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The panopticon is, by any standards, an overbearing thought in the governments around the world today. It rules without a ruler, protects without a protector, and exploits without a reason. It sees all, knows all, tracks all, and works silently and efficiently. It doesn’t need an operator, someone to govern its moves. All it does is watch, never letting its subjects out from its piercing gaze. It collects data, numbers, information. Records pile up in databases, consisting of detailed summaries and analyzed depictions of every living person in the world. In The Lord of The Rings, Gandalf, a powerful, wise wizard explains the panopticon of Middle Earth; he spoke directly to the rightful king of Gondor, Aragorn: “The veiling shadow that glowers in the East takes shape. Sauron will suffer no rival. From the summit of Barad-dur his eye watches ceaselessly. But he is not so mighty yet that he is above fear. Doubt ever gnaws at him. The rumor has reached him. The heir of Numenor still lives. Sauron fears you, Aragorn. He fears what you may become. And so he will strike hard and fast at the world of Men.” The panopticon presented in this trilogy is the great eye of Sauron, ever-watching, all-knowing. The character Saruman, Gandalf’s wizard master and former ally, describes the eye in a much more haunting manor while talking to Gandalf. He said, “Concealed within his fortress, the Lord of Mordor sees all — his gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth and flesh. You know of what I speak, Gandalf — a great Eye… lidless… wreathed in flame.” The eye of Sauron only lives through the ring, the one thing in Middle Earth that can destroy him. But his power comes from many things, including his thousands of minions.

The panopticon that Michel Foucault describes in his work titled Panopticism is of the very same nature of the eye of Sauron. He first draws an illustration from the late seventeenth-century about what a town needed to do if the plague were to strike. The acts that were carried out included things such as seclusion, isolation, surveillance, inspection, and registration. The order and hierarchy formed by those in control became the most basic, most instinctive from of panoticism. It became supervised and enclosed, where no one person could make a move without being noticed, noted, and punished; it became a model for extreme control and discipline. According to Foucault, the panopticon is power derived from discipline, and the time of the plague was the perfect situation in which it could be enforced.

Foucault credits the panopticon’s formation to a man by the name of Jeremy Bentham.  Bentham built an architectural representation of the panopticon shortly after it was enacted in towns stricken with the plague. It was designed like a prison, with a central tower for the observer. The observed prisoners were placed in a ring around the central point, with walls sectioning each prisoner into his or her own cell. No contact would be allowed between the prisoners—it was designed so it could not allow communication of any kind. Windows placed on the outside of the ring are the inmates’ only view to the outside world. The resulting light cast into each cell would act as a sort of back-lit chamber for the observer, who would be able to see anything and everything from his tower. The central tower would have a full three hundred, sixty degree view of all the cells, with mirrored, one-sided windows. This would allow the prisoners to be viewed at any and all times, while they themselves would have no idea when they were being viewed. Just like the eye of Sauron, the eye of the observer could be anywhere at any time, always watching, always critiquing. The panopticon then became a mechanism of discipline and singling-out of prisoners. It became a way to induce power to those supervising or observing. The panopticon itself became power.

The definition of discipline, then, becomes blurred and questionable. According to Foucault, discipline can be broken down into three main ideas. The first, as he describes, is the inversion of discipline. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody with a teenage son or daughter; any form of oppression usually brings about discontent and revolt, which inadvertently causes more oppression, which causes more discontent. It becomes a never-ending, downward spiral of a cynically cyclical oppression-rebellion relationship. It requires sacrifice from two parties, which the panopticon doesn’t allow. The second branch of discipline is, as Foucault defines, is the wide-spread advancement of the panopticon into other factors. Once instituted in one area of society, the discipline and power become immediately necessary in all other forms of life; it becomes entirely and wholly functioning when it has spread to every corner it can. Like the morgul blade Frodo was stabbed with in The Lord of the Rings, the poison of the panopticon is fast acting, spreading rapidly. However, the kingsfoil herbs that helped slow the poison for Frodo won’t help here; nothing can stop the panopticon. It only satisfies itself when it consumes its host in its totality. The third definition Foucault offers is that discipline always climbs higher in the social tree; it always ends at the highest level of power in the society. There’s always somebody higher on the food chain of power. As Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn said in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the first episode in the series, “There’s always a bigger fish.” There’s always a bigger fish in the sea of power.


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