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Visibility is a Trap: Theory and Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1696 words Published: 7th Aug 2018

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Visibility is a trap

Visibility is a trap explains the actual and real condition of an individual when the supervisor or controller, which warranties order in the individual, becomes invisible. In such situations, the individual is kept under constant scrutiny and no retreat or privacy is allowed to him/her (DeLillo, 1997). These circumstances result in the individual having the possession of power, power to take decisions and be at the pinnacle of the system. The trap is that in most cases the fear of observation by superiors is greater than the motivation to do wrong in most cases.

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Michael Foucault, the French philosopher wrote about ‘Visibility is a trap’ that the present society implements the system of power and knowledge (“power-knowledge”). A rise in the level of visibility results in the high power getting centralized on the individualized entity, brought forward by the prospect for establishment to track individuals all through their lives (DeLillo, 1997). Foucault also suggested that a “carceral continuum” flows through the present society, starting from the supreme level security prison, flowing through safe and sound lodging, probation, laborers, police force, law enforcement agencies and teachers, to our day to day working and personal lives (Agamben, 1998). All the entities are related by the (witting or unwitting) supervision, in the form of surveillance, involving an application of standards of adequate behavior) of some individuals by others (Easterlin, 2004).

Rise of the concept of Surveillance

In the last ten years, the concept of surveillance has evolved as a continual interdisciplinary subject matter of research and survey. In the various disciplinary fields, such as social sciences, political science, inology, mass media, communication, arts and commerce etc., the evaluation process underlining the significance of the techniques of information-sharing (Agamben, 1998). In view of the growing interest in hardware and software databases and stepping up of incorporation of formerly inaccessible storage systems, the field of surveillance studies has gained momentum in documenting the changing face and some of the outcomes of surveillance practices globally (Hier and Greenberg, 2007).

Jeremy Bentham, an English jurist, developed a prison blueprint, which he named as the “Panopticon”. The set up comprised of a central tower for the guards, with a rounded structure encircling it broken down into cells. Here the concept of invisibility is applied as the guards could not be seen but they could see the cell. The prisoners were not able to make out when, how and whether, they were being observed by the guards. Bentham stated that power given to observanst should be visible and not provable (DeLillo, 1997). The Panopticon is a tool for separating the observant in the structure, which is completely visible, without seeing anything; in the central tower and the guards who can see everything while being invisible(Easterlin, 2004).

Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable.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 (Easterlin, 2004). Foucault examined Bentham’s ‘’Panopticon” as a mechanism of visibility. In this mechanism, the system of control remaining invisible is as important for its efficient working as the invisibility between the guard and prisoners. Also, Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher (1986) commented that the prison structure is not only a physical structure; it should be seen as a rational illustration of power (Slovic,1996).

Surveillance in Everyday Life:

The ever rising uncertainties, fears and suspicions of post September 11 attacks in New York, the matter of surveillance is being given the much needed renewed value in the form of propagation of ‘control’ techniques and the expression of (in)security encompassing existing politics. Electronic tools and equipments are leading to improvement of the ‘capacity’ and ubiquity of surveillance concept by creating ‘new’ forms of power control in the modern society. Examples of such new tools include DNA fingerprinting testing, electronic labeling, drug control, body scans, biometric ID cards and passport verification, CCTVs, etc. These require algorithmic techniques and scanning of ‘body parts’ for carrying out surveillance activities (Farough, 2006).

Technologies used for the process of surveillance, like remote sensors, tend to become tools for scrutinizing the demarcated urban environment. The media used for surveillance such as Radar, ultrasound x-rays, multi layered and spectral photography, infrared rays, sonar, GIS, and nearly all other electronic means of controlling and tracking the particular and general points on land become tools for making peripheries of the urban environment (Deleuze, 1990).

In our day to day life, there are evidences of ideological viewpoints which have a great impact on our attitude towards nature such as recycling waste and building bombs. Enclosed spaces are created and monitored; savings are justified and guarded through recycling of technology and their boundaries are guarded with weaponry of mass destruction. Ideological surveillance controls the mind-sets that manifest as these attitudes (Slovic, 1996). The outcomes trickle down into our social and non-social communications. On one hand, factions such as the EPA operate as regulatory bodies of the ideological surveillance in a self-enabling arrangement that have huge impact on our perceptive and responses toward non-human bodies. On the other hand, even in the absence of such efforts, the creation and amassment of waste with the danger of flooding our environments. Nonetheless, in any of these situations, the ideological underpinnings of nature-friendly activities are the representatives of conspicuous human buildings that verify our environmental come within the reach of nature (Slovic, 1996).

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The enclosed spaces became the ultimate tools for surveillance. For example, important social spaces such as schools, hospitals, monasteries, and industries operate as Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) that can be used for collecting the relevant information on nature and for monitoring of ideological control of society (Berger, 1972). In each of these four spaces, human subjects are visible and can be observed, and integrating ideological surveillance, benefits this control system by observing each other. But another factor to be considered is that visual surveillance is not the only means available for surveillance of these enclosed spaces, schools can operate for gathering information on students and their families; hospitals can document the frequency and reach of ailment and illness; monasteries can facilitate subjects to provide specific data related to confessionals; and lastly the industries can be used to maintain personal records of the workers (Evernden, 1995). In these cases, nature is truly an enclosed arena, and then organizations in charge of the gathering of environmental set up also operate as the ideological state apparatuses

By 2006, the CCTV cameras in United Kingdom were 4.2 million, wherein a person could be detained for over 300 CCTVs a day. The conclusion drawn from the report of the Information Commissioner states that  Britain has always been a “surveillance societal set up”. Foucault’s work has preceeded the surfacing of the present surveillance technology. The proposal was updated in the early nineties with the concept of “Panopticon”. Another viewpoint of D.Lyonwas about Panopticon’s value seen as a metaphor used for the surveillance society (Farough, 2006).


Thus we see that there exists a range of arguments in support on the issue of relevance and applicability of the concept of ‘Visibility is a trap’ to the surveillance of public spaces through electronic medium. The common argument that goes more in the opposite direction is that the concept is applicable but is restrained as conditions of institutional effectiveness is diverted as already proved by Foucault. Then there is a stronger argument which says that at present the way society is developing, even the concept of simple logic behind power is not applicable. This ultimately signals that the rather more complicated theory of Panopticism developed by Foucault cannot stay valid (Deleuze, 1990).

This counter argument against applicability of the issue can be supported from different theoretical angles- philosophical and social. The most basic argument is that given the rather complex, multi dimensional characteristic of entire visual experience, Foucault’s concept of visibility as the only dominating factor might not be very convincing. Moreover, in a public place, when an individual is subjected to surveillance, on being probed sociologically, it was been found that to be able to make sense of the social activity, lot of attention is to be paid to the contextual dynamics within visibility to find effectiveness (Classen, 1997). Also the fact that in Panopticism, the subject under observation needs to put a lot of faith in the investigating authority makes the process more sensitive and fragile. There are other factors which are imperative to the process and need proper attention- firstly keeping the theory aside while testing the concept practically, the actual situation of the subject and its experience (to capture change in behavior) requires systematic procedure to make the outcome more viable like detailed ethnography of the individuals who are subjected to surveillance (Norris, 1997). Another factor is even if somehow investigator is able to avoid extraordinary effects on the subject, it does not mean that there is no effect of the very fact that the surveillance leads to artificial social control for the subject.


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