Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon

May 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

In further installments of “Book Reviews I Wrote Months Ago”, this is my piece on Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon for Full Stop:

The panopticon has been over-theorised. Maybe Foucault can take some of the blame for that. Jeremy Bentham, 18th-century  philosopher and social theorist, came up with the design of the Panopticon to enable institutional surveillance, primarily in prisons. The design involved a curved or circular building, where inmates would live, with an inspection house or tower right in the centre. Guards or managers or nurses or wardens could watch over the entire building this way. Inmates would know they were being watched, but they wouldn’t be able to know who was doing it, or when. In the 20th-century, Michel Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish was largely responsible for introducing the idea of the panopticon as metaphor for modern Western societies. Disciplinary societies, according to Foucault, normalized the mechanisms of the panopticon precisely because it is a mechanism that “automatizes and disindividualizes power”:

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 relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

When talking about the twenty-first century surveillance state, it’s practically impossible not to talk about the panopticon as metaphor. Revelations about NSA surveillance have led to comparisons between the surveillance state and the panopticon, with one crucial factor overlooked or erased: for the panopticon to work as the panopticon, people have to know it’s there. The NSA surveillance is different from, say, how social media works. The metaphor of the panopticon might work for how users are both subject to and agents of surveillance in sites like Facebook and Twitter; but revelations about NSA surveillance came as a shock precisely because no one knew that they were being monitored in precisely this way. Vague generalizations about how we’re all complicit in mass surveillance serve to mystify actual mechanisms of power that operate through capitalist state structures; they rob it of form and content,making the general public “complicit” in state-sanctioned NSA surveillance, except of course — they are not

In Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, the panopticon is not a metaphor but an actual building an institution for troubled foster kids. It is a building as Bentham envisioned it; a place where power is present but unseen. When fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks arrives at this building, her new home, she has blood on her school uniform and has been remanded for possibly having attacked a female police officer who is now in a coma. She has also been in the Scottish foster care system her entire life and has a history of starting riots in previous institutions, of setting fire to police equipment and vehicles, of drug dealing and bloody, knock-down fights. Anais is a veteran of various care institutions, and she quickly observes the various features of the building — how the windows are only open about six inches, for instance, in the third-floor bedrooms, or how the windows on the top floor are barred and boarded up. We see the building when Anais sees it: “The Panopticon looms in a big crescent at the end of a long driveway. It’s four floors high, two turrets on either side and a peak in the middle — that’ll be where the watchtower is.”

“We’re just in training for the proper jail,” Anais tells us, acknowledging the role of foster care institutions in executing the state’s disciplinary power against the poorest, most deprived members of society — abandoned, abused, and unwanted children. “Nobody talks about it, but it’s a statistical fact. That or on the game. Most of us are anyway — but not everybody. Some go to the nuthouse. Some just disappear.” By the end of the book, the reader learns about how “some just disappear” and how some just die.

Anais is the central character in Fagan’s novel and its sole voice, and it’s a truly arresting one. Having lived in the care system all her life, Anais is especially keen to know something, anything, about her biological mother. She wonders if she even has one, or if she’s just part of the “experiment” — a fantasy/nightmare that keeps recurring throughout the novel because of her undetermined parentage. The closest Anais ever got to having her own family was a woman named Teresa who adopted her, a sex worker who was found murdered in her bathtub when Anais was eleven.

While reading The Panopticon, we’re certain that there’s one single thing that’s rotten to the core, and that’s the foster care system. Like schools or prisons or asylums, it’s a disciplinary tool meant to produce docile — but ideally broken — bodies and psyches. Anais is scathing about social work in general, where she’s diagnosed with borderline personality. “It’s better than no personality,” Anais retorts, to which she quickly learns: “Wrong. Apparently — no personality is the correct answer.” There is her case worker, Helen, who is more interested in saving her spiritual soul by making trips to India and being conveniently absent during some of the more crucial aspects of Anais’ life, such as police hearings and questioning. Anais deems herself a “lifer” because she realizes that what is deemed her history of “violence” and antisocial behavior, and how that’s filtered through machinations of the system, is likely to keep her institutionalized forever, first in care homes and then in prison. So she knows better than to trust social workers:

As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick. I lure them in to begin with. Cultivate my specimen face. They like that. Do-gooders are vomit-worthy. Damaged goods are dangerous. The ones that are in it cos they thought it would be a step up from the office job are tedious. The ones who’ve been in it too long lose it. The ones who think they’ve got the Jesus touch are fucking insane. The I can save you brigade are particularly radioactive. They think if you just inhale some of their middle-classism, then you’ll be saved.

