and begun to accept that multiple models of explanations that overlap and co-exist. The earlier forms of art are representations of a single idea and people. Later art has nothing so simple models of explanation but they are there to be interpreted and can offer different answers to different people. It was a fun exercise.

In particular asking the students whether something was art or not. Along with these famous images I also showed them an image of the joke that some people played when they put a pair of glasses on the floor in a gallery and people began taking photos of them.

Asking the students if this was art led to an interesting discussion. Could Marcel Duchamp exhibit a urinal and everyone called it art then what was different with the eyeglasses?

The goal was to discuss the world of surveillance without a dominant narrative and how power is redefined. Instead of the (juridical) centralized power we are left to our norms and this comes into a form of control by desire. The desire to belong to, and follow a group of norms. I had the students post questions on the readings in advance. Some of the questions were:

So is Bogard saying that being able to predict the actions of a population is a more effective form of control than making the population think it is constantly being watched?

Do you believe that people want to be ‘private’ in certain aspects of their life because of over-surveillance or has there always been an innate feeling that we are being watched?

Does constant surveillance morph people’s personalities over time?

if simulations are truly a way of surveilling, or something else? Are simulations a violation of privacy if they are not technically real?

With this I moved on to explaining the simulacrum as envisioned by Baudrillard who asserted that,

as simulation ascends to a dominant position in postmodern societies, the sign’s traditional function of representation, i.e. its power to “mirror reality” and separate it from false appearances, comes to an end, along with its role in the organization of society.


The utopian goal of simulation…is not to reflect reality, but to reproduce it as artifice; to “liquidate all referentials” and replace them with signs of the real. The truth of the sign henceforth is self-referential and no longer needs the measure of an independent reality for its verification.

In explaining the simulacrum I turned to The Idea Chanel and Mike Rugnetta to help illustrate the concept. His video “How Is Orphan Black An Illustration of the Simulacrum?” is a great and popular way to introduce the concept.

So Baudrillard shares Foucault’s sense that the panoptic model of enclosure and its disciplinary logic are historically finished. They are not enough to explain the ways in which norms are used as control and surveillance.

The discipline enforced by panoptic surveillance evolves into a general “system of deterrence,” in which submission to a centralized gaze becomes a general codification of experience that allows no room for deviation from its model. In post-panoptic society, subjectivity is not produced by surveillance in the conventional sense of hierarchical observation, but by codes intended to reproduce the subject in advance.

Not to mention that…

…power does not vanish, but becomes simulated power, no longer instantiated and invested in the real, but rather reproduced in codes and models.

In order to help explain the ways in which norms are used in enforcing I used Judith Butler’s ideas that its not that we are determined by norms – but rather that we are determined by the repeated performance of norms. In Gender Trouble she writes

In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; ‘agency’, then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition.

The next step was to introduce the concept of biopower. This is becoming more and more interesting with the increasing use of wearable devices and fitness apps. This mode of surveillance comes with the idea of measurement through ideas of normal. Once we introduce concepts such as IQ, standardized testing, and BMI we instantly measure ourselves against them. They are the basis for creating a “correct” way to be. After the readings, some of the questions asked by the students were:

Is invisibly guiding people towards information that reinforces their biases (presumably what they want) a form of corporate efficiency, informational slavery, or both?

Does this type of surveillance bother us? Why not?

How does personal technology increase the constant surveillance of our bodies?

But how can we really trust algorithms in surveillance?

Here are the powerpoint slides I used in the class.

Google books and Oscar I

King Oscar I of Sweden 1799-1859 was the son of one of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one Napoleon’s marshals who became king Charles XIV John of Sweden. During Oscar’s time as crown prince and heir to the Swedish throne he was very socially active. Among other things he wrote a series of articles on popular education, and (in 1841) an anonymous work, “Om Straff och straffanstalter”, advocating prison reforms. The latter was translated in many languages and in English was given the title On Punishments and Prisons. More info on Oscar and photo on wikipedia.

This is not really common knowledge even in Sweden but was mentioned briefly in a documentary tonight and it sparked my curiousity. So I looked for the book, searching the online databases of second hand bookstores. No luck. Then, almost as a joke, I googled it. And there it was on google books. Cool but it was not like I was going to read it online. Then I saw the download button. Within minutes of hearing of the book for the first time I had a pdf of it on my computer – Google books is too cool!

The book seems quite interesting and I look forward to comparing it to Panopticon. Here is a quote:

It is undoubtedly, both the right and the duty of society, to punish every action which can disturb the public system of justice; it can even, if the offender has, by a relapse, shown himself incorrigible, or his offence is of a nature to endanger the public safety, render him incapable of again injuring the other members of the community. But does this right extend farther that to the loss of liberty, by which the object is gained? Every punishment, which goes beyond the limit of necessity, enters the jurisdiction of despotism and revenge.