Seeing or Being Seen?

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas 1656

We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet, this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject.

No gaze is stable, or rather, in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their role to infinity. And the great canvas with its back to us on the extreme left of the picture exercises its second function: stubbornly invisible, it prevents the relation of these gazes from ever being discoverable or definitely established. The opaque fixity that it establishes on one side renders forever unstable the play of metamorphoses established in the center between spectator and model.

As soon as they place the spectator in the field of their gaze, the painter’s eyes seize hold of him, force him to enter the picture, assign him a place at once privileged and inescapable, levy their luminous and visible tribute from him, and project it upon the inaccessible surface of the canvas within the picture.  He sees his invisibility made visible to the painter and transposed into an image forever invisible to himself.

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1966).


The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen (Foucault).

Last week, I read the essay Panopticism by French philosopher Michel Foucault, in which he talks about surveillance as a form of control which is done through the Panoptic machine. He included this essay in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Unlike the middle ages when punishment was violent and intended to cause severe bodily harm, Foucault’s modern theory of punishment was discipline through surveillance – make the disciplinary power invisible, and make the object of the power visible.  

Foucault considers 18th Century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s design of the maximum surveillance prison, the Panopticon, to be the model of this disciplinary technology.  Bentham’s fictional Panopticon had a simple but clever design; a circle of jail cells radiating outward from a central guard tower.  Each cell faced the guard tower, and walls separated the cells from each other. 

The design facilitates constant surveillance since the supervisor can see all the prisoners all of the time from the central tower, but the prisoners cannot see the supervisor or the other prisoners.  Since the prisoners cannot see the guard they don’t know when they are actually being observed, but knowing that they can be observed at any time, made them discipline themselves and regulate their own behavior.

The Panopticon surveillance was especially effective because the possibility of constant observation was enough to regulate behavior – actual surveillance was not really ever needed. Foucault says – surveillance was permanent in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its actions. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen (Foucault).

Are we living in a panopticon?

Foucault suggested that this surveillance model was not just restricted to prisons – it could be could be applied to hospitals, workshops, schools – in fact society as a whole – it is a tool to create obedient citizens who could be programmed to self-discipline.   Which leads me to thinking – in the current digital age, are we living in a virtual Panopticon? With CCTVs, social media, and big data, the move towards constant surveillance is happening far more quickly and efficiently than Foucault could have imagined.