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.
May 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
Some of the first words you hear in Transcendence are “an unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”. And this, too, before the person telling you the story goes on to narrate a tale about a particular form of technology produced by “mankind”.
So, “unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”—
If we follow the “logic” of the film, and believe me: it’s hard to follow anything in this film, Will Caster, as the all-seeing, all-healing form of consciousness played by Johnny Depp becomes a one-man NSA in this NSA-less America. The future is here, and it’s a white American man who knows and sees everything. Fittingly, he is also the all-seeing, ever-present husband who never goes away. More important—he knows his wife, truly understands her, because he has the data on her hormone levels, etc. The wife is quantified, the husband is knowledgeable. At some point, the wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall), is angry about this, the way her husband has been surveying her like she’s a mouse in a lab—truly angry, because although she is his partner and his wife, she is also a mouse in his lab—but this anger is quickly forgotten as the plot hurtles towards its end. Why? Because love. Because the marriage institution. (And so it is that the one person who could, and would, literally reproduce Caster by uploading him to the internet is his wife, who does so at great personal risk—which is strangely downplayed in the movie as oh, look, Rebecca Hall gets to have a stressful, creepy adventure because love.)
At some point in this movie, through the workings of this miraculous nanotechnology life-rejuvenating cell-healing thingamajig that is Will Caster’s consciousness, Will Caster’s consciousness, everywhere and nowhere all at once, must reproduce itself further in order to become … you guessed it … more powerful. It takes on a little bit of a Heal-The-World type goal. Once Caster convinces his wife to move to a tiny, decaying small town in order to work on their “project” (i.e. to work on Will Caster), he needs the bodies of the poor people in town (all of whom appear to be white) in order to become stronger. The film can’t seem to decide what Caster is doing with the bodies of poor people, whether he’s merely using them or “fixing” them. It does not matter! In the end, it all amounts to the same thing. The intentions of the white male genius are all that matters.
So Will Caster becomes a little bit of every person he heals (fixes) and every person who is connected to him through the process becomes a little bit Will Caster. Supposedly. His consciousness is meant to fuse with that of others and transform into some sort of a “collective mind”, which is what Caster says at one point. This is immediately interpreted to mean “army” by the FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy, and this collective mind, as such, is very quickly seen as a threat to the US government and, by extension of imperialist logic, all that is true and good about this planet, etc. The movie doesn’t understand what to do with this collective mind, or even take a minute to ponder the alternatives. All that the FBI and assorted government agents know is that any notion of collectivity without state or corporate supervision can only lead to bad things. [The point Evan Calder Williams makes in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: “Why do the vast majority of apocalyptic fantasies assume that things going bad with lead to human relations going far, far worse?”]
There is this ambiguous positioning of Will Caster as neither hero nor anti-hero and if the narrative had reflected this, it might have made this mess of a movie a touch more interesting. Except the film is very much in the vein of good guy vs. bad guy; it just isn’t sure who the good guys and the bad guys are. In this sense it mirrors the liberal-moralist handwringing over technology: Technology ruins humans! Technology saves humans! Perhaps it’s important to note that the film’s “neo-Luddites” are never given the opportunity to be good; from the very start, they are “terrorists”. Predictably, they have a very shallow idea of what it means to be sceptical of technology or to be resistant to technopositivism and resort to tossing around reactionary ideas about “human nature”. But the film must fulfil its reductive narrative, and so this collective mind must come to an end. And for that to happen, the entire world must go off the grid in order to get Will Caster off the grid—no power, no internet, no nothing. For the world, apparently. What does this dystopia look like? Oh, I guess like an ordinary day if you consider the American city Paul Bettany’s character is in; people are lining up for coffee at a café, it’s generally okay except things are messier than usual. This is a worldwide catastrophe as seen through the eyes of the few white people (and one token wise black man—introducing Morgan Freeman) in the global North. What’s that you say? Business as usual? Oh yeah, that’s right.
But lest you think the movie was trying to go somewhere with its idea of the “collective mind”, it really wasn’t. The collective mind, as it turns out, is just one (white) (male) mind—because it was Will Caster’s consciousness that was uploaded, Will Caster calls the shots. The capitalist mode of technology that built this collective mind has no capability of making it truly collective; the entire population of the world probably can’t upload their consciousness, and so, predictably, only the few with access can. This collective mind means every one becomes a little bit Caster, but Caster only seems to become more Caster. According to this logic, then, there seems to be no way out—either you become a “collective” ruled by one man, or you go back to how things used to be (just without Gmail and electricity). “Collectivity” is always presented as a bunch of deindividualised, slack-jawed, blank-eyed shells of people who are vulnerable to the (potentially) tyrannical machinations of one man. But while the people are characterless fools, in need of a leader, Will Caster, the one-man NSA, is both genius and tragic romantic hero (wait for the ending, if you want to have a good laugh). It’s hard not to think that the “army” the FBI was so afraid of is only dangerous and unstable because it was corrupted by the presence of so many poor people, by so many not-Will Casters.
The white American male genius, meanwhile? We are meant to mourn him, but don’t be sad! The while American male genius will never die.
[It shouldn’t surprise me that this film was directed by Wally Pfister of the Nolan school. I watched it because I think Cillian Murphy is beautiful, okay? Also, Paul Bettany? And Rebecca Hall? CM in his dumbest role ever, possibly, which is not necessarily an insult to his acting, I think? Because he plays an FBI agent whose job is to show up every so often looking puzzled, informing people that they’ve missed “the real threat” (what is it, though?) and, as an officer of the law, to shut things down–so I thought playing his Agent-Whatever (can’t remember his name) as a particularly disinterested and apathetic character was a sneaky way of embodying official rah-rah American authority. But perhaps it wasn’t intentional, and perhaps Murphy just fucking didn’t know what to do with this role once he realised he was committed to a terrible film? Hard to tell.]