Anais is particularly acerbic of Helen’s expectations of her as a damaged foster kid. Helen is frustrated by Anais’ inability to code her class position through particular forms of dress and style that would render her an ideal, to-be-pitied, poor thing: “What [Helen] really didnae like, though, was that I wouldnae stick tae the uniform. No hair extensions , no tracksuits, no gold jewellery. That really pissed her off. The first time she saw me in a pillbox hat and sailor shorts, you’d have thought I’d just slapped her granny.”

In fact, The Panopticon shows how the care system produces the damaged subject it’s supposed to “help”. The capitalist state reproduces this underclass through specific institutions meant to accommodate them to “a regular life” of wage labour and despair, up to the point where they’re productive but not actually happy or content. And if that’s impossible, then there are countless ways to control them: prison and psychiatric institutionalization. And if some of them die along the way, well, it couldn’t be helped. When lectured by the police on her vandalism, Anais says that they tell her “how much money vandalism costs the average taxpayer a year. They talk to me a lot about the taxpayers. The taxpayers hate me.”

Parts of The Panopticon can be read as interesting commentaries on the production of identity and how it is performed both in the private and public sphere, and in places where these differences start to blur — such as the internet. Anais knows that for people like her, visibility is a trap. She looks at CCTV footage of herself caught stealing and thinks, “It’s me. I’m a movie star, Mama, are you proud?” Darkness, for her, is safer than daylight, “her safe place”. Throughout The Panopticon, there’s no reference to self-performance, to selfies, Tumblrs, and livejournals or blogs. Anais and the other kids spend their time with each other, alone, or getting high on an addictive substance of their choice in a bit to escape. For a hypervisible and heavily-monitored person like Anais, the internet holds no particular appeal. And if she were to use it, her access to it would be limited—and as in all aspects of her life—heavily-monitored. As Anais explains, it’s impossible for her to be labelled a borderline personality with “identity problems” when she barely has an identity, having moved some fifty-odd times throughout her fifteen years of life. Anais’ fantasies and dreamscapes involve flying cats and a quiet artist-life in Paris. Hers is a life of the mind and a multitude of actual, living nightmares. For Anais, who is watched all the time, her mind is the one place where she can be herself, whatever that may be, and it seems dangerous to want to surrender that part of her to the world when it’s the one place the world hasn’t trespassed and invaded — yet:

The surveillance window in the watchtower glitters in the dim. Dinnae look up that glass. There could be anyone behind that glass. Five men in suits with no faces. All watching. They can watch.

I dinnae get people, like they all want to be watched, to be seen, like all the time. They put up their pictures online and let people they dinnae like look at them! And people they’ve never met as well, and they all pretend tae be shinier than they are are — and some are even posting on like four sites; their bosses are watching them at work, the cameras watch them on the bus, and on the train, and in Boots, and even outside the chip shop. Then even at home — they’re going online to look and see who they can watch, and to check who’s watching them!

Is that no weird?

But while Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, wrote that in the Panopticon, “inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers”, Anais’ community of inmates show that it’s not so simple. Power, here, is not disindividualized — in fact, these kids are well-aware that power is exercised through the very people who are meant to care for them. Their resistance to the care workers is often clever and subtle, but not diffuse. When it’s time to demand for a change, they band together through communal acts of resistance, like the riot that takes place towards the end of the book, even if they know that the bond cannot possibly last for more than a moment, perhaps. Even the care worker whom Anais feels the most affinity with, Angus, is not really on their side. At the end of the day, he stills answers to a system of power that is beyond the efforts of his own individual acts of kindness, and when Anais is close to being sent away to a secure unit for the crime she is certain she did not commit, he has no choice but to comply with the requirements that make it so.

