The Panopticon is Busted

I’m reviewing James K.A. Smith’s new book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, for the next issue of Fare Forward. Unfortunately, in a relatively brief review there is not space to consider every interesting turn in a text which, though a short book, is very thick conceptually. This reflection centers around some thoughts I wasn’t able to fit into my print review.

In his Cultural Liturgies series, Smith is interested in the ways that our social, embodied practices form us into people who desire, imagine, and act according to a certain telos or orientation to a particular good. One example of a liturgical practice that Smith raises is social media. He talks about how our engagement with social media makes us constantly aware of our social environment in a way that cannot be escaped even in the (former) privacy of our own homes. Because we are always being observed through social media, even perhaps by our absence from others’ Facebook feeds, we are shaped to be “always on,” always performing in ways that will represent us how we would like to appear to others.

Smith connects this formational effect of social media to the Panopticon, a kind of  prison imagined by Jeremy Bentham, which inspired a memorable discussion by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. The Panopticon was designed so that prisoners would be constantly aware of the possibility of surveillance by the authorities and thereby deterred from undesirable behavior. Of course, this kind of surveillance would not operate merely at the intellectual level, forcing the inmates to calculate the odds of being observed and the likely punishment for misbehavior. Rather, Foucault would argue (and Smith would agree), this condition would actually change the kind of people that the inmates were. They would become, in accordance with the State’s will, “docile bodies.”

What I found remarkable in reflecting upon Smith’s interpretation of social media as a “ubiquitous panopticon” is the contrast between Bentham’s intentions for his design, to create pliable, peaceful inmates, and the effects of the Internet in turning everyone into Dickinson’s frogs, loudly croaking their names “to an admiring bog.” The limitless, deafening self-promotion that daily floods Facebook, Twitter, et alii, is virtually the opposite of the effect intended or predicted by Bentham or Foucault.

Of course, the reason for the Panopticon’s inversion in the world of social media is fairly certain. The spectators have changed. Rather than the vigilant prison guard on alert for disruptive behavior, we have a cheering Coliseum crowd egging on the Internet’s denizens to ever greater feats of buffoonery; the situation is one of “perverse surveillance.”

Identifying the problem is easy enough. Suggestions as to a solution are welcome. At least, as Smith would argue, an awareness of a liturgy’s influence may equip us to resist it in ever greater degrees.

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