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‘Panopticism’, by Michel Foucault

Reviewed by Sarah Downes.

What connects discussions of the car as an agent of death in hip-hop films, the omnipresent gaze of God in medieval literature and an analysis of the power of the gaze as related to issues of race, gender and class in modernist fiction?  For me, Michel Foucault’s essay ‘Panopticism’, from the 1977 translated edition of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, has proved a pivotal text for research into all of the above areas and stands as a significant piece of theory as I begin to engage with issues of power and spectacle in representations of visual culture in Jean Rhys’s modernist fiction.

‘Panopticism’ is by no means my favourite piece of work (certainly not my Desert Island Disc literary equivalent), but it continually resurfaces as I have shaped my academic interests at BA, MA and now PhD level here at King’s.  To briefly summarise, Foucault begins with a description of measures of control and containment taken in a seventeenth-century town struck by the plague.  This specific context serves to introduce notions of surveillance, power and discipline and the argument is brought forward to the nineteenth century through a discussion of Bentham’s Panopticon, which for Foucault stands as the architectural exemplar of such tropes. In the middle of the essay Foucault turns to more abstract theorising on the role of such an institution – both literal and metaphorical – within modern society. In viewing the Panopticon as producing ‘a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’, I aim to reposit this discussion as I look at performance and the power of the gaze within the modern urban landscape by Rhys’s female protagonists. By doing so, I hope to investigate wider issues of class, race and gender tensions within a colonial context. Notions of race/colonial identity as blindness are also emerging from my re-reading of the essay.

So far, I have identified three areas for discussion: the idea that power should be both visible and unverifiable; the reinforcement of the see/being seen paradigm (perhaps with particular reference to feminist film theory and Laura Mulvey’s notion of the active/male passive/female dynamic); the possibility of resistance to the power in the see/being seen paradigm. If as Foucault states, there is no reciprocal gaze, can the dynamic of see/being seen be broken?

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

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