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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The eyes that bind

I'm not sure what was more interesting; wandering around the mall trying to find surveillance or being asked why I was taking pictures and what/whom I was surveying.

It started, of course, in the parking lot. The first thing my buddy on this trek (a PhD student in Spanish) said was, "Look!" She was pointing at a security SUV, excitedly.

As a Spanish PhD, of course, she has taken lit theory courses and was familiar with Foucault, but not with the many other theorists whose work I'd been reading.

But after I explained the concept of the panopticon as a prison in which all could be seen by the guard but none could see him--at least none of the inmates--she was familiar enough to jump in when I mentioned that the guard, after a point, is no longer necessary.

Internalizing forces of power, the inmates will "police" themselves. This is an even more interesting concept to me, considering that inmates are incarcerated because in the social panopticon in which we all live, they failed to police themselves. It is not that they didn't know there were rules (I speak here in vast generalizations), but for nearly all of them, it is simply that they didn't believe they would egt caught.

Did they start to believe there was no guard in the tower? Which tower? Many of us are raised with several towers. We have the parent tower (yes, I still believe my mother has eyes in the back of her head and spies in whatever town I live in), the teacher tower, the other authority tower. But we also have the God tower.

The God tower is the big eye in the sky (the one pictured is a nebula called the God's Eye Nebula--thanks, NASA, just what we needed). It's the after you die, eye, for some. It's the never forget there is a power bigger than you eye, for others. For some, it's the work to become the eye. For me, the eye is not so much an eye, but my eye. I must watch and thus be watched. But does it matter? Isn't it just as much an internalization? Isn't it just as powerful?

So what of the people who don't act as the social eye in the sky tells them to? What about those who are moved from the social panopticon to the physical one?

Did they simply believe they found the corner of their cells that the guard could not see into? Or is it simply a failure to work in metaphor? If you no longer work in the metaphor of the social panopticon, you will be placed in the real thing (again, here I do not assert that prisons are built on the model of the panopticon, only that they are built on the metaphoric model to create the physical reality of surveillance).

Or did they think at all? I don't even want to answer these questions. I simply want to raise them. If you don't pay attention to the eye in the sky, the eye in the mom-head, the eye in the teacher, or the eye in the cop/judge/system you are born into, you will be watched by the eye in the tower.

Of course, as a fan of the "DOC Block" on MSNBC, I can tell you that it doesn't matter. One simply learns to find the corners in the new cell. One simply learns to look back in other ways. Most especially true among juveniles, if MSNBC is to be believed, the prisoner will learn to look back more fully because looking down has failed. The juvenile prisoner will learn to look back because lightning did not strike--really--and any reality can be adjusted to (I have that on the word of an Auschwitz survivor).

Do you believe there are eyes watching you? Does it matter if you believe? Most people are mildly aware they are being watched. That is...when I took a pic of the camera at Starbucks, the Barista taking our order asked why I had wanted a picture of her menu. I answered that I hadn't. I was taking a picture of the camera. "Oh, ok. That makes sense," was actually her answer. It was her coworker who asked why. I told him I was doing a project on surveillance for school. They made my drink. In contrast, the cameras in the Verizon phone store look exactly the same so I didn't shoot them, but I was shooting and when the salesman helping me get my new crackberry asked what I was doing and got the full answer he said, "That's nothing."

He then invited me around the corner of the desk. Luckily he was stationed at the corner computer. We're all being watched all the time, he explained. Then proceeded to tell me that every keystroke of every interaction he made on his computer was being watched by another Verizon employee somewhere. I'm pretty sure it isn't literally being watched so much as it's being logged. But the question isn't my belief, it's his. "That's also why everything is in place around here," he said and made a sweeping gesture. "The space has to be clear."

I took it to mean that the view had to be uncluttered for the cameras. But did he mean that the store had to be clean? Tony also wanted me to know the camera on my phone was "really cool." I don't use my phone camera much, so I just shrugged. But his point was well taken.

We are all aware of our presence among cameras. As my students have told me (during discussions of whether one should worry about such things), "If you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about." So we don't worry. But I do. Maybe because I suffer from Jewish memory. "Something Wrong" is open to interpretation and once the cameras are up, once you've signed into Panopticon Hilton, you can never leave.

We are all, also, not generally aware of the cameras' presence among us--and that's the bigger problem. Socially, though, we feel the need to respond as the family above did--we pose.

By pose, I mean we behave and "don't do something wrong," but we also pose in other ways. The mall is a perfect place to look at the gaze as complicity. There are many reasons to go to the mall. Mine was multivalent. I wanted to look at how we are looked at--that is the "project on surveillance for school" at its simplest. I wanted to go to the Verizon store and get them to sell me a Crackberry for something close to the price I could afford (nothing) so I'd have a phone that worked. Good on them the first one was just beginning to fail after two years of near constant use. I also really wanted to hang out with my PhD in Spanish friend. But some people go to get noticed, as the sign at the door to the sunglasses shop commanded. Even those who go to shop, are often going to get noticed. Their goal in buying the latest fashion is just that. To draw the gaze. The goal of the fashionist society is not to be capitalists. Capitalism is a process that helps get us noticed.

I, too, sadly, am part of this fashionist economy. I will never be fashionable. I was taught early in my teens that I was too poor, too fat, too "uncool," and too academic (read NERDY) to ever be "noticed." But I still try to look good. I still buy in and buy the latest crackberry. Heaven help me.

So, can the gaze be turned around? Of course it can. Think of the juvenile. But to what effect?

The tenement dwellers in Riis's "How the other half lives" project had little recourse--but some looked straight at him. Most notable for me, the Native American woman who smiles at the camera is looking back. The picture becomes hers. I heartily disagree that the sexuality she conveys becomes the threat inherent in the photo, though Twigg's reading is very sexually intent and so I can see how it got there. But regardless, the gaze has a decided effect.

The young woman is no longer the captive of the man who "took" her picture (possibly by surprise, as it turns out). She is the subject of the photo--she "makes" that picture. And by doing so, she has moved herself out of the position of subaltern (if only for a moment) and made herself a subject. Her race is important to the viewers--specifically to Riis's audience, but her gaze captures the viewer more than the viewer can possibly capture her representation. The mere openness to argument the photo presents has removed her from victimhood.

I think it comes to this (Sorry, but prepare for some whiplash):

The picture above is a fractal (thanks to called "Eye of the Storm."

Fractals are pictures in pictures in pictures in pictures--each a reflection and building block of the rest. We are, in the panopticon within a panopticon within a panopticon. All of us the cell dwellers, all of us the guards, all of us the wardens. We all want to be seen, want to watch, and want to control the gaze when doing either.

If I am watched for my unfashionability, my misfit body, my Jewishness, my nerdiness, I am not in control of the gaze--unless I made you look. If I am watched, am I noticed?

I began to think I was going to be noticed, and was both relieved and dismayed that I wasn't.

"You know, if someone gets pissy about me taking pictures of cameras in the mall, I might end up talking to a security guard while another one calls Homeland Defense," I joked with Jen.

"I know," she answered. "I figure that's my job here. To call a lawyer."

"ACLU," I said.
"ACLU," she answered.

Benjamin would call it a Fascist State. I think I'm going to just start calling it the Fashionist State.

(God's Eye Nebula courtesy of, Alien Eye courtesy of, hand in eye courtesy of Lions Gate film trailers "The Eye," all other images photographed at Governor's Square Mall, Tallahassee, FL)

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