Monday, March 12, 2007

The Great God Panopticism Is Dead

Thamus Pan-megas Tethnece!

(This week's readings for T.A.R.D.I.S. are Philip K. Dick's novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Michel Foucault's essay "Panopticism.")

"Panopticism is a method of organizing that places several parties under
the eye of one or more supervisors. This is apparent in the roots of
the word, with its prefix of pan, meaning all or whole and optic, meaning sight. The parties being observed are however isolated/restricted to some degree or another from each other. They are not aware of if and when the supervising party/parties is observing them. Thus, they are spurned on into self-regulation by the paranoia being caught not behaving properly or performing adequately. This phenomenon of panopticism is a result of the advent of industrialization and empirical/utilitarian thinking. It is found in the institutions arising during its era of its inception and is still with us today. It can be seen everywhere. Examples of it can be found in places ranging from prisons, to factories, to classrooms.
[...]panopticism works in theory because power and knowledge are entwined[...]
And look at the most rigid and supposedly sternest use of the panoptic: prison.
Prisons are awash with crimes being committed by people already
convicted of a crime and are now put there supposedly to stop them from
committing further crime until their debt to society is paid. Drug
distribution, sexual assault, bribery: you name it, it goes on. You
have but to watch the TV show OZ or read the book In the Belly of
the Beast to see examples of this. Now, take these individual
examples of knowledge not being power's shadow and quantify them
across entire societies and indeed the entire world. You start to get a
more accurate reflection of reality then.[...]The phenomenon of power and knowledge growing together is called economy of scale and the point at which they begin to grow apart is called diseconomy of scale."

Philip K. Dick was obsessed with several themes, including epistemology and metaphysics. Given his particular psychological disorders, he seemed to be experiencing the literary phenomenon of the unreliable narrator in his own life, his own psyche. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch deals with aspects of these themes; for example, the epistemological problem of how we can know something is true rather than a hallucination (courtesy of Chew-Z or Can-D) or a virtual experience (courtesy of Perky Pat), and the contradiction between predestination (or precognition) and free will. (Dick's story "Minority Report" discusses this as well.) Dick was also interested in religion, or rather in God; hence the obvious parallels between the eucharist -- or neolithic sacred rituals involving hallucinogenic mushrooms -- and Palmer Eldritch's Chew-Z. Finally, the phenomenon of precognition is related to Foucault's theory of panopticism. The precogs (in both book and story) can see the future, but their power to control it is quite limited, unlike the Observer in Foucault.

Panopticism is modernism par excellence, or perhaps reducto ad absurdum. For Foucault, knowledge equals power equals control equals order. What Foucault didn't realize is that there is a difference between each of these terms. Knowledge without will is powerless; power without ethics, or at least finesse, causes rebellion and disorder. In microeconomic terms, the phenomenon of power and knowledge growing together is called economy of scale and the point at which they begin to grow apart is called diseconomy of scale.

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