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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 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 and the true panopticon itself, 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; with more oppression comes more revolution. 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 Episode I: 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.

Regardless of how big the fish is, there are always more fish. And, just as Foucault wrote of the panopticon, other writers have too. These other writers include John Berger, Susan Bordo, and Laura Kipnis, among others. Each writer introduced and detailed a form of the panopticon visible in today’s society.

John Berger wrote about how people view things and how society altered and affected that view in a piece titled Ways of Seeing. According to Berger, a group of people with a strong influence on society that has power are considered the elite . These were the ones with money and resources. The elite are the upper class of society that don’t associate themselves with the normal person, the average citizen. According to Berger, these elite people have power through their money. With their money, they have the power to induce a process he calls “mystification.

This process is best described by the author himself. Berger states, “The meaning of the original work no longer lies in what it uniquely says but in what it uniquely is. How is its unique existence evaluated and defined in our present culture? It is defined we an object whose value depends upon its rarity. This market is affirmed and gauged by the price it fetches on the market (149-150).

What Berger says here is that a “work of art” is only as valuable as its very price on the market; it has more spiritual worth and rarity based on its monetary price. And its monetary price is decided by those who have enough money and resources to give it hefty price.

Berger’s description is exactly what the panopticon is: influence based off power. Those in society with power define what becomes important to the rest of society. They define what culture is and how it changes. They become a sort of living panopticon that morphs itself with the flow of time, forming and becoming the trends of popularity within itself.

Bordo’s essay is extremely similar to Berger’s. According to Bordo, however, the way society show us things affects how we view other aspects of life. Bordo’s main focus throughout her piece entitled “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body” is advertising and how males are becoming a large part of it now. She discusses how there’s something in the public display of people in advertising that is desirable, yet never attainable. We always desire what advertising tells us we are not. After describing an advertisement displaying a young male in underwear, Bordo says, “Homophobia is at work in this taboo, but so are attitudes about gender that cut across sexual orientation” (192). This taboo she refers to is created by the panopticon in society. It’s created by those creating the advertisement, according to Bordo, and it works extremely effectively. She goes on to say the following:

In 1981, Jockey International had broken ground by photographing Baltimore Oriole pitcher Jim Palmer in a pair of briefs (airbrushed) in one of its ads — selling $100 million worth of underwear by year’s end. Inspired by Jockey’s success, in 1983 Calvin Klein put a forty-by-fifty-foot Bruce Weber photograph of Olympic pole vaulter Tom Hintinauss in Times Square, Hintinauss’s large penis clearly discernible through his briefs. The Hintinauss ad, unlike the Palmer ad, did not employ any of the usual fictional rationales for a man’s being in his underwear — for example, the pretense that the man is in the process of getting undressed — but blatantly put Hintinauss’s body on display, sunbathing on a rooftop, his skin glistening. The line of shorts ‘flew off the shelves’ at Bloomingdale’s and when Klein papered bus shelters in Manhattan with poster versions of the ad they were all stolen overnight (199).

In this very relevant example, the panopticon is being used by Calvin Klein himself, and society responded in kind to the power advertising had.

After seeing the advertisements, people wanted be like them. They bought the underwear because they wanted to appear like the men presented. The power of the panopticon wielded by Klein put the desire of people to be like the men in his advertisements, and therefore put them under a judgmental eye. The panopticon, at this point, revealed itself and became easily visible, seen just as easily as a reflection in a mirror. Yet, it became even more watchful as its power increased and its hold on society grew tighter.

Like Bordo and Berger, Laura Kipnis wrote about the panopticon. in her piece, “Love’s Labors,” she discusses the public view of love, society’s concept of monogamy. Protesting the very stable belief in society is the idea and practice of adultery. Commonly seen as inappropriate or rude, it fights the belief system shared by many people in this world that it is correct—both morally and politically—for marriage to be shared between two people (this view generally couples itself with the idea that these two people be male and female, not both). She does a good job of describing what a “good relationship” is. She says,

…  A ‘good relationship’  would probably include having — and wanting to have — sex with your spouse or spouse-equivalent on something more than a quarterly basis. (Maybe with some variation in choreography?) It would mean inhabiting an emotional realm in which monogamy isn’t giving something up (your ‘freedom,’ in the vernacular) because such cost-benefit calculations just don’t compute. […] A ‘happy’ state of monogamy would be defined as a state you don’t have to work at maintaining (394).

Society has placed these vises in our lives through every mean it can, including (but not limited to) movies, music, writings, and educational systems. And this idea originated from the panopticon in society, passed down from generation to generation, becoming closed-minded and stubborn.

The power of the panopticon can once again be seen clearly, working in culture since it first received power. The ideas of monogamy have been so engrained in humanity that they have become nearly impossible to reverse.

As the effects of the panopticon have become completely noticeable in society, the machine itself has seemed to disappear. Now, it has become totally and entirely visible, yet entirely unverifiable. The effects are there, yet the source cannot be found. It now rules without a ruler, and protects itself and society without a protector. The panopticon is a source of power, untraceably evident, intensely immense. Only time will tell if it can ever be stopped. Only time can tell what dark grips it has over society. Only time can tell…

Works cited:

Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. Eds. David Barthalomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 139-165. Print.

Bordo, Susan. “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. Eds. David Barthalomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 187-233. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. Eds. David Barthalomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 279-310. Print.

Jackson, Peter, prod. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. New Line Cinema, 2001. Film.

Jackson, Peter, prod. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. New Line Cinema, 2003. Film.

Jackson, Peter, prod. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. New Line Cinema, 2002. Film.

Kipnis, Laura. “Love’s Labors.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. Eds. David Barthalomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 388-412. Print.

Lucas, George, dir. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Leavesden Film Studios, 1999. Film.



  1. You did a really good job. I’m impressed that you found a way to add in both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and it actually worked. I also liked the way you pulled everything together. The whole thing flowed nicely. Great Job!

  2. 3 things:

    1. I’m glad you got the films and characters right. (Though I can’t figure out where you quoted from Two Towers. If the Gandalf quote is actually from Two Towers, my apologies. I haven’t seen the films in a while. If so, then where is the Return of the King quote?)
    2. Interesting use of Sauron.
    3. Through the ties that you have established to popular media, you let the audience have a common basis for their understanding of the Panopticon, which is good.

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