Panopticons in Literature: Psychological Effects and Societal Allegories
Social theorist Jeremy Bentham’s original projection for a panoptic prison, made it so a prisoner never knew if he was being watched. A circular prison with a single guard tower in the middle was the original blueprint for the structure. The guard tower, manned by a single sniper, was hypothesized to be all it would take to manipulate the prisoners to be well-behaved.
Though there are no prisons that fit Bentham’s panopticon directly, around thirty prisons have cited architectural influence. The design of the panopticon fostered behavior modification based on the possibility of an omniscient guard. While historically and religiously, this behavior modification based on omniscience has been seen before, with the Egyptian all-seeing eye and several monotheistic texts referring an omniscient diety, 20th and 21st century literature has seen an increase in omniscient people and things. In the modern age, the panopticon has become an allegory for a loss of privacy particularly with modern conveniences like the internet and CCTV.
Psychological Effects of Panopticism
While the effects of living in Bentham’s panopticon have never been observed, since no such prison exists, the documentary Quiet: We Live in Public explored the reactions of living a life in the public sphere. 100 participants were filmed constantly in a house with numerous amenities. Contrary to Bentham’s hypothesized reaction, the participants did not become model citizens, but instead partook in extravagant and deviant behaviors knowing that they were being watched online. The difference is while the Quiet: We Live in Public experience sacrificed privacy willingly for the glamour of online fame and publicity, Bentham’s social experiment was to realign deviants with the correct path.
A similar experiment also documented in Quiet: We Live in Public, involving just Josh Harris and his partner in their living space discounted Bentham’s hypothesis. Despite knowing their every moment might be watched, both Harris and his partner acted in increasingly irrational ways and each had mental breakdowns. The sacrifice of their privacy led to their ultimate separation. In a similar vein, the TV show Big Brother has developed from the omniscient 1984 character “Big Brother”, showing a movement to adapt these literary themes and archetypes into reality, albeit an exaggerated one.
Before having the modern technology that enabled the panoptic possibilities, literature has predicted in dystopias the omniscient government or entity. 1984 had “Big Brother” and, more recently, The Hunger Games uses the arena as the panopticon being watched by all of the Districts. We are acutely aware that with the knowledge provided by the panopticon, that governments have power. They have the power to be omniscient, controlling, and silencing. President Snow knows that all eyes are on Katniss while she is in the arena and knows she is a symbol for the resistance. The President and the Gamemaker, much like Bentham’s sniper, manage the games from behind the scenes and take action to make an example of her and the other resisters.
The intricacy of the panopticon resides with the one-way dissemination of information. While the guard is able to see everything, the prisoner is unaware of if or when they are being watched. As in the examples in Quiet: We Live in Public the loss of privacy can lead to psychosis. While the literature does not directly demonstrate a correlation between the panopticons and turmoil, the loss of privacy and watchfulness of governmental bodies does cause unrest. The perversion of the government leads to a manipulation of society and a “weeding out” of the troublemakers or potential threats to the hierarchical order.
As in ancient Egypt with the all-seeing eye, watchful eyes have reappeared throughout literature as the panopticon’s guard tower. The Great Gatsby showcases the eyes of the Dr. T. J. Eckleberg above George Wilson’s repair shop to be a witness to the climactic scenes of the book. While the optometrist is not mentioned except for having the billboard, the “eyes” watch over the most critical scenes and know all the truths.
In a relatively more recent book, Bad Monkeys, all eyes on posters, advertisements, etc. have the possibility to be projecting information to an omniscient spy-like organization. While most people are unaware of the eyes watching their every deed, Jane, the main character, and others like her in the spy-like organization of “Bad Monkeys” know that everything they do is being monitored, observed, and recorded. While the eyes are watching, Jane and the others try at times to manipulate what is being seen, hiding their true intentions.
As in Bad Monkeys, there are limitations on the scope of the panopticon. There are ways to hide it with blocking signals and false images. The panopticon trickery in Bad Monkeys is a metaphor that though the eyes are all-seeing, they can also be superficially deceived. As much as human eyes can be fooled with optical illusions and mirages, panopticon’s view can be obscured with deceitful behavior and false personas.
We Are Living in a Panopticon
The futuristic novel 1984 predicted a panoptic society with the idea of “Big Brother” as a figure of the omniscient dystopian government. While the idea of being observed, even in the comforts of our own homes was originally scoffed at, with new technology and new media, the parallels between our society and the Orwellian are even more striking.
In the age of the Patriot Act and the NSA monitoring scandal, we are acutely aware that we may be watched, yet not knowing if we are nevertheless makes us modify behavior. The reality of the millions of pieces of data all being observed is impossible, but knowing that our singular piece of information, whether it is an e-mail, a Facebook status update, a telephone conversation can be observed is not only a breach of privacy, but also a way of controlling what is out there.
Although Quiet: We Live in Public suggests that we wouldn’t modify our behavior even with the knowledge of being watched, there are other arguments that suggests the latter. The panopticon is a metaphor for being observed by a larger entity: God, government, etc. Interestingly enough, our role as the observed and the observer fluctuates based on the power we have in regards to other people.
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