In a chapbook published by Guillotine titled Violence, Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch talk about how “territories of violence — psychic territories, physical territories, psychosexual territories” are under-represented in most women’s fiction. Of course, the question may be less to do with women not writing about violence than about what type of books get published, and the attendant ideological functions that work towards making those decisions — whether in book publishing, or films and television. Fagan is uninterested in pretending violence isn’t a fact of Anais’ life and in the novel, Anais is resigned to it. It’s a book that doesn’t flinch from portraying the territories of violence in Anais’ life. It shapes her very existence, but she hates it and can’t bear to see violence inflicted upon the powerless — the idea of someone harming or abusing a child or an animal, for example, makes her so angry she can hardly think. And yet knock-down fistfights between Anais and other girls are a basic fact of her day-to-day life. She hates fighting, but she has to do it; not only is it a means of staying alive, but it’s a means of crafting an identity, a reputation, and crucially — a means of preventing further violence in the future. When placed in a new institution with a new group of people, if you can get that first fight out of the way and do it reasonably well, you can then hope to be left alone afterward. Crucially, The Panopticon also depicts violence inflicted on girls like Anais by the cops, especially in carefully-manipulated ways designed to let the cops off the hook: they’re not meant to rough-up these kids too much because it could lead to bad publicity if word got out, but they can rough them up if they see fit, which is almost always. But as Anais would be the first to tell you, institutional violence against foster kids and runaways is rarely the subject of a news report or an online petition.

One of the more harrowing incidents in the book is about sexual violence and how it plays out on women’s and girls’ bodies as means of communication between men. The Panopticon shows how even the most impoverished and desperate men work around the issues they have with each other and with the system that violates them through the use and abuse of women’s bodies. And so too Anais’ boyfriend in prison, who is deep in debt and tricks Anais into a situation where her body is offered up as repayment. Earlier on, Anais is surprised when she meets a girl in care who’s still a virgin in her teens because she knows that if young girls haven’t already had transactional sex to survive, they would have been raped by any number of men, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, who view their bodies as goods for the taking. The teen girl in care who’s still a virgin is an anomaly. The poorest, youngest, least-defended bodies are handed around, back and forth, and one is reminded of that passage in Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory:

I find it strange today, when so many people walk around with tiny computers in their pockets — cameras, phones, personal organisers, iPods — there exists no object at all to slip into your pussy when you go out for a stroll that will rip up the cock of any fucker who sticks it in there. Perhaps it isn’t desirable to make female genitalia inaccessible by force. A woman must remain open, and fearful. Otherwise, how would masculinity define itself?

Because Anais is such a force, it seems as though her voice is enough for The Panopticon, and it is, but it’s also a particular kind of loss that so many of her thoughts remain in her head. When we meet Anais at the beginning of the book, she’s alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her, and when we leave her at the end, she’s still alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her. Although Fagan’s novel is one of the finest I’ve read in a very long time, there is no respite for Anais from an atomized neoliberal existence, no possibility of a different kind of life that doesn’t require a partitioning of the self for mere survival. Anais finds moments of solidarity, even love and friendship, with other kids in her position. But it’s gone in a flash. She then has to move. An isolated existence bereft of attachments is the only mode of survival for a person like her in a world like ours.

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§ 2 Responses to Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon

  • noir-realism says:

    Excellent review! It is sad that so many young not only in the first world as portrayed here but in the third world have become disposable, waste fodder for the global system. I was glad to see you incorporate Foucault, who of late like others of his time have been relegated to the dust bin of intellectual history. More and more I wonder if these academics that trough under the corpses of their predecessors have even bothered to read them in detail. I see you have and commend you for a balanced approach. Yes, so many use his works like some kind of touchstone or token of their blip minds rather than understanding the tools he was developing.

    Either way enjoyed your book review, will be following and adding a link!

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